I first drank in the Brugs Beertje in Bruges in 1985. I didn’t realise at the time that it was then only a couple of years old: it already felt like a classic beer venue, small, comfortable as an old suede gardening glove, welcoming as your favourite cousin, the walls lathered in Belgian brewery memorabilia, the selection of hopped beverages extensive and eclectic.
At the time, it was pretty much unknown outside Bruges: I was guided to it by a pamphlet listing the city’s beer outlets that I picked up in the Bruges tourist office while trying to find a hotel. Would the tourist office in any British city have carried a list of good local bars and pubs in 1985? Would the tourist office in any British city carry a list of good local bars and pubs today? Not, I think.
Despite Britain and Belgium each being soaked in beer culture to their respective marrows, there still, 40-plus years after the founding of an organisation specifically set up to encourage appreciation of British beer, seems something much more celebratory about Belgium’s relationship with beer than you find among the British generally. Belgians seem far keener to announce to everybody their beery wonders than we do in Britain, eager to hand you the massive beer menu when you sit down in the bar, cafe or restaurant, happy to let you know that this little country of 11 million is one of the four or five greatest brewing nations in the world, and pleased to point out that they make more unusual beer styles than anywhere else, too.
In Bruges, there are murals of beer-making to be seen in the streets, stained glass windows showing brewing equipment in the cafes where you can have your early-morning croissant and hot chocolate (while the man at the table next door is enjoying an early-morning Belgian strong ale), and the building in the main square showing a multimedia display of the city’s celebrated golden medieval past, the Historium, has a café called the Duvelorium, where you can drink Belgium’s celebrated golden modern beer. Would a British tourist attraction go for a tie-up like that?
Of course, one big difference between Belgian and British beer culture is the one I alluded to in passing in the last paragraph: that beer is available practically anywhere other drinks are available, so that every little café or eatery will be able to offer you a range of brews. Thus if you want a glass of ale with your breakfast cheese and ham or your mid-afternoon waffles and ice-cream, it will be there. But while the Bruges equivalent of Bettys Tea Shop in York will sell you a (locally brewed) Straafe Hendrik with your peperkoek (gingerbread), Bettys Tea Shop in York would throw its apron over its head if you asked for an Old Peculier or a glass of Tim Taylor’s Landlord with your parkin.
I was back in Bruges last month, carrying a pre-publication copy of the third edition of Around Bruges in 80 Beers, thanks to the kindness of Paul Travis of Beer-Inn Print (the first stop for all your beer book needs). If you’ve not seen the book, it’s an excellent guide to 80 bars and cafes (and a couple or three of bottle shops) in the capital of West Flanders, matching a different beer to every outlet.
Bruges will certainly give you as wide a range of drinking experiences, in place and glass, as any single city in the world. The places run from the cramped intimacy of the Brugse Beertje (the “Little Bruges Bear”, named, I have now learnt, 28 years on, for Bruges’ ursine mascot, and in my not very humble opinion one of the finest beer bars on the planet) to the Art Deco Gran Kaffee de Passage, and from the wacky Books & Brunch, a bar-cum-secondhand bookshop, to the canalside “café brasserie tea room Sint Petershoeve” in the suburb of Damme, with its red-and-white chequered tablecloths, where the menu includes eel with green herbs, and rabbit with prunes.
The beers featured, naturally, this being Belgium, are fantastically varied: strong abbey-style ales, dark and light; weird wild-fermented lambics and gueuzes; spiced wheat beers; sour oak-aged brown ales; Saisons, the farmhouse ales from the French-speaking south of the country; and a growing number of takes on styles from other countries, including stouts, bitters and highly-hopped American IPAs.
Standouts for me this trip included Lupulus from Les 3 Fourquets on draught – whoa, lemons! – which Mrs Z, who normally can’t be dragged away from a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, enjoyed enough to want to order one herself. Unfortunately, this being a very Belgian draught beer, it’s refermented in the keg, which means your end-of-the-keg glass is likely to (1) be murky as a bad day in Beijing, and (2) taste much more yeasty than the glass served earlier – too yeasty, in fact, for a Sauvignon Blanc fan to wish to continue with. Fortunately the barman replaced that glass with a less cloudy one. I also greatly liked Troubadour Obscura, brewed at De Proefbrouwerij in Lochristi for Musketiers, a great dark dessert beer, full and just the right side of sweet.
