Eizeringen, Belgium, Friday 5 March 2004
Jeremy Gray

It was with great concern that we read Yves' posting on the Babble Belt just after Christmas, when he told us of the fire at his family's specialist, traditional lambic bar, In de Verzekering Tegen de Grote Dorst ('Insurance Against the Great Thirst'). They had been in the process of restoring the café, so this was a tremendous blow. At first we feared the worst, that the whole building may have been badly damaged. We wanted to know what had happened, how bad the damage was, and what we could do to help.

A quick discussion with a couple of others confirmed that we should offer help to Yves and his family. Yves, however, while delighted and somewhat overwhelmed by the suggestion, said that, as the bar was still standing, albeit with some fire damage, instead of helping him, we should focus efforts on helping the lambic brewers, whose industry was under some threat, and who could therefore do with some positive publicity. A discussion quickly followed. Ideas were floated. Someone suggested holding a festival. I suggested holding the festival on the night before the ZBF, and offered to hold our pre ZBF babblefest at the Grote Dorst that night as a way of ensuring a reasonable crowd. I also suggested that we could perhaps organise a fundraising auction.

That was all the encouragement Yves needed. No sooner had the offers of help been made than Yves ran with the idea and started to organise 'The 1st International Gueuze and Lambic festival: the Nacht van Grote Dorst' ('Night of Large Thirst'). The aim was for the festival to be a promotion and celebration of lambic and gueuze.

There followed seven weeks of intense effort by Yves and his family, who carried out negotiations with the local Police, the Mayor, the lambic brewers, local and national policitians, guest speakers, the press, caterers, and tent suppliers (yes, this festival was thinking big and taking over the entire square outside the café). At the Babble Belt, we did our bit by rallying support for the event and the auction, but really we had the easy task, as all we had to do was turn up and bring a few friends with us.

The morning of the festival saw me and Theresa wake up in Antwerp, and after a trip round the Antwerp suburbs to engage in yet more Bob H stempel collecting, including a trip to one of the best Bob ticks, Kasteel Sterckshof in Deurne - where as well as a free beer you get a free castle and a free museum thrown in - it was off to Oud Arsenaal mid afternoon for a rendezvous with the two Steves, H and N. Unfortunately H was the worse for wear (can't think why, we were all tucked up in bed by at least 5am the previous night) and was at that moment getting some fresh air, so we had to make do with the beer monster himself, Steve N. A couple of beers later and we were ready to head to the station where we quickly met up with the rest of the Maxi Taxi brigade, Jan W, Fred W (no relation) and Tom R. A quick change at Brussels Noord and we were soon on the train to Ternat, where our Maxi Taxi was waiting for us as scheduled.

A ten minute journey took us right to Eizeringen, where we were soon safely ensconced in the Grote Dorst. At this stage we were wondering, of course, how many would turn up. It was 6.45pm and while the cafe was quite busy, the tent was empty at this stage and the event was yet to take off. Within about 15 minutes, it had taken off, big time. Soon the main room was completely packed, and within half an hour the tent was also filling up well. The babble crowd was out in force, well supported by an amazing turn out of locals.

Tim Webb, Armand Debelder from Drie Fonteinen and a local politician all did opening speeches shortly after 7, and the event was under way. Lorenzo's tasting was soon under way, chaotically, in the main room, which by this stage was seriously under siege with beer lovers wanting some insurance against a great thirst. In the back room, the great Babble Belt auction had a slow start, with many more donations than bids. Martin and Jacob were soon dispatched to do some on the spot publicity. The tent was soon so full that people were standing outside in the square, in the rain, and by the end of the evening both the front and back rooms of the café, and the entire tent, and the area between tent and café, were totally packed. It was a quite overwhelming response: who could have predicted that we would see such gigantic crowds turning up in a small village which is not even on the train line, on a wet Friday night at the start of March, to drink lambic and gueuze, and to show their support for the lambic industry?

Well, when suggesting that we hold a babblefest at the Grote Dorst, my expectations were realistic, and I would have been very happy had we got 20 people to turn up. Yves hoped for perhaps a hundred or so, but none of us could have predicted the support of over 60 babblers (well, it was actually about 40, but Podge helpfully brought 20 friends); hundreds of locals, star names like John (son-in-law of Jean Hanssens), Armand Debelder, Karel Goddeau (De Cam) Paul Girardin; all of the local press (I did two interviews for local radio and newspapers, Yves and Lorenzo did countless others); writers like Tim Webb and Steve Beaumont; and various key politicians and local dignitaries. All in all it was an almighty turnout of around 700 people, which warmed the heart and which hopefully gave some hope to the lambic brewers and a message to the politicians: lambic is a specialised product, but it really does have support and a future. This immense crowd was also a vivid demonstration of what can be achieved in a very short space of time, given a bit of effort and hard work.

The beer range was superb: most of the currently produced gueuzes, some deceased beers from Eylenbosch, many lambics, some faros. You paid at a central point for a number of tokens, and these were exchanged for beer at the bar in the main café or at the counter in the tent. Everyone got a HORAL sampling glass so that many different types of beer could be sampled.

The auction proceeded until 9pm as planned: Theresa did her auctioneer stunt with calm efficiency then at 9pm we started to collect the money. In fact, only a few people had actually bid anything before 9, then it went mad and suddenly money was flying everywhere and we managed to sell virtually everything in about half an hour. The total raised of over 330 euros was a great effort, so thanks to all who donated items for sale, to those who bought items on the night, and to our auction team of Theresa, Martin and Jacob.

Before we knew it, however, it was time for us to go: the Antwerp seven had a train to catch from Ternat, and the Maxi Taxi was waiting for us as planned at 10pm, so we said goodbye to an awesome event and started our return journey.

But that wasn't the end of the night's entertainment: about a quarter mile from Ternat station, I had spotted a handy Frituur. Given that we had arrived at the station 15 minutes before our train was due, I thought that we'd have plenty of time to grab some frites to enjoy on the way back. Steve N, Jan W and I therefore jogged up to the frituur, and placed orders for seven medium portions of frites. A quick negotiation ensued, during which the frites were eventually put into the frier, and a few minutes later they were ready. Phew, I thought, we'll easily get our train. But there was a catch: the frites that were ready was only enough for ONE portion. I would have sworn that there was enough in that one serving for all seven of us, but no, they had to repeat this performance SEVEN times in order to complete the order! They were the biggest servings of frites in the entire universe. Thank God we hadn't ordered large portions. The clock was ticking away, and I soon realised that we had about 90 seconds to get back to the station. Five portions were ready, so I sent Steve and Jan on with those, and finally, when I had the other two servings, I legged it out of the frituur, where I saw to my horror that the train was on its way into the station.

There followed the fastest sprint ever seen by someone who had just attended a beer festival and who was now carrying half a hundredweight of frites. I made it to the opposite platform just in time, skipping over the tracks almost in front of the oncoming train - got told off for taking chances and cutting it fine as usual, then we were finally on the way back.

The Ternat potato mountain was so huge that I was eating it the whole way back to Antwerp. In the end Steve N proved that he is not only a beer monster but also a food monster by being the only one to finish his whole portion, plus he also managed two dubious looking meatball things on top of his frites. What a great performance of true star quality.

Anyway, we soon reached Antwerp and were back in the Kulminator by midnight, where celebratory drinks were consumed with some vigour.

It was a great end to a superb night - one extremely memorable evening drinking lambic and gueuze in a superb venue in Eizeringen. Congratulations to Yves and his family for putting on such a unique, superb festival. Roll on the second edition in 2006!



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Babblebelt contributors in attendance: