Our Man In: Belgium Pt 1

Our Man In: Belgium Pt 1
June 7 2011 by Crafty Pint

Imbued with the confidence of a man whose latest beer has just picked up the only gold medal for packaged lagers at the Australian International Beer Awards and who was one of the small band of beer lovers that got Good Beer Week off the ground, Matt Houghton set off on the thankless task of touring Belgium’s bars and breweries. The Boatrocker Brewing Company founder boarded a plane shortly after his Hoppbier picked up its gold and promised to send the occasional missive back for The Crafty Pint. And here’s the first of those…

Where have you been?
First Stop – Antwerp. Then to a little village of Boezinge (near Ypres). Afterwards a trip to the romantic city of Bruges, and then, off to Poperinge to immerse ourselves in the local breweries & bars (Missive number 2).

Which breweries or notable bars have you been to?
Home of the famous Bolleke De Koninck, a classic example of the Belgian Pale Ale. Somewhat subdued in flavour from memory, but itʼs been 13 years, and maybe my taste buds werenʼt as receptive back then?

De Koninck are one of the larger Belgian family brewers, producing 200HL per batch, brewing five batches per day, mainly of their famous pale ale… It does make you wonder then how they managed to get into financial difficulty, and had to be “saved” by Duvel-Moortgat. They can still be classified as a Belgian Family Brewer, but their recipe has already been changed for financial reasons. Will this become a dumbing down of the famous Antwerp ale? Lets hope not…

After meeting the former owner brothers, Domenique & Bernard, we decided to head to a few famous beer bars, the first being De Groote Witte Arend (The Great White Eagle). Incredible atmosphere, particularly on a sunny day. The beer list is not in the hundreds, but a well thought out list of the shining examples of Belgian beer. A seat in the ancient courtyard is one to be savoured, particularly with a bottle of Cantillon Geuze or Oude Beersel…

Following that, it was a brief stumble to perhaps the most well known beer bar in Antwerp, Kulminator. What to say? Well, “character” is one word that springs to mind. Or possibly “dusty”… A veritable treasure trove of beers and their associated paraphernalia. Just donʼt move anything, or you may discover something underneath that you didnʼt want to!

Boatrocker-1

Matt in Melbourne on the eve of the Hoppbier’s release

However, I was happy to see that the dust had settled on my bottles of 1998 Chimay Blue, and my 2003 Rochefort 10. The latter was just perfect, with some incredible dark fruit notes, perhaps a little madeira? Scrumptious. Time was not so kind to my bottle of 1998 Chimay Blue, a thinness to the beer, with some musty notes, but I could not help but taste a beer from the year of my last visit…

Then to finish it off (or me?), a Gouden Carolus 2009 Christmas beer on tap. Delightfully rich & satisfying, with good spicy notes, although the star anise (licorice?) perhaps a little overpowering for me…

After leaving Antwerp, a quick half day trip to Boezinge, a tiny little village near Ypres, (one of the) home of Van Eeeke, the makers of Poperinge Hommelbier, a delightfully hoppy, bitter blonde(?) ale, as well as a list of another 10 or so beers. The contrast between De Koninck and the Van Eeke family could not have been greater. Where De Koninck had a shiny newish brewhouse, the Van Eeke family had a glorious 160HL copper domed brewhouse, almost all gravity fed, with a very hands on feel – no computer controlled equipment here. Concrete encased storage tanks, with beer produced very much on demand for the local market. Their secondary fermented bottled Hommelbier is my favourite of the range, with a wonderful hoppy aroma & a nice bite to it. They also put it in kegs (no secondary conditioning), but I find the finish a little more sweet than the bottled version.

From Boezinge, we depart for Bruges. A beautiful medieval town, surrounded by a moat, and filled with tourists. They also have one of the best beer bars in the world, tʼBrugs Beertje, but alas, they are closed on Wednesdays… Thankfully Iʼve been there before, and have exceptionally fond memories of the little bar…

What has stood out?
The better than average beer available in bars, but at the same time, a very hard time finding the Belgian microbrews readily. But more on that later…

And the 2003 Rochefort 10… Wow!

Have you learnt anything you’ll be bringing back to Oz with you?
I probably wonʼt be able to determine that until I have met & talked to all the brewers, as well as tried all the beers. But so far, the shiny equipment is nice to have, but the old stuff works just as well… And donʼt skimp on quality ingredients – it shows if you do (case in point: De Koninck Pale Ale)…

Next time: Brouwerij De Ranke, Struise & DECA, Westvleteren, tʼHommelhof, and more!

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