Sunday, 7 April 2013

La Bière en Belgique

What’s the first thing that springs to mind when Belgium is mentioned? Battlefields; Jaques Brel; boring bureaucrats? Maybe it’s a plump detective, or the adventurer with the quiff? For me, it’s always the beer; and with this modestly proportioned country brewing drinks as diverse as lambic and gueze; Flanders red; pils; champagne beers; saison; and amber, brown and golden ales, there is surely something to please every palate.

With a history stretching right back to the Crusades, Belgian brews have a long and proud tradition. With the Catholic Church’s permission, local French and Flemish abbeys brewed and distributed beer raising funds for their work and monasteries. This caveat for Trappist ales still exists today, as can be seen with the special release of the, rare as hen’s teeth, Westvleteren 12, recently sold in the US to help build a new roof for the abbey.

Sadly those days seem long gone, but with 178 working breweries in Belgium there is still a huge choice of different drinks available. If you want to read something far more informative about all the different types of beers produced, then it’s worth starting here or here, but, for what it’s worth, here’s a few drunken musings on a few of the great bars and brews in Belgium.

Getting its name (the sudden death) from the last throw of a dice game that the local Bank of Belgium employees would play here on their lunch break, this iconic bar now even has a line of beers named after it. Interior wise, little has changed in almost a century; beers are still dispensed from ornate taps behind a mirrored bar, and the waiters still glide between the tables, in black waistcoats and white shirts, trays of foaming beer held high.

Out first visit was late on a Wednesday evening, and the joint was jumping. Although there were a few small groups of tourists the majority seemed to be locals, waylaid on their way home from work and philosophising loudly over glasses of cold pils. Despite the great din, he man sitting next to us kept nodding off into the dregs of his beer, only waking occasionally to (not very) surreptitiously eat a little snack from a bag under the table, which just added to our evening’s entertainment.

We had to sample some of the eponymous brews while we were there. I had a kriek, a lambic beer (more about that later) aged in oak barrels and flavoured with fresh cherries, while the Ewing tried the faro, a sour lambic sweetened with rock sugar.

A good kriek, like this, is a very fine beer indeed; a world away from sugary artificial alcho pops, with an gentle effervescent from the spontaneously fermented lambic beer base, a good balance of sweet and sour, and a tannic edge from being aged in oak.

Our next visit came on a, slightly, more staid Sunday evening. This time we grabbed a spot in the window and decided to order a few nibbles to go with our drinks. Sadly the brilliantly monikered Toast Caaniable, or Cannibal toast, (steak tartare on a tartine of bread) had run out, but the mysterious sounding Kip Kap was still available.

The kip kap turned out to be a lightly jellied brawn of pig’s cheeks, and other bits, studded with finely chopped pickles that, if I didn't think to closely about what was in it (although doubtless far less dodgy than the average supermarket burger) was pretty tasty. Our waiter also recommended some bread and cheese, and the Ewing was very happy when about a pound of cubed, Edam-style stuff turned up.

Although this place can hardly be considered a closely guarded secret, drinking a few of the eponymously named beers, while drinking in the faded bell epoch styling and lively chatter, is well worth a few hours of anyone’s time in Brussels.

If you’re interested in sampling a massive selection of beers, including some rare microbrews that are not widely available elsewhere, then Moeder Lambic Fontinas is a must. The bigger, younger, hipper brother of the original Moeder, in St. Gilles, Fontinas, in the square of the same name, is a haven for anyone with a thirst, offering 43 beers on tap alone. If all this seems rather overwhelming the menu is broken up into different styles of drink, and the friendly staff were more than happy to make recommendations on our visit.

Brews sampled may or may not have included (there were a few consumed, so memories may be a little vague), Tournay Hop Harvest,  De Ranke Framboise, Cantillion Kriek, Rulles Tripel, and a brune ale from Brasserie de la Senne

To soak up all the beer there is a small list of snacks that included a great sauissison, made with Cantillion Gueze and served with mustard – the small, but deadly knife provided to slice the salami, means this snack is probably best ordered while still vaguely sober – and great spread of local meats and cheese, served with pickles and bread. There is an emphasis on slow food and organic products, which, surely, negates some of the bad effects from the alcohol….

