SURVEYING FOR GBG BELGIUM
Approximately three years ago, a chance remark that the then Twickenham Fine Ales brewer, Tom Madeiros, was looking for someone to accompany him on a few days’ sojourn in Belgium, undertaking cutting-edge research ostensibly to provide source and corroborated material for a future edition of Tim Webb’s Good Beer Guide to Belgium, seemed too good to resist! Travelling late on a Tuesday by Eurostar from Waterloo (just before their services transferred to St. Pancras), meant we arrived at our hotel in Mechelen, the Muske Pitter, close to midnight. On the following morning, after a typical continental breakfast, we went to Mechelen station and bought return tickets to Zingem. [Amongst other claims to fame, Mechelen was the terminus of the world’s first purely passenger railway line which opened in 1835 from Brussels.] When we got to to Ghent to change trains, it was about 11.30am and, as we had some time before our onward connection, we looked for a nearby café. The Rambler on Sint-Pietersplein was open which was a pleasant enough eatery although unexceptional. The Kasteelbier Blond lacked flavour for the style but was still quite drinkable.
On arrival off the local train to Zingem, we were met by Tom's friend David Le Roy who was “Vice-Voorzitter” of Zythos, the Belgian equivalent of CAMRA, nationally as well as holding the same post in the local Zythos branch, BLES. He drove us to Eine where, after cruising around a bit to see which cafés were open, we decided upon the Bolero, an OK locals’ boozer. Of course, we all ordered Cnudde Bruin, a sourish dark ale thankfully still displaying its almost cherry-like puckeryness. Although there were quite a few people in the place, we seemed to be the only ones drinking the local beer. David said that this was not unusual. [It was a shame since, on an earlier trip to in 2005, we had ‘discovered’ this beer and became firm fans immediately. Arriving in Eine in the middle of a street festival, where increasingly bizarre costumes in accordance with an incongruous alpine theme were adorned by participants passing in parade, the surreal quality to our session there was complemented by the venue – the Kafée Barbier – an ornate barber’s shop with a bar attached which shouldn’t have been open on a Sunday at all but, given the occasion of a carnival, was open all afternoon and given over entirely to drinking Cnudde Bruin!Some apparently say that the unusual flavour of Cnudde’s sole beer relates to the ancient equipment still used and the resulting infections that ensue! Rumour also has it that they have tried to get their beer bottled at several other breweries but then have been turned down because of the threat of infection that their beer might introduce. It was equally just possible that Cnudde decided themselves that infection from other, more sanitised, plants would possibly tarnish their unique flavour and it was a risk they just weren’t prepared to take!
Anyway, after the Bolero, we drove to Gavere and the Brouwerij Contreras where David had arranged that we could get a tour and a tasting. Glenn Castelain of Alvinne brewery and Andy De Mulder of BLES met us there. In the tasting room, Frederik De Vrieze first offered us an Extra, which, according to our records, we had as belonging to the Valeir range. This was very good, having a very fine aroma and hoppy taste on a lightish body. Led by Frederik, we were then treated to the tour around the brewery, an interesting old place which declined almost to oblivion in the decades after the 2nd World War but the fortunes of which the De Vrieze family hoped to revive. The mash tun had undergone a bit of modification to appease the health inspectors but a step infusion was nonetheless still used. Going upstairs, we saw an old Baudelot cooler which, although expected to be decommissioned shortly and, apparently, replaced by a standard heat exchanger, was intended to remain in place. They also intended to add a new bottling hall to meet demand for their beers, some of which are apparently contract-brewed for them at (an)other brewery(s) until such time as full-scale brewing can be resumed. Downstairs, in the old cellars, we noticed a stack of old unlabelled bottles on their sides which turned out to be a Contreras Kriekenbier made with cherries from the 1953 harvest that was, therefore, over 55 years old. Upon our return to the bar, Frederik was even persuaded to open one for us. Clear and amber-brown, it had a cider-like dry nose that was leathery and had some wet-blanket aroma with no carbonation. The taste was also a bit leathery, cidery and acidic but you could really taste the cherries at the finish and aftertaste. It was surprisingly refreshing and tasty.
Unfortunately, my brewing compatriot asked for some more and found this second bottle to be not only a bit cloudy but also produced a burning sensation in his throat, he guessed from the autolysed yeast. However, the sediment in the bottles after half a century of having been lain-down was a sight to behold – fronds like fir trees branching from a central stem along the length of the green bottle! Still in the tasting room, we moved on to the Valeir Donker (malty and very nice) and Valeir Blond (nearly excellent). These two Contreras beers are a cut above most others in their categories we believe as they have that little something extra. David had also brought a bottle of his homebrewed IPA and we all had a taste of that. It was quite good, although Tom’s notes, which he showed him, read: “awful, nasty beer brewed by an amateur - very poor”!! We then went on to the Contra Pils and Tonneke. The lager was pleasant enough but we were surprised to find that the very clever idea of placing the “Contra” wording backwards on their publicity was an idea that originated at the brewery and not an advertisement agency. Tom considered that the Tonneke seemed to have lost most of its strong herbal taste he’d detected when consuming a bottle or more of the beer in Gavere a few years previously.
