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.
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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 email@example.com 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.
So, after a good bit of back-and-forth over Lemsips on Wednesday night, here’s our list of the best beers and pubs of the year.
The best English pub of 2018
It’s been a year of pub lists for us (1 | 2 | 3 | 4) and we’ve visited some great places that were new to us, as well as looping back to old favourites.
But let’s be honest, there’s only one winner: our local, The Drapers Arms, on Gloucester Road in Bristol.
It’s a micropub and has funny hours. It tends to be either a bit quiet (Monday evening, Saturday afternoon) or crammed (the entire rest of the time). Occasionally, we wish there was a regular, reliable beer on the list.
But the stats speak for themselves: at the time of writing, we’re just shy of our hundredth visit since moving to Bristol. (Not including the times one of us has been in without the other.)
Now, that’s partly down to proximity – it really is the closest pub to our house – but we’ve challenged ourselves on this: is our number three pub, the Barley Mow near Temple Meads, better than the Drapers? No, it isn’t.
Best non-Bristol pub
The Royal Oak at Borough, London, is the best pub in London, for now, and that’s not opinion, it’s scientific fact. Sussex Best! Those salt beef sandwiches!
The best Belgian bar
We find ourselves going back to Brasserie De L’Union in Saint-Gilles, Brussels, so that’s our winner. It’s earthy, a bit grotty, utterly bewildering, and there’s usually someone behaving downright weirdly. The beer is cheap, the service cheeky, and a diplomat’s girlfriend forced us to accept a gift of exotic fruit. And maybe the most important thing – we found it for ourselves.
The best German beer garden
We had such a nice time pretending to be regulars at the Michaeligarten in Munichin the autumn and can’t stop dreaming about going there again.
The best beer of 2018
Certain beers came up repeatedly in our Beers of the Weekend posts on Patreon, some of which surprised us when we looked back:
Young’s Double Chocolate Stout
Lost & Grounded Keller Pils
Five Points Pils
Bath Ales Sulis
Bristol Beer Factory Pale Blue Dot
Harvey’s Sussex Best
Dark Star Hophead
De la Senne Taras Boulba
Tiny Rebel Stay Puft and Imperial Puft
Titanic Plum Porter
Zero Degrees Bohemian
Zero Degrees Dark Lager
And there were also some one-offs that we remembered, and remembered fondly, even months down the line: Siren Kisetsu, a saison with yuzu fruit and tea, for example, or Elgood’s Coolship Mango Sour.
But there’s one beer that we both agreed has become a favourite – that we find ourselves excited to encounter, and sticking on when we find it in a pub – and that’s Cheddar Ales Bitter Bully. It’s clean, consistent, properly bitter, and a very digestible 3.8%. It also almost in that northern style for which we’ve got such a soft spot.
Best foreign beer
Based on volume consumed, and time spent dreaming about, it’s got to be De la Senne Taras Boulba.
Look, we’ve been over this: it’s Westmalle, but, boy, are we loving Karmeliet right now.
Tucher Weizen with Oakham Green Devil – Hopfenweisse!
With a year’s worth of news, nuggets and longreads posts to look over, this is another we don’t need to leave to guesswork because certain blogs (or writers) got linked to time and again:
Original Gravity because it’s different, both in terms of editorial approach (creative, impressionistic, thematic) and distribution model (free, in pubs). Good job, ATJ! (Disclosure: we’ve been paid to write a couple of bits for OG.)
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And that’s us done. We’ll also try to find time for our usual Best Reading and Best Tweets round-ups in the next week or so.
There’s a certain ceremony to the way beer is poured in Belgium, except when there isn’t, and no two waiters have quite the same technique.
At the legendary Poechenellekelder in central Brussels, opposite the statue of the wee boy, we watched a clownishly expressive waiter turn the pouring of a beer into performative professionalism.
He popped the cap with a flourish, almost seeming to pause for applause, angled the glass, and began to pour slowly.
Assessing the development of the head, he frowned and gave the bottle a sudden jerk 30 centimetres into the air, for just the briefest moment, causing the foam to surge, but not much.
When he put the beer down on the table, smooth white sat half a centimetre above the rim of the glass, as solid as a macaron, and there wasn’t a speck of yeast in the body of the beer.
Sitting outside a cafe that seems to be called Primus Haacht with portions of blistered, gilded frites from Maison Antoine, we saw a Belgian waiter get it wrong. He poured Westmalle Tripel too vigorously and sighed with dismay as it flowed over his hand like milk, splattering on to the paving stones.
“It’s fine, we don’t mind.”
“No, no, it’s not acceptable… I’m gonna change it. I have to change it. Please, I’m sorry, wait here.”
The second attempt was over-cautious and, sure, we ended up with more beer in the glass, but it didn’t look anywhere near as good.
At Beers Banks, our local on Rue Général Leman, we marvelled at burly, efficient barmen who treated Trappist beers and alcohol free pilsner with about the same level of respect.
They upended bottles and flung the contents out as if they were emptying tins of tomatoes into cooking pots, glancing over their shoulders and talking, slamming glasses down on the bar to save seconds here and there.
But do you know what? Somehow every pour was PR photoshoot perfect.