Brasserie de la Senne – a taproom that works

We don’t really like taprooms, we say. We prefer pubs, you see, and old brown cafes, and beer halls with the weight of history upon them. But we loved Zennebar, the Brasserie de la Senne taproom in Brussels.

At first glance, it’s a typical outpost of Craftonia that could just as easily be in Manchester or Madrid.

There it sits in post-industrial wilderness, a 19th century ruin to one side and developers developing furiously on the other. Shiny metal, shiny glass, that exact type of foldout beer garden table these places always have.

The crowd is familiar, too: beards, bikes, laptop bags and band T-shirts all round.

There’s a street food truck outside, of course – fish and chips.

So far, so generic.

And yet…

A wooden bar with steel top, against a background of concrete pillars and brewing kit.
The interior of the taproom at de la Senne.

The beer really helps. We’d been drinking de la Senne all week, and enjoyed it, but here it tasted 20% better again. 

Zenne Pils, their lager, tasted like a totally different, much better beer than the one we’d struggled through in a city centre bar.

As we drank, we kept asking ourselves: “Why does this work?”

The light, perhaps. Taprooms tend to be either (a) gloomy and windowless or (b) white boxes with too much harsh fluorescent light. This bar had walls of glass perfect for capturing the mellow evening sunlight.

The clientele, maybe. It’s easy to snark and generalise (we refer you to paragraph four, above) but there were several large groups of women, some older people, some barely of legal drinking age, and some drinking alone at the bar. It felt like a pub crowd, in short, despite the shiny surroundings.

The bar staff, certainly. Professional, in control, on the case, but also patient enough to warmly indulge our stupid questions, in halting French, about the beer range.

On paper, we shouldn’t like it. In reality, we can’t now imagine going to Brussels without paying a visit.

Zenne Bar is at Drève Anna Boch 19-21, 1000 Brussels, and is open from Tuesday to Friday, 4pm to 8pm, and on Saturday from noon to 8pm.

Belgium Generalisations about beer culture

In love with Leuven

We can’t believe it’s taken us so long to get to Leuven given that it’s only 20 to 30 minutes from Brussels. We’ve been missing out.

First, we simply hadn’t clocked that Leuven is an attractive city in its own right.

It has a large pedestrianised city centre with many noteworthy historic buildings.

It’s also got a good feel – just a pleasant place to be. Every fascinating street seems to lead to another fascinating street and the many students make it lively even on a grey Tuesday lunchtime.

It feels as if it should be better known, at least up there with Ghent and Antwerp.

Secondly, there’s the beer thing.

The enormous elephant in the room, or rather beyond the ring road.

Some schoolchildren stopped us in the street and asked us some questions for a project:

“How did you hear of Leuven?”

“Well, we’re from the UK, and there Leuven is famous as the home of Stella Artois.”

This is true and, if we’re honest, has been subconsciously putting us off visiting for years.

When we heard phrases like “Leuven is famed for its beer”, we had assumed this meant the enormous AB-InBev HQ.

And reading that visits to the brewery was one of the things to do in town cemented our suspicion that Stella Artois would have the town sewn up. If there was beer tourism, we thought, it would be of The Wrong Sort. 

We should have learned earlier to trust our Good Beer Guide Belgium: “Its beer culture is significantly more advanced than most Belgian cities, despite being the birthplace of Stella Artois.”

Use of the phrase “beer culture” made us think about our musings from a long while ago about what makes a healthy beer culture – in particular the diversity of venues and of different types of beer to drink. Leuven seems to have all of this. 

A cluttered, cosy Belgian cafe.
Café De Fiere Margriet, Leuven.

During our day there we visited:

  • A city centre brewpub – Domus, which had a really interesting and good unfiltered pils with a pronounced banana character
  • A suburban estate pub – Pakenhof, with an interesting beer list featuring local rarities; somewhat dead mid afternoon but livening up considerably from 4pm as the locals arrived for post-work, after school, pre-dinner drinks and socialising
  • A city centre beer exhibition pub – Fiere Margriet, with more beers on the menu than they could actually retrieve from the labyrinthine stores

We also saw small local boozers selling cheap Stella to drink by the fruit machine; cafes aimed at students; gay bars; and of course plenty of places to get a portion of frites on your way from one to another.

We really feel like we barely scratched the surface and would definitely come back for a longer stay. 

An industrial brewery beyond a flyover.
The Stella Artois brewery.

And yes, we did make it out to the Stella brewery, at least for a look. We didn’t intend to particularly but as we were wandering around the little Beguinage towards the north of the city centre, the smell of an industrial-scale mash – a wall of hot grain – hit us, and pulled us in.

It really is huge. Proud, you might say – or maybe arrogant.

