Andrew Graham Dixon’s new BBC4 series The High Art Of The Low Countries started this week with an episode on Flemish art. You can’t understand the history of art in isolation from the social and economic factors that influence it, so the programme is also a fascinating and enjoyable general background for anyone considering a beery trip to Bruges, Ghent or Brussels.
Partly to introduce the importance of religion and monasteries to the development of the Low Countries, Andrew also visited the abbey at Orval and discussed beer with Brother Xavier. You can view that short section from about the 9 minute point on the BBC iPlayer at this link, which will be available for the next 18 days. However, I would encourage you to watch the whole programme.
Whilst we’re on the Low Countries, I missed North Bar’s Lowlands Beer Festival, but when I called in this week the fridges were still packed with great Belgian and Dutch bottles, both traditional and modern. We enjoyed an Emelisse TIPA and Viven Imperial IPA and finished off the keg of De Dolle Bos Keun, all of which took us back to our trip to Bruges, as recorded in these posts. Andy Mogg has also posted about his trip to Bruges here.
First image from The Arts Desk.
On our final full day in Bruges we needed somewhere to grab lunch and write some postcards, so I fell back on Around Bruges In 80 Beers and picked De Windmolen, a corner cafe in the east of the city overlooked by two or three of Bruges’ windmills.
Inside it’s a nice little cafe with bare floors and an assorted miscellany stacked on shelves and attached to the walls and roof, including a Michael Jackson book and some very creepy ragdolls. Commercial radio was playing for the bar staff and the three regulars happily propping up the bar in the otherwise empty cafe.
Although it was very pleasant inside, the best place to sit is on the terrace out the front, looking at the windmills, safely under the cover of a canopy if it starts to shower. Which it did.
I enjoyed a Tripel Karmeliet and Westmalle Tripel, as well as tucking into a large Croque-Madame (literal translation: Mrs Crunch / actual meaning: Mr Crunch with a fried egg on his head). This came with a truly enormous salad; the type of salad that could choke a horse, or Gregg Wallace, or Gregg Wallace’s horse. In fact, the type of salad that can take on two strong lunchtime beers and leaves you in the mood for a brisk walk around the canals that encircle Bruges. So that was what we did, ending up slightly drenched in a cafe on the other side of the city, warming up with a St Bernardus Abt.
In the context of Bruges, De Windmolen doesn’t really register as a beer destination, but it is a lovely, friendly, pretty little place with good staff and a well-chosen selection of bottled beers (the book says 19). Worth both the dander to and the stumble away from.
For the rest of my posts on Bruges, click here.
It’s fair to say that Bruges is an expensive city. You’d be lucky to pay less than €20 for a bowl of mussels. However the most extravagant thing we did whilst we were there was to have dinner on our last evening at Den Dyver, a fine dining restaurant with a focus on matching beer and food, which has previously been featured on The Hairy Bikers.
The restaurant looks minimalist from the outside but inside has something of a mediaeval tavern feel, with hanging lamps and some gothic/churchy fittings, although this isn’t overdone and is offset with some pieces of modern art on the walls. Despite this, it definitely had the quiet and refined tone of a fine dining restaurant, but with a certain warmth.
Rather than having a beer list for you to choose from, each dish is matched with a particular beer in what Around Bruges In 80 Beers describes as a “dictatorial” approach, but is perhaps more accurately described as “prescriptive”. There is a similar approach to wine, should you opt for that instead. There is a short a la carte menu but Kate and I both opted for the three course set menu. She chose a fish starter and main whilst I went for the least ethical options: a foie gras starter and a veal main.
The night started with a champagne flute of the house beer, which is from Brouwerij Van Steenberge, who also brew the house beer for De Garre, which I think the founders of Den Dyver previously owned. It’s a similar and similarly excellent beer, although I don’t think it’s the same one, as I’ve read in some places online.
With the bread came some crispy sea bass goujons and a dipping sauce, which went well with the blonde hoppy beer. We also received an amuse bouche: mussels on a herby mash, a shot glass of gazpacho and a piece of (raw? cured?) herring. Everything was a little treat in itself and a great start to a very special meal.
Kate’s starter read as follows:”Redfish filet. Spider crab. Broad beans. Leek. Oca leaf. White radish. Parsley flower.” This came with a bottle of Petrus Blond from Brouwerij Bavik.
Mine was: “Baked goose liver. Pata Negra. Grilled green asparagus. Pearl onions. Avocado pear. Westphalia rye bread.” This came with a bottle of Kapittel Pater from Van Eecke, a soft dark beer to match the rich dark flavours of the foie gras and the crisp asparagus.
I thought it worked well, although the starter was so delicious I had to remind myself to drink. The only criticism I would have is that there seemed to be two starters, really: the asparagus and ham wasn’t really needed alongside the foie gras, although all were very lovely. You could extend this criticism to the main courses but they probably sat together more convincingly.
Kate’s main course was: “Grilled monkfish. Rosemary potatoes. Palissons and lemon lentils. Broccoli and lettuce. Ratatouille.” The fish main course similarly came with a blonde beer, but this time the hoppier Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor from Brouwerij Het Anker. It was an excellent beer and she was very impressed with the fish.
My main course was “Baked veal. Ravioli of calf’s head and chanterelle mushrooms. Swiss chard. Sour-salt red cabbage. Celery and lavas.” This absolutely delicious plate of rich, slightly autumnal food was well-matched with another dark beer, a Gusto Ruby Red from Brouwerij De Koninck.
This beer was more interesting than the first and really very well suited. The veal, which I choose to believe was ethically sourced, was really very delicious. Kate didn’t like the ravioli when she tasted it and although I did, I can see why: it was slightly offally, but again this was a good match with the beer.
Kate opted for the dessert whilst I decided to go straight for the cheese. She had: “Fresh red fruit salad. Yogurt mousse. Basil biscuit. Lime-honey popcorn. Ugandan dark chocolate sorbet.” This looked absolutely superb and came with a glass (not a full bottle) of Goudenband from Brouwerij Liefmans.
This was Kate’s favourite course. The fruity, sour and sophisticated beer (an Oud Bruin) was a good match for the bitter chocolate and light tart berries. I’m not a massive fan of desserts but this one looked and tasted great.
I can’t remember the name of the cheeses on the cheese course but I do remember that they were wonderful, and were matched with some chutney, nuts and a St Bernardus Pater 6. This was a great beer, although I had actually tried a few other St Bernardus beers earlier in the day and thought the rich cheeses could have coped with their Abt, but there’s probably something to be said for a level of sweetness so that you can fully appreciate the flavours of each cheese.
After our final course we had a final little amuse bouche of pannacotta. It was one of the more expensive meals that we’ve had recently, although certainly less than the Devonshire Arms. I really felt that it was worth it though, with some very special food and wonderful beers. If you’re looking to really treat yourself on a holiday to Bruges, I would recommend a visit, although be sure to make a reservation as it was full even on a Monday night.
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.
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.
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.
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.