Ales Tales: a celebration of Belgian beer in East London

Last month, Hackney’s Oval Space was the setting for the UK’s first Belgian beer festival. Ales Tales ran between the 21st and 22nd July, assembling 20 Belgian breweries in one place to bring a taste of the country’s prosperous beer culture to East London.

Over 60 beers were on offer across the two days from a line-up of breweries that included both globally renowned and relatively unknown names, giving Londoners the opportunity to experience a range of traditional and modern styles. Belgium has a rich beer history that can be traced back to the 12th century. Today, it's often associated with Trappist styles brewed in monasteries, abbey beers and small scale, family-run operations. There are approximately 180 breweries in the country and Belgian beer was designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2016.

Ales Tales Festival Oval Space

Oval Space has been used previously for the London Craft Beer Festival, but it's more suited to a smaller scale event like this, offering ample space for communal tables and easy access to the outdoor area (with its fantastic view of the picturesque Bethnal Green gasholders). Decorated with Belgian themed tricoloured bunting and minimalist stalls cobbled together from wooden pallets, the atmosphere at Ales Tales was breezy and relaxed. Most stalls were serving four beers with the size of the pour dedicated by tokens – one token cost £1.50 and would get you a 10cl tasting. This was perfect for those audacious drinkers who wanted to sample one of everything, especially those higher ABV beers.

Ales Tales Festival Oval Space

Cheery representatives from every brewery were posed to describe the beer and give a history of the brewery and style; they were also quick to make a recommendation and send drinkers to another stall. We made a beeline to Brasserie de la Senne, where the Taras Boulba, a noble hop session beer, started us off. After working through their four options – which also included Zinnebir, a Belgian pale ale, Brusselier, a zwet IPA and Bruxellensis, a brett beer – we perused the descriptions helpfully provided in our festival guide to formulate a plan of attack.

Ales Tales Festival Oval Space

The Pamplemousse fruit beer from Bertinchamps was intensely sweet and sharp, proving very drinkable on a humid evening. Hof Ten Dormaal’s kriek was outstanding, giving off hints of wood and tart cherries with vague flavours of almond.The Ardenne Stout, an imperial stout from Brasserie de Bastogne, was a robust beer with ample hits of chocolate and roasted malts with asmoky finish. 

The best blond we sampled was attributed to Monsieur Rock, beer currently being brewed in the UK at Meantime Brewing Company under the supervision of Jean-Marie Rock, formerly an Orval Brewery brewmaster. It was crisp and dazzling with a smooth body that made it pleasantly sessionable (even at 6.6%).

To complement the flowing beers was a selection of Belgian treats, including cheese, croquettes and boulettes (meatballs). On the outside terrace, chefs were serving up more substantial fare with chips in cones, just like you’d find in a Belgium friterie. The staff were polite and helpful - even when card machines struggled to take payments, they remained in high spirits and were apologetic.

Ales Tales drew in the crowds in spite of its £9 entrance fee, demonstrating that there's an appetite for yet another beer festival in the capital. This taste of Belgium was warmly received and the size and set-up of the festival made it feel intimate and manageable, a nice contrast to the capital's larger scale annual craft beer festivals.

Oh- and those keen on making the most of their time at the festival could splash out on the Complete Belgian Experience, a £40 ticket that included unlimited beer and a Belgian snack. This might be the way to go if you're a Belgian beer afficiendo.

I was invited to Ales Tales as a guest, but purchased my own drinks.

Brussels, Belgium: Moeder Lambic, La Porte Noire & Delirium Village

This is a continuation from last week's feature on some of the highlights of our recent trip to Brussels, found here.

Branching out at Moeder Lambic

Place Fontainas 8, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

Looking for a chic, central spot to sample a rotating selection of drinks from both tiny local breweries and further afield? Then Moeder Lambic Fontainas is your proverbial beer nirvana. This isn't the original Moeder Lambic location, which is in Saint-Gilles, but is more accessible to visitors passing through the city centre. More a sleek taproom than a dusty bar dripping with nostalgia, this is a lively destination that offers something different to entice drinkers on every visit. We designated this as our meeting point with friends who had also travelled from London. Here, we sampled the most experimental beers of our Belgium sojourn.

Inside, the place is dimly lit,  populated with stools against the bar and booths lining both sides of the venue. The drinks list is a fold-out pamphlet bolstered with a list of guest beers, scrawled on several chalkboards suspended from the ceiling. We transitioned from the classics – starting on gueuze or kriek – then moved on to modern hoppy beers including Hop Harvest from De Ranke and a barrel-aged sour beer from Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes (BFM) in Switzerland. The latter was particularly divisive, characterised by bold tartness, intense sweetness and bracing bitter notes. The razor-sharp acidic tones were too dominating on the palate for the majority at our table, who likened it to drinking balsamic vinegar; however, I found the beer oddly balanced, imparting soft notes of vanilla and oak from the barrel.

