There is a man with a piece of pencil lead under his fingernail drawing nudes in a notebook while drinking a milky coffee.
Two bar staff are dancing and miming along to ‘Dolce Vita’ by Ryan Paris as they wash glasses. A man with a shopping trolley, dressed head to toe in custom embroidered denim, lumbers in and raises a hand at which, without hesitation, he is brought a small glass of water; he downs it, waves, and leaves. On the terrace, two skinny boys in artfully tatty clothes eat a kilo of pistachios and sip at glasses of Pils. A group of Englishmen in real ale T-shirts arrive: “Triples all round is it, lads? Aye, four triples, pal.”
Every take on Tripel is a take on Westmalle, which marks the centre line. Some are more subtle, like the one from De Ryck; others are all caramel and spiceless sugar, like De Ranke Guldenberg. De la Senne Jambe de Bois is Westmalle in the throes of a midlife crisis, great fun but in your face, and perhaps a touch unstable. Some, like St Bernardus, seem exactly like Westmalle until you have Westmalle when the enchantment drops from your eyes and you realise there can be only one. Eight per cent, nine per cent, ten per cent, and yet three in a row is no problem at all – the hangovers don’t arrive, even if they knock on the door in the small hours only to be seen off with a glass or two of holy tap water.
Three hundred bottled beers, sixteen on draught, and the bewildered young man with the translation app orders a Mojito, eventually. Mussels shells scattered across the floor, kicked out of the way or crushed under foot as the evening wears on. A denim dude in red suede shoes mounts a stool and stares at us, or through us, as he mulches a mouthful of free peanuts. Twenty students crowd around a table for six, ordering the occasional hot chocolate to keep the waiter on his toes; behind their backs, he rolls his eyes. Kwak on draft is irresistible to seaside trippers who order it by the litre, served in a version of the famous horn-like glass the size of a concert trumpet. Speaking of which, the brass band from the square comes in, uniform buttons popped and peaked hats askew, hoping for lubrication after a tough hour blowing ‘Londonderry Air’ and ‘Superman March’ into a Nordzee breeze. The voice of an Englishman carries over it all: “These are premium beers, these, and I mean premium,” where premium means strong, as the sly marketers always meant it to.
What’s wrong with Rochefort 10? It’s one of the most expensive beers around – more than €5 per bottles in most cafes and around €3 even in supermarkets – and yet we struggled to enjoy it. Butter. Rubber. The store cupboard tang of dust and cardboard. Oh, that’s just complexity, you might say, and maybe it is, but, oh, give us simplicity if so. Then there’s St Bernardus 12 – everywhere, suddenly, on draught and in bottles, refusing to be a luxury product despite its flagrant, self-evident luxuriousness. Belgian beers have their ups and downs, though – Abt 12 was dull and explosive for a stretch about five years ago – which is why you have to feel your way with it, and believe the evidence of your senses.
Between the remains of German coastal fortifications and the airport, a patio scattered with cheap furniture and promotional umbrellas, with pushchairs and mobility scooters parked side by side. Insultingly bad food at insultingly high prices is the price you pay for an hour of tranquility and glasses of Duvel just out of the midday sun. Pensioners drink beer, parents drink beer, wasps drink beer… The Nazis drank beer, too, or at least the mannequin tableaux in the exhibition suggest they did. A plane screams over and sets the cutlery drumming. The end of the season, the end of all sorts of things.
Wheat beer is out. It’s barely on menus except as a token offering, one of a handful of brands. When you order it, waiters look startled, as if you’ve mentioned an ex they’ve not thought about in years. It’s a joke, a drink for old ladies and tourists, an embarrassing relic of the recent past. In its mug, with slices of fruit floating around under the scum, Blanche de Bruges looks unappetising, too. Tell you what, though – it still tastes great.
