08 November 2017

Bruges, properly

I had been to Bruges three times previously, once even (just) within the purview of this blog. But there remained the nagging knowledge that I'd never done it properly: I had never stayed over and had never been to the famous Brugs Beertje pub. That was high on the list to be rectified on this trip. The other specific draw I'll get to later, but first, time for a beer.

We rolled into town early on a Monday afternoon and the only place of interest that was open was Café Rose Red, one of the well-reputed beer destinations in the city, and another I'd never been to before. It's a bright and smart little bar attached to the Hotel Cordoeanier. The beer list isn't exhaustive, but it's impressive and looks conscientiously chosen.

I went for Cuvée des Jacobins to begin, a Flemish red. Very red, it turned out: a clear deep ruby shade. It's extremely tart, with an enamel-stripping vinegar acidity. The burn lasts all the way through, into a long finish, and isn't especially pleasant. There's only a slight puff of black cherry to lighten the mood. This beer really lacks the finesse of the better versions of the style. If you just want raw sourness then it might be for you.

An IPA to follow: Jack's Precious from Musketeers, the first of their beers I've had that isn't part of the Troubadour series. It's 5.9% ABV and a hazy gold colour with a quite off-putting sickly aroma. The flavour is beautiful, however: a stern green-leaf hop bitterness first, calming down quickly to give a juicy peach middle, before tailing off cleanly. It is still sweet, but I guess that's Belgium for you. Nothing about this is overdone, however. It's an IPA of classy restraint.

And so to 't Brugs Beertje. Whiffs a bit, doesn't it? Has Febreeze technology not yet reached Belgium? The cramped little bar was packed on a Monday night but we managed to secure a couple of seats in the front parlour.  I had De Zwaret Zwaan, brewed at Proef for the Brugs Bierinstituut. I'm guessing that stout is the style they're pitching for as it's black with a generous tan head and blends dark coffee roast with sweeter mocha in the flavour. The finish is a burnt ashen dryness that would be harsh in a lighter beer but, with 8% ABV and a big chewy body to balance it, works very well here. This is a lovely rich and comforting sipper.

Fort Lapin is one of the handful of breweries in and around Bruges. The missus picked Fort Lapin Quadrupel for hers. I wrote about their tripel back in 2013, finding it quite heavy for the style. The opposite is true for the quadrupel. A chestnut brown colour, it's light and gently perfumed with no alcohol heat: especially surprising at 10% ABV. A sandalwood spicing adds some complexity, but it's no palate thumper, and probably a better beer for that.

The evening ended there, and first thing on Tuesday we went to find the other thing that had drawn me to Bruges.

There seems to be a movement among Belgium's bigger brewers in recent years to create visitor experiences. Duvel Moortgat has one at the De Koninck plant in Antwerp now, while Van Honsebrouck has begun inviting punters to its impressive Bierkasteel. Back in April I heard that John Martin's had set up something similar for its Bourgogne des Flandres brand in Bruges and immediately wanted to take a look. And here we are.

The Bourgogne des Flandres Brewery opened in 2015 in a pretty little courtyard down a Bruges side-street, within sight of the Belfort which adorns their labels. The company claims the site is just 50 metres from one of the historic breweries that originated Bourgogne des Flandres before being amalgamated into a single local brewery, Den Os, which closed in 1957. The brand found its way to Martin's in the 1990s when it acquired the Timmerman's lambic brewery. The new site houses a museum which tells the whole story, a canalside café offering a range of Martin's beers, and a small but smart modern brewery. A real live brewer is always on duty to greet visitors and answer questions.

Bourgogne des Flandres isn't actually made here but they're only cheating slightly. It's a blend of strong brown ale, Bruinen Os, and a specially-created weak Timmerman's lambic. The facility in Bruges only produces the former, which is then tankered away for blending and packaging at headquarters, though it is available for tasting in the bar.

I'd already had it so went for a Martin's IPA, which was new to me. This is a glorious golden amber colour, clearly made for drinking on the terrace. There's a tart marmalade aroma but quite a sweet flavour, showing the hallmarks of Belgian candy. The slightly sticky texture goes along with that and it's not terribly far from a Belgian blonde ale, though without the spices. At 6.9% ABV it's no lightweight, and the alcohol becomes increasingly apparent as it warms. So too does a dry tannic bite which helps make it more refreshing than one might expect. Like most of the Martin's beers it's a decent, clean and unfussy beer, well-made if lacking in bells and whistles.

Moving on, the next venue off the tick list was De Garre, a poky two-storey pub down a hidden alleyway. Tripel de Garre is the house beer, available all across Belgium but I'd never tried it. It's strong even for a tripel at 11% ABV, presenting a clear dark orange colour with a full and creamy mouthfeel. Orange peel is the dominant note, sweet at first but turning more pleasantly bitter after a moment or two. The alcohol kicks in with that, however, and it turned too hot and boozy for my liking. There's a lovely set of typical tripel flavours in here, but the alcohol is suffocating them.

We dropped by Cambrinus when we were passing, which is more of a restaurant than a bar but they tolerated us just having drinks. There are two house beers: Cambrivinus Huisbier Blonde which is 7% ABV and a beautiful mix of honey and pineapple flavours. It's a little syrupy but the sweetness is offset by a beeswax bitter finish. And Cambrivinus Huisbier Bruin which is much plainer fare, a pale garnet colour and lightly caramelly with a faint whisper of hop bitterness. Balanced to the point of boring.

The last bar for today is Le Trappiste, not the oasis of contemplative calm implied by the name, but a slightly scuzzy metal-soundtracked cellar bar. You order and pay for your drinks at the bar like some kind of savage. I went with Homo Beerectus Peculiar Pupil, a lager with added hibiscus, which is therefore a purpleish-pink colour. I had initially thought it was done with cherries as there's a certain tart and jammy red fruit quality. There's a major savoury element as well, poppyseeds in particular. The flavours don't sit well with each other and the whole is quite an uncomfortable mix of clashing tastes.

No such qualms with Della Fonte Robust Porter, and how odd to stumble across an Italian beer in a Belgian bar. It's 6.6% ABV but tastes like more, with a big liquorice bitterness and swathes of warm roasted grain. A floral lavender element adds a lighter touch and the creamy smooth body helps make it sinkable and satisfying. Clearly this recipe has been conscientiously designed to exhibit all the things that make porter enjoyable, at which it very much succeeds.

For a nightcap here's whisky-infused Waldorph from De Vierkante Meter, a soupy cocktail of phenols and autolysis tasting as bad as it looks. There's no head and the body is a murky muddy brown colour. The saline scotch whisky is detectable but it adds nothing positive to the whole picture. This stuff is grim drinking and unlikely to lead to restful sleep. Here's to a brighter third day in Bruges, next.


  1. Been twice, the last time I stayed overnight. I'm fairly certain I still haven't done it properly as the second time was part of a tour so I didn't spend enough time doing beery things, despite it being a beer tour because it included other parts of Flanders.
    Did you go to the beer museum? They have Rodenbach Foederbier there.

    1. No. Thought about it, but decided to stick to pubs instead. Likewise the Frites Museum.

  2. Professor Pie-Tin2:21 pm

    Jaysus - that Waldorph could be the winner in this year's Beige Pints Awards.