The old brewery, half-demolished, is being converted into flats. If you’re a fan of brewery architecture or Art Deco more generally, there’s still enough there to look at and get a sense of how impressive it must have been.

We also drank some Stella, of course. It didn’t feel right not to. It came in a small ribbed glass, condensation trickling down the outside, with a clean white head. It tasted… pretty good.

A pub near Leuven central station.
A bar across the road from the station in Leuven.

It wasn’t one of those “everything you thought you knew was wrong” moments. This is still a beer with low bitterness, a bit sweet for our tastes, with a peculiar tang.

At the same time, we can see why the locals were so happy drinking it – especially for €1.90 for 330ml in the lively pub across from the station.


Orval, who is your very best friend?

Our recent trip to Brussels gave us the opportunity to think about Orval by drinking beers that aren’t Orval – but would really like to be.

This is really a postscript to a piece we wrote almost exactly four years ago, about how Orval is really a beer style in its own right.

Back then, we said  it had been classified in various different ways but none of the labels seemed to fit.

We also observed (as did our commenters) the increasing availability of Brettanomyces-heavy beers taking Orval as their inspiration, either directly or more subtly.

In Brussels last week the one we encountered most often was Bruxellensis by de la Senne.

At 6.5% it’s obvious even before tasting that it’s not an exact clone of Orval.

This time, as before, it struck us as a little rougher than the model. It also seemed fruitier (peach, tangerine) and even peaty-smoke. But, of course, with Brettanomyces involved, and the passage of time, we would expect the flavour to vary.

However, ‘like Orval’ continues to be the most useful way of describing this beer – even if its unlikely anyone who knows Orval well would mistake one for the other in a blind tasting.

Incidentally, we also noted during our trip that Bruxellensis was as good for beer blending as our Orval experiments.

One part Bruxellensis to four parts Hercule Stout made an absolutely delightful combination, adding more body and bitterness to the dark beer, as well as the obvious funk.

We did worry we might get arrested and deported from Belgium if anyone saw us at it but in Brussels, anything goes.

Den Herberg’s Cuvée Devillé in a Moeder Lambic glass

During our trip we also tried Den Herberg’s Cuvée Devillé which is intended to be as close a copy of Orval as possible – almost a technical exercise.

So, like Orval, it has an ABV of 6.2%, and looks, to our eyes, to be the same colour, with the same level of carbonation.

Without the yeast from the bottom of the bottle, it tasted very close but perhaps a little sweeter and cleaner. With the lees, it became more bitter, more blunt and more wine-like.

Would we be fooled in a blind tasting? Yes, probably.

It certainly hit all our pleasure receptors in the same way as Orval and we’d like to drink more of it in the future.

With terminology in mind, it’s worth saying that we found this on the bottle menu at Chez Moeder Lambic, classified under “Mixed fermentation beers”.

This might be a more useful, more general way of talking about these Orval clones.

The only problem is that the other options in this section (De Ranke Wijnberg, for example) are Flemish sour ales – a very different thing.

We also drank a few bottles of Orval itself, of course, defaulting to it in bars where there wasn’t anything more tempting on the menu.

It’s great, isn’t it? It somehow tastes both old and fresh, deep and light, complex and refreshing. An everyday masterpiece.

Other people were drinking plenty of it, too, and we noticed that it seemed particularly popular with older women. It’s a living beer, in every sense – not a museum piece or novelty for yeast perverts.

In the four years since we wrote the original post, we’ve continued to see beers boasting Brettanomyces additions, suggesting both that the concept continues to be reasonably attractive and that adventurous beer drinkers are more and more comfortable with the word and what it might mean.

So perhaps that’s the only word we need.

If you know of other Orval clones we ought to try, let us know in the comments below.

Beer history Belgium

Book Review: Brussels Beer City by Eoghan Walsh

Brussels Beer City finds different paths to walk down, previously unseen things to look at and fresh things to say about Belgian beer, brewing and drinking culture.

We’ve enjoyed Eoghan’s writing online for years and were excited to see a number of his articles brought together in this book, which amounts to a series of short histories of a number of key breweries in the city.

Names such as Brasserie de Boeck, the Grande Brasserie de Koekelberg, Wielemans Ceuppens and Leopold illustrate the administrative complexity of Brussels, the French enclave in Flanders.

Some are strange while others feel vaguely familiar thanks, perhaps, to years of looking at Belgian cafe greebling over the rims of beer glasses.

The book begins with a startling fact: from an estimated 250 breweries in the late nineteenth century, Brussels was left with just one by the 1980s – Cantillon.