Brussels, Thursday night: EU officials, lobbyists and camp followers off the clock and on the town, sharp shirts unbuttoned, hair down, lanyards swinging. Twenty-eight portions of fries, please, for me and my friends at the Europe-wide Union of Train Buffet Operators, with six ketchup, six mayonnaise, six Andalouse… Outside an embassy, three young people run by with glasses of wine and chunks of cheese liberated from a reception that is still underway against the windows above. On the square, snatches of German, Italian, Spanish and accented English, the common language of “Can you spare a cigarette?” and “Who wants another round?”
A cube of cheese, speared on a cocktail stick, swiped through mild mustard and dusted with celery salt – the perfect counter to, and prompt for, a mouthful of strong beer. Sometimes, often, it seems to be made of the same material they use for stress balls. Occasionally, it has the added bonus of fridge burn, cubed hours before in the lull between shifts. And you never quite know if €6.50 is going to get you half a kilo or five miserly nuggets. But that’s all part of the fun of the portie kaas.
In the window of the coastal cafe sits a yacht-dweller with the figure of Henry VIII, eating mussels and sipping Champagne through kissing lips. Really, Beer Guide? This one? Inside, Champagne Charlie aside, it’s a caff, albeit one with pretensions, where locals prop paperbacks against the salt cellar while they work on hamburgers and vol-au-vents. Most of the tables are empty – the summer season is winding down, the weekend is over – and the waiter is already checked out, surfing on a Spanish beach. Two beers, of course, come with a complimentary Kilner jar of barbecue flavoured corn balls. The EPOS is broken and the repairman arrives riding pillion on his girlfriend’s motorbike, the pair of them creaking past Champers Chuck’s table in their leathers. He raises an eyebrow as he sucks white wine and garlic from a shell.
The thing about Belgian Pils, the problem, is that it looks so beautiful. Those small ribbed glasses, sparkling amid the relentless brown; the beer itself, clear and golden, with foam eternal; and the context, the ordinariness of it, the lack of pretence. The two-Euros-a-glassness. We used to drink it, and enjoy it, before we Knew About Beer, but know we Know About Beer, it seems a waste to drink Jupiler or Maes when there’s Chimay to be had. We got close more than once on this trip, though, and next time… Next time, we’ll crack.
Tussling at the bar, jabbing and headlocking, two roofers get carried away and one goes crashing across the Art Nouveau tiles, dragging an enamel sign off the wall with a sound like orchestral cymbals. The waitress tuts as they rehang the sign, sheepish as schoolboys.
Because Belgian beer tends towards rich and sweet, it’s exciting to find beers that are dry, bitter and light on the tongue. De la Senne has this market nailed with Taras Boulba and Zinnebir but De Ranke’s XX does the job better again, finding space for spice and sugar, too. “What do you have that’s dry?” would be a good phrase to learn in Flemish and French for next time.
Jessica and Raymond check out of their hotel at 11 am. It takes them 30 minutes to get their bags to left luggage, 15 minutes to walk to Saint-Gilles, 30 minutes to drink coffee and buy wool. If they want to eat lunch and make a 2 pm check-in for Eurostar, how many beers can they drink? (Show your working.)
We hit Snack Murat at midday and order two doner kebabs with fries. It’s an ordinary kebab shop on a typically untidy Brussels street corner that has somehow become our go-to. Turkish pop on TV, Italian nanas and Arabic-speaking lads noshing from plastic trays, accompanied by the constant crackle of hot oil. We’re done by 12:20, which is why they call it fast food, and in Cafe Verschueren by half past, leaving us an hour and a quarter for a final beer in Belgium. Or two, we hoped, if we played it right. You don’t drink Tripel fast, or you shouldn’t, but we do, and then it’s deux saisons et l’addition, s’il vous plaît, to avoid 30 minutes trying to catch the waiter’s eye. Saison isn’t designed for downing, not with that explosive carbonation, but down it went and out we went, and farewell to Belgium until next time, with a feeling of farewell forever.
This piece was made possible with the support of Patreon subscribers like Lorraine Moulding and Jan Hjalvor Fjeld who got to see us write it in real time over the course of a week. Do consider signing up.