We were winding up dinner at In 't Spinnekopke (In the Spiderweb) in Brussels, a traditional Belgian restaurant-tavern housed in an 18th century stagecoach inn. Within its rustic confines, chef Jean Rodriguez specializes in regional Flemish dishes and cuisine à la bière.
Thus I added two more to the list of mostly amazing beers I sampled this spring during a week in Belgium. As an aficionado of Belgian ales, I decided to celebrate my 50th birthday here with my sweetheart, Danise. "Fifty beers for 50 years" was my motto, and I paced the trip to hoist the 50th on the hour of my birth, after a self-guided tour of Brussels' beer bars.
The restaurant was a block and a half from our hotel, the George V, near the Fish Market district. This unassuming 1859 townhouse has reasonably priced rooms, small and plain but with modern furnishings. Despite the backstreet location, it's only a 15-minute walk to the historic Grand-Place, the oversized town square that is the centerpiece of the city.
On the way to Grand-Place the next morning, we came upon Le Falstaff, a 100-year-old tavern across the street from Bourse, the ornate 1873 stock exchange building. The best brews on the fairly expansive beer list were bottled, as are most Belgian beers. (They undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle and hence improve with age, not unlike wine.) I chose the extra-strong (11% alcohol) Kasteelbier, well-aged and wonderfully bitter with a dash of Curaçao, while Danise grabbed a Grimbergen Tripel (no slouch itself at 9%), a hoppy yet pleasantly sweet abbey beer brewed from an 1128 recipe and traditionally served by the good monks to thirsty pilgrims and travelers.
Soon we arrived at Grand-Place. Huge buildings with ornamental statues, elaborate gables and gilded facades surround the marketplace, as they have since 1700. Standing as a proud testament to how deeply rooted beer is in the tradition of this country is the Maison des Brasseurs, one of the remaining guild houses in the square. Behind its decorative edifice is the headquarters for the Belgian Brewers Union, direct descendant of the Brewers Guild, founded in the 14th century. More important to beer fans of today, however, is the Belgian Brewers Museum in the basement. We passed the statue of St. Arnoldus, the patron saint of brewers, at the entrance and descended into the "brewseum."
The permanent exhibition explains modern brewing methods using inventive video displays, like one in the "porthole" of a huge copper boiling kettle. All around are old tankards and 18th century porcelain beer pumps.
The self-guided tour concludes with a visit to the museum's dark but cozy cafe for a glass of a draft Pilsener. The barman declined to identify the maker of the beer, saying that various Belgian breweries take turns supplying kegs to the museum and they remain anonymous. Too bad; although not the most exciting style of beer in Belgium (in fact, Pilsener isn't even a Belgian style, but a Czech one), this light lager was dry with a crisp, clean taste and proved the most refreshing Pils I sampled.
A two-block walk from the Grand-Place put us at a crowded corner containing perhaps the most famous icon of Brussels, indeed of Belgium itself, the Manneken Pis, a statue and fountain of a perpetually urinating youth, au naturel. It had something of a visceral effect on me (it was all that beer), so off I went to heed nature's call, ducking into the nearby Taverne Manneken Pis, a touristy cafe with replicas of the tinkling tot around the foot of the curved bar.
Regional cheese with beer
The beer selection was much better across the street at the Poechenellekelder (Punchinello Cellar), which was decorated with marionettes. We sat on the patio and enjoyed the early-afternoon sunshine and Fromage de Chimay, a plate of four regional cheeses. They came from the Chimay monastery, the biggest and best known of the six Trappist breweries in the country, where the justifiably revered, almost wine-like Chimay ales are brewed. Naturally, we paired the cheese with a couple of bottled Chimays — the blue-labeled Grand Réserve, with its ruby hue and port-like character, and the white-labeled Cinq Cents (named for the 500-year-old town of Chimay), a dry, hoppy, rust-colored ale — both served in a traditional glass chalice.
Still taken with that mystery Pilsener at the museum, I ordered a draft Jupiler, Belgium's biggest-selling Pils, from the mega-brewery Interbrew, to see how it compared. Although it was not horrible, it was soft and bland, with notes of newly mown hay, definitely not the beer I had earlier. Belgium is known as beer paradise, but Jupiler — even van 't vat — more represents beer purgatory.
Less than two blocks away, we decended into a virtual replica of Hades. It was the marvelously macabre Halloween, a dark, dungeon-like bar decorated with eerily illuminated ghouls and gargoyles. As we approached, the owner — a lupine graybeard named Skipper — beckoned us to cross his threshold.
Each table was named for a horror movie character, so seated at Fu Manchu, we were attended to by a surly young waiter in a hooded monk's robe.
Many of the Gothic paintings on the wall featured the Skipper. But my favorite touch was the recorded music piped through the house: ABBA hits done as Gregorian chants.
We chose our poisons accordingly; I fell prey to a large goblet of the libation Lucifer, a strong Belgian pale ale, big-headed and sharp-tasting with a sour finish, and Danise was tempted by a Duvel (Devil), with its magnificent, meringue-like head, glimmering gold body and seductive fruitiness. Both were rated about 8% in strength and kept us giddy enough to forgive the mad monk's attitude and poke around this funhouse full of grotesqueries to the choral chants of "Wah Ter Loooo . "
After that experience, it seemed our next stop should be De Ultieme Hallucinatie (the Ultimate, or Last, Hallucination), an acclaimed eat-and-drinkery across town, as noted for its finely appointed décor as it is for its extensive beer list.
Taking advantage of Brussels' exceptional public transportation system — a big plus when you're barhopping — we grabbed an underground tram to the Rogier stop (near another of our favorite hotels, the neon-bedecked Art Hotel Siru) and transferred to the Métro, taking it to the Botanique station. We strolled through the maze-like botanical garden with its massive greenhouse dome and ornate statues — a visually suitable prelude to our hallucinogenic destination several minutes away.