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.... On our visit to Gent for the day we couldn't pass up the opportunity to enjoy a genever or two at t'Dreupelkot, a little gin only, bar down on the waterfront.

This cosy spot, owned and presided over by the charismatic Pol - a character so colourful there is even a mural in the square dedicated to him - has got to be one of the very best places to while away a hazy Friday afternoon. Serving nothing but a range of different genevers, a visit to Gent would surely be incomplete without stopping by to recline on the mismatched armchairs, listen to the Motown soundtrack and sample one of the hundred or so different genevers on offer.

I started with a couple of oude genevers, malty and smoky, not unlike a young whisky, while the Ewing went with a milder, vanilla version that was like liquid ice cream. Thankfully it isn't customary to knock the shots back in one, but remember to bend your head down and take the first sip without picking up the glass, lest you want to look like a clumsy tourist.

We then moved on to sample chocolate, hazelnut (very nice drunk together), blood orange and a recommendation from Pol that was so potent it made everything look hazy – possibly not helped by the thick fug of stogie smoke swirling about the place – finally finishing with Kriek on Genever (cherries in gin), kept in a large glass jar on the counter and served with a teaspoon.

After prising ourselves away from several hours of hard drinking our intentions were to turn right cross the bridge and catch the tram and train back to Brussels. Of course we ended up turning left, and ended up in Waterhuis aan de Bierkant for a night cap.

Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant (The Waterhouse on the Beerside) may have a name that's only funny if you're four sheets to the wind, but it is a great place to enjoy a beer. The huge beer menu is divided into themed pages, listing Trappist beers and abbey ales; gueuzes and lambics, oud bruins and fruit beers; there's even Christmas and winter ales, quite appropriate for the bleak weather we were having.

From the picture I can tell you at some point I drank a Duvel; what it tasted like, or what the Ewing drank will forever remain a mystery. I can, just about, remember the Friday evening atmosphere was buzzing, with most of our amusement coming from a group of bewildered English visitors who were even more hopeless at deciding what beers they wanted than we were.

One stop that comes highly recommended for anyone with even a cursory interest in Brussels beer history is the Cantillon Brewery. We were fortunate enough to be there at the same time as one of their bi-yearly open days, when you can see the brewing process in action, but the brewery is open from Mon-Sat, for self guided tours and beer tastings, throughout the year.

Cantillion, founded in 1900 and the only remaining brewey in the city of Brussels, is one of the very few breweries that still specialises in Lambic style beers. Lambic is a very ancient type of beer brewed traditionally in the Pajottenland, southwest of Brussels, and in Brussels itself. The main difference between lambic and other beers is that the latter rely on specially cultivated brewer’s yeasts, the former rely on spontaneous fermentation from the wild yeasts in the air, found in the Senne valley, in which Brussels lies.

This spontaneous fermentation gives a beer that’s cloudy and uncarbonated, with a distinctive dry and sour flavour. Although dried hops are used in the brewing process, their role is to act as a preservative and not flavour the brew itself.  From this lambic base other beers can be made, including Gueze, a mix of lambic from different years that undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle, leading to a slight fizz; Faro, a mixture of lambic and a sweeter beer with added sugar; and Kriek and other fruit beers, which traditionally would be dry and sour, but are now often made with artificial fruit syrups.

We found the brewery behind a deceptively staid façade, on an anonymous little side street. A small poster taped to the door and the slight whiff of barley on the breeze gave a clue we were in the right place, but as soon we opened the door the wave of raucous chatter and thick, sweet and malty fug rising up from the cellar confirmed it.

After buying our tour tickets, we realised there was time for a quick visit to the bar for our complimentary beer. I picked the lambic, served in a traditional woven basket that stops the sediment being stirred up as you pour, while the Ewing chose a glass of the gueze, or ‘Brussels champagne’. Both were very tart and dry, with a cidery/vineous quality that is unusual to find in a beer. 

