Until last Wednesday, I had only been to Belgium once before, about seven years ago when I and three friends visited Bruges for a beer tasting weekend. So it was with a mixture of excitement and resignation that I was asked to go to Brussels at very short notice this week. I arrived shortly after 5pm, got into the tiny, maze-like Hotel de la Madeleine, and then met up with Joe, the Thirsty Pilgrim himself. Although TheBeerNut had provided me with some tips on where to visit, I threw myself at Joe's mercy as he’s in the final stages of preparing his book, Around Brussels in 80 Beers, for which he was in the city taking photos.
Stopping off at Beer Planet to take said photos, I resisted impulsive beer purchases reasoning that I would have some spare time the next day to do a proper job. Photos taken, we headed off to Le Poechenellekelder, right beside the Manneken Pis for a bite to eat and Joe’s choice of beer, the V Cense from Jandrain-Jandrenouille that Joe had recently posted about. A wonderful murky, chestnut brown that somehow matched our surroundings, on the aroma stakes this could easily have passed as a classic American Pale Ale, with that distinct American citric hop signature. Amarillo I have been reliably informed. With a decent malty base, the finish is also gives a rich, orange-pith like bitterness, with an equally dry finish. Great stuff, and a beer that satisfied my hop cravings no end.
While I ate my Spaghetti Bolognese, a bottle of Cantillon Geueze was ordered. It’s been a long time since I had a Geueze, and I had never tried Cantillon’s fine example till now. I have to admit, it wasn’t the shocker sour beer that I expected, but then I think I have a high sourness tolerance. However, it’s definitely in the lemon sherbet territory, with an enamel-stripping acidity that is really refreshing. Under all this is an earthiness that brings added dimensions. I can see why it's a classic.
We wandered off to Joe’s next photo assignment, but on the way stopped off for a Saison Dupont in a little café, Nüetnigenough, with Art Nueveau on the outside, Art Deco on the inside and rustic toilets. The Saison Dupont struck me as being very like a classic Weissbier, with distinct banana overtones, but with a definite hop character to the finish. Again, really refreshing and satisfying, a beer one could drink lots of on a warm summer day, or indeed any time.
We managed to leave and hit, well, I won't tell you, you'll have to buy the book, but it was a place where Joe described the décor as being like a bar owned by an old, unmarried aunt. He was dead right. No two views in the bar were the same, with a hotch-potch of worn comfy seats, zones of floral wallpaper and random furnishings. Great character. Another reason to visit was to try some of the beer made by Joe’s co-author. Zinne Bir, “Brussels’ People Ale”, from Brasserie de la Senne is another Belgian beer with American hop influences, and is really interesting. Holding in the mouth I got soft, caramel malty flavours, but on swallowing this was replaced by a dry, fruity bitterness with touches of vanilla and a light grapefruit note.
Heading back towards my hotel we popped into Au Bon Vieux Temps, a bar with wonderful character. I especially liked the stained glass windows inside, and I swear the old woman serving behind the bar did smile once despite Joe telling me she never did. They had Westvleteren on offer, but I resisted and we went for the Westmalle Dubbel on tap. It might have been a little stale, but the low carbonation and a lean towards horseblankets with blackcurrant and a red wine-like tannic finish was hitting the spot.
Our final stop was the Delirium Café. Apparently it has a reputation of being a tourist spot, but it seemed to be mostly filled with young locals, with lots of singing of happy birthday. I quite liked the busy-ness, and the range of beers was impressive. We stayed upstairs where the taps were, and flicking through the book we were thrilled to see they had the Cosmos Porter from De Dolle. What can I say about this beer? Fantastic springs to mind. This has a rich, complex sourness resembling nothing so much as balsamic vinegar with heavily vinous, port-like undertones and a squeeze of lemon. Wonderfully rich and different. I can only hope that this becomes a regular brew and is made available in bottles. I was too stunned to take a photo really!
Cosmos Porter is a hard act to follow, so the Chouffe Houblon we finished the night on just couldn’t compete. Still, it was another heavy hop hitter with a really nice fruity undertone. I’d like to try it again with a clean palate.
I slept pretty well that night, but was still tired during my meeting the following morning. We finished up in good enough time for me to head back into the city centre and pop into Bier Tempel for a quick bit of shopping. Of course, I felt I really should buy some Westvleteren, so I picked up one each of the Blonde, 8 and 12, as well as some old friends like Rodenbach Grand Cru, Gouden Carolus and two new acquaintances, the Gouden Carolus hopsinjoor and a Cantillon Kriek. My cellar feels richer for it already.
Many thanks to Joe for giving me a cracking whirlwind tour of Brussels. I’ll be returning in two weeks for another short visit, so I know there’s plenty more to see!