We were pleased to see Beavertown Brewery and The Kernel Brewery represented at Moeder alongside other International picks, such as Birrificio Lambrate from Italy and Le Trou Du Diable from Quebec, Canada. We didn’t have time to scrutinise the fridges, but were advised that their bottle collection was brimming with rare beers. There was a sufficiently vast selection offered across the 40 taps to keep us busy. In addition to these, there are six handpulls reserved for Lambic beers. Some of the highlights included the Band of Brothers collaboration between Moeder Lambic and Brasserie de la Senne and Witkap Stimulo from Slaghmuylder.

Sadly, our visit was in January, but the outside area of the bar was ideal for drinking al fresco. In the summer months, the stretch of patio will undoubtedly be teeming with relaxed drinkers.

Peeking behind La Porte Noire

Rue des Alexiens 67, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

Of all the drinking establishments visited during our stay, La Porte Noire – which translates to ‘the black door’ - was swarming with the largest crowd of locals. Visitors enter via the eponymous black door and descend a staircase to a cellar bar. We’re used to drinking beneath arches in London, so we were at ease in the dimly lit, claustrophobic and cramped space. Furnished with long wooden banquet tables and makeshift barrels to perch on, the energy in the bar was electric. Music swelled in the air throughout the evening and the composition of drinkers was varied, but most appeared to be university students letting loose on a Friday night. The level of English among the staff wasn’t as accomplished as other venues, implying that not too many tourists amble down the stairs.

The bar itself is small, but equipped with ten taps pouring a selection of beers – we started here, going for some pales and blondes, but found ourselves drawn towards the wall of fridges that hosted a trove of treasures, including gueuze, Trappist beers and some local representations; this is where we worked through a range of The Brussels Beer Project’s beers, as we didn’t have time to visit their brewing site on this whirlwind trip. We had a lot of success with our selections, partially due to a passionate member of staff who directed us towards the most exemplary options. 

We found The Brussels Beer Project's range both affordable and intensely drinkable, including the Grosse Bertha Belgian Hefeweizen, a good rendition of the style with a creamy body, nice citrus and banana notes accompanied by a dash of cloves and a balanced tartness in the finish. The Dark Sister, a black IPA, was just as sessionable, bringing a bouquet of sweet maltiness peppered with hints of dark fruit and married with a clean citrus edge.

This was a intended to be quick stopover that transformed into hours of working through the draught lines and fridges, immersed in the congenial ambiance and the smug satisfaction that we’d uncovered the perfect late night venue: lively, cool and with an expansive – but still manageable – beer offering.

Dizzy in Delirium Village

Impasse de la Fidélité 4, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

It would be remiss to avoid Delirium, which is home to an unwieldy beer selection that surpasses 3,000 options. It’s raucous, popular with tourists and a disorientating maze inside – qualities that might make your lip curl if you think of similar central London venues. We arrived weary from a long day, but were determined to stay for a drink. The bar is actually an assembly of buildings known as Delirium Village, comprising the Delirium Café, Hoppy Loft and the Taphouse.

You might recognise the Delirium moniker from the beer branded with a pink elephant against an opaque white bottle. Their strong Belgian ale, the Delirium Tremens, is popular both in Belgium and internationally. In the Taphouse alone, the beer selection stretched across several boards, a range wide enough to leave us straining to make a decision. There’s a bottle list – more of a catalogue – rumoured to be a hefty tome, but we opted to stick to the taps.

The taproom is littered with antique tin beer signs promoting Belgian beer and a mishmash of seating arrangements; visitors might find themselves sitting inside a train carriage or inside a hollowed out fermenter tank. The environment was less refined Brussels and more a backpacker's haven, seeing throngs spilled out into the street, stumbling over cobblestone roads and screeching to each other between venues.

Despite the shift in the ambiance, it was worth witnessing the sheer magnitude of Delirium and the frenzy unfold around us. And it was only a Thursday night. After a round of drinks, however, we were ready to bid Delirium adieu and move on towards our hotel, where we were lured into a friterie and ordered a cone of fries in shoddy French.

Between the scenes at Delirium and the late-night snack, this was the closest I’ve come to reliving my student days in years. We were thankful for our decision to refuel because our next day was reserved entirely for the main event: Cantillon.