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Good pubs, Good Beer, Good People

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Belgium Trip--Part 5--It's a Wrap

Foggy Morning in Brugge


Thus ends my account of a trip that has been on my bucket list for many years. My affinity for Belgian beers began with Michael Jackson’s book event in NYC sixteen years ago. It seems fitting that this story should end as 2014 wears down to its final hours, but that wasn’t serendipity in action. It was planned that way from the start.

We put old years behind us and look forward to the new, hoping that the new will be as good or better than the one we just passed. And this installment story was designed to get the reader to consider venturing out of old “comfort zones” in terms of location, and especially in terms of what beers to try.

"Down the alley" at Le Garre 
But in a sense, this story never ends as long as the search for good beer and good people in good pubs continues.

As you might have been able to detect, I am happy that my Belgian Dream trip came to pass

Someday…someday, I kept saying.


And suddenly, someday was here.

My dream trip is now a collection of memories and digital pictures—recollections of new places, new foods and new people, including the always delightful experience of making some new friends.

The Portinari "Lounge Lizards"
 For The PubScout, beer is more than just a liquid to be imbibed, evaluated, assessed or categorized. It is tied inextricably to a moment and a place. 

I could get some Belgian beers and sit in my Barcalounger (or yours) while drinking them, but it’s just not the same as drinking them while looking at a four hundred year-old cobblestone street or a six hundred year-old church from a five hundred year-old pub, all from a sidewalk, an original mullioned window or a fireside seat.
 
Fireside at the 500 year-old Cafe Vlissinghe
And special is the memory of sipping a Duvel, a Delirium Tremens, a Le Garre, a Kwak, a Tripel Karmeliet, a Chimay, a Westmalle Tripel, a Rodenbach Classic or Grand Cru, a Boon Kriek, a Brugse Zot Dubbel, a Westvleteren 12, a De Struise Double Black or a Timmerman’s in just the right place, at just the right moment—and in just the right glass.

Good memories like that are the nuggets we take out as we age to warm ourselves, assuring our inner souls that a credo like “Life is not a dress rehearsal” has true worth.

Regarding the photos in this five-part story, it was a challenge to select the right photo to convey the right effect, without overloading the story with pictures. With close to four hundred photos taken, the “word” might have taken a back seat to the “image.” Yet, many folks just love to look at pictures of faraway places, especially if they may be in them. For those folks, this link will take you to three hundred pictures that convey a sense of time and place. Many of them feature the places we visited and the faces of people who were on this memorable trip. All of the pictures are downloadable for free should any strike you as worth keeping. They can be found at this link. 

Incriminating pictures or those showing subjects with closed eyes, open mouths or both have been saved to a special folder on a secret flash drive. Those pictures cannot ever be prised from my grasp--unless, of course, payback for a compromising picture of me is in order.

I used to say that anyone who is a true Beer Nut owes it to himself to visit the GABF Festival in Denver at least once.

Same now goes for Belgium.
May your Kwaks be ever near in 2015!

So when are you going?

Larry Porter does this trip every year. Contact him at Porters' Pub in Easton, PA.
Tell him The PubScout sent you.
Then run like hell.

And if you get to Cafe Vlissinghe, tell Bruno, Steffi or Willem that The PubScout sent you.

Then run like hell, but mind the canal.

Thanks for reading, and have a blessed, happy, healthy and prosperous 2015.

Cheers!
The PubScout


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Belgium Trip--Part 4--The Breweries



Our Belgian trip included optional excursions to various breweries situated near our hotels. Because it’s never to early to start drinking beer in Belgium, the first excursion from Brugge was a morning trip to a small brewery called De Struise, located in Oostvleteren.

The Wikipedia article on this place says:
“Craft beer fan rating website Ratebeer selected beers from DSB for 9 of their Top 100 Best Beers of Belgium in 2009. Struise was edged out for the #1 slot only by the venerable Trappist Brewers of Westvleteren.”
 
The Tasting Room at De Struise
After visiting and tasting some of their beers, The PubScout concurs. Perhaps the most impressive one was a beer called “Double Black” which used Black Albert stout (13%) as a base. The final product turned out to be an incredible and delicious 26% ABV beer. Almost as memorable as the beer at De Struise was the sharp, narrow right turn our luxury bus driver negotiated to get us there. His achievement earned a sustained round of applause from the entire company.
 
