TRAVELS IN BELGIUM: MAT W'S FIVE BEERY DAYS IN BELGIUM, INCLUDING HASSELT BEER FESTIVAL; NOVEMBER 2004
I've finally got time to sit down a write a bit about the festival and a recent long weekend in Belgium. I had organised the weekend to ride on a railtour to the Manage area on Friday, and the Limburg area on Saturday, and it just happened to coincide with the beer festival at Hasselt which was handy. I went over on the Eurostar from Waterloo early on Wednesday 10th November and was into the hotel by 11.15. (Hotel Mirabeau, Place Fontinas 18-20, Brussels B-1000. +32 (0) 2 511 19 72 - www.hotelmirabeau.be My room and clean and the hotel cheap, being €140 for the two nights. Unfortunately the room was not ready but I was able to dump the bag. Another snag was that we had asked for a double with two beds, a snippet of information that had not filtered down to the hotel so he scratched about and was able to offer two single rooms for the same price.
As soon as the bag was safely ensconced in the hotel lock up it was hi-ho to the Cantillon brewery where I wanted to purchase some of the new lambic, Cuvée de Champions, which is a dry hopped version of Iris according to JP. Having spent 50 minutes trying to find a working bank machine in the Brussels Midi area that didn't have a 100 metre queue at it, including 10 minutes waiting in the ING bank near the Cantillon brewery as their machine was kaput, only to be told that I could only use a credit card in their machine outside. I explained that it was not working and he just shrugged his shoulders at me. I think I know where the ING come from now! Suitably loaded down with cash from the machine with the 100 metre queue in Midi station, I sat in the brewery parlour drinking Kriek for about 40 minutes talking to Jean Pierre and his son (who's name escapes me) and found out that Cantillon opened at 08:30 on Friday, so I decided to come back then as the beer was to drink on the train rather than lug it around.
From Cantillon I killed a few hours wandering about. Eventually, I thought it was about time to start quaffing. I have always wanted to visit the Schaarbeek beer museum near to Brussels Nord but have never been in Brussels at the right time or had the time to do it. It is only open 14:00 to 18:00 on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I walked up to Rue Royale (the long straight road that has trams running on it when walking to the Bier Circus from the Grand Place). I took a 92 tram to the church of St. Servais and walked down to the beer museum which is at 33-35 Avenue Louis Bertrand (the road leads away from the church at right angles to the tram lines). It was about half an hour before they closed but seemed happy enough to let me wander around and there was no pressure to drink up and leave. As part of the €3 entry fee, one gets a glass of Schaarbeekoise, a strong 9% brew produced for the museum by Abbaye des Rocs. Tasted strangely like 'Abbaye des Rocs' to me, but I will keep an open mind. The museum is set up in a large 4 roomed building that might once have been a brewery. I don't know. Two of the rooms are devoted to breweriana, including old bottling machines and coppers. The other two rooms are full of bottles from a variety of defunct and present breweries. As a confirmed ticker it was galling having to see beer that I have been looking for, for over 12 years, sitting on shelves just out of arms reach!! One word of warning, there is no English spoken, so for people like me with minimal French, you may struggle if you want to ask any questions. All the signs are in French as well.
After wandering around the museum it was still an hour to wait until the Bier Circus opened so I decided to visit Brasserie de l'Imprimerie at St. Job on the SE corner of Brussels near Beersel. I decided that as the 92 tram at the top of the road went straight passé the front door of the brewery I would get to it that way. WRONG!. The town was grid-locked with traffic queuing at every traffic light; 29 stops and 70 minutes later, I tipped up outside the door, gagging for a beer. Normally my luck dictates that such places are firmly bolted shut for some obscure holiday or such like, but today it was open. It was empty, but it was open. I and one other chap sat at the bar. They have 4 regular beers, and had a special on offer today, being a Fruit de Bois (actually the Ekla Pils with Cassis and Framozen steeped in the tank). The regular beers are Ekla Pils 5.1, Blanch de St. Job 4.5, Double Export 6.5, and Stout Vandenheuvel 5.8. The bar has recently been opened and is a great big barn of a place. It was quite dark inside so it was difficult to see much on the internal décor. From the station, if coming from Brussels, walk up the path from the station, cross the road, and follow the tram lines down hill. The brewery is at the end of the first row of buildings just as you enter into the main square. If you come from Halle or Beersel, cross over the tracks by way of the road bridge and follow directions above. As a criticism, I found the beers were all served far too cold; the stout was far too sweet for my taste and the Fruit de Bois was sickly. The Double Export was excellent especially if allowed to warm up a few degrees and the Blanche was very passable but maybe a bit thin for me. The beers are available in the Café delirium, but at €6 a bottle (25cl) I suggest a trip out to St. Job. Line 26 from Etterbeek station will also take you out to St. Job (same line a Beersel). You can get to Etterbeek by rail from Brussels Midi, Nord or Centrale. You could also go to Schuman on the metro and change for St. Job or Etterbeek there. St Job can also be approached from Halle and could quite easily be woven into a trip to Drie Fonteinen at Beersel. It is only 2 more stops up the line back towards Brussels. I decided not to bother with the tram back to Brussels city centre and instead caught the train to Schuman and the metro to Parc, from where I was able to walk to the Bier Circus.
