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Beer In Bruges: Cambrinus, Westvleteren and The Dilemma Of St Sixtus

August 26, 2011 9 comments

Over the last few posts it’s probably become clear that my favourite places to drink in Bruges (De Garre; t’Brugs Beertje) could generally be described as classic examples of brown cafés, serving wonderful beer and some simple food and nibbles in a relaxed atmosphere. However there are of course other types of premises that serve great beer, not least quite a few restaurants and brasseries.

Cambrinus, although it has a bar at which you can sit, is probably best described in UK terms as a brasserie. It’s supposedly styled on an English pub, but reminds me more of an American version of one, with a focus on food and table service, such as Mug’s Ale House in Brooklyn.

When we went on a Sunday night there were quite a few families and a birthday party. The staff were helpful and informed, if at times just slightly abrupt. The one thing that did jar a little was the music: a constant stream of power ballads including “Wind of Change” by The Scorpions, which somehow seems to have been absolutely ubiquitous everywhere on the continent since 1991.

The beer list at Cambrinus is incredibly expansive and presented in a menu with the dimensions of an old telephone directory. After having read Jose from Beer Nerd’s account of his visit I really wanted to try the Westvleteren beers. However, I did have some qualms about buying them. The website of the Abbey of St Sixtus of Westvleteren states in respect of the beer, which is sold only from the Abbey and visitor’s centre for a very reasonable price:

Westvleteren Trappist is sold only to individual customers. Every customer agrees not to re-sell the beer to any third party.  [their emphasis]

So Cambrinus, or whoever sold the beer to Cambrinus, is selling the beers contrary to the wishes of the brewers, who have imposed this condition in accordance with their own beliefs regarding the duties of a monastic brewer. The Abbey could of course earn a fortune from the beer (given its reputation), but they don’t want to, and crucially, don’t want anyone else to either.

The effect of this is of course to create a ravenous grey market for these legendary beers. I can see that today a single bottle of Westvleteren 12, which is routinely rated the best beer in the world on US rating sites, goes for about $25 on ebay.com.

However I managed to set aside my moral qualms and tried the two beers that were available (they were out of Abt/12), for around €8-11 each: the Westvleteren Blonde before dinner and the Westvleteren Extra 8 afterwards. The Blonde had a musty, resiny quality and was very enjoyable if not mindblowing, which you wouldn’t expect of the style in any event. It went well with a simple farmhouse beer pâté starter.

For the main course I had Dover sole. This was very nice, simply fried in butter and served with a huge porcelain cone of chips. With this I wanted a pale hoppy beer so went for a Lefebvre Hopus. This came with an enormous glass with a gothic design and poured with a pretty huge head. I could imagine the Finnish Eurovision metallers Lordi guzzling from these glasses as busty bat-winged succubi cavort before them. Anyway, it was just what I fancied: quite sweet, refreshing (especially for 8.3%) and pleasantly hoppy with a lasting bitter aftertaste.

I had the Westvleteren Extra 8 after dinner and it was everything I expected of a very good dubbel, given my moderate previous experience of the style. It was a nice brown, cola colour and had a sweet, malty, yeasty aroma. The taste included chocolate, liquorice and raisins and was a very pleasant beer to end the meal with.

So as regards Cambrinus, I would say that the food was straightforward Belgian cuisine done well, with Kate also enjoying a rich Flemish carbonnade and some great chips.  The service was helpful and efficient but perhaps a little too so at times: they took away my chips when I was still picking at them! A truly heinous chipcrime, in my book.  The atmosphere (if you can cope with the power ballads) was upbeat and buzzy if not in any way romantic.  The beer list, however, is indisputably great, so if you visit I will leave you to struggle with the Dilemma Of St Sixtus.

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Beer In Bruges: Erasmus, Viven Imperial IPA and De Dolle Bos Keun

August 23, 2011 2 comments

This was a bit of an odd one.  Erasmus was one of the places I’d read about a number of times before coming to Bruges and had been described as a must-visit.  I understand that it’s a hotel that has had an exceptional beer bar for some years but which, over time, has become more of a restaurant. 