Rock settles in at the Westvleteren Café
Next, it was on to the Monastery at Westvleteren, the scene of a previously discussed—and, sadly, totally fictional—“international incident.” Because the public is not admitted to the monastery (the story above perhaps being the cause), the café across from the abbey is permitted to sell this liquid gold, and sell it they did—not only to our group, but to a constant stream of customers. Many of them live nearby, apparently, and just came in for their weekly/daily supply. Of necessity, my supply of Westvleteren 8 (they were out of the 12) will be carefully rationed back home to last longer than that. A sixpack was €17, about $21 USD, which is not at all outrageous for this beer, called by many the “best beer in the world.”
 
Larry and Donna hoist their Westvleterens
One Christmas, the missus ordered ONE bottle of the W12 as a gift for me, and the tab, including shipping, came out to $40. Westvleteren monks do not label their beer, but the styles—6 (5.8%), 8 (8%) and 12 (10.2%)—are designated simply by the color of their bottle cap. These monks only brew enough of this beer to keep the monastery solvent. According to Father Abbott on the opening of the brewery, "We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.”
I wonder where you sign up?

 Rodenbach

After  eating and imbibing at Westveletern, we headed to the famous Rodenbach Brewery (though I can’t say I recall much of the ride). Michael Jackson anointed Rodenbach as “the most refreshing beer in the world,” an encomium that needs no embellishment from this humble beer writer. After touring the unique, aged buildings, no longer used in the making of the beer, actually walking inside an ancient malting oven and wandering among the huge, towering oaken barrels, we repaired to the tasting room for some Rodenbach Classic and some Grand Cru.
 
Our group was dwarfed by these tall barrels
My two Westvleteren 12's had “worn off” by now, and I was delighted by the slightly sour taste of this special beer, now owned by the makers of Palm. Made by combining different percentages of fresh and aged beer which initiates a secondary fermentation, one cannot disagree with The Beerhunter’s candid assessment above. The experience, I think, was certainly enhanced by the omnipresent 150 year-old, ceiling-high oak barrels, too.

Bosteels

If the reactions, laughter and general noise from our fellow travelers was any indication, Bosteels may have been the favorite stop of the brewery tour, even though it was undergoing major renovations. Bosteels makes three beers: Tripel Karmeliet, Kwak and Deus. The upstairs tasting room was most comfortable, and our host, the cordial –and generous-- Jack Van Antwerpen, was most informative and knowledgeable.

That he was pouring us Tripel Karmeliet (which became my buddy Rock’s favorite Belgian beer) and Kwak (which prompted a host of humorous comments from the now-high spirited assembly) was an added benefit. The signature bulbed glass of Kwak comes in its own special wooden handle, originally designed for horse coachmen to attach to their vehicles for drinking while driving. That should tell you all you need to know about how seriously the Belgians take their beer.
 
The Three Beersketeers--me, Jack and Larry
Good beer does wonderful things. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was in a great mood as we headed for the bus. 

On the way, a fully sated senior citizen in our group offered us two pieces of sage advice he had learned as he got older. As with most valuable advice, it was succinct:
 1.     If there is a bathroom, use it.
     2. Never trust your flatulence.

 Some advice is just golden.

Timmerman’s
 
Erica demands service at Timmerman's at 10 AM...
Just outside Brussels is Timmerman’s, the oldest lambic brewery, and, keeping in mind the credo that it’s never too early to consume good Belgian beer, we headed there in the morning. You can read and see more about this brewery, launched in 1702, at this link.

Lambic is a very special type of fruit beer grown with wild yeasts only extant in that particular region, which is why not everyone can brew a true lambic. And because it has fruit, it’s good for breakfast, right? Right.


We toured the old brewery, which, during brewing season, still leaves its beer open to the night air and the wild yeasts that impart its special flavors. The equipment they used, as well as some of the items in the museum section, were still essentially in working order and fascinating. Those who built these devices were craftsmen indeed and deserve a toast as much as the brewers do.
 