During the last part of our visit, we were joined by Frederik’s father, Willi, who came along to help serve and talk and there were brief appearances from his wife, Ann Contreras, and the only hired worker. Among the things that we learned is that they still run eight cafés although we couldn’t be exactly sure where they were. Staying twice as long as we should have done and drinking quite a lot of beer meant that David had to insist that Frederik took some money for the hospitality before dragging ourselves away! We then went to De Hœvebrouwers, Zottegem, who currently contract brew at, we were led to believe, De Graal. They have a ‘brewery tap’ located in a stall of an outbuilding to the old farmhouse they own where they hoped to renovate and install a brewery. When we visited, it was still with the acroutements of a pig sty with a trestle table for a bar! The old Alvinne kit was still in-situ but it was retained just for shew. Both the Toria Tripel and Nen Uts were consumed, each being fairly good although the Toria showed a bit of band-aid in the aroma. Johan De Vleeschouwer, chairman of BLES, was also there and handed us a 750ml bottle of Schinus Blond (6.5%) each, one of the ever-changing beers BLES has brewed every year at De Graal. (Drinking this at home, it was an unusual beer, spicy, almost perry-like, with juniper and apple juice all appearing in the nose or taste which rated very good.) After that, we were driven by David back to Ghent where we went for a meal in a Greek restaurant to round off a great first day before a return to Sint-Pieter’s station and a train back to Mechelen.
Another train from Mechelen on the Thursday morning looked promising as we had planned to go to Turnhout but then take buses back to Antwerp making a few stops along the way. On the train, however, it was decided that a detour to the Belgian enclave of Baarle-Hertog in Holland might be in order so, we decided to give this place a try as well. However, when we arrived at Turnhout (the current terminus of the line though it used to continue north into The Netherlands), we went directly to the adjacent bus station to try to find the timings for Baarle-Hertog. Unfortunately, as found on a previous trip at Heist-op-den-Berg, someone had smashed out the glass where the timetable was supposed to be mounted and so we couldn’t find out when the buses would be running and rightly blamed lager louts!! In a vain hope of finding some information elsewhere, we went back inside the station but then managed to miss the bus completely and, upon asking another driver, found out that the Baarle-Hertog route had only an hourly headway. It would seem that buses are just for locals! We then decided to wait for a bus to Merksplas instead but that wasn’t due to run for another half hour or more. The only good thing that came out of this débâcle was that we went across the street to a shop and were able to buy day tickets for just €5 each which saved us some money. Getting off near the church in the soulless and uninspiring little town of Merksplas, we found the Mart café which is located in a modern town complex.
Between us, an Achel Bruin, a Gouden Carolus Tripel and a draught Tripel Karmeliet were consumed here. The middle of the three was served without the bottle and was completely cloudy though a bit sweet but serviceable. The Karmeliet and the Achel were both very good. Altogether, the beer count here was 56, fifteen of these were Trappists, four were Gouden Carolus, two Val-Dieu’s, Goudenband (listed but not available) and two or three were only Hoegaarden fruit beers. Those mentioned were the most interesting as the remainder were pretty standard and we didn’t notice any ‘authentic lambics’ or eat there.
At about 2pm, we caught a bus back to Turnhout and were the first ones in the just opening Spytighen Duveles, a very nice place with a big beer list (so didn’t attempt a count) where we started off with an 8% Flodder which the landlord identified as a De Prœf brew. Although the label had a cartoon illustration of a cigar-smoking, fat, seedy harridan of a woman, it tasted far better than the label would indicate: hazy and golden with a pleasant nose of yeast and aniseed despite a sweet malty base with a spicy fruitiness and sweetish finish. Next was Den Herberg Tarwe which was delicate and softly spicy and very nice. The last beer we tried was Strandjuttersbier Mong de Vos which had a sort of a bittersweet taste vaguely reminiscent of the old Narragansett Porter that was available thirty years ago. Otherwise, it had a malty nose, a dark and yeasty flavour with a tangy and spritzy finish. The menu seemed to indicate that Saturday hours seemed to be 2pm to 3am!
We then walked back to the main square and had a quick look around the parish church with its outstanding 19th century pulpit prior to catching a bus heading towards Beerse and got off near the church there. As Gemeenteplein doesn’t appear on Google maps, we had a hard time finding our café though the directions in GBG Belgium ‘behind the big church’ were only helpful after we’d walked all the way around to the other side of it. The Leeren Emmer was recorded as having “very loud punk music and a screaming child (to) add to the wonderful ambience of this former beer café.” Perhaps we were being too unkind but probably not by much! There was no beer menu on the table and, when asked, the barman apologised for that omission and then for the lack of a beer range in advance (although what we asked for was actually available!). We noticed the Sterkens beers had disappeared but opted for a De Prœf-brewed Gageleer. At 7.5%, this was cloudy though golden, with a spicy (ginger?) nose, lots of CO2, and maybe a bit old but, altogether, OK. A fellow drinker sitting at the bar (landlord possibly?) insisted we have a Leffe 9 on him but this was out of date by about a month and cardboardy.
At around 6pm, we walked south to the main road and caught a bus towards Antwerp and, with the help of another passenger, we managed to get off at the right stop for the Trappisten at Westmalle. From the outside, it sort of looked like an American chain steakhouse and, upon entering, the place had all the charm of a high school caféteria. It was a hideous, soulless place having about as much to do with a monastery as a lapdancing joint would! Despite not being crowded, it still took a while to flag down one of the uniformed waiters. Having been escorted to a table, we started with the Dubbel on draught which had little taste except for a candy-sweetness: poor. The Tripel was just good but the Extra was not available. However, having not eaten except for sandwiches provided by our hotel, we decided to chance the food. This turned out to be far more satisfying than the beer or the ambience but only to the extent that we should have probably still skipped the Trappisten and gone on to Antwerp and tried the new De Koninck restaurant instead.
We then caught a bus to Antwerp and got off at the bus terminus near the train station. Taking a train to Mechelen Nekkerspœl Station, we arrived there at about 9.30pm and visited the Aspraak. This place has character and was frequented by a good crowd on this, a Thursday night. We split a 750ml bottle of Kapittel Tripel Abt which, as you’d expect, was very good. The 750mls were especially good value here where the beer count was 98, twelve 750mls being listed twice on the menu, once with the other beers and once separately. At the Hanekeef, we ventured to have an Anker Margriet which had a perfumy nose and taste, not surprisingly as it is, apparently, brewed with rosebud essence. You wouldn’t have a session with this beer! The beer count was 35 with six Anker beers, lambics included Cantillon and Boon and, if nothing else, this café is a good, characterful place to try the Anker range plus a few other goodies besides.
