Pub Life: Brussels Edition

All the usual trappings: mirrors, coat-hooks, brown wood, low-light, stern overseer, aloof bar staff, glinting glassware of every variety, and two English tourists experiencing mind-expansion.

They have two beers on the go already but are too excited to stop there.

“Bruv, bruv — you’ve got a lot of beers, man. Like… a lot. What would you personally recommend?”

The barman (dunking glasses in soapy water, running a hand around the rim, dunking again, rinsing in cold water) pauses to think. “Personally? I like this.” He presents a bottle of Orval like a waiter with a vintage wine.

“Yeah, open it up, bruv — open it up. Let’s do this.”

“You want two glasses?”

“I got money, bruv — my pockets ain’t shallow. We can have a bottle each.”

“Of course but you have two beers already and it is quite strong.”

“OK, we’ll have one of these, too.”

The tourist points at the lager tap from which the other barman is in the process of pouring eight 25cl glasses, slicing at the foam with a knife so that it surges up smoother behind the cut.

“That? Uh… that’s just a normal pils. Let me give you this with two glasses and if you want something else, no sweat — order it when you’re ready.”

The tourists are now sharing three beers between them, swigging and laughing, getting louder as time passes. Both barmen avoid their gaze, slide past the spokesman’s upraised hand, and ignore his ever more insistent calls: “Bruv! Sir! Mate! Hello! HELLO?” Eventually the boss barks and the other barman reluctantly attends.

“What would you recommend? Something mad. Something different.”

“Okay, how about…” He presents a bottle of gueuze.

“Yeah, two of them.”

“Uh… It’s a little bit… This one is a special beer, quite sour. Why don’t you share? I’ll give you two wine glasses.”

The tourist presents his wallet, waving a wad of cash.

“I can pay, bruv! Just give me two. Oh, no — tell you what, give me a big bottle! You got that in a big bottle?”

“Yeah but, I mean… It’s like, fifteen euro. Seriously, have this small one and if you don’t like it, you haven’t–”

“But if we do like it, can we part exchange for a big bottle?”

The barman considers, and shrugs.

“OK, sure.”

They do not like it.

But by this point, it doesn’t matter, because they are giggling, their stools involuntarily rotating beneath them, feet slipping from the rests. They are slapping their thighs, crying, weeping with laughter. Draining glasses, draining bottles, slurping down yeasty dregs. Having fun… for now.

Neither the elderly woman with her newspaper and espresso, nor the middle-aged couple holding hands as they consult a tool catalogue alongside two perfect chalices of blonde beer, seem to notice or care.

When we leave, the spokesman has his hand in the air again: “Bruv, bruv — what you got with fruit in it?”

The barmen pretend they can’t hear as they urgently restock the fridges, urgently clean some glasses, urgently disappear into the darkest corners they can find.

The Global Aspect of Alterno-beer

Detail from a sign reading Praha, Prague, Praga, Prag.

Zak Avery’s latest blog post touches on the links between British and American brewing and how that has contributed to a ‘craft beer culture’. (The penultimate paragraph is particularly perceptive.)

Earlier this week, we set about trying to identify key turning points in the development of what we’re calling (for the moment) an ‘alterno-beer culture’ in the UK and, although we pondered the issue of cultural exchange, weren’t able to pinpoint many specifics.

Surely, though, the development of cheap trans-Atlantic flights from the seventies onwards; the opening up of Prague after the fall of Communism; and the birth of Brussels as a tourist destination with the coming of Eurostar, must all have contributed to a broadening of people’s beery horizons.

It’s certainly fascinating how many brewers, from all over the world, have official biographies which contain variations on this sentence: “Their interest in beer had originally been fired by a visit to Belgium in 1980.” (In this case, that’s beer writer Michael Jackson describing the founders of US brewery Ommegang.)

Of course, the only beer that tastes better than the free stuff is that which you drink on holiday, but isn’t it also natural to take for granted what you have around you? In our case, it took German and American beer to jolt us into really appreciating straightforward British ales, as per Zak’s Australian Chardonnay analogy.

