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.
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.
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.
If you’ve decided that you’re going to get into beer, the chances are you will go through a Belgian phase. You may, in fact, never come out of it.
Look at these obsessives, for example, who go to Belgium multiple times every year and find endless fascination in the country’s beer.
We’ve identified five factors that we think make Belgian beers to appealing to ‘beginner’ beer geeks – people at stages three to five – beyond the obvious fact that Belgium is home to many of the world’s greatest beers.
When you first encounter Belgian beer, there’s an impression of boundless choice. Even the most basic bars have lengthy beer lists, usually with enough options to offer something different throughout a weekend city break. The beers on offer range from brain-dissolvingly sour to syrup sweet, and often come with tantalising, almost romantic descriptions.
Most Belgian bars will offer a set of reliable classics – the Westmalles, Chimays, Duvel, and so on. So, while there is a lot of choice, it’s not like drinking in a modern UK taproom where the beers change constantly, week by week, like fugitives trying to evade detection. In Belgium, it’s easy to identify favourites and go back to them as often as you like, as you get to understand your own preferences.
Most Belgian beers are served from the bottle, and most of these breweries have been bottling for a very long time, so when you drink Westmalle Tripel it will taste more or less the same wherever you drink it, unlike with draught beer (and especially cask) where so much depends on the venue. Caveats apply: we have noticed consistency issues with Abt 12, for example, which put us off drinking it for a while.
On the ground in Belgium, at least, there are the matching glasses, the perfect pours and the general reverence for the product that seems to apply even in non-beer-geek places. Every glass of beer is the most important in the world at the moment it’s served. And if you like reading, there’s plenty to read, from the history of the distinctive yeast to the tales of individual breweries.
Pink elephants! Trolls! Peculiar glassware! It was made for the Instagram age. It’s just fun.
* * *
Are there downsides?
Well, perhaps the generally higher strength of Belgian beer might be offputting to the average British person.
It certainly took us quite a while to adjust to a sensible Belgian drinking pace.
And actually, the alcohol burn can seem overwhelming at first, like the whisky wall we wrote about in last month’s newsletter. We remember considering Chimay White undrinkable the first time we tried it because all we could taste was ethanol. Of course we love it now.
For some, the Belgian scene might also seem a little conservative. There are new breweries and styles emerging – certainly enough to quench our curiosity whenever we visit – but we guess it is difficult for new players to enter the market.
On the whole, though, Belgian beer strikes just the right balance between novelty and solidity. It’s vast but knowable. Often complex but rarely ridiculous. Very weird but absolutely everyday.
As you may know, for some years now we have been emitting occasional Tweets @brouwervanklomp. Now, we’ve taken the best of them, honed them and added exclusive new material to create Pierre van Klomp Says, “No.”
We guess it’s what you’d call a zine – a 24-page A5 mini-book which we designed ourselves and had properly printed on rather nice shiny paper.
It was inspired partly by the pop-art style of Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage but mostly by PVK’s own obtuse, melancholy wisdom.
In putting together, we also tried to provide a bit of a plot arc, from birth to death.
Writing each Tweet takes maybe 10 minutes – it’s hard to squeeze in something ‘profound’, a joke, and get the voice right all in 140 characters. We read them aloud to each other (doing a gruff old Belgian voice, obviously) several times to check they work before posting… You know how it is – the ones we’re proudest of and think are really hilarious get no attention at all, while the ones we knock off on the bus earn plaudits. ‘No clue who this guy is,’ one esteemed beer commentator wrote, ‘but I think I’m in love with him.’
The new zine was primarily conceived as a bonus for our Patreon subscribers but even giving each of them a copy means we have a few left to sell.
If you’d like a copy for your home, brewery or pub, it’s £3.00 including UK delivery. Email us via firstname.lastname@example.org to sort out payment and let us know where you’d like it posted.
Alternatively, drop us a line if you happen to be visiting the Drapers Arms in Bristol. If we’re not already there, we can always pop round with a copy.
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.