In the aging rooms at Timmerman's
Apart from the sweeter, fruitier Framboise, Kriek and Faro, Timmerman’s flagship products are Oud Gueuze and Oud Kriek, both very sour beers that are definitely acquired tastes. The Oud Kriek, especially, is amped up pretty high on the sour dial. But the regular Kriek (far better than Lindemann’s, IMHO) was good enough to bring home, carefully wrapped in my previously-worn clothing and stored in a suitcase—right along with the Westvleteren.

PS: All the beers made the return trip safely.


Drie Fonteinen

This very small brewery in the neat castle town of Beersel, also just outside Brussels, produced a very sour and highly rated oude gueuze on the day we were there, but it produces others as well. According to theAlstrom brothers at Beer Advocate, Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen is a world class beer.

The Brew Crew at Drie Fonteinen's restaurant
Considering that a disastrous spontaneous explosion of 30,000 bottles in the brewery once crimped its production and nearly closed the place, that’s a helluva comeback. 
It’s attached to a nice little restaurant, too, where we had a decent lunch, some very nice Beersel Blonds and an Estaminet.



Visiting these breweries, in addition to being interesting, informative and blessed with free beer, increases the enjoyment of their products after you have left. For some mystical reason, going to the place where the stuff you are drinking is actually made adds a certain charm to the beer. That it adds to fond memories goes without saying.

Coming next: It's a Wrap

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Belgium Trip--Part 3--Pubs and Restaurants

Delaney's Irish Pub

The difference between pubs and restaurants in Belgium, at least in my experience, usually was evidenced in what food is offered. Restaurants will have a diverse, more sophisticated menu; pubs have a more limited one. But in Belgium, both pubs and restaurants carry superb offerings of beers and the glassware that goes with each one. Both places know how to pour beer correctly, too.
 
At Le Garre
Pubs, like Le Garre (pronounced la-harra) in Brugge located down a very narrow alley, may carry their own beer, too. For the record, Le Garre may be tough to find off The Markt, but it’s worth looking for because their house beer Garre (which I'm holding in the photo right) is outtasight. Their food menu, however, consists basically of two types of sandwiches: Dry Cheese or Dry Ham and Dry Cheese.


Brugge
 
Brasserie de Hanse's Shrimp paired well
with a Brugse Zot
In Brugge, the restaurant we liked best (and returned to twice) was called Brasserie de Hanse, just twenty steps from the excellent Hotel Portinari where we stayed. Tripel Karmeliet, Westmalle Tripel and a delicious local beer called Brugse Zot (Blond) graced our table at different times, and the food was exceptional—but again, far from cheap. That the owner/server remembered not only our faces, but the beers we ordered the first time, was impressive.

As mentioned, we enjoyed Le Garre for the ambience and the beer, if not the food. One night we even found an Irish Pub called Delaney’s with the typical wealth of Belgian beers and an excellent atmosphere. Our waiter, Belgian-born, but with an acquired and charming Irish brogue, was a delight to hear.  On a tip from Joe Sixpack (Don Russell), I asked for and got Brugse Zot Dubbel. Though some self-styled "experts" have panned this beer, I thought it was fantastic, and just another reason to form your own opinions when tasting beer.
 
Brugge's oldest pub--Cafe Vlissinghe
But for the best combination of ambience and food, do not miss Café Vlissinghe. Founded in 1515, it is Brugge’s oldest tavern and will celebrate its quincentennial anniversary in 2015. It sounds crazy, but the best lasagna I ever had was in this pub, and, as usual, the beer selection was superb. Café Vlissinghe, staffed by Steffi and Willem, is loaded with interesting bric-a-brac, too.  You get the feeling that you’re sharing a dining and drinking experience with folks from the Middle Ages. If you want to use the bathroom you have to exit the pub, descend a worn, winding stone staircase and head out across the garden to find the necessary. 

Unfortunately, I left a favorite hat in there (hey, some of those beers have very high alcohol content). I contacted the owner about it the next day from Brussels and he vowed to send it back to the US for me. If he failed, he would keep the hat as monument to The PubScout’s visit. Happily, he did not fail, and here’s the proof.