Stumbling on, we reached the Borrel & Babbel, a happy little place in the classic setting of a cathedral close and, reputedly, Belgium’s smallest bar. The beer count was three on draught, Gouden Carolus Tripel & Classic and Mæs. The twenty-one in the bottle include four Ankers and PawelKwak together with twenty-two jenevers! The GC Tripel was lagery and poor, however. “Alle dagen open 9u tot…..met gratis pistoleekes.” “Zat-, Zon- en Feestdagen open van 11u tot…..” which translated as ‘Open all days from 9am…..with free snacks.” “ Saturdays, Sundays and Feastdays, open from 11am..…” (Contradictory, or what? – Editor)
After the drink-a-thon of the previous day, Friday dawned and we decided on a rural bus tour to the south so, from the joint Mechelen bus/train station, we headed for Londerzeel railway station where there were also bus ranks but very few buses as we were faced with quite a wait for the connection to Steenhuffel. A café espied near the station sporting Palm signs therefore beckoned us over. The Stappes was a nice, well-lit, place with a friendly landlady and we ordered a pleasant enough draught Palm. There were some locals having a discussion in Dutch about beer and we overheard “gueuze” and the De Block brewery mentioned although not in the same sentence. Then, the landlady brought out her copy of ‘All Belgian Beers’ and, whilst they were looking through that, she saw one of our Belgium GBGs and made a cursory examination of it but wasn’t too interested since, of course, it was in English. There was a Lamot ashtray (from a now defunct Mechelen brewery which had its five minutes of fame in the 20TH century) on the bar and Boon Kriek on draught.
The next bus brought us to Steenhuffel where the Brouwershuis was much busier than on a previous lunchtime. Starting with a Palm Royale, though good, it seemed a bit yeasty and not so clean and hoppy as fondly remembered. The Rodenbach Grand Cru was ‘Gemengde Gisting’ and earned our highest rating of the trip so far having a lovely dry, sharp acidic, sour aroma and flavour. It was very refreshing with a bit of a Verhæghe-like aftertaste not noted before. Unfortunately, there was no Fœderbier on the menu, as also confirmed by the waiter, which was worrying as it would be a shame if it were ever discontinued as it is – by far – the best of Palm’s ‘Old Masters’ beers. There were, however, eight 75cl bottles on the menu: Palm; Rodenbach; Boon Kriek; Boon Framboise;Brugge Tripel; Palm Royale; and Rodenbach Grand Cru.
After some discussion as to our next course of action, we decided to make for the Leireken, also in Steenhuffel. This was a pleasant place established in a former railway station with old photographs on the walls. Probably as we were the only people in, we got a tour of the old passenger carriage outside from a particularly pleasant barmaid. Otherwise, there was not much else to report here except for the tasty shrimp dishes we had for lunch. The beer list had been much reduced and now consisted mostly of Palm products comprising five van 't vat: Palm, Royale, Bock, Boon Kriek and Steendonk Blanche. Of only 16 bottled beers, eight of those were Palm, with only one Leireken beer, Spelt. It was refreshing and pleasant and not overspiced if it had spices in it at all. Just before we left, we mentioned the reduced beer list from our GBG Belgium and she said that they had got other beers in but they were not on the menu leaving us unsure as to how well they would sell if no one knew they’re available!
As the Leireken is right on a bicycle path of the same name that used to be the railway line, we decided to walk to Peizegem which, at a fairly leisurely 45 minutes, helped to work off the beer and lunch consumed so far. When we arrived at the village centre, the De Tronk café/nightclub was easily spotted and, although, it had sported old De Block signage, ominously, this bit of history had been painted over! We wandered around a while looking for a café that might possibly have the De Block beers. There was a café at the old Peizegem station, also called the Leireken, that did not look promising for the local brew so we decided to walk up to the brewery instead.
Just as we’d wandered into the yard a few feet to have a look, the owner’s wife was there and asked if she could help. We asked where we might find their beers in the village and, amazingly, she then offered us a drink there and then! We were served by Mieke (as we learned she was called) with Satan Gold (very good) and then Paul Saurens, the owner, actually came and sat with us for a while, joining us in a beer, and, although he was occasionally distracted with some engineers that had come to fix something in the brewhouse, it was a very pleasant interlude in the weak autumnal sunshine.
It seemed from what he said that all De Block cafés are free houses since he didn’t like the idea of tying any café to just his products alone as that was exactly what the big breweries had done. There were fifteen cafés at present, down from fifty. Although many have been turned into houses, he felt that the rationalisation of cafés in Belgium had now stopped and that it was time to open some new ones. To that end, he’d opened a new café in Dendermonde and claimed that there would be one opened at the brewery around April 2010 but didn’t have a name for it yet [Brouwershuis? - Newsletter Editor]. He also professed a great distaste for De Prœf-style contract brewing or brewers that are not rooted in their communities. (We didn’t say anything but simply wondered how De Block could think of itself as being a vital part of the village when you can hardly find the beers on sale anywhere there!) He went on to divulge his negotiations with the local abbey to licence Dendermonde Tripel and how he had already had some of the pious monks there drinking his Satan beer! Strangely, he also claimed that he did not drink his own beer in cafés (even if they’re available) regarding which my brewing companion, at least, was uncertain whether this was a great idea as it would undoubtedly give some customers the impression that your own beer wasn’t very good! Despite this curious end to proceedings, it was actually quite memorable to share a beer with Paul Saurens in the De Block brewery yard but, upon having said our goodbyes, we walked back to the village centre.