We went in and took a window seat in the modern, minimalist restaurant when it was very quiet at around 3pm on a Sunday.  However the beer list on the menu seemed oddly curtailed, with less than two dozen beers.  I was very confused, not least because we were sitting by a window that boasted of the “200 artisan Belgian ales” (or similar) on offer.

After a slightly awkward (verging on cryptic, I thought) conversation, the gentleman serving us explained that, due to recent renovations, there wasn’t as much room in the cellar as there had been, so there simply wasn’t space to store all those beers any more.  However he said that there was a small selection of interesting beers downstairs, although he didn’t have them on a list.

He then asked if there was anything we were looking for.  “Christ,” I thought, “this guy clearly knows everything there is to know about beer and I’m obviously a tourist who knows bugger all squared about Belgian beers.  He’s just asked me what beer I would like with no parameters whatsover.  What can I say that isn’t going to make me look like an idiot?”  

So I asked a question certain to make me look like an idiot; or if not an idiot certainly a dickhead: I asked if he had any Westvleteren.  Apart from almost certainly mispronouncing it, I know you’re not supposed to be able to buy it anywhere other than the Abbey and visitor’s centre.  However, I knew they were available in at least one other bar in Bruges, regardless of whether it’s ethically suspect and contrary to the wishes of the brewers themselves.  He said that they couldn’t be bought anywhere, to such an extent that I suspected there might be a little glint in his eye.  However, I respected his apparent honour and let the matter drop.

Instead I explained that Kate was quite keen on pale hoppy Belgian beers and I wondered what he had to that end.  So we ended up with a Viven Imperial IPA and a De Dolle Bos Keun.  The Viven is a beer that Phil Hardy had recommended and I really enjoyed it.  It had a great mango aroma, a bitter but sweet fruity taste and a nice alcoholic warmth in the bitter finish.

However I should say that, for a Belgian beer, it tastes completely like a US double IPA.  Whether that’s a good, bad or indifferent thing is debatable: I noticed that in all the superb beer bars I went to there were hardly any non-Belgian beers on offer.  This speaks of a confident and diverse national brewing scene but surely it wouldn’t be at all out of place to put a few De Molen on the list?  Or Mikkeller?  Or Stone?  After all, the US craft beer scene’s approach to ABV and sipping beers has more in common with the attitude of the Belgians, than to us British session drunkards.

The Bos Keun was a different kettle of hops.  This 10% blonde ale had a lot of Belgian yeast character as well as  a lot of hops.  A nice bubblegummy aroma and a dusty, musty hoppiness came through, and the helpful barman warned us about the extensive sediment so we poured carefully.   It was a great beer and one of those that helped convince Kate that she could really like Belgian beers over the course of the holiday.  Luckily when we came back we found that Further North had a few left in the fridge so we could pretend to still be in Bruges.

So I found Erasmus a bit confusing really.  The gentleman who served us, however inscrutable he seemed initially, clearly knew his stuff and was very helpful.  However it’s not quite a warm and laid back place to enjoy a good beer.  We didn’t eat there so maybe it’s simply more of a great beer restaurant than a beer cafe now, as the decor would suggest.  If you’ve been recently, please let me know your thoughts.

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Ruling The Roost: Roosters Brewery Visit

August 21, 2011 7 comments

A quick break from my series of posts on Bruges to say thanks very much to Roosters Brewery for Friday afternoon.  As most of you probably know, Sean Franklin started Roosters in 1993.  Since then it has acquired a strong and deserved local reputation for aromatic pale session ales such as Roosters Yankee, usually available on cask.

In January this year I wrote a post about XS, 2XS and Oxymoronic Black IPA, limited edition bottles that had been produced by Sean’s son Sam before emigrating to Canada.  In April Sean and his wife Alison announced that they were also emigrating, selling the brewery to Ian Fozard of Market Town Taverns and that Ian’s sons, Ol (previously of Copper Dragon) and Tom (previously of Beer Ritz), were joining Roosters. 

