Impressions of Ostend and Brussels: Bizarro World

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.

Belgian bar late at night.

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.

Cheese cubes.

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.

Cluttered bar.

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.

Ques­tion 14b.

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.

A Tale of Three Pours

Mur­al at the Poech­enellekelder, Brus­sels.

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.

The Worrier

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.

The Casual

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.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 22 September 2018: Brussels, Muscles, Beer Tie Tussles

After a two-week break, here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pubs, from Autovac mild to pilot plants.

First, an inter­est­ing nugget from Birm­ing­ham: the long-derelict Fox & Grapes on Free­man Street in the city cen­tre has final­ly been pulled down as part of high-speed rail con­struc­tion. Why does this mat­ter? Because it was the last remain­ing bit of Old Birm­ing­ham.

The window of Mort Subite in Brussels.

Cana­di­an beer writer Jor­dan St. John recent­ly vis­it­ed Brus­sels and has writ­ten a long, enter­tain­ing, insight­ful piece record­ing his impres­sions of the city, and reflect­ing on the place of Bel­gian beer in the glob­al craft beer scene:

I can’t help but notice how same‑y the selec­tion is every­where; As though there had once been a list of approved Bel­gian beers that no one has updat­ed since the mid 2000’s. Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Bel­gium is that list, and look­ing at the selec­tion in the dusty shop win­dows it feels like no one has come along with the grav­i­tas to approve new addi­tions to the canon; it is stuck in amber… Cafe Bebo helps to ease me into the con­tem­po­rary. It even has beers from brew­eries found­ed this cen­tu­ry. I order De La Senne Zin­nebir and some cheese from the Orval Trap­pist monastery to snack on.

Detail from the poster for National Lampoon's European Vacation.

Still in Bel­gium we find Alec Lath­am dis­sect­ing the label of De la Sen­ne’s Taras Boul­ba to the nth degree:

The art­work is a send-up of the two com­pos­ite nations – Flan­ders and Wal­lo­nia – and their antag­o­nism of eachother. It employs satire, humour and car­i­ca­ture to make an impor­tant point: please dump the bag­gage of the past and let’s move on… Unlike the easy-going­ness of the beer, the label art­work is utter­ly loaded.

We can imag­ine this mak­ing for an inter­est­ing series, reverse engi­neer­ing the brand­ing process to work out what brew­eries want us to under­stand from the small choic­es they make in their graph­ic design.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, Nuggets & Lon­greads 22 Sep­tem­ber 2018: Brus­sels, Mus­cles, Beer Tie Tus­sles”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 19 May 2018: Boozers, Brussels, Benin

It’s Saturday morning and time for us to round up links to all the writing about beer and pubs we’ve found stimulating, entertaining or engaging in the past week, from Huddersfield to West Africa.

But first, it’s pub geek Christ­mas: His­toric Eng­land has list­ed five notable post-war pubs, this being the first fruit of a research project by Dr Emi­ly Cole we first got excit­ed about back in 2015. It was love­ly to see not-beer-Twit­ter get all excit­ed about this sto­ry yes­ter­day and we sus­pect some of these pubs will find them­selves a bit busier than usu­al today. We’re plan­ning a trip to The Cen­tu­ri­on for next month.

A moose head at The Grove

At Beer Com­pur­ga­tion Mark John­son reflects on his sup­port for Hud­der­s­field Town, his con­nec­tion with his father, and how all this become entan­gled with his affec­tion for one par­tic­u­lar pub:

For many fans, foot­ball is about the match­day rit­u­als and expe­ri­ence as much as it about the 3pm Sat­ur­day kick-off. For my father and I the rou­tine became embed­ded – the Grove at 1pm. It stopped requir­ing organ­i­sa­tion with oth­ers com­ing from else­where. The texts about atten­dance weren’t nec­es­sary. We were in the Grove at 1pm.

You don’t have to be inter­est­ed in foot­ball to enjoy this post which is real­ly about the pre­car­i­ous­ness of impor­tant rela­tion­ships, whether they are with peo­ple or places. (Sug­gest­ed song pair­ing: ‘In My Life’ by the Bea­t­les.)

Adnams sign on brewery wall, Southwold.

It’s worth read­ing a pair of arti­cles by vet­er­an beer writer Roger Protz for his track­ing of one par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant ques­tion: how com­mit­ted are the estab­lished fam­i­ly brew­ers to cask ale? St Austell (and its sub­sidiary Bath Ales) seems very much so; Adnams? Maybe not quite so much:

When I sat down with chair­man Jonathan Adnams in the opu­lent splen­dour of the Swan Hotel fronting the brew­ery I checked I heard him cor­rect­ly when he said ear­ly in our con­ver­sa­tion: “By 2019 keg pro­duc­tion will over­take cask.”

Sure­ly not Adnams falling to keg? What has caused this aston­ish­ing turn round?

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, Nuggets & Lon­greads 19 May 2018: Booz­ers, Brus­sels, Benin”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 14 April 2018: Beer Duty, Beavertown, Baudelaire

Here’s all the writing about beer from the past week that most engaged, informed or entertained us, from the Fall of the Craft Beer Empire to Gamma Ray in Waitrose.

Well, most of the past week – we wrote this post at break­fast time on Fri­day and sched­uled it to post, so if any­thing excit­ing hap­pened on Fri­day after­noon, we prob­a­bly missed it. We are now on hol­i­day for a week and a bit which means no round-up next week­end. If you want a fix of links in the mean­time check out Stan Hierony­mus’s Mon­day post and Alan McLeod’s on Thurs­day.

Adapt­ed from ‘The End is Nigh’ by Jason Cartwright on FLICKR, CC BY 2.0

We’ll start with a piece by Pete Brown which prods at the kind of would-be sen­sa­tion­al news sto­ry based on a piece of research you have to pay to read in full:

Have you noticed a decline in the demand for craft beer? Why do you think this is?”

I stared at the ques­tion, cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance mak­ing me feel momen­tar­i­ly floaty.… The rea­son I was con­fused is that it hasn’t hap­pened – not yet. When I got these ques­tions, I’d just deliv­ered the keynote speech to the SIBA con­fer­ence. To write it, I’d had to do a lot of dig­ging. I’d dis­cov­ered that craft beer vol­ume increased by 23 per cent last year, and that ana­lysts are pre­dict­ing con­tin­ued growth until at least 2021. I’d learned that busi­ness lead­ers in the food and bev­er­age indus­try had named craft beer the most impor­tant trend across the whole of food and drink – com­fort­ably ahead of low alco­hol drinks, arti­san cof­fee and craft spir­its – for the fifth year run­ning.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, Nuggets & Lon­greads 14 April 2018: Beer Duty, Beaver­town, Baude­laire”