Belgian Beer Break

With the exception of a quick recap of the Cold Specks performance at Feeërieën 2012, this is not a music post. This is more along the lines of a personal travel blog, so maybe it doesn’t belong on this site, but it’s my site and I can do whatever I want with it.  And I figure most of my followers are probably into beer and travel as well, so what the hell.  Read on if you like, or just wait for the next music post if you don’t.

Believe it or not, this blog is not my ‘real’ job.  I make a living as a sales engineer selling data protection and cloud-based disaster recovery solutions.  Recently, I was presented with an opportunity at an industry-leading company with best-of-breed technology that will considerably cut down on my business related travel and provide more room for growth.  The one caveat is that this company is a direct competitor to the one in which I am leaving.  So when I gave my 2 weeks notice, they obviously cut me off immediately.  Technically, I would be on the books for two weeks, but I would not be allowed to work, or to start my new job.  That left me in a position of a forced paid vacation.  Never one to pass up a chance to take a trip, I booked a ticket to Belgium.

Music has always been a huge part of my life, but for many years there was one thing that trumped it…travel.  It started with a work trip to India in 2001 and continued on (pretty non-stop) through the end of the decade.  Trips trough 50+ countries, 6 continents, all 50 states.  The majority of these were solo, including 6 months in SE Asia in between my last two jobs, so it never phased me that I would have to take this last minute beer break in Belgium solo.  It wasn’t until after I got there that I realized I am a very different person than I was when it was just me and my backpack on a dirty bus heading north on a broken highway in Myanmar.  Now, Brussels and Bruges are a far cry from foreign when compared to countries like Laos, Tibet, Tanzania and Ukraine, but this was the first time it felt like work trying to get my bearings.  This was the first time I actually had open communications and up-to-date GPS at all times (via iPhone), but it was also the first time I felt truly removed from my world.  Blame it on being out of practice, blame it on staying in hotels instead of hostels and guesthouses (Hilton points for everything), blame it on being in my mid-30’s instead of mid-20’s, blame it on having people at home that I wish were with me, even blame it on how most of the adventure has been taken out it by having constant access to technology — I can think of many factors to blame, but the overall result is that the solo traveler in me has died.  This is not to say I didn’t have a good time.  I had a great time.  What I am saying is that what follows is my account of my last single occupancy international adventure — something I never thought I’d say with a smile on my face.

Having been to Brussels before, on the day Belgium beat Russian 3-2 in the World Cup, I didn’t feel the need to do much in the way of sightseeing, so the first day I slept away my jet lag in a room that more resembled a closet than the Hilton rooms I’ve become accustom to.  This was my first mistake.  The experienced traveler in me knows never to sleep on the first day, even if you do arrive at 8am after 16 hours of travel, but evidently he was too tired to give me any advice.  I didn’t wake up until almost dark, but as soon as I did, I went for a walk to get a handle on my surroundings.  I got to the park (Warandepark or Parc Royal) just in time to catch the announcement for Spookhuisje, a one man, drone / electric guitar act.  A lot of what was said was lost in translation, but I did catch that he is influenced by Jimi Hendrix and has some kind of association with Stephen O’ Malley of Sunn O))) fame.  Not exactly something you’d expect at a free concert in the park in U.S.  The crowd was a mixture of hipsters, artists and older folks of the bohemian type.  His set started out a little flat, but by the end, the Hendrix/Sunn O))) references made sense.  This free festival was part of a series called Feeërieën 2012 and one of my favorite new acts was up next.

Cold Specks dub themselves ‘doom soul’ and are led by Al Spx from Canada.  Their debut album, I Predict A Graceful Expulsion, showcases not only her deeply moving, Deep South soul pipes, but also an underbelly of blood and grit rarely heard in modern soul acts.  The stage, set in a gazebo among the trees, bathed in low blue light, was the perfect setting to see them perform live.  Backed by a full 6 piece band, including a seasoned saxophonist, Spx instantly took the crowd by the throat and didn’t let go until she’d exhausted the entire album, as well as a few traditional tunes.  The band proved worthy of her company, but it was when they took a step back and let her go acapella that her talent outshone even the disco balls that were speckling the space with white light.  After an hour, the set was done and the believers made their way out of the dark park and into the streets of the city.

