12 January 2009

I'm not Jack Bauer

"Please do not practise your French here. We are Flemish and we hate the French".
So said the faintly-bearded nipper behind the ticket desk at Brussels airport station to Mrs Beer Nut's request for two returns to Bruxelles-Central. Welcome to Belgium. Having finally soothed his hurt sense of semi-national pride, we acquired the tickets. For Brussel-Centraal, of course. It was 9pm last Thursday and herself was over for a meeting the next day. With nothing better to do with the 24 hours, I tagged along.

For the second time, we checked into the Grand Sablon, a decent and conveniently-located hotel, though sadly no longer offering free wi-fi. It does lack quality pubs in the immediate vicinity, so we plumped for the Café Leffe at the bottom of the street. By 10 we were perusing the menu in the clean, brightly-lit, but rather soulless pub-restaurant. The menu is quite short but mercifully not limited to AB-InBev beers. I opted for a Kasteel Bruin, having never had it before, and feeling the need for a warmer after coming in from the icy streets of sub-zero Brussels. Thick and syrupy are the operative terms here. It's 11% ABV, very flat, boozy as hell and offers the same sort of warmth as Benylin. Not recommended. Then, in typical Beer Nut style, I ordered the other beer in the same range: Kasteel Triple. Just as well I did, too: it's really quite good. The aroma is orangey but the flavour has all this and more: honey and caramel as well as a slightly astringent sourness, all based on a heavy bready body. Redemption, then, for Kasteel.

As midnight approached, the Café Leffe waiters began taking in the menu boards and putting the chairs on the tables. We took the hint and departed.

Next morning, I hit the snowy streets at 9.30. First port-of-call was the legendary Brussels throwback brewer, Cantillon. I was in no rush so spent three quarters of an hour ambling southwards to the brewery near Gare du Midi. I'd been here once before, four or so years ago, and while there was nothing happening that day, it was all go inside last Friday. The bottling line was running full pelt and three-metre-high palettes of empty champagne bottles were becoming similarly-tall stacks of fresh Cantillon beer. I wandered around on the self-guided tour and came back for the tasting. It had been a long time since I drank Cantillon Kriek and I think I've lost my taste for it. The sweet cherry juice interrupts my enjoyment of the sour gueuze beneath. Tasting finished, I was heading for the door when one of the lads from the bottling line asked if I wanted to try what they were bottling. Yeah, I kinda did. Turns out it was three-week-old Iris, and it was stunning: the fresh tannic Goldings with which it is dry-hopped stood out a mile. They aim to let this bottle condition for three or four months before sending it out, but demand is such that these days it leaves the brewery much younger. Comparing it to the maturer variety, that's no bad thing, in my opinion.

11 o'clock had come and gone when I left with my purchases. My plan was for a crafty one up at Bier Circus while I waited for places to start serving lunch. A quick spin on the metro and some wandering had me there by 11.40. No consideration for morning drinkers here, unfortunately, as it doesn't open its doors until lunch is ready at noon. Down the street I found somewhere much more understanding of my needs. Seven other blokes had beaten me to the tiny bar called Treurenberg that morning. I had the critical eye cast over me before they returned to their papers and pils. I wanted something light and quick and saw "Pale Ale" on the menu. Expecting John Martin's I reckoned that would do admirably. A sip told me that that's not what I got -- it was much more tannic with big heavy slabs of toffee. Tasty with it, but a surprise nonetheless. Turning the glass revealed it to be a substance called Whitbread Pale Ale. It seems to me to be another of the Belgian-brewed English-style ales, but I can't find a record of anyone in Belgium brewing it. So it could be American, or it could be British (nope, Belgian, says Laurent). Still good, though.