The Café Taxi was a well-lit local’s café with a big crowd for this Friday afternoon. However, we caught a bit of a bad vibe here and were not sure why but the Dendermonde Tripel was very good, possibly the best of the De Block beers. We then thought of walking from Peizegem to Opwijk, again along the old railway route, but, upon consulting various timetables, it seemed possible to bus it if the day was a schoolday. Luckily, it was and the due bus turned up on time. So, we alighted near the Affligem brewery in Opwijk and walked into the centre where, after a little bit of trouble, found the Obstakel. Here, we made our way through the café and out to the back room. The very friendly landlady came to visit us several times and, each time she left, my colleague said something to me like, “What a horrible person”, “I wish that hideous woman would leave us alone” and “I hate Belgians”. Of course, he was being facætious (again) as Heddy was completely charming and helpful. This included bringing us books and pamphlets to look at (such as ‘Volkcafés’ and ‘All Belgian Beers’ as seen earlier in Londerzeel). She seemed genuinely surprised that we’d come especially to visit her café and asked us where we’d heard about it. Upon showing her the Belgium GBG, we then had to try to explain what ‘rusticated’ meant in relation to her partner. She apparently also wasn’t aware she had been a ‘try-also’ in the previous edition. But we had to report to Tim Webb that the sheepdog referred to therein had become restricted to the private garden after becoming nippy with the patrons!
Tom had the draught Slag Pils to start and his notes recorded, “Better in Ninove!”. I tried a bittersweet Op-Ale which was followed by a La Mère Superieure from Millevertus that was interesting and very good. Lastly, we split a 750ml bottle of De Cam Oude Kriek which was had a “very tart, lemony, cherry taste.” Tom’s notes continued, “Enough of the same in the nose to clear out your sinuses. Very good. Draws flies as usual.”! Heddy knew Karel Goddeau of Millevertus and recommended going to the open day at Gooik on the Sunday but, alas, it was not to be on this trip. Also, both Heddy and another customer told us that they had heard Op-Ale would be discontinued soon. Given this and the lack of a brewery tap, Affligem really don’t seem interested in the local market possibly because, as with Żywiec in Poland, Heineken have acquired a 50% stake in the brewery, their only Belgian interest.
After a long sojourn in such convivial company, we walked to the station and caught a train to Dendermonde and, from there, then one back to Mechelen. Upon arrival, we had a late dinner at the Anker café which, being right on the Grosmarkt, was, nonetheless, a modern restaurant. The beer menu had Anker Pils and Gouden Carolus Classic, Tripel, and Ambrio on draught as well as Boscoulis, Hopsjinoor, Bruges Tarwe,Duvel and Lindemans fruit beers and gueuze in the bottle. As we couldn’t remember what we ate there, we can’t really recommend the place for a meal but the beer range was fine!
On the Saturday, we took the train from Mechelen and got to Diest in Flemish Brabant about noon mainly on the promise of a beer festival being held there that day. As the station was some way away from the centre, we experienced some difficulty finding our route to the market place. En-passant, the Celt was closed and, on the way back, it was too late to go there and still catch our train! However, Diest seemed like a decent place.
The Haasken was a pleasant local’s café on the Grote Markt with 31 beers counted on the menu which included three Loterbols including one on tap that we took to be the 6°. There were 11 Trappists and some decent regional ales as well but no opening hours or phone numbers on the menu. Apparently, it has the same owners as the Gasthof 1618 with food limited to croques, salads, pasta, broquettes and omelettes. Both Draught Loterbol and Loterbol Bruin in the bottle were selected, the draught being pretty poor showing higher levels of alcohol on the nose and some astringency in the taste. Diacetyl (butterscotch) was detected before a dry and lemony finish. The Bruin was just a bit better with a yeasty, roasty, bittersweet, dark chocolate flavour spoiled by a very dry, burnt aftertaste.
The Grenadier - just off the Grote Markt - was just a shell of a building now but there were numerous others all jostling for a position onto the main square. None appealed, so it was onto the sister pub to the Haasken in Diest instead. Much smarter, if just slightly kitschy, the Gasthof 1618 in the Begijnhof was more of a restaurant than its sibling. The beer count was 29 with Loterbol 6°, La Trappe, Westmalle Dubbel and Prins van Oranje ‘Huisbier’. There were 12 Trappists including the three Westvleterens priced at €9.00 a piece. Others included Loterbol Bruin and the 3 Fonteinen Gueuze. We ordered the house beer which we thought we overheard was from Loterbol although the waitress said it wasn’t brewed in Diest. This came in sort of a pottery coffee mug with the beer name on it and was pretty good, really. It seemed to be sort of brownish in colour with a nose of sweet malt and dry fruits, a sweet fruity beer (almost tangerines?) with a slightly raisiny finish. We ate local cuisine here which revolved around casseroles and gamey dishes and considered it was well worth a visit due to its location in and amongst cloisters and almshouse grounds taking in a lot of old Diest to get there.
The 1ST Diester’s Bierfestival was held in a function room of the GBG Belgium-listed Ons Te Huis although we never actually went into the café as it was closed during the festival. They did a good job of organising this beerfest, especially as it was their first time around. The beers had been bought in and were served by the local Zythos members, some being accompanied by the correct glasses to boot. Instead of going up to the beer stand, the beers were brought to your table and exchanged for tokens. Whenever you wanted a beer, you held up a sign which translated as ‘I’m thirsty’ and they would come and wait on you! The token system in exchange for Euros was a bit confusing though but a practice which ought to be taken up by all beer festivals was particularly helpful. All the beers listed in the programme were numbered and the relevant numerals were displayed on large paper bills affixed to a prominent wall nearby. As particular supplies of any beer became exhausted, the appropriate bill was taken down immediately thereby leaving no-one in any doubt as to which beers were (or were not) currently available!