Following the crowd for awhile, I ended up veering off on my own to find my way to Moeder Lambic Fontainas, where “beer is the answer”.  The whole reason I decided on Belgium as my destination was the beer.  I recently took a tour of New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins and the story of Jeff Lebesch’s trip to Belgium had stuck with me ever since.  My rediscovery of craft beer made this small country an obvious choice.  Unfortunately, I had been in the city for almost a full day and the only beer I’d had was the mediocre Jupiler pale lager that was served at the concert.  Not exactly something to travel across the Atlantic for.  Moeder Lambic Fontainas was sure to serve up something much more worth the trip.  Acting as a larger, more central sister to the original Moeder Lambic, this bar has no less than 46 unique beers on tap, which is rare in a country that mostly serves from the bottle.  An impressive bar, nook areas with seating and a large beer garden, all with slick modern furnishings, proved why this is one of highest rated beer bars in the world.

It was a warm enough evening to take a seat outside, which I did.  The staff was extremely helpful with picking out a few choice brews to quench my thirst.  Starting out with an excellent 9.5% Adelardus Triple, I made my way on to an ok Monk’s Stout before wrapping up with a tasty 10.5% Val-Dieu Grand Cru.  At that point the only thing I’d ate in the past 24 hours was the malted barley they brought to the table, so I decided to make my way back to the hotel…where my buzz got the best of me.  The bar was closing up, so I had a quick Grimbergen Dubbel before falling in with a group of guys who ended up pouring themselves beers from the unmanned taps.  I let them pour me a large glass of Leffe right before we got busted by hotel staff.  An embarrassing moment that put my first night to rest.  It was 4am.

Good thing I didn’t need to see the sights, because I ended up sleeping away a good portion of the next day as well.  But that night I finally got some good food in me before heading to the Delirium complex.  A suite of bars and cafes, Delirium’s beer basement boasts 2,004 selections of bottled beer, all with their own unique glass.  Extremely cool in theory, and the place itself really is pretty extraordinary, it does become something like a frat house as the night approaches dawn.  By midnight you can barely move within the confines of the establishment, let alone along the small alleys in between, and by 3am the onslaught of belligerent souls is almost too much to take.   I made my rounds through the cafe, basement and Hoppy Loft (with a familiar selection of foreign beers such as Stone and Great Divide), but this was one of those times I really wish I had a friendly face to converse with.  It’s hard to speak to people with broken English when they’ve consumed enough beer to make an Irishman puke.  The highlights of my night were an aged bottle of Orval, the La Rullés Brune (recommended as a good brown by the bartender), and the closest thing to an IPA I would have while in Belgium, the Houblon Couffe IPA Tripel.

The initial plan was to stay in Brussels the entire week, but in an attempt to break my vampirish ways, I threw a few essentials in a backpack, checked my luggage at the Hilton, and made my way to the depressing place they call Brussels North station (a place that I would come to despise in a few days).  Less than an hour later I was in Bruges.  If you’ve ever seen the movie with Colin Farrell, you’ll know that this quaint capital of the Flemish Region is all medieval architecture and cobblestone streets…with a bell tower.  I went there for the sole purpose of getting out of Brussels for a bit, but walking those streets, photographing that architecture and drinking beers in various bars made for a great 24 hours In Bruges.

The city center is a quick walk from the train station and I made it just before the rain came in force, so my initial introduction to the the Markt was through sheets of water, from a huddle of people taking shelter in a doorway.  But the storm left as quickly as it came, leaving San Francisco weather for the remainder of my trip. I made my way across the wet stone streets to the closest hotel, checked in and got out quickly — not wanting to risk finding the bed and sleeping away yet another day.  Instead I spent the day aimlessly bouncing around the city, while every so often stopping in a bierbrasserie for a beer or a bite.  At one of these, Cambrinus, I found a goldmine of flavor in their Trappist cheese croquette and Westvleteren 12 (dubbed ‘the best beer in the world’).  This small snack and bottle of dark beer was one of those ‘ahhhh’ moments you only have when traveling.  It’s when you put the phone away, tune out everything else and just enjoy where you are, what you are doing…and more importantly, what you are tasting.