That saw me through to noon when I made for the Bier Circus. Years ago I had visited it in its old delightfully dingy premises. Now, with big windows on two sides, it's anything but. The bright sunlight and tiled floor give it an unfortunate clinical feel. The beer list is still first rate, and includes a couple of cask lambics. I picked out the beer which has been top of my Belgian hitlist for a while: Hercule Stout. It's very opaque and rife with suspended floaty bits. The beige head lasts all the way, and the reason for the round dimpled mug is very apparent on lifting it: this is one of these beers that does all the work in the nose before sipping -- powerful sweet and roasty aromas waft from the surface. At 9% it's not surprising that there's more than a touch of treacle about the flavour, as well as more of the stouty roasted grains. This is complicated by a yeasty bitterness right on the end. The whole is a velvety smooth beer and I rather enjoyed it, even if the flavour doesn't quite live up to the aroma's promise.

I had ordered stoemp as my fuel for the afternoon and was very surprised that instead of a big bowl of mash, vegetables and sausages swimming in gravy, my stoemp came in a neat terrine, with sausage and bacon on the side, accompanied by a stemmed glass of onion gravy. Weird. I had been sitting opposite a blackboard offering Brigand IPA so that's what I finished here with. It's the perfect shade of red gold, but the alarm bells began ringing when I could detect no aroma from this at all. The taste is sharp and tripel-like in its yeastiness, but with very little hop character. A fail.

I sat over it anyway, and then decided a head-clearing walk was in order, so at 1.15 I set off again, past the beautifully snow-bound Parc de Bruxelles, and on to a shop where I could continue my mission without taking any more beer on board. Alas it didn't work out that way. Beer Mania is several things. Mostly it's a beer shop boasting some 400 Belgian brews. It also sells some basic home brewing supplies. And right at the back there's a café in which you can try any of the stock, for a mark-up, of course. I wasn't going to. I really wasn't. Except then I found they had their own house beer, contract brewed. And then I noticed how desperately cool the handcrafted glass is. Sold! Mea Culpa is a blonde ale of 7.5% ABV. It's a little darker than one might expect, with a spicy aroma and a pleasant rough, grainy character. Light, tasty, and great fun to drink.

Back to the shopping trail, then, and I picked up some handily-portable cans of Rodenbach in a convenience store as I headed back down to the old city. The next destination, reached at 3.30, came recommended by Boak & Bailey, suggested to them by Andreea. Poechenellekelder is situated over the Mannekin Pis's left shoulder and is an oddly-shaped small pub, with far more levels than there ought to be, in this drinkers' opinion. Puppets dominate the bric-à-brac, and the smallish menu is complemented by lots of specials blackboards. I went for one such: N'ice, the winter ale by La Chouffe. I think I'd be hard pressed to tell this blind from plain old La Chouffe: it has a lot of the pepperiness, with only a sharper, drier character singling out the flavour. I was disappointed by the beer, but cheered up by a phone call from the missus saying that her meeting had ended early and she was on her way to Grand Place. I finished up and headed out. We met at the Brewers' Guild building -- a lacklustre chain brewpub if memory serves me -- at 4.

She was paying for dinner so that came with a bottle of Bordeaux. However, there was time at the end to nip across from Rue des Bouchers to Au Bon Vieux Temps for a couple of swift ones before making for the airport. Well, she had a couple of swift ones; I had to sacrifice some time to collect the baggage up at Sablon. On my return I sunk a fairly quick Westmalle Dubbel, noting that the pub still insists it's the only Belgian trappist available on draught -- Chimay Blanc comes this way too.

Seven o'clock passed as we were on the train, and we were through security by 8. Time for a farewell beer. The airport bar concession is controlled by AB-InBev, but they're not as charitable towards outside beers here as in Café Leffe. And even though the departure area bar sports Leffe parasols, not even that is available. Canned Hoegaarden or canned Stella are your lot. We went with the former, obviously.

Slightly behind schedule we boarded our flight on the stroke of 9pm.


  1. I had a bottle of Kasteel Bruin last week in Brugge. I actually drank half of it in one gulp before reading the label and 'learning' about the 11% abv.
    Suffice to say that I destroyed the other half in two more sips. Sweet beer is just to easy to drink.