On Friday I was very privileged to be invited along with a small selection of beer industry folk and bloggers to an event at the brewery.  Sean and Ol gave us a guided tour before we sat down to try a number of great and interesting beers as listed below, whilst Sean discussed what we and he thought of them.

The beers we tried were:

Roosters YPA (a Roosters classic pale ale)

Roosters Iron Man IPA (a very nice new beer made with Citra)

Birrificio Ticinese Bad Attitude Hobo IPA (an interesting if oddly sour Swiss take on an IPA)

Green Flash West Coast IPA

Phillips Amnesiac Double IPA (from British Columbia)

Roosters Dark Arts (an oak-aged porter)

Birrificio Ticinese Two Penny Porter

Deschutes Black Butte Porter

Deschutes Dissident (sour brown ale with cherries)

Brooklyn Sorachi Ace (a really nice unfiltered saison-style beer, which I’ve wanted to try for some time)

Estrella Damm Inedit (a pilsner brewed with Ferran Adria, which was nice if not spectacular)

After that we mingled for a bit before sitting down to a fantastic feast that had been put on for us, before a few of us headed back to Leeds for a couple in North Bar, with a little present under our arms: a bottle of Baby-Faced Assassin, a homebrew originally conceived by Tom in the back room of Beer Ritz.  I always wondered what went on in there.

It was great to meet Sean and to hear him share his knowledge and thinking about beer.  At the same time, even though Sean and Alison are leaving, it’s clear that the brewery and beers are in safe hands and that what Sean has built here will persist in his absence.  The beers currently being brewed as Sean prepares for the handover are as good as ever, and I would recommend the Iron Man IPA in particular.

Apart from the beer though, it was also a lovely, friendly day and I’m very grateful for the generosity of spirit and otherwise of all at Roosters.

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Beer In Bruges: Halve Maan Brewery, Brugse Zot Unfiltered, Straffe Hendrik Tripel and Quadrupel

August 17, 2011 4 comments

Brouwerij De Halve Maan (“The Half Moon Brewery”) is the only working commercial brewery in Bruges, “Brugge Tripel” actually being produced by Palm in Steenhuffel, near Brussels. Although the brewery building has a history dating back to at least the 1850s, it was closed in 2002 and reopened by the Maes family in 2005, owing to a complicated corporate backstory involving Liefmans and Duvel Moortgat that I still don’t quite fully understand.

I’d tried Halve Maan’s flagship beer Brugse Zot (dating back only to the reopening in 2005) in Mr Foleys in Leeds, and had found it to be a pleasantly drinkable Belgian blonde, but not massively interesting. We decided to do the tour based on personal recommendations and the fact that it was good value at only €6 with a free beer thrown in. In fact it turned our to be really quite lively, funny and refreshingly lacking in the bullshit and myth-peddling that guided tours tend towards.

The excellent guide – a lady with the energy and no-nonsense attitude of a hockey coach – ran us up and down the stairwells of the old brewery like it was The Crystal Maze, explaining its history (much of the building is no longer in working use) and the wonders and pitfalls of beer. During the tour we were also taken out onto the roof of the brewery, which allows for interesting views across the rooftops of the city.

After the tour we sat down to lunch in the brewery tap. There’s a nice courtyard outside but we moved in as it was a bit showery. I enjoyed a rich Flemish beef and beer carbonnade/stew which came with chips, whilst Kate had an interesting beer and vegetable soup. We also tried a couple of beers.

At the brewery they sell an exclusive unfiltered version of the blonde Brugse Zot (6% ABV) and you get a free glass of it at the end of the tour. I was aware from the tour that it contained coriander and used four different hops including East Kent Goldings and Saaz. Nicely cloudy in appearance, it’s a pleasant and easy-drinking beer with a refreshing taste including coriander and orange peel.

