18 December 2009

Beer Run: Brussels

There are a lot of things one associates with Paris, but beer is probably not among them for most people. And for good reason. Despite the fact that there are a lot (hundreds) of breweries in France making interesting, even good, unfiltered unpasteurized beers in small batches, finding said beers in Paris is nearly impossible.

Or rather, finding them in a bar in Paris is nearly impossible. One can always find them at La Cave a Bulles, a beer specialty store in the shadow of the (still-crippled-by-strike) Centre Pompidou. The proprietor there, who shares both an amicable and enthusiastic personality and a fondness for tie-died t-shirts with the owner of one of my favorite beer-related places in Philly, will be happy to dispel the notion that Kronenbourg 1664 and Fischer, or the handful of barely interesting Belgian imports that are on tap everywhere in Paris, define French beer. Even so, in the 8 months we'd been in Paris, we'd developed a bit of a beer craving.

And when you live in Paris and have a real beer craving, your best bet is to head for the border. If, like one of the members of my family, you think anything that isn't a generic by-the-book lager "tastes like mud," you'd best head east for Germany. If you like variety in your beer, however, or even just like mud, Belgium's a good bit more fun.

We spent 5 days in Belgium in Nov indulging our interests in beer and mud, combining vacation, cyclocross Superprestige spectating, and (for Karen) work.

First things first: After getting off the train, we dropped our bags at the hotel and made a bee-line for Le Pré Salé, where Karen had the most amazing mussels of her life. They were so good, I rolled the dice and had not 1 but 2. Even if I'd wound up in the ER, it would have been worth it. The Duvel was a nice first beer, too.

We were in the Congo room at the hotel, where every room had a different theme. Thank heavens there was no Galveston room.

The mud part of the trip: the women's race at Cyclocross Gavere. Even the Belgian champion was having a rough go of it, with terrible chain suck on this last lap.

And the men's race a little later, when the 15,000-strong crowds made for SRO spectating.

Sunday afternoon at the Gent train station, and this is one of 2 bike parking lots.

The inside of the Gent train station, where we had a Westmalle Tripel while waiting for our (ultimately cancelled) train back to Brussels.

Based on the beer offerings in the better beer bars and restaurants in Brussels, it's hard to believe that there are more breweries in France than Belgium. Though Belgium has somewhere south of 150 breweries, they produce an astonishing number of beers: roughly 700-800 regular production beers and well over 5000 when special occasion (holidays, etc) beers are included. Like France and the US, a lot of the beer drunk in Belgium is rather uninteresting lager-- it's certainly what's on tap at the bike races: Primus, Jupiler, Maes. But the variety of other offerings includes wheat beers, blondes, ambers, browns, dubbels, tripels, and christmas beers, all with different flavorings and yeasts to produce an astonishing range of tastes, and also lambics and their cousins, still spontaneously brewed (ie, yeast is wild and from the air, not a laboratory-cultured specimen, and so unpredictable and ever-changing). We worked our way through the whole range, and although I felt beery enough when we got back to Paris to worry I may have tried all 5000, we surely fell well short of 1%. Karen, a committed hop-head, loved the beers from De Ranke, whose XX Bitter and Guldenberg scratched her hop itch. Their Noir de Dottignies was an exceptional black beer, as well. My favorite brew was the 100% 3-year-old lambic on down-draught (increasingly rare even in Brussels, a center of the traditional lambic brewing region) as an aperitif before lunch one day. Somewhere between cider, wine, and beer, sour and wild and smooth all at the same time. Sampling such a wide range of styles was most of the fun.

A bottled lambic from Cantillon (whose brewery is in Brussels) at Poechenellekelder. The exceptional draft lambic was a couple of days later at Bier Circus.

Still at Poechenellekelder, 2 Christmas beers: Kerst Pater and St Feuillien. We also spent an evening at Porte Noire, which was great but too dark for pictures.

Typical meal in Belgium, this one a leisurely lunch at In 't Spinnokopke: 2 orders of food and 6 beers.

Ste Catherine's square at night, home of a then-under-construction Christmas market, apparently one of the largest in Europe.

We had a couple of dud meals at relatively fancy/modern places in Brussels. This is the menu for the best meal we ate, at La Villette just off of Ste Catherine. Didn't get too far with this side...

... but being an officially bi-lingual city, the other side was more familiar. The food was simple but excellent, and the atmosphere was a lot more relaxed and friendly than most places in Paris.

The Musee d'Art Ancien housed amazing works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and even the bizarre works of Bosch were given a run for their money by this globe of beetles in the entry gallery.

Like the beer, the variety of architecture in Brussels was astonishing, especially coming from the Barron Haussmann theme park that is Paris. I've come to appreciate the consistency of style and color in Paris and the little details that make each building different, but the mixing of styles in Brussels was refreshing. Though the exuberance of the Grand Place is breathtaking, it was probably the number and variety of Art Nouveau buildings that most impressed, especially concentrated south of the main city in and around Ixelles, where Victor Horta, the Belgian architect often credited as the first to apply the developing decorative style to architecture, lived and worked. The remaining examples in the area range from exuberantly thematic designs to what appear to be later additions of art nouveau decorative elements to existing buildings. With the ponds and parks and rambling streets, it made for a great day's wanderings.

The guild houses at Grand Place in Brussels.

City Hall in Brussels, from the 1400s, the only part of Grand Place to survive pummeling by the pesky French in 1695.

One could never mistake this for Paris.

Remarkable details in an Art Nouveau building.

The mail slot in Horta's office/home.

Some buildings were as much canvas as building.

Loved the doors and windows in general, and especially the metal work.

Blending of Art Nouveau and the more traditional Flemish style.

Big apartment building with restrained Nouveau elements, including a very stylized carved signature of the architect at street level.

Hotel Solvay, designed by Horta but no longer a hotel, available for interior tours by appointment.

In short, no we'll have no problems with going back to Belgium. Cyclocross, beer, and site-seeing make a pretty good package.

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