Monday, January 31, 2011

Belgian Beer Trip-Part 1

The majority of the time of my week in Europe was spent in Belgium. This was my first time spending any time there, having only been through the airport on a layover many years ago. We arrived in Brussels around 8AM on a Friday morning. We grabbed our bags and headed down to the lower level of the airport for what should have been an easy train ride to central Brussels. We just missed a train, but the next one was supposed to arrive in less than 20 minutes. No big deal. Our tour at Duvel wasn’t supposed to be until 2PM. We wait. And wait. Then the message board flashes that the train we are waiting on is delayed. Then, the PA system says to move to a different track. Then we wait. Then another train arrives at the track we just left. I believe it was just short of two hours from when we got there that we finally got on a train. Now a simple ride to Midi Station, transfer to the subway, and arrive a block from the hotel. We go through several stations, and I’m thinking we’ve arrived at the correct one, but the signs say Zuidstation. So we don’t get off. I should have brushed up on my Flemish. They speak French in the southern part of Belgium, and I can speak it; but Brussels lies right in the middle. Apparently Zuid is the Flemish equivalent of Midi. I’m a smart one. We realize this when the city fades away and we’re seeing picturesque Belgian villages out of the windows.

We get off thinking we’ll just catch the train going in the opposite direction and get back to Midi/Zuid Station. We can skip the details of what happens. After more than an hour wait, the train finally arrives. We get to Midi/Zuid Station, and I decide that we’re grabbing a taxi to the hotel. No more public transit for now.
By the time we get to the hotel, check in, shower to get the airplane stink off, and get ready to go, it’s after 1PM. It’s over a half hour to Duvel if we were driving direct, and we would be dependent on public transit. Duvel wasn’t going to happen. Our hotel was literally around the corner from Grande Place which is the major tourist area of Brussels so we decided to walk down there and check it out since our first scheduled stop was a fail. When we’d left India, it was in the 80’s and sunny. Brussels was struggling to stay in the 40’s and it was cloudy and drizzly, and, at first, it was refreshing. We sat down to eat at a diner that offered a free beer with your meal. They only had Leffe which I was able to find at a bar in Delhi, but it was okay. I was in the Mecca of beer. I had no doubt I’d have plenty of time to try many different beers.

Oddly, the best part of that meal was the glass of ice water and the salad. I hadn’t had ice in over two months, and fresh vegetables are off the menu in India due to westerner’s inability to handle the water in which it is washed. Lettuce had never tasted so good. We spent the rest of the day wandering around central Brussels getting a feel for the city. We stopped in at another bar, had some more Belgian beers while sitting outside in the cold watching the city. We called it a night early. We were exhausted due to jet lag and had to be up early the next day to get to London.
The next day was spent in London which I wrote about previously. Sunday we got up and walked down to Grande Place for some Belgian waffles for breakfast. I chose not to have beer with it, although the little café did offer it. We hit some touristy spots in the city, one of which, Atomium, had a café in it. I tried a canned Kriek beer they had just for fun. It was not good, and part of the In-Bev family. I was mad at myself for even trying it. We went back to central Brussels and found the Delirium Café, the world-famous beer bar. To my extreme pleasure it was a two minute walk from our hotel, just tucked into an alley that we hadn’t noticed.

It is split into three levels, the main floor being the taphouse. This night, we actually never made it out of the taphouse. We saw the tap list with 27 beers on it, and settled in. Sunday night must not be a big night for drinking as there wasn’t a huge crowd in the bar. Behind the bar was a messy array of kegs, tubes, and CO2 tanks. Glasses of every sort were hung above it, and an odd collection of bartenders were working it, knowing exactly what glass to use no matter what the beer ordered. I was happy to see a Great Divide sticker on the wall, feeling like American beer is getting respect in Belgium (and one we visited on Beer Trip II). As we sat with a barrel as our table, looking at the list, Ben made the decision that our goal before we left Brussels was to drink every beer on it. We tried a wide range from the list that night and I never got tired of seeing the bartenders hear what I wanted, grab a specific glass, pour it until it is overflowing, then scrape off the foam in a matter of seconds. I stumbled back to the hotel and crashed with a belly full of awesome brews. I wish I could give you the list, but I didn’t think to date the beers when I checked them off.

The next morning we were up and on our way to Cantillon Brewery early to get our first true tour. The brewery was located not far from Zuid/Midi Station where we were picking up our rental car later that day. It was a non-descript building, and I actually had trouble finding which door to enter. Inside was a lot what I expected. Nothing fancy, rather disorganized, and centered on the beer. The tour is self-guided, which I actually prefer most of the time. So the lady gave us a pamphlet with the route to take and info on each stop.

