No Waffling on Belgian Beer!


The only reason my wife works part time at Continental
Airlines is the ability to fly (usually in first class)
anywhere in the world at little or no cost. She loves to
travel and I love beer, so my acquiescence to the
globetrotting, which I tolerate stoically, is rewarded by
the destinations eventually selected, usually because of
the great beers to be sampled on their home turf. With
a week off for spring break, she asked me where I would
like to go and even suggested Belgium , having
occasionally heard me bore her to death with my
dissertations on the wonders of Belgian beer. It seemed
like a fine idea to me, so, armed with Michael Jackson’s
“The Great Beers of Belgium”, we set off on Easter
Sunday for Amsterdam , where we were to spend a day
before entraining for Brussels .

The Amsterdam stop was to enable us to visit the
Kuekenhof, the most expansive, beautiful and
unbelievable display of spring flowers to be seen
anywhere in the world: acres and acres of gardens, and
fields stretching toward the horizon, filled with every
color imaginable of daffodils, hyacinths and tulips. Even
I, who likes flowers but am not particularly passionate
about them, was awed by the  Kuekenhof gardens.
Strolling through the beautifully landscaped pathways
and observing tens of thousands of  varities of flowers
was made even better by the beer stands placed
conveniently throughout the park. Beer stands which
sold Leffe, Hoegaarden, and other great beers , all
permitted to be consumed while walking around the
park. This is one area where socialistic Europe definitely
beats my beloved and formerly free USA . It’s hard to
imagine any place in America where law abiding citizens
would be allowed to stroll through a park with legal
beers in their hands. In fact, it’s probably in the not too
far distant future when, if the Obamas and Pelosis have
their way, you won’t even be allowed to have one in
your own backyard if children are present.

Walking around Amsterdam that night allowed for a
couple of pub stops at which some interesting local and
craft brews were discovered. I may be the only beer
hunter to have visited Holland and not added Heineken
and Amstel to my beer log, but DeKonnick’s , one of
Roger Protz’s “300  Beers to Try Before You Die” and
Hertog Jan Lente Bock definitely made the list. Although
you might easily get run over by the millions of bicycling
Hollanders, Amsterdam is a great walking town, and our
walk included the mandatory tourist trip to the Red
Light District where I observed prostitutes in all their
semi-clad splendor, posing in their windowed, curtained
cubicles, in their attempt to attract business. Some
were reasonably attractive, but more than a few
suggested ten pints of  Heineken to dull the senses or
payment of a couple of Euros to lower the curtains
without a business transaction to ease the agony on
the eyeballs. Although I’ve never tried or had any
interest in marijuana, the Amsterdam evening stroll
provided  a close-up experience. Legalized pot is
everywhere, as is the ugly and depressing graffiti, a
definite downer for a visit to this beautiful but extremely
liberal city.

Belgium appears to be a more conservative and well
maintained country. And the Belgians are passionate
about their beer! Every pub we stopped in seemed to
have at least thirty or forty beers available. Each beer
store tries to outdo it’s competitors in the number of
beers available, one boasting 400, and it’s neighbor
dragging you in off the street with promises of 800. For
those pursuing the “1000 beers in a year” achievement,
one visit to a Belgian beer purveyor is all that’s
necessary.

Upon arrival in Brussels , we checked into our hotel and
freshened up before visiting the Cantillon Brewery, a
family establishment brewing only lambics. Admittedly,
lambics are my least favorite style, and in the past  I’ve
unabashedly expounded on the distastefulness of
gueze, a specialty of the house at Cantillon. But in the
ambiance of open fermentation, cool ships, wild yeasts,
spider webs, slatted windows and wooden casks, gueze
seems to be the perfect brew. The museum at Cantillon
is well worth the walk through a seedy looking area of
town to get there. It’s actually a self guided tour that
brings you extremely close to the production of this
working brewery. At the end of the tour, good sized
samples of three of their beers are offered, gueze, kriek
and framboise, poured by the brewer himself. While
lambics will never be an everyday beer for me, drinking
them at Cantillon was a memorable experience and a
perfect piece of local color.


