Last Sunday in Brussels was quiet. The city was buzzing -- with market stalls in Place d'Espagne and Grand Place, and the cafés all busy -- but Mrs Beer Nut and I were drifting about in a slightly fuzzy-headed world of our own. We had an early lunch in one of the upper corners of Grand Place, and I righted my head with carbonnade flamande and a Kwak -- the latter from a proper glass, I hasten to add. That fortified me for a trip to Bier Tempel to do some shopping, and then we drifted over to Le Cirio -- a gorgeous grand café beside the Bourse which, like A La Mort Subite, was one of those Brussels drinking landmarks we'd not visited since our first trip in 2002.
We settled in near the door for a bout of people-watching (and, it being a Belgian café, dog-watching too). Looking for something plain but wholesome on the menu I realised I was hankering after Guinness Special Export. It really is the perfect Sunday afternoon sipping beer. Séan had gone home on the morning flight, but Dave and Laura caught up with us briefly, then headed off on their merry way. Our own merry way involved some exploration, to an unfamiliar district of the city and one of the few legendary Brussels watering holes I'd never visited. After my second bottle of Guinness, we were off.
The pre-métro underground tram thingy brought us southwards, and a short walk from Horta through a rather well-heeled neighbourhood took us to Chez Moeder Lambic: Brussels' beer geek central. It was just gone 4 so the bar had opened recently and was inhabited by just a couple of regulars, plus a dog belonging to one of them who walked round, inspecting that the drinks being served were up to scratch.
It's a small bright corner bar, laid out in slightly rustic style with brick and wood, and a minimal scattering of breweriana -- notably only from quality Belgian breweries. Boxes of comics line the windowsills, and the menu itself is styled very much in the Belgian comic tradition. It's not one of those 400+ whoppers like Bier Circus or Delerium. Instead, everything seems to have been chosen by hand with only the smallest nod to the token beers required for economic purposes. I don't think they even had a pilsner available. Each item was assigned a comic-book icon indicating its status as from either "microbrasseries", "indépendants/familiales", "trappistes" or "grands industriels", and the beers were divided into style categories. My particular favourite was a category which contained just one item, one which I'm guessing the management aren't terribly happy about having to have, or else they stock it just to wind up the manufacturer:That's "Based on 1% lambic, filled up with totally chemical syrup". Mi-aow.
Also of note was the beer engine on the bar, serving Cantillon Gueuze. The draught menu listed Cantillon Faro, so I figured I would attempt to redeem my experience of the style following Friday's nasty experience. As far as I know, Cantillon don't actually make a faro, and this is mixed in-house. Blending in the sugar removes a lot of the sharp tart edge you get from the Gueuze but doesn't make the beer taste sugary as such. It's a different experience to drinking the beer neat, and works quite well I thought, for those of us who like sweet beer at least.
The two guys running the place really seemed to know what they were talking about. A group of Americans who came in after us engaged them in a conversation about brewing which resulted in a case of raw malts being produced for them to taste, followed by a tour of the cellar. Our perusal of the blackboard listing the current draught beers produced two recommendations. De Ranke's XX Bitter is a deliciously sharp golden ale absolutely crammed with grapefruity C-hops and raw vegetal flavours. Deliciously intense. From Jandrin there was V Cense, which Joe was enjoying simultaneously at the Zythos festival. This amber ale reminded me a lot of quality English bitter -- slightly tannic with a beautiful mandarin nose. Very tasty and extremely drinkable.
Time was beginning to press us at this stage, so our ones for the road were Witkap Pater Double -- a foamy brown abbey ale with a very interesting herby botanical character and a touch of cardamom, I think; and Guldenberg, another blonde ale "with the taste of every hop" according to the merchandising. It starts with a perfumey aroma and tastes quite spicy at first, giving way to a dry bitterness. Like so many of the Belgian hoppy beers around at the moment, it has used the hops to create a strong bitterness while avoiding any of the more fun fruity characteristics they can impart. The end result is quite an understated beer, but I didn't have time to sit around being disappointed. Having enjoyed adding Moeder Lambic to our personal map of Brussels, we headed back to the city centre.
We caught up with Dave and Laura at a Moroccan restaurant just off Boulevard Anspach. They were staying another day, so it was just us who shovelled our molten tagines into us like we hadn't eaten in days. The menu included a Moroccan lager called Casablanca. Classy stuff this -- every bit as good as you'd expect a lager from Morocco to be.
And then we were off again, to the airport where there was just time for a quick Leffe before the flight home.
And that was Brussels. We went to see Cantillon making beer, but got so much more out of the couple of days we spent there. Brussels really is one of those cities where the beer hunter will always find something new and interesting, if he or she can resist the draw of so many old favourites.
Westmalle Dubbel - *Origin: Belgium | Date: 2008 | ABV: 7% | On The Beer Nut: October 2007* It's a longtime favourite today. Westmalle Dubbel goes back to the very beginnings...
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