  2. I found that in Ieper (Ypres to the Francophones) that it was just more sensible to speak English rather than attempt French. Thankfully being a native English speaker with a smattering of German, an interest in Anglo-Saxon and Old English (yes I am sad - I read The Canterbury Tales in the original) - Flemish makes sense, so reading menus was not problematic at all.

  3. Al, anywhere in Belgium outside of Brussels I have no problem with a completely monolingual culture and wouldn't dream of trying to speak the wrong language. I was just very surprised to discover that monoglot Flanders now extends into the airport precincts, at least in the opinion of one ticket vendor.

  4. I've been in Belgium once while passing through on a train on the way to the airport.

    I got off my train and was trying to get the airport. I asked a man who worked in the train station if there was a bus or train to the airport. I was met with a blank stare, I tried english, french and dutch but because I didn't speak flemish he wouldn't talk to me. I asked a few other people but in the end I had to run to get a taxi as nobody would help me. I'm pretty sure all the people I asked spoke the other languages.

    It's put me off going back there even if they have great beer.

  5. Yes the Belgians can be a strange bunch indeed. I met a Belgian diplomat in Korea who would collect up the Heineken beer mats from bar tables and replace them with Stella Artois ones he carried around.

  6. Some sterling work done there. You really should start giving seminars on how to do this beer tourism lark. It's rude of you to keep it to yourself.

  7. Dammit, son, just get out there and drink.

  8. Laurent Mousson4:00 pm

    Well, as a french-speaking Swiss, I've experienced a few weird things on the language front in Belgium.

    The most typical ever was getting to the reception desk at an Antwerp hotel, address the lady in french, getting only grunts -and a long face - in return, or nothing that sounded like french anyway.
    And then it happened : I had to hand her my passport to fill a form.
    Wonder of wonders, the very sight of the little red booklet with a white cross on it turned her into a perfectly fluent french speaker...

    Yeah, it's that brutally obvious, sometimes.

  9. Sometimes being Australian can be considered just as bad. I can imagine how many times people must come across ignorant travelling Aussies who think they are the first of our country men to head overseas. These types generally tend to be baby boomers who are doing there 'big' trip and pollute the world, city by city, two days per city; or gap year types who just go everywhere and get spastically drunk. Thank god I travel on an Irish passport and my accent has flattened out enough to not be confused with these tossers. Avoids me the same confusion that Laurent suffers!

  10. Cunning. And no-one could accuse the Irish of going everywhere and getting spastically drunk...

  11. Laurent Mousson8:31 pm

    Well, my point was more that this dislike between Walloons and Flemish is above all a lack of goodwill and crass preconceptions both sides.

    I now know that whenever snapped at in Flanders for adressing people in french, I can get away with it through a simple "sorry, I would love to be able to speak to you in flemish, but it's german they taught me at school in Switzerland"... Yup, dropping that S-word usually does the job.
    And since many Flemish dislike being spoken to in German too... (although Swiss-germn friends have found out that by using their own dialect, thy could ensure things ran smoothly enough.)

    Funny thing, languages...

  12. Anonymous10:16 pm

    ended up in a la becasse in december thanks to your recommendation on here. what a great spot, unfortunately it was on the way to the airport after a seminar but really enjoyed the lambic doux and actually got my colleague to try it and he really liked it even though he's a budweiser drinker - job done! thanks.

  13. Pretty sure Whitbread is English. Check out Ron Pattinson's blog, he writes about them sometimes.

  14. Great Post.
    Brussels was my first Beer Holiday last year and it was a revelation, especially Cantillon. I'd head back in a flash only there's so many other places to go.

  15. Talking about Swiss German, I have a friend in Berlin who learnt her German in Switzerland and was actually turned down for jobs in Berlin because she had a Swiss dialect (admittedly Swiss German and the German spoken in Berlin are quite different).

  16. Cheers Derek. It's nice to know the sacrifices I make here are worthwhile...

    Rabbi Lionheart, yes, they are, but they haven't made any beer since 2001 (says Wikipedia).