Dinner near the Grand Place was the first brewpub visit
of the trip and the first opportunity to try “mussels in
Brussels ”, recommended by friends and travel guides.
The outdoor Brasserie de Grand Place offered blonde,
dark, trippel and two guest beers, Ramee Kriek and
Westmalle Dubbel. Just beyond this pub is the “little
pisser”, a must for every visitor to Brussels , although I
expected much more. The “little pisser” is a tiny statue
of what looks like a wingless cherub urinating. Actually a
small fountain  spewing water from it’s crotch, it’s
perhaps the most ridiculous and touristy trap anywhere.
But we took our obligatory photos and moved across
the alley to the Pochenellekelder  outdoor pub where
sixty kinds of beer were available, and where we spent
an hour conversing with a couple from Jersey City . It
was a lovely evening, talking to folks from our own
state, trying new beers, and observing hundreds of
tourists mugging and smiling in front of the “little
pisser”.


Perhaps the “little pisser” is an appropriate lead in for
another Belgian tradition: pay toilets. The oceans of
beer require a need for an occasional or urgent visit to a
restroom, which even in such public places as train
stations require a half-Euro, paid to a vigilant storm
trooper seated at a table near the entrance. Shortly
before departing for the airport, I found it necessary to
visit the facilities. Only having forty cents to throw in her
tray, I ignored the cries of “You MUST pay” and
proceeded to the urinal side of the restroom, to which
she followed me, tapping me on the shoulder and
demanding the additional ten cents. The poor lady
missed her calling. In an earlier era she’d have made an
excellent concentration camp guard.


Right on the Grand Place is the Belgian Beer museum. I
was the only patron during my visit, so I quickly breezed
through the few displays and sat down to watch a short
film on the history and production of Belgian beer in
some language other than English. It was only after
another couple came in and pressed a button I hadn’t
seen that the sound track changed into German. I
started watching the film again, clueless as to what was
being said, but mercifully the German couple left before
the end, allowing me to press the button in order to
view the thing for the third time, this one in English.
When the film ended I stopped in the bar area to get
the free beer that went with the admission ticket and
observed a serving process I had never before seen.
Absolutely delicious Leffe Bruin was poured into a
stemmed glass until the head ran down the sides, at
which point the bartender used an old fashioned foam
scraper to level off the head before immersing the entire
glass in water almost up to the brim and swirling it
around to remove the sticky beer from the sides. I had
seen foam scrapers used extensively in Amsterdam ,
but never the immersion process. Sort of like baptizing
one’s beer!


A day trip to the medieval city of Bruges led us to the
chocolate museum. Belgians are as much into their
truffles as they are to their trippels. There seemed to be
as many chocolate shops as there were pubs and beer
stores and there were plenty of those. The most
exhaustive brewery tour I’ve ever experienced was at
the de Halfe Maan (Half Moon) Brewery. The girl giving
the tour must have been raised by mountain goats: Up
something like 230 steps, across catwalks, down
ladders backwards, back up, back down and finally
ascending to the roof, which offers panoramic views of
Bruges for those who, unlike me, do not fear heights.
The guide was seated on a railing which to me appeared
to be several miles above sea level while giving her
extremely informative talk, not only on the Half Moon
brewery, but also on the traditions of Belgian beer
drinking. According to her, Belgian pilsener and gueze
style beers are served in glasses rarely seen in the US :
medium sized tumblers resembling something from
which a child would drink milk but with vertical ridges at
the bottom where your hand is placed on the glass. She
informed us that Belgians like their beer very cold and
the ridges allow less of the warmth of your hand to
come into contact with the glass, thereby keeping the
beer colder. She asked me what I thought of this unique
Belgian idea. I politely replied that I didn’t really have an
opinion since my beer never really stays in the glass
long enough to get warm.

Although our stay in Belgium lasted only five days, I was
able to add thirty eight new beers to my log. The visit
wasn’t long enough to really delve into the Belgian beer
scene, so I wouldn’t mind returning to taste some
farmhouse and Trappist beers in their own birthplaces.




Cheers,

Dan
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Open fermentation vessel at Cantillon
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