 On the walk home, we stopped at an outdoor Belgian Waffle stand where the fluffiest, lightest and crunchiest chocolate-covered Belgian waffle served as a perfect dessert.
 
Young lovers Erica and Evan Abramson in Waffle Heaven






Gent

We only had time for lunch in Gent, and there we found another Irish Pub near St. Michael’s called The Celtic Towers.  They had an excellent Tomato Soup with Belgian fries that warmed us up quite nicely. Of course, a glass or two of Delirium Tremens topped off the meal very well, and, at 8.5% ABV, allowed me a nice snooze on the tour bus to Brussels.



Brussels

Restaurants and pubs abound there, naturally and the must-visit pub here is called A La Morte Subite

Essentially a small beer hall, it offered an amazing array of Belgian beers, including its own Gueuze and Kriek lambic. It also had more (and better) food available than your typical “cheese sandwich” pub, and the bright, noisy atmosphere was not intimate, but distinctly and delightfully “bierhallen.” That it was situated just a half block from our hotel made it most convenient as well. La Mort Subite is strongly suggested for beer nuts. We went in around 5 PM and found a table right away. But the place packs out pretty quickly, so don't be surprised if you can't find a table, or even if you have to wait outside for a bit.


Restaurants abound near the Grand Place, and many offer attractive prix fixe menus. A three-course meal for €12 sounds pretty attractive, even with the offers of hawkers who stand outside the restaurants claiming, “If you don’t like it, you don’t pay!” Just beware of any extras that may find their way onto your bill, and remember that includes the tip and VAT that will appear there. We had good meals at The Lobster House (?) and also at Ricotta y Parmesano and le Café D’Opera near our hotel. The latter was a last-minute choice because L’Intermezzo, which took our reservations by phone for 6:45 was closed when we got there, but open after we had already eaten at L’ Opera. Go figure.

The Grand Place--Brussels
 We used a VISA card, which does not attach extra fees, to pay for dinners, lunches, etc. Not all establishments accept credit cards, but many do. Still you will likely need some euros for incidental purchases. If you use an ATM card to exchange dollars for euros, you will be charged a fee.


For those who are careful about their diets, be advised: Belgian food is very rich, but very satisfying. And you can always get the right beer--in the right glass-- to enjoy with it.

Coming next: The Breweries




Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Belgium Trip--Part 2-- The Cities


Second in a Series of a Bucket List Trip to Beer Heaven...for more details on a subject, click the links provided.

The Cities
 
Larry Porter at his favorite waffle stand

Our trip, sponsored by Larry Porter of Porters’ Pub and Arawjo Tours, took us to essentially three destination cities: Brugge (Bruges), Gent (Ghent) and Brussels. Of course, our brewery excursions took us to smaller cities and towns, but these three were highlighted. We stayed four nights in Brugge and three in Brussels, stopping in Gent for a few hours along the way. The cities are very different in terms of layout, size and architecture. But all are steeped in the Belgian beer tradition.


Brugge
 
Brugge, Belgium
Without question, Brugge was the most charming of the cities in my view. A medieval town, replete with winding, cobblestone streets, large medieval/gothic style buildings and cathedrals, as well as expansive public squares, it is also dissected by various canals. You can research the history of this important city here.

It’s definitely a town for walkers, and not the kind from the Walking Dead. I’d suggest taking a guided walking tour, as you’ll see parts of the city you might not stumble upon if you decided to self-direct. But horse-drawn carriages (a tad expensive)  and bateaux (canal boats) are also great ways to see the city. Only €7 (Euro) got us each a delightfully picturesque and informative half-hour canal boat tour, a most interesting way to see the city. Good weather helped. It would be a far less pleasant experience in the rain.

 
A canal tour in four languages...
Off the main square or Markt, there is plenty to keep you occupied and informed, as well as well-fed and beer-sated. The Historium is an interactive, walk-through display that provides an excellent overview of what Brugge was like when it was a major hub for trade. At the conclusion of the production, you’ll be deposited directly into the Duvelorium, a classy pub overlooking the Markt and stocked with a wide array of Belgian beers, especially those from Duvel, natch. One caveat—if you need to use the WC (either before or after beer), bring €.50 for access.