Many of the stories of individual breweries will, in their broad outlines, be familiar to anyone who has studied the fate of British breweries in the 20th century. First, they rise to local dominance; then there are buyouts and a period of consolidation; before they are eventually swallowed up by big multinationals.

The book also acts as an extended explainer on the concept of Brusselization – the frenzy of post-war development that makes the Belgian capital look as if it was Blitzed when, in fact, it wasn’t.

Consider Brasserie de Koekelberg whose buildings were listed and protected from demolition until… they weren’t. With talk of dry rot, they were torn down in the 1990s:

Today, Place van Hoegaerde is an anonymous, down at heel corner of Koekelberg towered over by social housing complexes. It’s a quiet place; the buildings all around protecting it from the bustle of the main road and metro station two streets over. Of the de Boeck brewery only fragments remain. The cold neoclassical brewer’s house that forms the sharp edge of one corner of the square is still there, abutted on one side by the old redbrick perimeter wall of the brewery. A black metal gate stands tall at the brewery’s old service entrance; several years ago, barely perceptible from the rust, you could still make out the name of the brewery, but that fence has been replaced.

What gives the book energy is Eoghan’s dogged determination to find the very last traces of these stories in real life – a broken chimney here, a faded sign there.

It’s no deskbound, bookbound work of dry scholarship and even, at times, suggests mild peril. Poking through the ruins of a brewery by torchlight, kicking through the traces of recent trespassing, who or what might we bump into?

It also makes the reader want to get moving — there’s a walking tour implicitly suggested in these pages and we can’t wait to go back to Brussels and follow Eoghan’s trail.

There’s plenty for fact-accumulating trivia fans, too. We found it hard to get through a chapter without disappearing down rabbit holes on Google.

Did you know, for example, that the Belgian brewers collectively sponsored a Disneyesque idealised Belgian village at the 1958 Brussels Expo? Neither did we.

The author stresses in the Foreword that this is “not a narrative history of Brussels brewing. That book is still to be written.” Perhaps a publisher could take this hint and commission Eoghan to finish what these snapshots begin?

It’s a fairly short book, but that does no harm at all. There’s no waffle or padding and the author’s prose is elegant throughout. We read it in a couple of sittings in lieu of a trip to Belgium, washing it down with Tripel, but dipping in now and then to read one story at a time would no doubt be equally rewarding.

We bought the Kindle eBook edition of Brussels Beer City for £4.47. It is also available as a print-on-demand paperback at £9.23.

beer reviews Belgium bottled beer

Blackberries in beer: Mûre Tilquin

Blackberries are my absolute favourite fruit. I’m borderline obsessed with them from about May onwards, watching out for how they’re developing, whether my usual favourite spots are looking good.

I have Strong Opinions about them, too. For example, I strongly believe that urban blackberries are better than rural ones and that the best of all come from Walthamstow Marshes; should have Protected Designation of Origin status; and ought to be the subject of lengthy essays about terroir.

So when I came across Mûre Tilquin, which is a lambic with 260g blackberries per litre, at our local beer shop, Bottles & Books, I had to give it a go, even at a whopping £25 for a 75cl bottle.

It was marked 2018-19 with a science-fiction best before date of 2029.

It’s comforting to have this kind of ‘special beer’ in the stash – something that you know will be interesting, at least: IN CASE OF UNEXPECTED GLOOM, POP CORK. And, well, that moment came at the weekend.

There’s a fun bit of additional ceremony when we open this kind of beer because as well as drinking it, we need to take photos. What if it’s amazing and we didn’t? Can you imagine?

Cage off, It opened with a threatening gunshot pop and pushed back hard against the seal. Would it gush? No, the fizz was assertive but not out of control.

Bottle and glass. Foam close up.

It poured a pretty, deep rose colour, and a pungent smell of brambles on the farm was noticeable from half a metre away.

It was, as you’d expect, rather sour. There was also an absence of sweetness and the finish was extremely dry, although not quite as mouth-puckering as most beers from Cantillon.

There was a strong oakiness but I didn’t pick up any blackberry. If someone had given me this blind, I don’t think I’d have even thought of my favourite fruit in passing. In fact, I might not have thought there was any fruit in it at all.

I enjoyed it anyway, though, over the course of hours, mostly because it reminded me of drinking Tilquin gueuze in Chez Moeder Lambic in Brussels.

In one of our very earliest blog posts, we wondered why you don’t see more blackberry beers, and reviewed a few that we had found.

I’ve often returned to that thought, particularly when it comes to lambic – if raspberries, then why not blackberries?

Having now added this data point, I’m more convinced of an answer we’ve received in the past: they ferment out too fully to retain any flavour.

But if you’re a brewer, pro or at home, who has managed to make a blackberry beer that proves otherwise, I’d love to know more.