Monday, December 12, 2005

A digression on Belgian cafe culture.

According to all accounts pointing the way to the narrow lane called Kemelstraat in delicious Bruges, Belgium, our quartet of American beer hunters was fortunate just to find seats in the jammed front room of ‘t Brugs Beertje, a specialty beer café.

It was 1995, and we had made the Little Bruges Bear an absolute priority. It seemed appropriate for the café to be so absurdly tiny, but what it lacked in floor space it more than made up for with an enormous beer list!

Granted, there were only a half-dozen drafts to go with the four rickety wooden stools at the short bar. However, the bottled beer menu ran for page after page, subdivided into lists of beers by provincial origin, and noting each beer’s particular style.

There were ruddy brown ales from East Flanders and tart reds from West Flanders; earthy Saisons and individualistic Wallonian ales from the French-speaking southeast; funky spontaneously-fermented Gueuzes and citrusy Wits; Trappist ales and the Abbey styles that mimic them; and, as a bonus, stored in endless rows behind the bar, signature glassware for most of the 200 bottled choices available.

The walls were plastered with antique metal beer signs and associated breweriana, and when the noise of conversation ebbed, soothing classical music could be heard playing.

Staggered by the options, I selected Rochefort 10, widely considered the finest of all Trappist ales. It was unavailable locally at the time, and remains rare today.

Our understated but attentive server, Luc, who we later came to know well, shook his head sadly. Suddenly I was gripped with fear that the café’s stock of Rochefort was depleted.

Luc asked, “Will you be having more than one beer this evening?”

“Yes, of course,” I replied.

“Then I cannot serve you the Rochefort. You will not be able to taste the beers that come after it. You must save it for the end.”

Learning is always fun when good teachers are close by. Luc’s advice was heeded, and the session-closing Rochefort 10 was suitably rich, dark, cosmic, revelatory and unconditional.


As befits a nation that seeks to unite contrasting populations of Dutch and French speakers, Belgium often is a study in opposites.

Belgium famously suffered as victim during two World Wars even as its own colonial abuses were perpetuated in the Congo. It has produced the inventor of the saxophone, without whom there could have been no Coltrane, as well as the inane action star, Jean-Claude Damme.

Belgium has achieved culinary acclaim, whether at simple street corner kiosks where potatoes are perfectly deep-fried as nowhere else and accompanied with any imaginable sauce save ketchup, and at classic Continental restaurants serving escargot, endives, Carbonade Flamande and steaming pots of fresh mussels.

Belgium supports the most crazily diverse and creative local brewing culture to be found in Europe, and also hosts the world’s largest mass-market lager brewing conglomerate: AmBev, maker of Stella Artois, which unfortunately is the only beer remembered by most American visitors to Belgium.

I’ve made eight excursions to Belgium since that first night of coursework at ‘t Brugs Beertje. These priceless idylls have been spent traversing the country by bus, train, automobile, and best of all, bicycle; from the dikes, canals and well-ordered brick homes of Flanders to the woods and hills of the Ardennes; enjoying food and drink in industrial cities and countryside villages; and one essential aspect of the Belgian beer drinking experience stands out in my mind.

The institution of the café.

As Europe’s beer drinking venues go, Belgian cafes surely are the least appreciated. While most Americans grasp the traditional beer hall regimen offered by Bavarians, and understand the basic format of the Anglo-Irish public house, few have been exposed to the subtle wonders of the Belgian café.

Like bars and pubs everywhere, Belgian cafés are meeting places for friends and serve as extended living rooms for locals. Unlike bars and pubs elsewhere, it’s usually possible to sample at least a half-dozen markedly different beer styles (not beer “brands”) in a typical Belgian café, even the ones that don’t emphasize beer.

To order a spritzy, deceptive Duvel (“Devil”) or a fruit-infused Lindemans is to receive the bottle accompanied by a glass designed expressly for it. Sometimes the glasses are little more than advertising vehicles, but often at least the shape and design of the glass is intended to complement and enhance the beer, as in the case of a wide rimmed goblet for aromatic Trappist and Abbey-style ales like Chimay, Orval or Corsendonk.

At most Belgian cafés, a small portion of peanuts or crunchy snacks, and sometimes even cheese cubes or herring slices, will come with each beer order. These are free of charge. When the time comes for something a bit more substantial, you’ll generally be given a menu card and cautioned that there are no “meals,” only “snacks.”

These “snacks” can be substantial, ranging from bread, sausage plates and cheese platters (don’t forget the celery salt) to grilled sandwiches like the ubiquitous Croque Monsieur (ham and cheese) and Croque Madame (the same with a fried egg on top), all the way to spaghetti and lasagna. These light meals, or heavy snacks, suffice more often than not, especially if the cafe’s beer list keeps the enthusiast rooted to his seat.

At least some of this reverie can be duplicated at home.

First and foremost, just say “no” to Stella Artois.

Procure a copy of Tim Webb’s “Good Beer Guide to Belgium & Holland,” which local booksellers can order for you. Use Webb’s text as an aid while prowling the shelves of area retailers, looking for examples of classic Belgian ale styles, and checking to see if there’s glassware for sale. A basic arsenal of goblets and flutes need not be comprehensive.

A bowl of peanuts, and you’re ready.

(The preceding piece by the Curmudgeon was originally published in Food & Dining Magazine)

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