31 December 2009

A return to Belgium pt 2: Beer

Though we'd vaguely discussed it before heading for Spain, we hadn't really planned to go to Belgium this past week. And so when Christmas Day rolled around, we had no hotels, no car rented, no logistical leg work completed to get us there.

And though through the wonder of the internet we'd managed to take care of most of the details by the night of the 26th, we were still without a hotel for the next night near or in Brussels. Diegem, the location of the day's (late) races, is very near the Brussels airport, which is on the side of town we'd need to drive through to get to Anwerpen the next day. So it was a no-brainer to stay in an airport hotel for the few hours we'd actually be there.

But I'd just read here about a good new beer bar downtown that we'd somehow missed in our visit earlier in the month, and in order to pay a real visit, we'd have to stay downtown. So it came down to convenience and common sense vs. beer. Common sense never had a chance. I just hoped that the bar was worth the trouble.

In fact, the beer bar in question, Moerder Lambic Fontainas, made the decision one of the best moves we've made this year. A cool modern spot on Fontainasplein just north of the Aneessens tram stop, the bar has about 40 taps, including 6 hand pumps used for lambics and other spontaneous fermentation cousins (gueuze, kriek, faro), 4 different beers from De Ranke (XX Bitter, Guldenberg, Pere Noël, and Noir de Dottignies), several each from Slaghmuylder and Abbaye du Val Dieu, and 11 beers of the month. In US beer bars, beer on tap is highly valued. In Belgium, where many beers are made in a manner to tolerate and even benefit from some aging, the bottle is king. So this big collection of taps is really something. And if you can't find something you like among the 40-ish on tap, they have another 100 or so in bottles.

The tap beer menus at Moeder Lambic are pretty amazing. It's kinda scary to think of ordering these by the liter.

The interior at Moeder Lambic proves that a good Belgian beer bar doesn't have to be dark wood or a cave. Note the glassware. Every brewery (and sometimes even a specific beer) has its own glass, which they take very seriously in Belgium. Even the bottled water comes with its own branded glass. When you offer 150-some beers, that's a lot of glassware.

We expected that the bar would offer only light food, so we'd had a big lunch before the races at a Thai restaurant (yeah, it was pretty much what you'd fear) in Diegem. But the food at the bar turned out to be a perfect dinner itself. A couple of quiches that came with big bowls of fresh salad vegetables (not easy to find good fresh raw vegetables in restaurants, let alone bars, in Belgium, or France, or Spain, or ...), and a platter of salumi (sliced chorizo, a garlic sausage, an ungarlicky salami, and a small but delicious piece of paté made with gueze) with good brown bread and -- be still my heart -- a substantial disk of the phenomenal salted raw-milk butter from Pascal Beillevaire. Great beer AND great butter-- are you kidding me? I'm having my mail forwarded there starting tomorrow. And while I've never really understood why people here use butter with ham or sausage, that didn't stop me from eating the sausages plain and using the bread as a vehicle for most of that mound of awesome butter.

Beer-wise, I tried all 3 of their draft lambics (Drie Fonteinen, De Cam, and Cantillon), which were young but still fun and very different from each other, before a Val Dieu Noël and a very nice Bons Voeux from Brasserie Dupont. When Karen said the last reminded her somehow of foie gras, I wondered what she was smoking, but I'll be darned, even though it didn't taste overtly of foie gras to me, I could see the association. I was happy that it didn't remind of deep fried mystery meat kabobs, instead. Being a hop head, Karen enjoyed the De Ranke offerings. Our waiter, a friendly fellow with glasses that were missing 1 arm who apologized for his excellent English (damn Europeans and their linguistic superiority), also suggested a couple of saisons from Brasserie Jandrain-Jandrenouil made with American hops (amarillo, I'm guessing from the grapefruity taste description), but we'd hit the wall by then. No matter-- even without them, it was a great evening in a great new place.

Funny Girl amused by the foie gras beer (Brasserie Dupont's Bons Voeux), which, before anyone says is being served in the wrong glass, was served in a glass branded for another of Brasserie Dupont's brews.

And so it wasn't surprising that we left Brussels for Antwerpen a little later the next morning than we'd originally hoped. Being Monday, virtually all of the museums in Antwerpen were closed, so that left the impressive cathedral, the Grote Markt, St Paul's church/Sint-Pauluskerk, some meandering site seeing, and 4 beer havens on our to-do list. We started with a visit to Paters Vaetje for lunch, since it was just a couple blocks from our hotel and a few steps from the cathedral. The beer list was nothing like the night before, but there were some solid choices, including both an OK winter beer from De Koninck (local to Antwerpen) and the always excellent Triple Karmeliet on tap.