There were aging barrels stacked everywhere with dates scrawled on them as to when the beer inside was produced. Upstairs they had the large, open fermenter that had windows that opened to the outside air because they do natural fermentation, giving each batch its own unique flavor. At the end of the tour they give you three samples of their beer. I bought gift pack of all three of their beers and some cheese. It was then time to go to the train station and pick up the rental car and head northwest to the world-famous Westvletern.
We picked up the rental an hour ahead of time which I was excited about because that’d give us an extra hour at the Sint Sixtus Brewery. Unfortunately, we were again delayed because we couldn’t get out of the damn parking garage. Long story, but fast forward a half hour and we’re on the road, still 30 minutes ahead of schedule. We get about 30 minutes outside of Brussels, and the freeway comes to a dead stand-still. And we sit, and sit, and sit. It took us two hours to go 4km. I was about to have a stroke and got more and more pissed off as we sat there. Again, to save time, we’ll fast forward and skip the Citroen Bag or bunder (monkey) discussions we had whilst sitting on the Belgian freeway.

I was about to pee my pants after sitting there for so long. We pulled off the freeway and stopped at a gas station to use the restroom and get something to drink. We found out from the nice Flemish man working the counter that there had been a bad wreck and someone had died. So of course I felt bad about earlier in the trip when we were sitting there stating “I’d better see blood on the pavement if I’m gonna sit here all this time.”

It was dark by the time we arrived at the brewery. It’s located in a sparsely populated region with one lane roads and no street lights so that was fun to maneuver in the dark and rain. We got to In De Vrede, which is like their brewpub next to the abbey around 7PM. I wanted to try all three beers, so we each ordered a Blonde, and I got up to take some pictures. It was pitch black outside and pouring rain so I didn’t even attempt pictures of the brewery across the street. The Blonde was honestly just okay. It was a beautiful beer though. The color and the sediment floating in it made it one of the best looking beers I’d ever drunk.

We ordered some food and I ordered the 8. Ben was driving back, and given the alcohol content of the 8 and 12, he decided to skip the 8 and wait for the world-famous 12. The food was decent and the 8 was a good beer as well. We had a hard time getting the waitress to come back by as there were a couple groups of old people in there, who I assumed were locals. I finally flagged her down and said we’d like two of the 12’s. “I’m sorry the bar is closed” was her reply. I sat there for a second thinking she had to be joking. Apparently they’d closed and not bothered to tell the obvious Americans sitting off on the side who are used to a “last call” before a bar closes. She said during the winter they close early, but they’d be open again tomorrow. I muttered something, still in shock that I’d come all the way from the US, via India, to try what some say is the best beer in the world, and because I’d ordered a few minutes too late, wouldn’t get to try. They had the 8 available for sale so despite my pissed-off state I bought a sixer of it, and left still thinking this had to be a bad dream. We drove back to Brussels in what seemed like no time compared to how long it took to get there. I had been in email contact with one of the managers of the hotel before our arrival and she had mentioned a beer package I could buy from them that included a trip to a bar that had the Westy 12 available.
We again set out for Grande Place searching for “Au Bon Vieux Temps” bar. While we seemed to be star crossed at many steps along the way, other times we were very fortunate. Down a tiny alley we happened to notice a sign hanging with the bar’s name. We walked in and the bar is MAYBE 200 square feet. There’s an old lady working the bar, an old drunk man at the bar, and some douchey looking young people at a booth. Ben and I sit down at the bar and the old lady asks what we want. I try to access years of French classes just to ask for “deux Westvleteren.” She pulls out two bottles and by chance, I notice the yellow cap on top which I’d seen on the sixer of 8’s I bought. I stopped her from opening them and said “Douze! Douze! Pas huit!” She acknowledges and she bends over and lifts up a door and seems to disappear into the floor. She comes back up with two bottles with brown caps. She poured them and I paid her the 20 euro for them. Only double the price they wanted at the brewery so I didn’t bitch. The beer is good. Malty sweet, heavy, a slight alcohol burn at the end. However, I may be banned from beer geekdom for this, but not the best beer I’d ever had. I think the difficulty in obtaining the beer contributes to the mystique of it and therefore, when one does get it, makes them rate it higher. Or, I could be harboring some bitterness from our experiences a couple hours earlier. We finished the highly sought after Westy 12s and decided to go back to Delirium which is in the next alley over. Apparently Mondays are more popular nights to drink because the place was overflowing. All three floors were filled and there wasn’t a seat to be found. We decided to come back earlier in the night next time and just call it a night because we had to be up to get to Amsterdam the next morning. I’ll write about the rest of our experiences in Belgium in another post as this one is becoming very long. Despite my experience, I’d recommend going to Sint Sixtus or trying the Westy 12 if you get the chance. Just plan an entire day for it to be safe.

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