We were joined by Glenn, Davy, and Marc from the Alvinne brewery together with David Le Roy of Zythos at times and sampled a variety of beers including Hofbrouwerijke Hofbesje, Dupont Bons Vœux and Alvinne Caper Fumatis which were highly-rated. Stinkers were Loterbol Tuverbol and, particularly, the 3 Fonteinen where its aroma made one’s eyes hurt, there being too much butterscotch and acid in the taste! Whereas De Dochter van de Korenaar was just cloying, De Ryck Steenuilke, Engel Havertripel,De Leite Femme Fatale and Jessenhofke Bruin fell in between. After the beer festival was over, we ate some good steaks at the Cara café back in Diest’s Grosmarkt. The short beer list there was Haacht-dominated though the Corsendonk Agnus was a bit perfumy but still serviceable.
After a long wait for the very last through service of the day, as it was running late, we found we had to catch the train all the way to Antwerp and then back to Mechelen on an international service as a whole tranche of local trains, although advertised, seemed to have disappeared in the actualité! It was a late end in the early hours to a very eventful day.
Originally, we thought that, on the Sunday, we might do a crawl around Brussels on this, the last, day of the trip but instead decided to have a walk around Mechelen as we really hadn’t spent as much time here as we would have liked. We strolled out to the only remaining town gate and then up on the ring road to the Anker brewery. There seemed to be a lot of construction work going on which probably accounted for the brewery tap being closed. So, we wandered around the back of the brewery in the pleasant, antiquated, backstreets and checked out a few sights on our way back to its Grosmarkt which hadn’t been seen in daylight yet!
However, once you left the centre, there were very few interesting cafés to see based on the outside menus of those outlets we checked out without luck. What seemed to be self-evident is that Anker appeared to ‘own’ this town. Every restaurant stocked a selection of their beers and they featured in virtually every café we went to. Their ‘A’ boards were everywhere suggesting that they have really struck a chord here and taken advantage of local pride. It’s similar to Antwerp and De Koninck, although De Koninck really only have the one popular product whereas Anker have a not unimpressive range.
The Lord Nelson, near the west end of the cathedral, was a tacky pub where my colleague thought the mega-sweet Morte Subite Kriek would be a pleasant way to start the day. He was wrong! Undeterred, we returned to the Borrel & Babbel and, as far as we could tell, no famous Belgian politicians were around on this visit (there are pictures of some on the walls). We had a draught Gouden Carolus Classic that was excellent as well as two jenevers, a Mechelse Klare and a Filliers Kersen.
We then went to the Carillon, which, although an upmarket restaurant near the cathedral, was recommended for the ‘Mechelen Cuckoo’ local dish served here, and very good it was too. This was a chicken dish, prepared using the fleshy, local, poultry breed with black and white feathers which extend onto the bird's legs, and other plumage reminiscent of a cuckoo, hence the name. The restaurant only carried Anker beers of which the Maneblusserwas good but tasted maybe a bit too spicy.
Unsurprisingly, the Ankertje aan de Dilje sold Anker beers including gift packs to take away including 75cl ones, as well as other Anker products such as their whisky. Jazz was billed here some nights too. On draught were Anker Pils, Carolus Ambrio, Carolus Classic, Carolus Tripel, and Maneblusser whilst bottled offerings included Ambrio, Classic, Tripel,Christmas, Easter, Maneblusser, Cuvée Blauw, Cuvée Rood and Hopsinjoor, mostly in 33cl and 75cl sizes. They didn’t seem to have the Anker fruit beers but that was, perhaps, no bad thing though a Lucifer glass was espied behind the bar so, maybe, this beer hadn’t made it on to the menu yet. A 750ml bottle of Gouden Carolus Christmas was shared and proved to be very good, sweet, yes, but with a rich sweetness that was very appealing. Alcohol was noticeable too but the body was not as thick as you might have expected. To anyone who doesn’t want to make the trek out to the brewery, this place is to be strongly recommended but would be worth a visit on its own anyhow!!
Finally, in Mechelen, our second visit to the Aspraak proved not as pleasant as the first mainly as a result of the heated, but plastic and depressing, patio area. A draught McChouffe was very sweet, yeasty, and rated only fair but was redeemed by a Carolus Tripel that was quite good. After a brief view of the town from the conference centre built on the site of the Lamot* brewery in the town centre, it was back to our hotel to retrieve our luggage and thence to the railway station. So, in the late-afternoon, we took the train south to Brussels-Midi but, having a later onward Eurostar connection, had a mini-crawl in the capital involving three nearby cafés.
Outside the station, the Sas Brasserie had a very good Rochefort 8° on offer whereas the Comptoir Du Midi sold the 8% ABV Watney’s Scotch Ale. Reports of this beer’s death have been greatly exaggerated it would seem as the bottle was well in date and the beer even had its own glass! Albeit rather one-dimensional, with a caramel-malty nose and taste, it was quite pleasant nonetheless. Sam’s Café, inside the station, had a Grimbergen Blond with no obvious faults but was none too exciting either.
It’s probably fair to say that the ‘shock and awe’ of each of our first few trips to Belgium was wearing off and we were becoming a lot more discerning in our likes and dislikes. Delving too deep into the lesser known, little distributed, beers from smaller breweries definitely found some of them lacking. Or, maybe, on a return visit, just doing certain beer styles previously skirted around but never really explored fully such as lambics might restore our jaded enthusiasm!! The endless flat farmlands of Flanders, Antwerp, and Flemish Brabant had definitely begun to pall as well so, maybe, another option might be to venture to some of the more scenic parts of Belgium.