Kerstbiers at the Poechenellekelder


We’ve just got back from a week away in Germany. On the way out, we spent a night in Brussels checking into our hotel not long before 10.30 pm on a rainy Tuesday night. That gave us just enough time to dash to our favourite pub, the Poechenellekelder, to try a few items from their very extensive Christmas beer menu.

Tsjeeses by Struise caught our eye because of the mysterious name which became less so once we said it aloud and saw the label, which features a cartoon of a very stoned Jesus with smoke curling from his mouth and ears. Tacky branding aside, it was a perfect Belgian blonde and absurdly drinkable at 10%. Not too sweet, not too bitter, definitely spicy but nothing you could pick out. Everything was in balance. It reminded us what we love about Belgian beer.

Palm Dubbel was  less exciting, but certainly not unpleasant. It reminded us of Leffe Radieuse, with the same kind of fruit flavour which makes you wonder if cherries have been added somewhere along the way.

Zinnebier Xmas (Brasserie de la Senne) reminded us of Fuller’s London Porter but was much easier to swig — less intense and with a lighter body. Roasted grains mixed with sour-fruit aromas. Fabulous.

Forestinne Nordika from Brasserie Caracole was the last we could squeeze in as the bar emptied and bills were paid. Luckily, it was also a hit, with a powerful sweet orange-peel aroma and flavour that we loved.  There was more fruit than spice and we guessed from the colour that it had been made with something like English pale ale malt as the base.

All in all, a successful start to our trip.

Still to come: we find a brewery making stout in Cologne; catch ourselves ticking mulled drinks; and find a surprising amount of decent beer in Northern Germany.

A La Becasse, Brussels


We’ve been to Brussels loads of times now, but never made it to A La Becasse, famous for serving sweetened lambic in earthenware jugs.

We put that right on our most recent trip to Germany — we had a quick stopover in Brussels and fancied a sour hit.  It’s a nice little place, friendly staff and very handy for the Grand Place.  The lambic comes courtesy of Timmermans, and it is indeed sweetened and served in jugs.  It tastes not unlike sweet scrumpy cider, and is very refreshing, albeit not that exciting.  The lambic blanc is more interesting than the sweet lambic, as there is definitely more spiciness.

It wasn’t enough to quench the thirst for sourness, though, so we also ordered a bottle of Iris from Cantillon for the next round.  Oh, wow.  We’ve had this before, but forgot just how wonderful it is. Because it’s dry-hopped, you get an amazing aroma, like an American IPA, at the same time as the sourness takes over your tongue, and then a complex fruity aftertaste.

We vowed to stop off at Cantillon on the way back and stock up.

Poechenellekelder, Brussels

Andreea in Belgium tipped us off to this pub a while ago. We popped in on the way out to Germany, and were utterly charmed by the place, so we stopped off for a longer session on the way home.

As Andreea says, it is right on the tourist path, and there are lots of tourists in it, but you would not describe it as a trap. Well, unless you were commenting on the narrow entrance stairs – seriously dangerous after a couple of strong belgian brews. It’s extremely cosy and welcoming, the kind of place you can while away hours. It has a couple of changing beers on tap, and an extremely long list of beer in bottles.

We stuck to the Christmas specials. Kerstpater (9%) and Gouden Carolus Christmas (10.5%) were on tap, so we started there.  The Kerstpater was warming and boozy, although the finish reminded us of lucozade (too sweet?).  Gouden Carolus was better, with a nice cherry-chocolate aftertaste.  We thought it wasn’t really nice enough to justify the 10.5% strength, but it set us up for the afternoon, and Andreea really liked it.

“Palm Double” was next. We can’t find any reference to it on the Palm website.  Bizarrely, it tasted almost exactly like a 4% British bitter, despite being much stronger.  On to Pere Noel, by De Ranke. At 7%, this is weak for a Belgian Christmas beer, but was our favourite of the day.  It has the same “musty” hop taste as their XX bitter, of which we’re big fans.  It’s different and refreshing, while still being Christmassy.

There were various parades going on outside for St Nicholas’s day, and at one point an entire marching band, sousaphone and all, squeezed their way in for a post-march booze up.  All of which added to the cosiness.  A highly recommended pub.