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most people speak four languages and a Dubbel Blond comes met zachte en volmondige smaak, which may or may not be “spicy overtones and faintly-detectable sherry notes”.
Stella Artois is well known in the UK and we’re becoming familiar with other Belgian beers such as Hoegaarden, Duvel and Chimay, but it can be a confusing world of fruit beer, wheat beer, lambic, gueuze and oude bruin. Homework is recommended before your trip but if you find yourself in unfamiliar surroundings, faced with a battalion of branded glasses hanging upside down – indicating that the tiny bar you have ambled into actually has a beer for every one of them – sit down, ask for the beer list and pore. Every bar, café and restaurant has a beer menu, they’re usually well-presented sheets bound in plastic wallets. And if you do choose unwisely – you can never really make a mistake – put it down to three euros or so of experience, a talking point and a kick of alcohol.Tourist-light bars are only minutes on foot from the centre of town – for example, De Belleman Pub squats on the corner of Gevangenisstraat and Josef Suveestraat, overlooking the duckpond in Queen Astrid Park, which is more mundane than it sounds and perhaps one of the reasons that tourists to Bruges rarely venture far from the gothic façades of the central Markt. But that’s not to say the likes of the magnificent Craenenburg honeypot with its yellowed walls, elaborate stained glass and rustic furniture is to be dismissed. Absorb the relaxed mood there, sample the local delicacies and marvel, just marvel, at those beers.
Meanwhile, in the steadily busy De Belleman (Town Crier) the barmaid pours Tongerlo Abbey Beer with a conjurer’s sleight of hand. It’s one swift movement of the bottle, a “now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t” action – flip top, quick pour, large head. She knows instinctively when there’s about a centimetre of liquid left in the bottle – when the yeast sediment is about to surge – and it’s her signal to stop. The frothy overflow is whipped off with a large spatula, the base of the glass is dunked in a shallow sink, pressed
onto absorbent paper and placed on a beermat. This has taken seconds, just like that. She’s now ready for her next request to flip, pour, scrape, dip, dry and present.
The bar/café is long and narrow with a plain tiled floor and upholstered seating that settles on the plush side of functional. Hundreds of pot jugs hang from the ceiling and above the counter. Currency from virtually every nation on Earth is pinned up around the room; there’s a pipe rack on one wall and the stacks of CDs behind the bar suggest it’s a music venue. Lily The Pink on the stereo confirms otherwise.
Belgian speciality beers are fiercely associated with individual towns, villages or districts, so when in Bruges, it’s advisable to do as the burghers do. After Lily’s medicinal compound has given way to some other Sixties “classic” we concentrate on Brugse Zot (6.0% abv), a fairly malty beer with a biscuity rush and a touch of fruity hop. It’s been brewed in the heart of Bruges since 1856 by De Halve Maan (Half Moon), the only remaining family brewer in the city.
Folklore has it that in 1480, the city organised a colourful procession of high-spirited merry-makers and jesters to welcome Maximilian, the Emperor of Austria, following his marriage to Mary, daughter of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. At the end of the tour they asked him to contribute funds to a new lunatic asylum. He replied: “I have seen nothing but fools here today. Bruges is one great big lunatic asylum.” The city’s inhabitants have been known as Brugge Zotten (Fools) since.
A Brugse Straffe Hendrik Blond (6.0% abv) accompanies our €10 lunch at Ter Burg restaurant on Philpstockstraat. This refreshing crystal wheat beer breezes along with a fine vegetable soup starter followed by steak, salad, frites and the inevitable mayonnaise, a Belgian staple accompaniment.
Directly opposite Ter Burg is Cambrinus, a recently-refurbished, very stylish bar – therefore pricey. The decor is studied to the point of artificiality but all the same its well thought-out features include tables with a brass rail surround, high-backed pew seating, and a beer menu presented in a wooden cover.
Hanssens Oude Gueze (6.0% abv), a bottle-conditioned lambic beer matured in oak barrels (lambics are spontaneously fermented by airborne yeasts) is flipped, poured, scraped, dipped, etc. It is sour, bitter, fruity and utterly beguiling. And who could resist the lunch menu’s suggestie of fillet of hare in Oude Brugge beer, cheese croquet and bacon, game and cranberry sauce, and a mousseline of Trappist beer? When in Bruges, do as gourmets do.
Brugs Beertje (Little Bruges Bear) is one of those pubs where a life-enhancing experience comes free with the flourish of the 300-strong, table-service, beer list. It’s not only worth searching side streets for (5 Kemelstraat), it should be part of the pre-trip homework, else an utter gem could be easily missed – it doesn’t open until 4pm, for instance.
Old advertising signs decorate the walls in the two small rooms and the scrubbed tables wobble on the mosaic floor. And is there something deeply sensual about a scattering of tiny tables for two, or is it the effect of De Verboden Vrucht at 9.0% abv? The slightly irritating classical music background – pseudo-Mozart when soft jazz would suit – is quickly overwhelmed by the scraping of chairs and the excited chatter of a stream of locals flowing in after work.
Brugs Beertje is unpretentious and very impressive, as is the magnificently flipped and poured Gouden Carolus Tripel Blond (9.0% abv) with its aromas of orange peel and coriander. That’s two beers down mnand only 298 on the menu to go. When in Bruges, do as gourmands do.
Keiser Karel Speciaal Bier, met kopperode nuances en een alcoholvolume van 9.0%, is a dark, sweet strong ale from Brouerij Haacht, the largest independent brewery in Belgium. Two hundred and ninety seven.
Countdowns 296, 295 and 294 introduce themselves as Belle-Vue Kriek, Petrus Tripel and De Keersmaeker Faro. The mood is mellowing, Mozart is becoming quite acceptable and Flemish tongues are beginning to sound understandable.
Shortly, Delerium Tremens (293) appears unshaken and ’T Brugs Beertje’s menu continues to entice with Kwak, Orval, Gigi, Big Chouffe and Dentergem Witbier. There is also one called Silly (countdown 286).
Emperor Maximilian of Austria was wrong. There are no fools in Bruges.
A DAY IN BRUGES
Tourists on bikes, students on bikes, kids on bikes, businessmen on bikes – bikers with nary a Lycra-clad thigh, aerodynamic helmet, wraparound shades or any sign of all-terrain, multi-geared flashiness flit everywhere in Bruges, Belgium.
Dressed in everyday clothes, commuters and tourists alike whizz past de Bier Tempel, glide in front of Jerry’s Cigar Bar, vibrate on the cobbles outside The Bottle Shop, and rattle on to the Bierboetiek. Bruges, the architecturally Disney-esque city, is simply full of bikes. But, apart from striding in sensible shoes, it’s one of the best ways to get around its charming narrowness – particularly if you don’t fancy a canal boat glide or pony and trap trip. Best of all though, it’s full of pubs and specialist beer shops – a paradise for the self-propelled where
IT'S ABOUT EVERY AGE GROUP
More than ever we need pub owners with the vision and determination to do something that will persuade people to venture out on a wet Tuesday when Holby City might seem the better option. We have plenty of them around the North East and the better ones are doing very well, thank you very much.
Entrepreneurial publican Dave Carr is one such chap.
Alastair Gilmour writes about beer and breweries and pubs and people from a variety of perspectives. Media outlets include The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne; Brewers’ Guardian, and Cheers North East.
Meet and Drink writer Alastair Gilmour regularly conducts beer events throughout the UK and internationally – tours and tastings that have included a platform suspended 30 metres above the River Tyne and a real ale festival in a Moscow nightclub – and was for several years on the judging panel of the Pilsner Urquell International Master Bartender programme. [READ MORE]
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