There again, an exploration of other beer countries like Germany and the Czech Republic, just as CAMAL successfully does almost religiously each year, might be in order to vary the scene.
derived by Paul Dabrowski from Notes by Tom Madeiros
*Current Update Lamot, a pale lager, was still being produced in 2012 by Coors in Burton-upon Trent!!
SWANNING AROUND IN FLANDERS
In autumn 2007, three then reprobates from CAMRA’s West Middlesex branch, Dave Bender, Tom Madeiros (the former brewer of Grand Union and Twickenham Fine Ales) and myself, took the Eurostar from Waterloo and arrived in Ghent on a connecting service from Brussels late in the afternoon.
We checked into our hotel, the Castel, which, being located right across from the Sint-Pieter’s station was handy for most transport links: trains, trams, and buses were all a minute’s walk away and bikes could be rented from within the station proper. The hotel’s café, which we only managed to get to briefly on the Sunday night of our stay, seemed to be tied to the Haacht brewery.
Having freshened-up, we went ‘out on the town’ about 5pm by taking the tram into the city centre. Our first stop was the Waterhuis aan de Bierkant for some Gandavum Dry Hopping. The Waterhuis was as good as always and, as the name suggests, is located in a superb waterfront setting. We then went to the Aba-Jour for dinner and found the food there very good. Our intention was then to frequent the nearby Velootje and Overlœze Eiland but both were closed at 8pm, the latter having a notice on the door in Dutch (well, we were in the Flemish part of Belgium!) that stated ‘Stadt Gent’. Although we meant to go back and check these bars out again, we never did!!
So, instead, we sought out the Galgenhuisje. The barman here was enthusiastic and knew a bit about the beers on offer but, just as we were settling in for a session, a gentlemen standing at the bar decided to convey some ‘wisdom’ to us. A snippet of the conversation went as follows:
Him: “Are you artists?” Dave: “No, I’m a gardener, he’s an engineer, and he’s a brewer.”
Tom: “Are you an artist?” Him: “Yes, I am a sculptor.”
Tom: “Oh, a sculptor.....” Him (portentously): “Oh, yes, I am a sculptor of minds.”
Not surprisingly, we soon beat a hasty retreat in the safe knowledge that we could have received more enlightenment from a greetings card!! But not before the brewer amongst us surprised the landlord by correctly guessing the identity of the Galgenbier house ale. Unfortunately, as he promised that he would not reveal its identity, I have to report on his behalf that it was, in fact, Haacht’s Gildenbier.
We stopped briefly at the Delerium around 9pm but it too was closed as, indeed, it was again on the Sunday night when we rechecked. However, restitution was at hand at the Vosken where the beer menu was mostly Brugge/Palm/Rodenbach/Van Steenburge, about 20-25 beers in all. Their UK-style handpumps for Rodenbach Fœderbier and Palm Ongefiltered were prominently displayed and seemed to work normally. But, only the Rodenbach (possibly the better of the two) was on and, despite being very dry, was very good, so much so that Dave waxed absolutely lyrical as we’d never heard him do so about any beer before but he was too lazy (or too drunk!) to write any of his thoughts down. In comparison, the Duivel’s Donker was distinctly unexciting.
On our way back towards the hotel, we stopped at the Oud Cambridge, a pleasant enough pub but the beerlist of 33 featured nothing really exciting, Haacht beers being featured above others. The draught selection was Primus,Tongerlo Blonde and Dubbel, plus a commercial kriek (Mystic?). We didn’t have anything against the place but wondered if it was of sufficient quality to justify its then GBG Belgium entry. We also stopped at the Putje café when we reached the station area, a Van Steenburge tied house with a good selection of their beers, even though in an atmosphere that was modern and soulless.
The following morning, we got on the train and headed east for Buggenhout. Walking south from the station, we soon found the handsome old Bosteels’ brewery before looking for a place to sample their wares. As there was a café diagonally across the junction called the Monte Erice which had appropriate brewery signwriting on it and thinking this must be the brewery tap, we wandered in but, finding all the tables were set for lunch, realised it was obviously a restaurant. However, the landlady graciously let us have a table and, as we sampled some Bosteels’ products, she even laid out some nuts and olives for us. We all had a Kwak apiece and shared some Karmeliet. Tom even tried the Prosit Pils (and, yes, it was pretty flabby) but, talking to the landlady, there didn’t seem to be many Bosteels’ cafés in the town.
After the Monte Erice, we walked further south towards the Grœne Wandeling which seemed to us quite a bit farther south of town than the one and half kilometres mentioned in GBG Belgium. It was at number 189, not 245 (as confirmed by the menu and the number near the door) and considerably further out than that would indicate as each separate plot seemed to have a frontage the length of a battleship!! A beer called Kossaat on draught was being promoted at a modest 6.7% ABV. A golden ale, it was very pleasant and reminded us a bit of Palm Royale but was brewed by Lefèbvre, apparently, for a wholesaler. We ate here and counted about 60 beers on the drinks menu including Malheur 6 (which was found to be distinctly unimpressive), 10, & 12. Luckily, we were able to catch a bus back to Buggenhout station but, as our train was due imminently, unfortunately had to skip the cafés near the station with prominent signs for Malheur visible.
We had decided to de-train at various stops on our way back to Ghent and find a few cafés from our Belgium GBGs. Our first halt was at Schellebelle where we thought a better description on how to get to the bar listed would read something like ‘follow Stationstraat north from the station to its end and you will find the café’. Again, 15-20 minutes would be a fairer estimation for the length of the walk involved. The sign on the outside and the beer list readParochiehuis ‘t Veer and it checked out as a nice place.
We then walked back to the station and caught another train to Wetteren.