And speaking of beer, this writer found the Bier Museum, just twenty yards off The Markt, to be a fascinating place. You get your own iPad which is set to give you a wealth of information when aimed at the appropriate insignia on each display. Whether you know nothing about beer or consider yourself well versed, this two-storied attraction will broaden your knowledge; so much so, that I suggested to affable manager Lars Pillen that he present a keepsake diploma to everyone who makes it through, an idea he embraced. This attraction also ends at a comfortable, airy bier emporium where a tasting of beers is included in the admission price. You can also buy more, if so inclined, and the bathrooms are free.


Regardless of your religious leanings, you may also want to venture in to the Basilica of The HolyBlood in the Burg Square. This building, free to enter, was constructed in the 1100’s, and I was impressed just to be in it, let alone to marvel at its stunning interior. As legend has it, a cloth with Christ's blood is preserved in a capsule there, and many have come to pray in its presence.

There are a host of other buildings to see and enter, including the famous Belfort (Bell Tower), which you can climb to see spectacular views of this fairy-tale town.

Gent (Ghent)

Also an impressive old town, this city has a mixture of Gothic style places and canals, as well as some more modern buildings and a more modern “feel.” A “college town,” you’re likely to see far more students as you walk through. But by all means, visit St. Bavo’s Cathedral. Currently undergoing restoration, it is still accessible, massive—and free. Gothic cathedrals, which sometimes took up to sixty years to build, are designed to draw your eyes heavenward whether inside or outside, and St. Bavo’s is no exception. But be sure to go downstairs into the crypt to see the tombs of various bishops, their clothing, their treasures and other statuary. Also worth noting are the frescos painted (at the time) on the pillars in wet chalk. Covered over by regular paint for many years, their presence is a relatively recent discovery.


Statuary outside St. Bavo's Cathedral, Gent
 There are certainly other things to see here, like St. Nicholas’ Church and Gravensteen, but our limited time, and the rather chilly, windy and raw weather did not allow for a more extensive experience. (That same weather, however, gave us a perfect excuse to seek shelter and sustenance in a pub.)

Brussels

Brussels is as big and bustling as you would expect the capital of Belgium and “the Heart of Europe” to be. Yet, her historical roots are on full display in a host of places around the city, and in the spectacular buildings on the Grand Place—including the very house where Karl Marx first penned Das Kapital.

 
A side street of restaurants near the Grand Place in Brussels
Our hotel, the beautiful Radisson Blu, was a short walk to the Place and other interesting places, like the statue of Manneken Pis. I still don’t understand why a statue of a little boy urinating is such a tourist magnet, but it is.

Our hotel was also a half-block from the legendary beer bar La Morte Subite, but more about that later. Surrounded by pubs and restaurants our home base was ideal and didn’t require spending a single Euro to navigate, unless you opted, as we did one day, for a three-hour luxury bus City Tour. That showed us much more than we could have seen on foot, including The Atomium, the National Basilica and various other must-see sites, many with spectacular panoramic views. In fact, the normally sleepy National Basilica was abuzz with activity during our visit, as it was prepping for a visit by King Philip the next day to commemorate the end of WW1. Student choirs, a thousand voices strong, were on hand for the event, and lighting was being set up for this major TV event. Our group traveled to the rooftop to gather in some outstanding city views.


View from the roof of the National Basilica
Brussels was also proximate to various lambic breweries which we visited, too, but again, those will be discussed in a separate section. For all its sophisticated modernity, many of Brussels’ streets are still narrow and winding. Whatever those bus drivers get paid to navigate them is far too low.

An important point about tipping: it is not considered compulsory there, as servers' tips are already built in to the tab, as well as a VAT (Value Added Tax). Supposedly, they do not rely on tips to make a comfortable living. I wish I had learned that ahead of time—and before earning the title of “the Generous American” at every pub and restaurant previously. 

And though Euros are neat, they do resemble play money a bit. But every dollar is equal to just .8 of a Euro. So be advised: a €50 tab isn’t $50. The rate changes daily, but at this writing, it’s equivalent to $62.14.
And that ain’t play money by anyone’s definition.

Bottom line? Belgium is beautiful, but beautiful doesn’t come cheap.

Coming next: The Pubs and Restaurants