The Trappists are an order of monks who date back to the 1660’s.  They brew beer (and make various other products such as cheese) to sell in order to support their monastic lifestyle.  These products are of such high quality that many companies started using the Trappist name for products that only resembled those produced by the monks themselves, but in 1997 an international association created a logo that can be used to differentiate true Trappist products from imitators.  Today there are only 7 monasteries that brew true Trappist beer, 6 of which are in Belgium.  Chimay is the largest and most widely known, followed by Westmalle and Orval, all of which are usually available in the U.S., but some of the smaller ones, such as  Rochefort, Achel and Westvleteren are much more limited in production.  This is why the Westvleteren beers go for as much as 10€ even in Belgium, and as much $18 for an empty bottle on eBay.

The rules for an authentic Trappist beer require that the beer is brewed (or at least overseen) by the monks, at the monastery, as secondary importance, in true monastic style and not for profit.  A lot of these beers use water from wells within the monastery (abbey) as well.  Because these are not for profit, they usually only brew enough beer to live, which explains why beers like the Westvleteren12, which you can only buy by appointment, one case at a time, at the abbey itself, go for so much on the ‘grey market’.

I wish I knew more about Belgian beers, so I could get a little experimental with the beer bibles they hand you at each bar, but in Bruges I got a little lazy and decided to spend my time working my way through the Trappist brews that I knew would not disappoint.  I finished up with a Chimay Bleue and Westmalle Dubbel at the small, cozy ‘t Brugs Beertje before calling in a night around 1am — finally finding myself in step with the time zone.

Once back in Brussels, it was time for the beer tour I had booked online before leaving Colorado.  Unfortunately you cannot tour the Trappist breweries, so a tour that advertised beer education, with a visit to a brewery and a beer bar from 1695, seemed promising.  It turned out to be even better than expected.  Belgium, like the U.S., not only has a great (if not the best) craft beer scene, but they also have their own Coors and Budweiser.  In fact, they live under the same bland umbrella, Anheuser-Busch InBev.  Stella Artois, Leffe and Jupiler are just a few of these ‘brands’.  It was just a coincidence that these ‘corporate brands’ were holding their annual Belgian Beer Weekend in the Grand Place on the same day we met there for our tour.  The guide, Caesar from Argentina, took advantage of this to explain the difference between making beer for profit and making beer out of love, even going as far as to quiz an 80-year-old InBev brewmaster about the inclusion of corn in Stella Artois and the evils of pasteurization.  It was immediately evident that this guide, who swore he was not a ‘beer snob’, was at the very least extremely ‘anti-corporation’.

The first bar he brought us to, Au Bon Vieux Temps, had been around since 1695, and it ended up becoming my favorite bar thus far.  Dark, musty and tucked away in a corner down an alleyway…it met with all my preconceived notions of what a Belgian beer bar should be.  It was here that he had us order by color.  Our choices were light, dark or amber.  He didn’t want us to choose by brand, but but color and mood.  He claimed that before Michael Jackson (the beer expert, not King of Pop) decided to label everything before dying due to cirrhosis of the liver (which I don’t even believe is true), they just drank by flavor, weather, etc.  There were no labels and brands.  Being an American, I do like to label things, so I’d like to note that when I ordered a dark, I got a Rochefort 8, which became my staple for the rest of the trip.

Over beers he explained the differences between dubbels, tripels, quads, sours, etc.  He told the stories of the Trappists and how so many beers are now called ‘abbey’ because they can no longer claim Trappist.  I could go on about everything I learned, but it would take too long.  One interesting note is that he claimed the IPAs in the U.S. are not balanced.  He doesn’t understand them.  Hops are preservatives.  He tasted Stone’s Double Dry Hopped IPA, given to him by Greg Koch personally, and asked “why not just eat the plant?”  He also complained that New Belgium’s logo has an American bike.  Like I said, very anti-brand, and very set in his ways, but don’t take that to mean he was rude, the guy was extremely personable and knowledgeable when it came to Belgian beers and I highly recommend his tour.