Patrick was his usual friendly self, if not a bit busy with a big group of euro-diplomats in the front of the pub. I had a very good steak for a change (I normally have the excellent Bolognaise ala Chimay) and supped a very good Rulles Blond whilst waiting for my meal, and Zatte Bie with the it, followed by a Ter Dolen Double dark. From the Bier Circus, I walked down to the Café Delirium where I met Matt and Karen from the Evening Star in Brighton who were on a mid-week break. I think we left at about 01.30 the next morning but it was a bit blurry. I sampled the following beers:- Grain D'orge Aubel Blonde and Brune, Rulles Maitresse (au fut), Millivertus Mousse de Toernich, and Toernichoise, Ste. Helene Blanche, and the stunning Fantome Chocolate beer. I was blown away by this. Like drinking liquid Cadbury's Bourneville Dark. It wasn't sweet or sickly, and had just enough spicing and chocolate in it to whet the palate for more. We finished the night on a couple of German beers, Altenmunster Winterbier and Steinbeer.
On Thursday, Belgium was shut for Armistice Day (11th November) so I decided to go to Amsterdam via Liege for a long train ride. I eventually arrived in Amsterdam, via several previously visited watering holes, such as the Hotel Terminus in 's Hertogenbosch and the Stoombier Brouwerij in Utrecht. I headed straight for the In de Wildeman just in case and 'bingo', 3 new beers, Hemel Botterijk 6.8, Hemel Nieuwligh(t?) 10.0 and Slagmuylder Grut Lawuitj 5.5. Suitably refreshed I wandered over towards t'Arendtsnest on the Herengracht. I almost thought it was closed until I realised that I hadn't gone far enough over and was still on the Singlegracht - idiot! Peter was as welcoming as ever and I was able to sit at the end of the bar chatting as it was not too busy. I tried Kasparus Witje 5.1, Kulpertje Blondie 7.5, Molen Molenbier 9.2 (newest Dutch microbrewery), Klein Dumptje Blauw Tram tripel 7.5, and Hemel Marikenbier 6.0. A quick diversion to the Bier Koning for a coupe of beers to take away (Hemel Rooie Tiep Top 8.0 (in a litre bottle!), and a 75cl bottle of Jopenbier for the last train home to Brussels (20.23).
I arrived back in the café Delirium in Brussels at about 23.20, to find a full blown blues jam session in full swing. Straight into the beers, I tried 3 Brasseurs Scotch, Proef Braven Kerst, Ste. Helene Blonde, St. Pieters Zinnibir, Lefebvre Abbaye de Malonne Blonde 7.0, and the disgusting Floris Cactus, just to see how disgusting a beer (if you could call it that) could be. It is the first luminous green beer I have had… no it's not, I once had Villers Groen Paranoia. Yes that was a beer, not a day after side effect! Beware that when there is a jam session on the Café D, all prices are increased by 25%. A fact that I was not aware of until trolling through menu on the following Sunday.
The following day we able to have a leisurely start, and visited Cantillon at about 10.15 time, where we sat our way through a couple of bottle so Kriek, before buying supplies for the train. I bought 9 bottles of Cuvée de Champions and a bottle each of Kriek and Rose de G, which I sold on the train and made a bit back on the excess bar bill (€44) from the previous evening. This allowed me one bottle of the Cuvée to sup later. We pushed off at 11.00 and went out on the railtour for the day ending up back in Brussels at about 17.30. Paul and I were heading for the festival in Hasselt that night so we retrieved our bags from the left luggage and caught the first train west. We arrived at the Ibis hotel at 20.00 and booked in. The receptionist had already been tipped off about of planned destination for the evening and offered to book the beer taxi for us. Unfortunately this took 50 minutes to arrive, and although it was only €2.50 each, it would have been a it quicker to get a taxi proper.
