We must have looked like mirror images of each other. Andrei and I, sitting on neighbouring tables, facing opposite directions, took a sip of our respective brews and grinned.
We pulled out a slip of paper each, wrote down notes, took another sip and photographed our respective beers. Our actions looked practised; yet Andrei and I were unaware of each other. It was a minute before we met for the first time.
It was a Sunday night at the A la Mort Subite in Brussels, Belgium. The family-owned bar, whose name translates to “sudden death”, uses the same furniture that it did when it started in 1928—small tables packed together closely and basic wooden chairs.
I started talking with Andrei, an American who lives in Spain and has a passionate interest in food. We talked about the different beers we had had till then, our first day in Belgium. His research came from the website Beeradvocate.com. Mine was more ad hoc—if the name or label or its description seemed interesting, the brew was on the table.
For a nation with few architectural wonders, unremarkable history, cramped streets and prolific pickpockets, Belgium gets four things right—chocolates, waffles, fries and beer. Belgium is a beer nerd’s heaven. The attraction of more than 1,100 beer choices forces you to carry a notebook—important also because memory begins to fade after the mugs of froth go down rapidly.
There were 3,349 breweries in Belgium in the 1910s. Only 190 operate today. Until the 20th century, most of the breweries were small and family-run. In the early 20th century, Pils beers (with low fermentation) took over Europe; they were quite different from the Belgian darks with high fermentation. These required cooling equipment, other yeast cultures and expensive investments, which killed many small-scale family businesses. Further hit by the two World Wars and the economic crisis of the 1930s, Belgium’s distilleries declined further.
In spite of this, Belgium still has the most number of breweries per capita in the world. It remains the third largest exporter of beer in the world after the Netherlands and Germany, an impressive statistic for a country that is roughly three-fourths the size of Kerala. The importance of beer in Belgian culture is evident to every visitor—bars proliferate on the streets of Belgian towns, each offering a repertoire of hundreds of beers.
Earlier in the day, at the Poechenellekelder opposite the Manneken Pis statue (the pot-bellied peeing kid), the Karmeliet had been my first taste of Belgian brew. The taste of the blonde stayed with me till evening; it was a light, sweet, slightly warm initiation to Belgian beer.
The Belgians make different kinds of beers, including the Lambic (a wine-like beer, left to ferment in open barrels), the Gueuze (a blend of two or more Lambics) and the Kriek (a Lambic fermented with fruit from the region). Among the most sought after are the six Belgian Trappist beers (from the approved monastery breweries of Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren). Monks in Europe have been brewing beer for centuries, initially as a means of self-sustenance, and later to fund good causes. Legend also has it that the monks started brewing in the period of Lent when they were required to fast—the beer gave them all the nutrition they needed without eating.
At the Rest Greenwich Café, my next stop after Mort, I checked the Rochefort 8 off the list in my stack of notes. It was close to midnight, and tastes were beginning to blend in after many bottles had gone down. The Affligern, which followed the Rochefort, tasted much the same—both were dark beers with hints of chocolate.
The Westmalle’s uncomplicated taste accompanied me on a 1-hour train ride to Bruges the next morning, as villages surrounded by streams and drunken-looking cows passed by.
Bruges’ lone survivor, The De Halve Maan (“the Half Moon Brewery”), has existed since 1856—the sixth generation of the Maes family runs it today. The Bruges Zot golden beer lacks a definitive character, and tastes like mass-produced fare, but the English-language brewery tour is entertaining. Highlights include “We use female hops because they are more bitter!” and “We roasted the malt a bit too much, which was a mistake, but it was used elsewhere and became Guinness.”
Closer to the Market Square (Grote Markt), the Brugs Beertje (Bruges’ little bear) beerhouse is a relatively new pub born in 1983. It sits on a quiet side street, but offers a selection of more than 300 Belgian beers. The Basilius (7% alcohol) here is a dark, slightly bitter but translucent brew with a taste of coffee. The Gulden Draak, a frothy, light, sugary and dare-I-say, girlie drink, is too sickly sweet for me. I call it a night at 9pm, by which time the entire town is asleep barring a few tottering tourists.
Post dinner that night, I trudge along to the de Garre, a mere 50m journey on an uneven cobblestone path with the delicious but ominously named Delirium Nocturnum (8.5% alcohol) swimming inside me (incidentally, actor Pankaj Kapur’s delusions in the film Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola are diagnosed as Delirium Tremens, a product of Huyghe Brewery, the same company that makes Delirium Nocturnum). It’s a thick brown ale, spicy, fruity, sour and chocolate-y at the same time, easily among the best I have had on the trip.
Up a narrow staircase, on one of the closely laid tables, under dim lights of the de Garre, I finally lay my hands on what many websites call the best beer in the world—the Trappist Westvleteren 12 (it’s been in the top 5 of craft beer site Ratebeer.com’s list for many years). The bottle is dark, with no labels—the name features only on the lid. At 10% alcohol content, it closes out the option of driving home. The dark, strong ale has a lovely fruity flavour with a taste of berries and caramel, sweet yet with a bitter aftertaste. No single flavour dominates, which makes this a nuanced creation.
The idea was to ensure that the highly-rated Westvleteren would be my last drink in Belgium since I was to leave town the next afternoon. But a hurried visit to the Bell Tower followed by furious packing leaves me with enough time for a second goodbye drink. Back at the Cambrinus, I nurse the rather common pint of Chimay, an intensely dark standard-fare Trappist now available in India too.
Sitting next to me is a Russian, nursing a Lindemans Apple (Lambic beer with 25% apple juice and 3.5% alcohol), a camera on the table, carefully taking notes and studying the bar list. I look at my watch; there’s always time for one more conversation.