The next stop on the tour was probably the most interesting thing I saw my entire trip. Brasserie-Brouwerij Cantillon.  A fourth generation, family owned brewery on the outskirts of Brussels that specializes in lambic beers.  I have always known lambic to be a form of sour beer, but I had never been educated in how it was made.  Essentially it is just like any other beer, brewed with water, grain, hops and yeast, yet this beer uses aged hops and spontaneous fermentation.  This form of fermentation is the cool part.  Essentially, it allows you to actually taste the place in which the beer was made.  The way it was explained to us is that in the old days, beer was made of water, grain and magic.  The magic being the fermentation process.  Instead of the brewers yeast that is used today, the yeast that lives in the air would would take care of fermentation, hence why different beers from different regions would have a different flavor, and even the flavors from different batches in the same place would vary.  At Cantillon they still do this.  In fact, they do it in an old wooden, spider-webbed attic in the brewery itself.  The wort is pumped into an area where it sits and ferments naturally.  In fact, everything about this brewery is organic, or as Caesar explained it, it is done the way it was before chemistry.  Chemistry is the reason Guinness can now be reproduced in various countries, but still taste exactly like it does out of Ireland.  With Cantillon, if the building were to burn down, the product would never exist again…at least not the same product.  And because every batch is different, there is a blending process.  The lambic goes in oak barrels to age, but the blending is the art of mixing batches to get the right flavor for the final product.  It then goes in bottles or kegs where the Champagne fermentation process happens.

Hopefully, I got all that right.  But what I know for sure is that the end result is a variety of sour beers — some flat (lambic), some with bubbles (gueuze) and some with sour cherries (kriek).  One of my favorite sours I had was their Mamouche, which had elderberries added to give it a little spicy kick to augment the sour.

We ended our tour at Moeder Lambic Fontainas, the same place I went after the Cold Specks show.  After all the sour, he wanted us to try something bitter and something sweet.  My bitter was an ok Tara Boulba Pale Ale from de la Senne and my sweet was Bloesem Bink from Kerkom, which was actually very good for a fruit beer.  And with that, Caesar bid us farewell with a few dinner recommendations.  Recommendations that we took him up on.

3 Americans, 2 Canadians and 2 Russians walk into a French restaurant…  L’Estaminet du Kelderke.  The night was filled with conversation, humour, 16-year-old Sicilian waiters who can’t touch money, and Russians eating horsesteak, and I’ve got to say, it was so nice to be around a group of people for a length of time.  Dinner was only ok, but the company was great.  The beer tour that started that afternoon didn’t finish until well after midnight for our group.  By far the best day I’d had in Belgium…and once again, I was tired at a time when I was supposed to be tired.  I crashed out around 1am and woke up fresh for my last full day…

The last day was spent snapping quick pictures of the sights, buying chocolate for my wife, stuffed animals for my daughter and beer glasses for myself.  It was a crystal clear day — a perfect day to make the rounds one last time.  I ate a waffle, had the Carbonnades Flamandes (made with Rochefort 8) at a outside cafe, and had one last beer at each of my favorite bars.  Ok, maybe more than one.  Most of the evening was spent running through the Cantillon cask selection at Moeder Lambic Fontainas.  I meant to make it down to the original Moeder Lambic, but I lost my ambition and went to Au Bon Vieux Temps for one more (overpriced, but oh so good) Westvleteren12.

Once I got back to the hotel, I realized I had bought too much beer to take home, so I drank a few while packing up.  I was having an internal debate whether to just spend 50€ on a taxi to the airport, or to go back to that shitty train station for a 4€  ride.  Those of you who know me, know I wouldn’t have thought twice a few years ago, but the fact that I could take my family to dinner when I got home for 50€ made me decide to stop being so lazy.  Walk the 5 minutes to the train station and suffer the 15 minute ride.  I went to bed at 3am and woke up at 9am, confident I was doing to right thing.

The train pulled up to platform 5 at 9:35 and it pulled away at 9:39am…right on time. Except that it was going the wrong way!  25 minutes later, it finally stopped for the first time.  I got off.  It was obvious I was not at the airport.

The conductor on the first train to come through couldn’t speak English, but he did know the word airport, he knew how to laugh, and 10 minutes later he learned the word ‘safari’ to explain what I had done.  I was not amused.  By the time I got on the right track, I had missed my flight.  United informed me, in the nicest way possible, that I would not be getting back to Denver until the next day.  The train safari ended up costing 11€.   To change my flight cost $80.  My hotel for the night cost $100.  The taxi to the airport the next morning was 30€.  As it turns out, trying save a little money is not my strong suit.

The next day everything went as smooth as it could go.  I got home 24 hours later than expected, but no harm, no foul.  It’s all in the game.  My wife and I enjoyed one of the  Westvleteren12s I was able to bring home, and then I had a nice Deviant Dale’s IPA…and in its huge hoppiness, it was the most amazing unbalanced glass of beer I’ve ever had!