    AB-InBev owns the Whitbread beer marque, but as a Belgian company it's just as likely they'd be making this beer in Belgium as the UK, right?

  17. What a great way to pass a spare 24 hours!! I must go to Belgium soon, it's so easy to get to from where I live in north Kent. And that Mea Culpa glass is awesome! Having had both Kasteel beers I remember loving the Brune for it's sweetness, but not enjoying the Tripel so much.

  18. Laurent Mousson2:43 pm

    Whitbread : indeed Whitbread Pale Ale for Belgium is brewed there, and already was even when Whitbread still existed as a brewing concern in the UK, just like Bass Pale Ale is (used to be ?)

    Cheers !


  19. Cheers Laurent. Funny, I though Bass had a big thing about only ever being brewed in Burton.

    Box-set of Whitbread, John Martin's, Belgian Bass and Guinness Special Export, anyone?

  20. Laurent Mousson9:14 am

    Well, for a few years during the nineties, we used to have two distinct bottlings of Bass Pale Ale available in Switzerland. In one hand the Burton-brewed stuff in a 33cl shouldered longneck bottle, and one the other hand the version brewed under license by Interbrew (?) in Belgium, which came in a 33 cl "Euro" bottle (the ones with a conical neck). The difference in the glass was quite noticeable, teh Burton-brewed version being crisper and drier.

  21. Fatman8:33 pm


    If you'd been in the UK I'm sure you'd have gone over your 'units' limit for the day. Or week. Or whatever.

    Luckily units are more plentiful in Belgium. Are they as generous in Ireland?

  22. Nah, we just copied yours. Which were made up anyway so why not?

  23. You bought CANS of Rodenbach? Dear God.

  24. Oh yes. Eight cans of Rodenbach weigh about as much as about four bottles, and are exceedingly unlikely to break in the baggage handling process. It just makes sense.

  25. I usually only read this blog, which I thoroughly enjoy by the way, but now I feel I have to step in and add a few comments of my own.

    All these stories about rigid and unfriendly Flemings who refuse to communicate with foreign visitors just don't make sense to me. Having lived in Belgium for more than ten years until recently, I'd say they're one of the most polyglot and tolerant bunch of people in Europe.

    @ Bionic Laura
    Flemish is merely a different name for the Dutch language as spoken in Belgium. It's basically like German spoken by Austrians, or like English spoken by, say, Irishmen, with a different accent and a few regional idioms. So if you tried to get help in Dutch, how could the guy turn his back on you for not speaking Flemish? It's hard to believe, really. I wasn't there obviously, but I suspect there must have been some kind of misunderstanding.

    @ Laurent Mousson
    Not all Flemish school children learn German, and to those who do, it is only a third or fourth foreign language. But there is no outspoken negative attitude toward German in Flanders. Flemings who're not fluent in German will probably find it awkward to be addressed in German. Those who are fluent in German, however, will most likely be happy to speak German to you, if that's what you prefer.
    I very much doubt that speaking a Swiss-German dialect would make any difference. On the contrary, southern German dialects, including Swiss-German, are pretty much incomprehensible to Dutch-speakers, unless they're used to hearing them on a regular basis.

    Stockholm, Sweden

  26. Hi Peter, thanks for the comment. It was my first time ever encountering linguistic hostility in Belgium, which is why I was surprised enough to blog about it.

  27. Laurent Mousson1:55 pm

    @ Peter : Yes, in theory, Flemish and Swiss-German are very remote. Yet you'd be surprised how some German roots have evolved similarily when it comes to pronunciation in Flemish/Dutch and in some Swiss dialects such as Bärntütsch, which sounds quite different from Bayrisch or Schwob.

    Typically, "alt" pronounced by a Bernese sounds damn close to the Flemish / Dutch "oud". And its one of a bunch of similarities in their respective differences with "standard" german.

    For *simple* interactions such as ordering a beer in a café, that's close enough to work, with a bit of goodwill on both sides. When considering more complicated / subtle a discussion, indeed the differences, notably in syntax, are such that it is not going to work.