We eventually got into the festival at about 21.15, to find it heaving, but did manage to squash ourselves in on a table with a few other Brits, and were able to them move about talking to various other familiar faces, including the only other Babblers who were present (Marcus and Briony). Looking through the menu I wanted to try a staggering 28 beers, so I set about it with Gusto. They have a very social system where by if you want a beer that is only available in 75cl bottles, they will pour you just a glass, but as Marcus said in his report, it is pot luck as to what condition the beer is when you get it depending on the part of the bottle it is poured from. After leaving the festival quite early for me, we headed back to the hotel.
Dumped the bags and headed out to the town to try and find the Hemelrijk, which we found after a 15 - 20 minute wander. No food as you'd expect at 01.00 at night, but still a good selection of beer. I had a couple but was beginning to feel that I needed to get to bed so we wandered off about 01.45. I don't remember how many I tried on the Friday evening but I know that I was fairly fragile the following day and it took a long time before I could open the bottle of Cantillon and even then I found it just a little too acidic to enjoy so handed over the remains to them more capable of enjoying it.
By Saturday evening I was fighting fit again and we got back to the festival quite late, at about 23.00. There was lot more table room today and we were able to squash onto the babblers table… just as 2 of them left, quickly to followed by Marcus and Briony, who had been out all evening. That didn't stop us from polishing off the remaining beers we wanted to try. I left 5 beers un-supped, Domus Condomus (I still don't know if they are brewing of the premises at Leuven), Bockor Passion Max (which I couldn't really face up to), Verhaeghe Cambrinus (can get in it Brugge), Bios Bière de Boucanier (enough said). I also missed Ecaussines Ultrafraîche as I didn't realise I needed it (missed it in the programme). I liked the format of the festival at Hasselt and I will definitely be attending next year. I thought it was very social to only have to leave your table to pee and socialise and lovely not to scrum down at a bar and try and get served as you do at St. Niklaas or the Bokbier Festival in Amsterdam. The staff were very quick once they had seen you waving your fly-swat about in the air and beers usually came back in about 4 to 5 minutes. We never had a wrong order the two evening we were there. If anything they were right and we were wrong especially as the evening wore on!! I must admit that some of the beers were a bit on the blech!! Side, especially a couple of the ones brewed by the amateur brewers of which there were 6 available. Some brewed at plants such as Proef and Kerkom, and some brewed in dustbins in garden sheds by their taste. We staggered out of the festival at about 01.20 and managed to order a taxi which cost €10 back to hotel. We managed to pick up Glenn at the festival and took him back to the hotel where he was also staying.
Sunday was a leisurely start for me as I was off the Grote Dorst (I am not writing it all out!) and I caught the 11.08 train to Brussels, dumped my bags at Midi, changed my Eurostar ticket for a 17.01 Waterloo train and scuttled back to Centrale on the first available train, and ran down the hill (a very rare sight!) to Hallenstraat, and caught the 12.53 bus to Eizeringen by about one minute.
I arrived at the Grote Dorst at 13.30 and after saying hello to Yves and Kurt set about working my way through the 6 draught Lambics available. As I stepped into the pub I was met by Yves who presses a dark reddish brown glass of beer into my sweaty hand. After several failed attempts to identify the liquid, I eventually was told it was a 1994 Eylenbosch Kriek. The nose was very strange. If you put your nose right into the glass there was lots of raspberry, then blackcurrant. As you took your nose out the glass, only then did you get a very strong cherry aroma. The taste was sublime but again very complicated. I also tried a Mort Subite Witte Lambic, a Girardin Krieken Lambic and finally a Girardin Oud Lambic. The bar is superb now it is finished, with lots of pine and a really impressive tiles parlour floor which Yves said were the original tiles. Alas the outside toilet is missing so no more peeing and watching the congregation entering church on Sunday mornings, (or them watching you for that matter). As you enter the bar there are a row of tables along the left wall facing the bar which is on your right. Immediately to the right are two tables with benched and chairs. It was very cosy with the pot bellied stove at the end of room pumping out the therms. It's a very social way of spending the Sunday lunchtime. Now if only there was a frituur outside as well!!
All too soon it was time to leave, I wanted to catch the last but one possible bus, as I didn't want to be rushing for my train at the last minute. I arrived back in Brussels at about 15.30, so was able to whip into the Café Delirium for a final beer of 3. I bought a couple of bottles to drink on the train home and some for drinking there.
All in all a very alcoholic 5 days in Belgium and Holland. I tried something like 60 new beers; picked up a further 10 (thanks to Marcus) which I've bought home; damaged my liver (again) and have not changed my opinion that Belgium is one of the most social countries I have ever been too. I met lots on new people who were all interested to know what we were doing in Belgium in wet November.
ROLL ON St. NIKLAAS.
Brentwood, Essex, UK: November 2004