Right in front of the station there, the sign on the building (and the menu) immediately identified the café as the Café Posthotel; there seemed to be nothing ‘Ouden’ about it in name, only in appearance!! We counted about 40 beers, including 13 lambics in this wonderful place which was complete with terrific murals. Unusually, there seemed to be no Belgium lager on tap but, although they had Bitburger, we all had a Bolleke, Tom also indulging in a Uitzet (very nice) before our next train was due.
At Melle, we walked north from the decaying station to the Role Olifant, a Huyghe brewery café, where all in the group had a good Delerium Tremens on tap. Advertising for this beer abounded, featuring (as it does) pink elephants, from a brewery that does more than its fair share in trying to keep deceased Belgium beers (from closed breweries elsewhere) alive by creating not always successful imitations of the originals! This was very much a locals’ bar and was crowded on this Friday night, many of whom were drinking the strong (9% ABV), spicy, amber ale that was the bar’s staple.
Another train took us back to Ghent and the hotel briefly, then a walk out to the very friendly and very atmospheric Brouwzæde was taken. We had not made a reservation but they managed to find us a table to have a meal. The good food here was complemented by a nice waitress (Nathalie as I recall) who served us Witkap Pater on draught as an appetiser and another with the meal. It was apparent that some rivalry with the (then) recently-opened Planck existed which we visited afterwards. This was a newish bar/ restaurant on a (Dutch) barge moored very near the Brouwzæde with an eclectic décor (musical intruments, chandeliers, old radios) and at least two large, separate, cabins as bars. Despite 91 beers counted on the menu, we made this the last stop of the night before walking slowly back to our hotel.
Alert CAMAL members will recall that it was near the two last-mentioned bars above where my bicycle chain had fallen off whilst ‘Cycling in the Flemish Heartland’ (see Newsletter No. 43) on this day. Similarly, Tom Madeiros had opted to head for the Karakterbier Beer Festival in Poperinge when ‘Hopping from a Belgium Beerex to a UK Brewery’ (see Newsletter No. 45) instead so there’s no account here for our travails for this day!
On this day, Dave decided to stay in Ghent so Tom and myself caught a stopping train to Zottegem but, en-route, decided to go further to Herzele. Unfortunately, as we hadn’t paid for a ticket all the way to Herzele, we had to pay over the odds for a return from Zottegem.
After arrival at our revised destination, we embarked on another long walk from the station to the town centre but, despite this, really liked Herzele. Across from the De Ryck brewery, there’s a large green with moated castle ruins within sight of the town hall and its carillon of bells. I recognised that the wide streets could have once had trams running down them in the past and was almost immediately gratified to have this confirmed by a photo in the first café we went into, the modernish Hof van Weenen.
Right across from the town hall, it actually had one face of the old clock from that building mounted on an interior wall. It was crowded with people enjoying a Sunday meal and many were having huge pork knuckles with frites. But, by the time we ordered food, they were out of these so Tom had a mixed grill whereas I had a steak. Tom’s mixed grill was the largest I’d ever seen and might have fed a family of four comfortably!
The chef served it to our table personally and pointed out a piece of ostrich meat he’d included as an extra. It wasn’t long before Tom was struggling so I managed to help him out by sampling the ostrich and some other titbits besides! To wash it all down, we’d each ordered De Ryck Specials and then tried the Zwalmse Tripel from De Prœf (very good) and the Arend Blond and Tripel.
We tried the Dubbel at the next café, the Hof te Rœllegem, and were very impressed by all three, especially the complex, tasty, yet subtle Tripel. The excellence of these Arend beers was put into contrast by the dismally sweet, raisiny, Abdis Blonde we had at the Hof Te Rœllegem. This was a rather scruffy place that described itself as a ‘Stand-Up-Kafée & Pasta-Bar’. After all, what goes better together than comedy and spaghetti?
We counted 47 beers on the menu, including De Ryck on tap, the three Arends, three Pater Lievens, three Abdis, Oud Zottegem as well as ten trappists. Amazingly, they also had Shepherd Neame Spitfire as well as the front part of a Citroen 2CV suspended above the bar but the prices were notably cheaper than in the café before. The barman here, however, recommended the next one to us and, we hoped, not just as he jointly owned both bars with his girlfriend! On the way to ‘t Schitterend Ongeluk, we found another to reason to like Herzele in the form of a perfect little windmill on top of an artificial mound.
Nearby, ‘t Schitterend Ongeluk was an old farmhouse until parts were converted into one of the strangest bars we’d ever seen. It had the most monstrously bizarre interior with surprises around every corner. Column uprights and complete drinking areas, including settles, were covered with the most fantastical, multi-coloured tiled fragments with no obvious or consistent theme apparent. Despite the beer list count totalling a modest 29 beers (all bottled), we noticed a sign advertising Kriek Fantastiek and ordered one. Although it was well in date, it was sort of dry and cardboardy, boring really, so it didn’t find favour at all.
Despite its scruffiness, we felt that the Hof te Rœllegem could be a full entry in a future GBG for Belgium with ‘t Schiterend Ongeluk a sort of ‘Try Also’ as, if ever you find yourself in Herzele, you would certainly want to take a look at this incredible counterpoint to its sibling
We walked back towards the De Ryck brewery where there is a brewery shop which would have been selling draught 5 litre cans of their beers if were not for the fact that it was a Sunday. Since it was closed, we wandered across the road to the functional Torenhof and had a Special each. By now, it was about 5pm and we decided to head towards the station where, as we had a bit of time to kill before the next train was due, popped into the Mergelhœk near the station. As we ordered a Special (again) each, Tom noticed a sign advertising the De Ryck Speciaal Winterbier. We ordered one of those to share which was a good move as we really liked this one. Despite rushing to finish our beers so as not to miss the train to Zottegem, we noted that it had an equally nice spicy taste and aftertaste.