The average Bruges bar will have probably 40 or so different beers in stock, and some will top 400 or more. It is thus comparatively easy to put together a book that covers 80 often very different outlets (did I mention Rail City, a bar with its own 165-square-metre model railway installation?) and feature a different beer with each one.
If you set out to attempt the same exercise in a comparable tourist city in Britain, however – say, Oxford, or York, both similar sizes to Bruges, both full of grand old buildings – I suggest you would not get very far. There would be beers to stand up to Belgium’s finest, and bars to match the best Bruges offers, but not 80 of one to pair with 80 of the other.
And all this with some of the finest medieval Northern European architecture you’ll see anywhere. Bruges in the 21st century can actually thank the apparent bad luck that saw its outlet to the sea silt up about 1500, and its former pre-eminence as a trading centre disappear, because it meant that the glorious buildings built during the peak of its power were left alone as that power faded, with no money to demolish them and build something more contemporary. Thus today more than two million tourists a year flood the place to enjoy its sights: even mid-week in freezing early April the city was wedged with visitors.
Having walked round the streets, and taken a boat trip on the canals, those tourists then hit the museums: the art museum, natch; the lace museum; the Gruuthuse museum, housed in the magnificent semi-palace built with the proceeds of selling “gruut”, or gruit, the pre-hop mixture of herbs that went to flavour Flemish ale; the chocolate museum, of course – and the beer museum. The old Halve Maan brewery, alias Henri Maes, to the south of the city’s heart, has guided tours every hour from 11am to 4pm, every day, and once again they’re rammed: two or three dozen people or more each time from a swath of nationalities, all keen to look at coppers and mash tuns. I doubt greatly that many people on the tours would normally take a special trip somewhere to go round an old brewery, but hey, they’re here, it’s €7 a ticket and you get a free glass of Brugse Zot, the Halve Maan’s undemanding but perfectly pleasant pale ale-alike, in the brewery bar/restaurant afterwards. (The local beer bars can be rude if you dismiss their myriad specialities and want Zot instead: not having had it before, I decided to try it on my first evening last month, and the waiter asked if I’d like a straw with it …)
As it happens, the Halve Maan’s age makes it a fascinating tour: as well as the old-style corrugated wort coolers, down which the hot wort once flowed on its way to the fermenting vessel as cold water circulated inside, you can also spot old mash tun rakes of the sort once used before mechanical raking took over, and even examples of the wicker strainers, known in English as huckmucks, that would be rammed into the middle of the mashtun for the sweet wort to flow into, so that it could be ladled out and conveyed to the copper for boiling with hops. I had only before seen pictures of huckmucks: to spot ones that had obviously once been used gave me an even bigger thrill than spotting a quern in the corner of a Portuguese farmyard. The tour also passes through a disused fermenting room filled with more than a dozen fermenting vessels all not much bigger than a Californian hot-tub, the like of which I’ve not seen since a trip round Paine’s now long-closed brewery in St Neot’s in the 1970s, and right up to the top of the building, where you step across an old copper koelschip, or shallow wort cooler, and out onto the roof, for a fine view of the city before and below you. Here’s a quick virtual tour:
Woe and thrice woe, York, Oxford, Bath and all Britain’s other major tourist lures have lost their old city-centre breweries, so there’s no chance of such a trip for any visitors bored, perhaps of architecture and art galleries in the UK. But how wonderful it would be to have someone set up a brewery museum alongside the old Anchor brewhouse by Tower Bridge in London. Any entrepreneur fancy the idea? If the Halve Maan is a hint, you’d be beating the visitors back with sticks. And how about properly promoting Britain’s beer culture to overseas visitors? We’re the country that invented IPA, porter, stout, barley wine, bitter ales, mild ales: the government is working, I happen to know, on a campaign to boost awareness of Britain’s beer heritage abroad to encourage exports of beer. How about an effort to encourage beer tourism of the sort that must bring Bruges a flood of visitor cash every year?
(Oh, and if you’ve not seen the film this post is named for, do so – a tremendous black comedy.)