Next I tried Straffe Hendrik Tripel. This brand, originally produced at the Brewery in 1981, was bought back from Duvel Moortgaat by the present owners in 2008. This 9% tripel had a pleasant orangey-gold colour a fairly typical Belgian yeasty smell with an enjoyable orange and reasonably hoppy taste, although I should note that the bottle was quite cold.

On the final afternoon of the holiday we went back to the Brewery for convenience, as it was only around the corner from our hotel from where we were about to get a coach back to the Eurostar station at Lille and, unlike a lot of other bars, it was open on a Tuesday afternoon. I had a Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel, a relatively new beer that, as the guide had previously explained, was produced following demand from their American importers.

It was slightly cola-coloured, although more brown than red around the edges. Again the bottle from the fridge was really quite cold and fizzy and it improved greatly on being left to warm up a bit. After doing so it had a nice chocolatey sweetness and a slightly licquorice bitterness. It remained very easy to drink for its strength (11% ABV) but made for an enjoyable, slightly vinous beer that went very well with some nice dark chocolate we’d just bought from The Chocolate Line.

I would strongly recommend the Halve Maan brewery tour to anyone visiting Bruges (so long as they can cope with the steps) and their beers are very enjoyable as well. I’d also prescribe the quad to help you nod off on a coach journey, but it does carry the risk of spending your remaining Euros on a Christmas tree decoration which looks like a sparkly gherkin.

Beer In Bruges: t’ Brugs Beertje and Pannepot Reserva 2008

August 14, 2011 1 comment

Other than De Garre, the one place all the guidebooks, beery and otherwise, say you have to visit is t’ Brugs Beertje (“the little Bruges bear”). We did so late on our first night and were fortunate to get a seat in the crowded little brown cafe, which looks exactly as you expect and want it to: nicotene stained walls covered in old beer adverts, assorted dark wood furniture.

It really is quite small, so it’s difficult to ignore your neighbours’ conversations (better sitting next to someone speaking Dutch or a language you don’t understand).  Clambering in and out you may find, like me, that the floorspace is two sizes smaller than your boots.  Owner Daisy Claeys, pictured looking welcoming and matronly in pretty much every one of the guidebooks, was behind the bar but we were served at our table by a very helpful younger barman.

The beer menu was amazingly comprehensive, and Around Bruges In 80 Beers states the selection to be around 250. Kate, who likes hoppy pale ales, went for a De Ranke XX Bitter from keg. It’s a nice, fresh, light, citrus-hoppy and uplifting kind of beer, with a slight breadiness to it.

I had a reasonably expensive beer to finish the night; one from a brewery that I hadn’t tried but had read good things about on Jose from Beer Nerds’ post about drinking the same beer in the same bar. Pannepot Reserva 2008 is a 10% oak-aged “Old Fisherman’s Ale” (or, as it’s described on American sites, a Quadrupel) from De Struise Brouwers, who are or were gypsy brewers.

 

The beer was all I wanted it to be: big and rich, with lots of dark malty flavours: raisins, chocolate and coffee. However despite the aging, the beer retained a freshness from a lot of hops that pleasantly lightened the experience. A really good beer, so many thanks to Jose for writing about it as I probably wouldn’t even have heard of it otherwise.

I would certainly echo everyone else’s recommendations of t’ Brugs Beertje, which is almost the platonic ideal of a brown cafe with a great beer list; like In De Wildeman in Amsterdam but more intimate and even more lived-in. I would very much have liked to go back for a second visit, but the opening hours didn’t allow for it.  Next time.

Beer In Bruges: Café Vlissinghe and Poperings Hommel Bier

August 12, 2011 2 comments

The second bar Kate and I went to on our first evening in Bruges was Vlissinghe. We fancied something simple and unfussy for dinner on a busy Saturday night, and this out of the way place seemed like a good option when the city centre cafes were packed.

I’d read about Vlissinghe in Around Bruges In 80 Beers, an invaluable book for anyone visiting the city.  It’s a very old building and has been a cafe or tavern continuously since 1515. Allegedly Rubens once painted a coin on the table and scarpered without paying.