Generally, we liked the De Ryck beers. The Special was nice enough but we didn’t think it quite lived up to its hype, sort of like De Konink without the ‘funky house’ taste. Perhaps we’d just got a bad bottle of the Kriek Fantastiek, the Arend beer range was second to none but we never saw the Rochus, except in the brewery shop window, so there is a good reason to come back. In the Belgium GBG under East Flanders and ‘Brewery Cafés’ current at the time of our trip, it stated that De Ryck had ‘eighty or so local cafés’. We wondered if this meant that they just provided beer to them or that they actually ran them. Certainly, it seemed that those cafés we went into in Herzele didn’t seem like tied houses as, for instance, the Bavik, Bockor or Van Steenburge outlets undoubtedly are. They just seemed to be cafés that happened to carry De Ryck products.
Unsurprisingly, when we arrived in Zottegem, we decided to have a look around and find a bar. We found the Old Sottegem, a newish place on the square. Here we split a 75cl bottle of Zottemgense Grand Cru which was pleasant enough. As time was short to our onward connection, Tom decided to have a quick look around the town and left me in the café as we had decided to meet back at the station. It wasn’t long before he had spotted a café called the Brouwershof, which turned out to be the former tap of the Crombé brewery. He had an Oud Zottegem served in an old Crombé glass with thick enamel lettering but, fortunately, as it was time to rendezvous back at the station, he made it there just as our train was waiting with me already aboard and his obvious enthusiasm for the arcane delights of the Brouwershof persuaded me to alight and venture back into the town with him.
The bar was a small place crowded with old adverts from the former brewery which was presided over by an equally (it seemed!) old woman with a wonky eye. With Halloween coming up, there were witch dolls everywhere including those on broomsticks suspended from the ceiling that cackled when you clapped your hands. She also brought over to our table a witch in a rocking chair which worked in the same way, presumably for some rock with a cackle!! We had an Oud Kriekenbier (very tart, almost lambic-like, very good) each whilst Tom also progressed onto an Egmont (nice too), all served by our resident live witch (with the wonky eye)! It was really quite difficult to say whether the Halloween dolls had been modelled on the landlady here or the other way around! Equally, it’s a shame that this brewery was apparently closed and the beers brewed elsewhere.
Much later than intended, we arrived back in Ghent, met up with Dave and went to the Trollekelder for a beer, then to the Vosken again where they had run out of Fœderbier, so had to settle for a handpumped Palm (now on) instead. We also went to a café right next to our hotel, the Baziel, a Bockor pub where an indifferent Enamé Blonde was consumed. And, if that was not enough, Dave and I managed a swift nightcap in the bar on the ground floor of our hotel and that was that for another long day.
Our exploits of this day have been already published as ‘A Day in Ertvelde’ (see Newsletter No.42).
On our last day, after checking out of the Castel Hotel, it was my turn to go ‘off-piste’ (I wanted a couple of hours to do some trolleybus-spotting in Ghent). Tom and Dave took the train to Aalst, on the way back to Brussels and our Eurostar connection. Upon arrival there, they walked into the centre and, armed with a just-purchased city map at the tourist office, then found the Kastanjehof quite easily. They were served PeeKlaks (good) by a barman who rated as one of the rudest people ever met in Flanders! That’s not saying much more than it sounds since most everyone encountered was usually very friendly and helpful. They didn’t think he was the landlord but, notwithstanding, he just fell short of the usual high standards we’d come to expect as a norm. No doubt, he would have still come across as generosity personified in somewhere like New York (say)! But, regardless, they drank up quickly and walked in the rain to the Refuge for lunch.
Tom had the spaghetti there which, as he remembered, was about €8 but there seemed to be about €7 worth of grated cheese that came with it! A big bottle of Ondineke Oilsjtersen Tripel (quite good) was shared before they then went back towards the railway station to rendezvous with me at the Bergenhof. This was another pleasant place where the Moinette Brune was complex and chewy. The landlord was pictured in Orval’s pamphlet ‘Ambassadeur 2007’ which listed those cafés that served a superior bottle of Orval. Our guess was that those who kept the beer in the freezer and gave it a vigorous shake before serving were not included! Overall, we liked our fleeting visit to Aalst (me more so than the others, perhaps) as it seemed quite a pleasant town with a very nice main square. There were interesting-looking, little, cafés everywhere and it might be an idea to check more of them out someday. Maybe, Aalst could be a future base for investigating the independent breweries in the area.
We arrived at Brussels-Midi at about 3pm and, after a bit of confusion, left our bags in a left luggage locker. We walked to the Laboureur which was shut (a look through the window suggested it may have gone for good). So, after long walk uphill into the Anderlecht area, we found the Warm Water café. It was an informal, unusual, place with lots of children running around. Sold only at this outlet, we liked the Girardin Faro, a dark but thin lambic with a Madeira background, quite a lot; we also had the Girardin Kriek which was even better. We assumed these beers came from some sort of cask but we were not sure as they were fetched from another room. A short walk down the hill brought us to the eclectic, quirky and slightly grubby Brocante. The young barman knew his stuff about beer here and, between us we had a tart, citrusy, Hanssen’sKriek and a Verboden Vrucht.
It was already dusk as we headed back towards the station. The main downhill street which we took was, by now, full of young kids running around and shouting whilst groups of teenagers and young men stood about on the pavement. At one point, I thought I’d been physically accosted by an individual asking for cigarettes. The area was altogether becoming quite intimidating and we were glad to reach Brussels-Midi without further incident. Despite the various transports of delight encountered during the week, the last couple of hours provided not altogether the most auspicious end to another memorable trip.
derived by Paul Dabrowski from Notes by Tom Madeiros