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