"The things we do with beer, eh?" the waiter said as surprise registered on our faces. We had just tasted a delectable dessert: a sorbet made with three hop-brewed beverages — a wit (white) beer, a kriek (cherry) lambic and an abbey-style ale.
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.
The dessert followed equally impressive main courses: salmon poached in a wheat ale with essences of orange peel and coriander and baked chicken in a mushroom sauce made with a sweet cherry lambic. We also ordered two of the beers van 't vat (on tap): Blanche de Steendonck, the wit in the salmon, and Maredsous 6, an amber-colored abbey ale with a fruity tang.
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.
Originally a family mansion dating to the mid-19th century and renovated in an Art Noveau style in 1904 by noted architect Paul Hamesse, De Ultieme Hallucinatie was again remodeled into a restaurant-tavern — with its elegant design restored — and opened in 1981. We dined in the brasserie area that used to be the home's garden; the jagged rock walls remain, and a part of the former greenhouse now shelters the long bar. The booth seats were originally train benches designed for Belgian Railways in 1930.
Monastery brews A bit overheated from our journey, we ordered two of the more thirst-quenching brews on the menu: a Stella Artois, Belgium's well-known, reliably refreshing "premium" golden lager, and a Hoegaarden, the almost-as-famous, shimmeringly cloudy wit that has become the standard-bearer of the style.
For solid sustenance, we again went with cuisine à la bière. I had the waterzooi, a Flemish stew made with fish and blond beer; Danise dined on a milder tasting fish entrée, sea devil in a kriek lambic sauce.
The beer list at De Ultieme Hallucinatie featured bottles from all six Trappist monasteries, so we took that route for the next rounds. We tried an Achel, a nicely hopped Tripel (strong ale) from the youngest of Belgium's monastic breweries, and an even stronger Rochefort 8, a tawny-colored ale, both bitter and spicy with a suggestion of figs, from the least known of the monastery breweries.
With the specific hour of my birth approaching, we Métro'd to the Gare Centrale train station and walked a few blocks to perhaps the busiest beer bistro in Brussels, À la Mort Subite (At the Sudden Death). It was a fine old cafe that appeared not to have changed since it began serving in the 1920s, with plain wood tables and high ceilings above mirrored walls on which the beer menu was stenciled. Here, it was all about the beer. The bistro also brews traditional Brussels beers such as lambic, gueze and faro under the Mort Subite moniker.
Still entertaining a taste for Trappist ales, at about 9:30 that evening (the exact moment of my birthday, compensating for the time change), I sipped an Orval from its own dedicated glass, a wide-rimmed drinking vessel that accents its strong floral aroma and plentiful head. It was generously hopped, reminiscent of an American-style India Pale Ale in its bitterness.
There's a legend that the spring water from which Orval is brewed possesses healing powers, so it seemed the appropriate beer to mark a half a century. Adding to the celebration, Danise persuaded an international group of beer-quaffers at a nearby table to join in with birthday toasts for me, which they did — in Danish, English, Gaelic, Greek and Spanish.
The day was fading, and so were we. But what's a birthday without dessert — or a dessert beer? We finished off the night sharing one of Mort Subite's signature brews, a faro — a blend of young lambic (fermented less than six months) and light beer with dark candy sugar added. It was akin to oversweetened iced tea and unlike any beer I had ever tasted, but it grew on me.
Danise and I sat back, surveyed the happy crowd and sipped our faro. Woozily, we proposed a toast to the brewers of Belgium: "The things they do with beer!"
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Here's to good brews
From LAX: American, KLM, Delta, Continental, British, United and Aer Lingus offer connecting service to Brussels. Round-trip fares begin at $720.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 32 (country code for Belgium) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
George V, Rue 't Kint 23, 2513-5093, http://www.george5.com . This modest hotel is in an off-the beaten-path part of the city, yet is surprisingly close to the main sights. Doubles from $85.
Art Hotel Siru, Place Rogier 1, 2203-3580, http://www.comforthotelsiru.com . A combination art gallery and hotel that features work from 130 Belgian artists, located a block from the Gare du Nord train station. Doubles from $85.
WHERE TO EAT:
In 't Spinnekopke, Place du Jardin aux Fleurs 1, 2511-8695, http://www.spinnekopke.be . Traditional Belgian cuisine. Entrees $13-$30.
Poechenellekelder, Rue du Chêne 5, 2511-9262. Great place for a light lunch, across from the Manneken Pis. Snacks $1.70-$10.50.
De Ultieme Hallucinatie, Rue Royale 316, 2217-0614. An Art Nouveau marvel with modern French and Flemish cuisines. Entrees $20-$60.
WHERE TO DRINK:
Le Falstaff, Rue Henri Maus 17, 2511-8789.
Halloween, Rue de Grands-Carmes 10, 2514-1256.
À la Mort Subite, Rue Montagne-aux-Herbes-Potagères 7, 2513-1318.
TO LEARN MORE:
Belgian Tourist Office, 220 E. 42nd St., Suite 3402, New York, NY 10017. (212) 758-8130, www.visitbelgium.com.