In Bruges

In Bruges
In Bruges

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.

Brewing frieze
Seventeenth century brewing, as depicted on the side of a building in Bruges: from right to left, the copper where the water was heated for mashing the malt; the mash tun, with three men stirring the mash using mash forks; another copper, for boiling the wort from the mash tun with the hops; two cherubs, holding beer jug, mug and cup, with mash forks and huckmuck; the beer from the fermenting vessel being emptied into a cask via a hop sieve; two men with a yoke, carrying a full cask away to the cellar; the cellar, with full casks for tapping. Click to enlarge

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.

Mr and Mrs Zythophile outside the Brugs Beertje
Mr and Mrs Zythophile outside the Brugs Beertje

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.

Stained glass window showing brewing implements – crossed mash forks and a huckmuck – from a cvafe in the heart of Bruges
Stained glass window showing brewing implements – crossed mash forks and a huckmuck – from a cafe in the heart of Bruges

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.

The Gruuthuse in Bruges, built from the proceeds of a monopoly in the herbs that went into beer before hops
The Gruuthuse in Bruges, built from the proceeds of a monopoly in the herbs that went into beer before hops

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.

The Halve Maan brewery from the canal. The louvred clerestory at the top is home to the copper koelschip
The Halve Maan brewery from the canal. The louvred clerestory at the top is home to the copper koelschip

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 …)

Halve Maan brewery signAs 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.)

0 thoughts on “In Bruges

  1. To be fair to Betty’s they do have a couple of beers available. Quick check of their menu shows Sam Smiths Lager and Daleside Crack Shot Ale.

  2. I’m drawn to the stained glass. The Albany Institute of History & Art has in their collection , a stained glass window from the First Church Of Albany (the First Dutch Reformed Church—but also the actual first church in the city) from 1656, inlaid with the family crest of Rutger Jacobsen—a brewer who arrived in Beverwyck (now Albany) during the 1640s. That seal also includes brewing implements—what appears to be mash paddles and mash tuns!

    I used an image of Jacobsen’s window in my talk on Albany Ale at the AIH&A last Saturday!

  3. I agree about the lack of brewery tours in England. Black Sheep in Massam (?) is a newer brewery run by a Theakeston that is interesting but not very historical. Eldridge Pope in Kent is probably the closest to your description of Half Moon, but there could be many more. My favorite cafe in Bruges is cafe de Gare if only because it is so hard to find. It is typical of many cafe’s in Belgium. They have their own beer on tap, and it is a delicious tripple.

      1. Thank you Martyn for the spelling correction, I should have looked it up before I commented. I did mean Shepherd Neame. I was there in 1978 or so, and at Eldridge Pope in 1968. I’m pretty sure that Eldridge Pope did not offer tours to the general public, of course this was well before the craft beer movement and CAMRA. I had a good bit of their beer though, and looked at the brewery from outside. I still have a vertical sampling of Thomas Hardy Ale for several years,(imported not purchased in the UK). It’s probably 10 years old now. I wonder how long it improves with age.

        1. About 10 years would be the maximum, I suspect, with the optimum period probably being three to six years old.

          I went round RP just before it closed: very sad to see all the empty fermenting vessels.

          1. I’d better get a beer loving friend over to do the tasting comparison with me before it goes bad.

  4. It’s interesting that you should mention York, which, with Bruges, Bamberg, and Prague, were my favorite beer-drinking cities. I don’t lament their differences; I celebrate them. It’s possible that if I lived in any of those cities, I might pine for the delights of one of the others–for they are all unique. Prague and Bruges have more beer styles, but Bamberg and York have better pubs. And weirdly, as an American, the Belgian beer is far less exotic–I can literally find 20 Belgian imports on tap in a Portland pub for every English pour (if that).

    But yes, Bruges is spectacular. And the best ten euros I spent in Europe was paying to climb that amazing bell tower.

  5. Always enjoy my visits to Bruges. A beautiful city to go along with the excellent beers. . However, I like Jeff A. above, am American and celebrate the differences and uniqueness of each different city’s beer cultures. It does seem though, that I keep re-visiting Bruges, Bamberg and London’s breweries, pubs and beers regularly and I for one am happy to have all three.

  6. Another coincidences…

    Henry Hudson, sailing on behalf of the Dutch East India Company, came up the Hudson River to Albany in 1609—claiming the area for the Netherlands—on board his ship the “Halve Maen.”

    Slightly different spelling, but I still say hmm…

    1. It’s just an OLDER spelling. A vowel prolongued got an -e added to the short vowel in question, up till 19th century Dutch. In the twentieth century, it was changed to a dubble vowel (aa instead of ae, uu instead of ue); however, a long i is still lengthened to ie, and o was changed earlier, as ‘oe’ is a different sound altogether.

  7. Excellent article. Just on the point of English diffidence about beer and pubs, I see it too, in diverse ways: anti-drink campaigns, constantly rising taxes e.g. latterly on strong beer, the relaxation of hours rules only within last generation, and the pursed look you sometimes see on people passing pubs with terraces especially early in the day. Indeed it makes sense to me that the long-lived Prohibitionism in the U.S. had its origins in similar cultural-religio attitudes in Britain. Scotland is an even better instance, or at least parallel. (Certainly the Volstead Act would not have been approved by most Americans of German or other Continental lineage). This is one those things that proves to me how Brittanic America was and still is in many ways. The corpus of America in a cultural sense, if no longer an ethnic one, was and is Britain even though the two countries fancy to be the same people divided by a common tongue or however that dictum goes. And when push comes to the real shove they set aside the rancour caused by the American Revolutionary and 1812 Wars and cooperated to help save essential Western values and interests in the Second World War. They would do so again should the need arise, IMO. Looking askance at liquor – to which of course there is a flip side even if not as enthusiastic as in Belgium, John Barleycorn, the “tavern in the town”, and all that – has its place too in the assessment of alcohol’s net benefits to society but it also proves a larger point, IMO.


  8. Very interesting reading! I also love Brugge a small city steaped in history. However if it is a hot summer the canals might be a little smelly !

    Regards and thanks,
    Gerard Lemmens

    1. Fortunately I was there in early spring and a more picture book-place is hard to imagine. They needed, or rock and roll needed, a Belgian Ray Davies and anyone who gets the allusion is of a certain age..

      Anyway I was always surprised Bruges apparently escaped the depredations of the two world wars – in a country otherwise heavily affected even in remote areas such as the Ardennes. How did it possibly do that? Or was it rebuild like Munich was?


      1. Hello Gary,
        I think because Brugge is placed landinwards so not too near the sea and away from Antwerp and Brussels which were targeted during WWII hence therefore Brugge probably escaped bombardment.
        I do not know too much the war in that part of the world but I do know about the war in the Far East as I was born there on the island of Java in 1940 and my family were Indonesian Dutch, hence I could write a book about the terrible war there which started in 1941 on Pearl Harbor day and the trauma (and death) it has caused my whole family.
        Sincere regards,

  9. Ah, Bruges. What a wonderful and beautiful beer traveler’s mecca, as I watch freakish snow come down out my window on May 3! Anywhere you can buy an Orval for 2 Euros in the late night convenience store (this goes for all of Belgium) is a must visit for beer enthusiasts. An Orval in my fave beer store in Kansas City runs be nearly six dollars, and perhaps nine dollars in a pub.

    My wife, son, and I took in the Half Moon tour in summer 2010 and much to my son’s surprise (he being 14 years old at the time) he was served his free glass of Pale afterward. I told him, “When in Bruges . . .” As an American and an educator, I wish we would have a conversation about our ridiculous neo-prohibitionist drinking age, as these educators have already done:

    I was pleasantly surprised by the proliferation of the British beer offerings last summer when I visited Manchester, Liverpool and York compared to my previous visits. Many new styles and brands I have not seen before. The revolution has returned back to Britain.

    1. an Orval for 2 Euros in the late night convenience store

      Last time I was in Cambridge I embarrassed my son by stopping abruptly and pointing, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers-style, as we passed one small off-licence; I can’t even remember the brewer now, but it was some well-respected southern brewery whose beers I’d only seen once or twice before, and this nondescript little shop had loads of ’em.

      Sounds like I’ll have to work on overriding the Beer Pointing Reflex if we ever do go to Bruges.

  10. Wot no “Brendan Gleeson” tag?

    Fascinating stuff – a trip to Bruges is looking more and more attractive (and it was looking pretty attractive already). All I need now is a parallel write-up along the lines of 80 Things To Do In Bruges While The Father Of Your Children Is Swilling Beer (Again).

    1. Yeah, I should have done that. Incidental fact: the actress that plays Colin Firth’s girlfriend in In Bruges, Clémence Poésy, plays the girlfriend/wife of Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films, Bill Weasley being played by Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan. (And, of course, both Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes are in In Bruges and the Harry Potter films …)

      1. Fleur, of course – I should really have spotted her.

        Partly inspired by this post (and partly by the film!), we’ve revised our summer holiday plans to include a long weekend in Bruges. Can’t wait. (I’ve reluctantly postponed the Westvleteren trip to another year – Belgium’s not that small.)

        I guess I’m going to have to buy the book now. Eighty, though – that’s an awful lot of beers and indeed bars. How do you winnow that down to the top ten totally unmissables?

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