The decor certainly looks the part, with a high ceiling and a collection of oil paintings and sepia-tinted photo portraits on the walls. In the centre of the room is a fireplace covered in irons. There were a number of big dark wood tables.  We sat at a table with a group of Greek and English people, who we thought might be academics or civil servants.

There’s a good if not remarkable beer list and I chose a Poperings Hommel Bier as suggested by the book. I’ve had this before, delivering a nice intensity of floral hoppiness but in a clearly Belgian way with a noticeable yeast flavour. Kate, who is more wary of Belgian beer, opted for a Brugse Zot, on which I will expand in a future post.

The food was good too, and quite reasonably priced. I had a traditional Flemish dish of chicory wrapped in ham and baked in a cheese sauce (chicory is a big thing in Belgium, apparently), whilst Kate enjoyed a white onion soup. For dessert she had pancakes and I had an apple tart.

I wouldn’t say that Vlissinghe is a must-visit beer destination in Bruges, but it is friendly, laid back and out of the way. To a tourist at least, it gives you a nice sense of history, like having a beer inside a folk museum or a van Eyck painting.

Beer In Bruges: De Garre and Tripel De Garre

August 10, 2011 25 comments

I’m writing this post coming back though the Channel Tunnel following a fantastic four days in Bruges. Kate booked the trip as my 31st birthday present and apart from her I should also thank the authors of the blog posts and twitter recommendations I read before I went, including Phil Hardy of Beersay, Jose from Beer Nerds, Rich from The Beercast, Boak & Bailey, Simon Jenkins and Mark Fletcher of Real Ale Reviews.

One of the common factors of most of those recommendations was De Garre, a small two-storey brown cafe hidden down an alleyway off a short, busy and touristy street running between the central square Markt and another, Burg.

 

When we first arrived in Bruges and went for a walk into the centre it started pelting with rain, and fortunately we chose to seek shelter in De Garre. When we went in the bar was completely full but fortunately an elderly couple shortly left and gave us our seats, the gentleman blessing Kate on the way out, probably indicating how soaked we looked.

 

There is a substantial menu of Belgian beers but it’s obvious that most people come for the exclusive house beer brewed by Brouwerij Van Steenberge: Tripel De Garre. It is presented in a great-looking bulb glass on a tray with a paper doily (in keeping with the local lacemaking tradition) and a small bowl of slightly rubbery but creamy cheese cubes (Gouda?), possibly intended to combat the effects of the 11.5% ABV.

A blonde Tripel at 11.5% might sound like a terrible idea, but you’d be completely wrong. The beer is at once mellow and hoppy; refreshing and pleasantly warm and boozy; an impeccably well-rounded and accessible beer.

 

As we dried off in the simple cafe with yellow tablecloths and open windows as the rain pelted down on the irregular cobbles outside, it was impossible to feel anything but happy. We were surrounded by relaxed groups and couples, chatting in various languages including locals speaking the native Dutch, most of whom were all drinking the same beer.

 

We fell in love with De Garre to such an extent that we ended up returning to it at the end of the evening on the following two nights. The second time was just as enjoyable as the first, with a number of groups of various ages happily chatting away as classical music played in the background.

 

The third occasion, on the Monday night, was still enjoyable but not quite as relaxed, as one group of 25-30 year olds in the corner were watching very loud videos on their phones before another large group of foreign students, possibly from a nearby hostel, all arrived at once and took over most of the tables. Whilst they weren’t necessarily treating De Garre with the respect and reverence I felt it deserved, they were all drinking the house beer, which at least is an indication of how easily enjoyable it is.

My only real souvenir from Bruges is a statuesque 1.5 litre magnum of the house beer purchased from the bar for €21, which has made me thankful that Eurostar doesn’t have weight restrictions. There’s a poem on the back, an “Ode Aan De Tripel Van De Garre”. Certainly if any beer other than a pint of plain can inspire poetry, it’s this one. O, Tripel van de Garre.

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