It was a typically dark, cold and rainy Sunday afternoon in the midst of the Manchester summer when Mrs Brewskie’s thoughts first turned to Christmas. “Where do you want to go for our Christmas/Anniversary holiday my love?” she said. “Well”, I replied, “I don’t really care, so long as it’s got Christmas markets, nice food and decent beer… How about Belgium?” Her eyes lit up with delight as she realised the other thing that Belgium was famous for, chocolate. It seemed like a match made in heaven, she could eat the best chocolate in the world and I could try some of the best beer in the world. So in the words of that fat man from Bolton, we booked it, packed it and f’ed off!
If anyone else owns the aptly named “1001 beers to try before you die” book you’ll know where I’m coming from when I say that it’s blooming heavy… but it was most certainly coming with us! I made some room in my rucksack; I’ll be needing this on the plane I thought. After the lovely scouse ladies, with their faces as orange as the low cost logo, had finished telling us how to put on a seatbelt, and how not to drown when we plummet into the sea, I got out said book to realise I’d massively underestimated how fondly the world thinks of Belgium beer. On inspection there were 115 Belgium beers in the book. “Crumbs! We’re only going for 7 days!” I exclaimed. My maths were a bit slow as we’d been warming up in the airport Wetherspoons pre-flight, but this seemed like a lot of beers per day, we would need to work as a team, and drink a lot of beer if all the boxes were to be ticked.
Brussels Day 1
Like all the best explorers in history have done before, the Cooks, the Drakes, the Columbi (plural), the Polos, I consulted Google for what to expect on arrival in the distant foreign climbs. I sifted through page after page of European political nonsense and finally found what I’d been looking for. The culmination of everything I’ve been striving for in my search for amazing drinkeries, a bar holding the world record for the most beers in stock at any 1 time… over 2000… The Delirium café, I was delirious! Unfortunately it was late when we arrived and we couldn’t be bothered going anywhere, so we had our first beers in the hotel.
At this point I should probably let you into a little secret; before we went to Belgium I didn’t think I liked Belgium beers. Turns out I just didn’t understand them… More on that later though…
We ordered our first round of drinks in Belgium (in the very nice Aloft hotel in Brussels) and we did rather well!
When someone mentions a 9% beer in the UK, a few words spring to mind, ‘homeless’, ‘alcoholic’, not good words… You mention it in Belgium and you are a connoisseur of the finer things in life. This, I discovered, was my first fail with Belgium beer. It isn’t like beer in other countries, often between 4% and 5.5% with an occasional special or export version to show off their high-alcohol content brewing skills. It is something different, and most importantly perhaps, as a rule it isn’t served in pints.
There are obviously Stella Artois and Jupiler, both Belgian and both drunk in larger servings, which are in fact the most frequently drunk beers in the country. However, I haven’t come all this way to drink Anno 1366 and give Mrs Brewskie a hiding as a consequence…
Chimay Bleue Trappist, 9%, Chimay (Notre-Dame de Scourmont Abbey), Belgium.
So my first foray into Belgium beers and under the guidance of ‘1001 beers’ I choose very well indeed, a Trappist beer no less… ‘What the hell is that?’ I hear you cry. Unlike some religious types around the world the Trappist monks in Belgium are not required to abstain from alcohol. In fact, they positively love the stuff, and in particular, beer. There are 6 Trappists monasteries in Belgium which are allowed to brew beer carrying the Trappist logo and any beer carrying the logo guarantees the following criteria have been met:
- They are manufactured on-site or in close proximity to the monastery.
- The monastic community is engaged in management and all aspects of the means necessary for their operation. This must clearly reflect both the unquestionably subordinate relationship with the beneficiary monastery and the relationship with the culture of the enterprise itself in the plan of monastic life.
- The income provides for the major portion of the necessities of the community and for social services.
Fortunately for ‘the necessities of the community and for social services’ the Trappist beers are amazing. As I mentioned, this isn’t beer as you and I may know it, the best way to think of it is like a fine wine. Deep, complex, maturing with age; it is to be savoured and enjoyed. Not a session beer, not at all.
The Chimay Bleue in particular was almost like a dark wheat beer with notes of chocolate and all brought together with a lovely complex richness that really left you wanting more. 4/5
Belle-Vue Framboise, 5.2%, Molenbeek, Belgium.