The Ewing, being photobombed by our brewery guide, the charming Cedric. At the bar, as well as the familiar lambic, kriek and gueeze, you can drink bottles of Fou'Foune, a fresh apricot beer, Mamouche, a beer brewed with elderflower, and La Vigneronne, a lambic with the addition of white grapes. There's even  the Grand Cru Bruocsella, a lambic which has matured for three years in oakwood barrels and will continue maturing in the bottle for many more.

While the boiling tanks and copper mash tun are standard kit for most the breweries the interesting part of the brewing process here is in the ‘attic’ of the building. Here the windows are left open, and spider’s webs and dust are encouraged in the hope to attract the wild yeasts and bacteria in the air to infiltrate the ‘grain soup’ (two thirds malted barley, one third unmalted wheat), on its way to becoming lambic.

After the spontaneous fermentation has occurred, the beer is poured into oak barrels and the magic is allowed to happen. The beer is then blended, bottled and refermented for another six months.  It’s from this basic lambic base that the other beers described above are also made, the brewery being particularly proud of its kreik, and is the only place in Brussels still using fresh fruit and not concentrates. In fact the only thing that has changed in the brewing of beer at Cantillon since they opened in 1900 is the change to using organic cereals for their beers in 1999.

Den Dyver, along Bruges' Djiver canal, is well known for its beer cookery; using both beer in the food (with dishes such as Black Angus beef with a Steenbrugge sauce followed by a Sabayon of cherry beer), and offering carefully chosen beer selections for each course of their menus.

As well as a la carte (two, three or four courses available), they also offer a weekly changing lunch menu at a steal for 24 Euros for three courses, plus 10 Euros for beer pairings.

We started off with an aperitif of Ferran Adrià's beer, Inedit, produced by the Spanish brewers Damm, and our first non Belgian beer of the trip. 

Adrià has described it as the world's, "only gastronomic beer";  which may seem rather grandiose for what is, essentially, a fizzy drink, but the balance of malt and wheat, lightly spiced with liquorice, orange peel and coriander, made a refreshing start to our meal.

I started with giant ‘scampis', in tip top condition and the flesh cooked to a quivering perfection. The intriguingly named soya sprouts served alongside were actually what we know as the far more prosaic bean sprouts. While normally not my favourite, here they had been pickled in a punchy South East Asian marinade which had actually managed to inject some flavour.

The Ewing’s leek soup with smoked duck was a big bowl of bold flavours. The silky broth of grilled alliums worked nicely with the smoky notes of the duck making a suitably cheering dish for a dull day.

Our mains were paired with Gulden Carolus Ambio, a fruity amber ale with a hoppy edge, for me; and a St Bernadus Tripel, an amber ale with a hint rosewater and orange, for the Ewing.

My steak ‘Choron’, with onion fritters and a stack of disappointingly pallid ‘Jenga’ chips. The steak was butter-soft, if a little lacking in flavour, the onions rich and crunchy, making a nice change from the usual steak accompaniments. The real star of the show, however, was the amazing Choron butter sauce,  flavoured with tomato and tarragon. They even bought an extra little copper pan to the table for extra dunking.

The Ewing enjoyed a delicate dish of stuffed plaice with a grey shrimp consomme and turned new potatoes. A refined piece of cooking, with a hint of the briny North Sea from the tiny crustaceans bobbing about in the broth. 

The meal ended with the only real duff note; a chocolate fondant that was too dry paired, with fresh pineapple that was too sharp. A forgivable misstep in a delicate and delicious meal. A special mention, too for the informed and friendly service, that shows different beers can be just as good with grub as the more common pairing of wine.

Many a debate has raged over how many Belgian beers there actually are; certainly over 800 different types and, with seasonal beers and special editions, probably stretching well into the thousands. While it felt at times although we had sampled most of them, our visit was only really long enough to take the edge off our thirst. What I can tell you that there is very little better than spending an evening holed up in of Belgium's cosy dark bars while drinking a few dubbels, before staggering to the nearest friterie for a cone of hot chips.

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