Belgium. It is a daunting place, for someone who likes to think that he likes beer. The menus run to hundreds of brews, but it might as well be thousands, millions. And all (with the possible exception of some of the pilsners – take a bow, Stella) will be magnificent. True, not all will be to taste. Personally, I just don’t understand fruit beers. But if you’re going to insist on drinking flavoured beer, it might as well be Kriek.
A weekend in gorgeous Brugge (or Bruges, if you insist) in the snowy chill of February was both a delight and an exercise in restraint. I had decided that if I were not to drown in beer choices, I would have to set some rules. The first rule was easy enough: I was only to drink beers I had not tried before. So while I love Duvel, De Koninck and Grimbergen, all were barred to me, leaving only around 437 beers to try on the extensive menu at Cambrinus.
The next rules were less easy to observe. The ‘only drink local brews’ worked to a point. Local boy, Brugse Zot, is a tasty beer. Far from a lager or a pilsner, it is light and hoppy enough above the malt to be quaffable and quenching.
Its more refined and charming stable-mate, Straffe Hendrick is also brewed in the old city centre, at the Half Moon Brewery. Rich and malty, with a hefty 9% ABV, it is a charmer, one to savour in a brown café with a book. The dark variety certainly, is available at the Dovetail in Clerkenwell, although I haven’t spotted my preferred blond in London yet.
However, after the initial flurry of discovery it became difficult to spot local beers on the menus. Most are organised by style rather than terroir, and even where the locale is specified, my knowledge of Belgian geography is insufficiently developed. After only two attempts, my requests to bar keepers for ‘something local’ sounded horrifically touristy, so I rethought the rules.
Meanwhile, in the Brugs Beertje, another Brugge beer institution, I was directed to the Ranke XX Bitter, a really nice, very bitter Pale Ale. I’d happily sit and drink it all night, anywhere; but I wasn’t anywhere – I was in a temple to Belgian brewing with a sophisticated menu of over 300 brews. Inspired, I decided to focus, like the menu, on styles.
I started with Trappist beer, of course. Belgian Trappists are brewed in one of six remaining monasteries following this strict branch of the Cistercian order. They are top-fermented and mainly bottle conditioned, and each monastery typically produces a Dubbel and a Tripel variety. The Chimay White is their Tripel (and their blond) beer, and has a sweetness to balance the heft of its 8% abv bitterness.
But for me, the Westmalle Tripel, is a compact explosion of beer loveliness. Lots and lots of hops, and a softness that belies its 9.5% ABV. A single mouthful can be enjoyed for what seems like hours, rolling its creamy complexity around the tongue. Given its strength, it is maybe wise to take it slowly, although the beer goes down all too easily.
Somewhere in a Westmalle haze, I stumbled into the land of Lambic beer. I’ve already mentioned Kriek a cherry-infused staple of Belgian beer bars, and pretty much the archetype of my expectations of Lambic beer. But in a bottle of Boon Oude Geuze, I discovered a whole new world: no fruit but instead the strange sensation of drinking beer champagne, with the easy effervescence and sour biscuit notes of a decent bottle of fizz.
The intricacies of Lambic brewing produce a range of distinct and distinctive beers, aside from the Krieks and other fruit-infused beers I know from London boozing. I stuck with Geuze for a while, and the next day, back in Cambrinus, opted for a bottle of Geuze Girardin 1882. Slightly cloudy, this really did taste of champagne, but with a mouth-puckering sourness (which is much more pleasant than that might sound…)
Then it started to go wrong. Just as I was thinking that I had wandered into a Lambic wonderland, I tried a Lindemans Faro. I’m sure it’s a very fine example of its style, but it was horrifically sweet to my palate: a little like finding yourself with a glass of Lambrini when you were expecting Veuve Clicquot…
Fine, I thought. Not all Lambic beers are created equally; it’s a big world and each to their own. I decided to tighten the rules still further and limit myself to Geuze only. And then the Belle-Vue Gueze arrived.
Not a terrible beer by any means, but simply lacking all distinctiveness: a flabby, pasteurised beer that is instantly forgettable. It was nothing like the real thing, by which I mean the Girardin and especially the Boon Oude Gueze. The Boon will forever be the bench-mark against which all other Geuzes will be judged, and it was this, along with some bottles of Westmalle and Straffe Hendrik, that filled the staining carrier bags I hauled away from the Bier Tempel on the last morning of the trip. Next time, I promised myself, I’d give the red ales a go.