Mrs Brewskie loves fruit. And I mean loves it. If she was into tattoos she would probably have a clementine permanently drawn somewhere on her body – with a bit of tinsel to remind her of Christmas, no Clementine in the stocking makes for a grumpy wife on Christmas day.
So yeah, she ordered a Framboise. It was sweet, light and refreshing but ultimately wasn’t as good as other raspberry beers from Belgium. 3/5
Brussels Day 2
We didn’t have long in Brussels on account of it being pretty rubbish in comparison to Bruges and Ghent. We set off early in probably the most disappointing of all holiday weather, wind and rain. It wasn’t long before we were eating, waffles, chips and chocolate to lift the spirits. When in Rome…
I had control of the map and before we did anything else remotely touristy I was determined to find the Delrium Café. I’d read several guidebooks and looked online and by all accounts it was a sprawling Mecca of beery heaven which had effectively taken over an alleyway somewhere in the centre of Brussels. Much stomping around and many chocolate shops later, we finally found what we’d been looking for. It really was impressive, so impressive, that it was quite difficult to know which of the doors led inside the café!
Delirium Café, Brussels
On entering you could tell this place meant business, it was epic, loads of floors and rooms and behind the bars, fridge after fridge of bottles of beer; all different shapes, sizes and colours. However, something didn’t seem quite right. This place was showcasing itself as the home of beer but it felt a bit soleless, there was a mixed crowd; groups of twentysomethings, families with kids, older couples; the walls were covered in beer junk and the furniture had all been salvaged from breweries long since fallen into disrepair but it all felt a bit for show. We ordered some beer anyway…
Delirium Tremens, 8.5%, Melle, Belgium.
The sign above my head promised so much, “Elected as the best beer in the world”. I was expecting fireworks, a taste sensation no less from the best beer in the world served in the bar with the most beers in the world… what I got was OK. Maybe I was tired, maybe I had built up to this moment for too long, but the whole experience was a bit disappointing. I’d had my first taste of Trappist beer the night before and maybe I was expecting something rich and full of flavour like the Chimay had been. It was a bit, dare I say it bland. An 8.5% beer should really be grabbing you by the goolies but there was no oomph. 2/5
We left to go and get some food feeling a little bit disappointed with our ‘record breaking’ experience.
Au Bon Vieux Temps, Brussels
Guidebooks are a wonderful thing, when they’re up to date and not written by over enthusiastic Americans who think everything old is magical and everything small (or normal size…) is cute. This place really is a hidden gem worthy of a mention in any Brussels guidebook. Firstly, it makes the Delirium café look like it’s signposted from the motorway to it’s door, so you really have to look for it! It’s a bit of a leap of faith just walking down the alleyway to the front door but trust me, it’s worth it.
Behind the bar were an older Belgium couple with only a few words of English between them, perfect I thought, after the Delirium disappointment. Out came the beer bible and the ferocious hand rubbing started, we were in luck, plenty to choose from.
Kasteel Donker, 11%, Ingelmunster, Belgium.
Maybe it was the ambience of the bar, the excitement of going somewhere a bit more authentic, or maybe just an excellent brew… Whatever the reason, the Kasteel Donker was probably my favourite beer of the whole trip. It was rich, dark, powerful, complicated, a wonderful beer. Surprisingly this one isn’t in THE book and I’m pretty sure it came recommended by the barmaid and boy am I glad I asked for a recommendation. I’ll most certainly be searching this one out at home! 5/5
Corsedonk Christmas Ale, 8.5%, Oud-Turnhout, Belgium.
The Corsedonk Angus Triple is featured in the 1001 beers guide and we’d seen a few being served to the regulars so when we discovered they had a Christmas Ale too Mrs Brewskie was beside herself with excitement. It was our first Christmas special of the trip and it was pretty good. It had the usual Christmassy twists of spices and fruits but perhaps lacked in excitement and depth of flavour. Once it was all gone we weren’t left thinking about getting the same again for the next round. Saying that though, it was still decent, just not as good as some of the other Belgian beers. 3/5
We’d done with Brussels; it’s rain, politics, chips, tourist traps and waffles (which aren’t actually from Belgium according to a Belgian guy at work) it was time to head off to more quaint surroundings in Bruges and more beer. The cobbled streets, Half moon brewery and probably the most amazing bed and breakfast in Europe awaited our arrival!
To be continued…
This article is copyright © 2014