Paters Vaetje from the loft. It was crowded when we got there, but I heard only Dutch. Lots of shaved heads in Antwerp.

The cathedral is dedicated to the assumption of Mary, as the painting (amazingly, in Antwerp, not by Rubens) high in the cupola depicts.

Skating in front of town hall, around the statue of Silvio Brabo throwing the defeated giant's hand (Antwerpen means/sounds similar to "hand throwing"). The Gote Markt and Meir were crowded, but like the bar, mostly with locals. It's always great seeing the natives use these otherwise touristy areas themselves.

The main difference between the guild houses in Antwerpen and Brussels is that the ones in Antwerpen were built behind a giant penguin.

The bizarre artificial gotto outside the lovely St Paul's church.

't Waagstuk, stop number two on the beer train, turned out to be closed for the holiday week but provided an excuse to wander through the neighborhoods north of the more tourist-filled center. The physical city of Antwerpen is very nice, with an interesting mix of architectural styles and feels. But wandering around those neighborhoods on Monday mid afternoon, the streets were completely and eerily deserted. Where on earth was everybody? The answer is that they were all out walking and shopping on Meir, the pedestrian-only 3-lane-wide shopping street that runs from town hall on Grote Markt to Central Station. It was packed. Though perhaps best known as a capital in the stodgy diamond business, Antwerpen has also become something of a fashion center, with young Flemish designers making names for themselves (for designer and shopping info, see here).

We'd have stopped to check some of that out, but we had to get to 't Oud Arsenal, where whatever Antwerpians weren't on the Meir had congregated for refreshment. It's clear from the way the place is set up that it's no stranger to crowds. There are a few tables along the perimeter of the room, but there's a lot of open space in the middle to accommodate standers. There were so many people in the place we almost turned around and left, but we were glad we didn't, because both the beer and the atmosphere were great. The clientele was mixed, with tables of older folks, especially women, drinking trappist ales and groups standing with glasses of Stella Artois. The bottled beer list is full of solid candidates supplemented with some beers of the season (eg, Kerstbier's Santa Bee) and modestly aged (2-3 year) beers of interest. We started with some of the aged Trappist offerings, a 2-year old Orval and the 3-year old Rochefort 8 and 10 degrees-- very nice, with deeper and more complex flavors than the unaged versions-- before trying the Achel trappist beers. I wish I'd tried the aged Troubadour Obscura, but that's life.

No tea party, this. These ladies at Oud Arsenal prefer beverages of the malty fermented variety.

A mystery box at Oud Arsenal. We pondered its purpose over some suds.

As we made our way through the beers, we managed to move to the only standing-height table in the room near the back. The restroom door was covered with coasters on which people from different places had written toilet/wc/restroom in their native languages: greek, japanese, swedish, etc. More mystifying was a wooden box with 48 numbered slots in it. I posited that it was for car keys-- they'd be safe there until one came back the next day to collect them, having taken a cab home the previous night. But then a fellow came over and excused himself (in English, for our benefit) as he placed a folded bill in one of the slots, so we took the opportunity to ask about it. It's actually a kind of bank. You put money in throughout the year (minimum of 6.50 euro-bucks a week, but as much beyond that as you wish). You get the amount you put in back in cash at the end of the year, and the interest it earns is given back to you in the form of good and services, though not, as I'd have hoped, in the form of beer. It's kind of like a social club for (48) regulars of the bar-- there was a list of events and who was hosting them above the box, and they include small trips, local outings, barbeques, etc. Cool idea, and the fellow who chatted with us was really nice, confirming that it's often the interactions that determine one's impression of a place. We'll definitely go back there if we're in Antwerpen again.

We didn't make it to the last of our planned beer places, the grand-daddy of them all called The Kulminator, where there's an obscenely large beer list and it's possible to try, for a price, a large selection of seriously aged beer. They don't open until after 8.00 on Mondays, and we had dinner with the Yozells (including Westmalle triple, St Bernadus triple, and a couple of Corsendonks, so not too shabby), instead, which was more fun than another beer bar. Just another reason to make it back to Antwerpen, sometime.

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