When a recent Eurostar promotion saw ticket prices to Europe plummet to £19 for a single fare, I couldn't resist the urge to plan a whistle-stop tour of Brussels. Naturally, this would revolve around a visit to the beer mecca, Cantillon. With a trusty beer bible in hand, the excellent Around Brussels in 80 Beers by Joe Stange, we jumped on a train, crossed the English Channel and embarked upon a two night stay in one of Europe's most exciting beer destinations.
Timeless drinking au Bon Vieux Temps
Impasse Saint-Nicolas 4, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
Only a stone’s throw away from our hotel in central Brussels was a curiously ornate arch. It marks the entrance to a narrow alleyway that leads to au Bon Vieux Temps, an unimposing venue, sunken behind St. Nicholas church. Inside, the moniker is appropriate – translating to ‘Good Old Times’ in English – and the hallmarks of a classic antiquated pub are in good order, from heavy mahogany to muted daylight streaming through its windows. We shared the venue with another couple whose presence was known only by disembodied murmurs from a corner of the room. The bartender was a kind woman who spoke broken English and spent the lulls in service transfixed by her mobile phone.
Next to a hulking and disused fireplace, we sat and examined the menu. Classic rock music wafted across the room. Despite this, all seemed eerily still and frozen in time.
On the menu was Westvleteren 12, a Trappist beer hailing from the St. Sixtus Abbey that, in 2014, was crowned the best beer in the world by Ratebeer.com. It’s challenging to source, making it relatively rare – it's only available by appointment in advance in extremely limited quantities. Of the 11 working Trappist breweries in the world, they produce the smallest volume of beer: only 4,000 barrels annually. It’s rumoured that the monastery’s designated ‘beer phone’ gets up to 85,000 calls an hour at peak times during the year.
The Westvleteren 12 didn't come cheap, priced at 15€ for a 330ml bottle. We were asked if we’d prefer the beer from the fridge or at room temperature – we opted for the latter – and our server briefly disappeared into the cellar below the bar, emerging with a bare brown bottle devoid of any label or branding save for the generic ‘Trappist’ lettering emblasoned around its neck.
The beer is a Quadrupel boasting an ABV of 10.2%. With such lofty repute, we were apprehensive to delve in, unsure whether the beer would crumble under its almighty reputation. Thankfully, there was a lot to savour, from its creamy head to the rich aromas of sweet caramel and dried dark fruit. The complexity of the beer had us scrambling to pinpoint each of the nuances we detected, from liquorice, cinnamon, raisins and toffee. Well-rounded, beautifully rich and running silky-smooth over the palate, we agreed that this was a hugely impressive tipple. Whether or not it was the best beer in the world is impossible to categorically say, but it was a fine way to kick off our pilgrimage through Belgium’s diverse and ancient landscape of beer.
And drinking it in au Bon Vieux Temps, cloistered away from the Brussels bustle, felt remarkably apt.
Pleased as punch at Poechenellekelder
Rue du Chêne 5, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
A clumsy mouthful for English speakers, le Poechenellekelder is the perfect refuge for a drink in Brussels. It's plonked down adjacent to the city’s busiest tourist spot – the corner that hosts Manneken Pis, the beloved urinating fountain – but this shouldn't be held against it. Despite the constant flow of weary visitors, the bar draws a crowd of locals with its extensive and well-curated drinks menu. A spectrum of Belgian beer is represented, over 90 styles, including some lambics and gueuze from Cantillon, Mort Subite, Tilquin and Boon breweries. The speed of service varied drastically between our two separate sessions at this bar, but was always charming when it arrived.
The décor is kitschy, but that’s no surprise given the bar’s name refers to Pulcinella, who evolved to become Mr Punch of Punch and Judy fame in England. Littered with antique and occasionally grotesque marionettes suspended from the walls and ceiling, there’s plenty to keep your gaze occupied. The mixed cheese platter is worth a punt to keep your stomach lined as you work through the drinks menu; a plate with sliced farmhouse loaf accompanied by four generous portions of mild and soft cheeses with a tangy marmalade, it's easily shared between two ravenous patrons. Oude Gueuze Mariage Parfait from Boon Brewery was lightly sour with delicate hints of hay, crisp enough to cleanse the palate, cutting through the cheeses that we happily grazed upon.
We also indulged in some Trappist beers: I particularly relished Orval, with its bouquet of evolving flavours that leaped from its branded chalice. It was intensely aromatic with nuances of sweetness balanced with bitterness of the noble hops. The nose is mostly funky yeast esters, but the complexity of this beer makes it a widely venerated drink. I was served my 300ml bottle in two Orval glasses- a large one and a small one - the waiter going to great paints to ensure that the foamy white head remained perfectly in tact as he decanted into both.
I spotted that locals were drinking Brugse Zot Blonde from De Halve Maan brewery, arriving in a vessel akin to a wine glass depicting a grinning jester. I followed suit, finding it very refreshing and a solid representation of the style, a subtle blonde with fruity yeast flavours and hints of bready malts.
The waiters at Poechenellekelde are knowledgeable and happy to make recommendations tailored to your palate or to complement your food. And, like every good continental bar, you get a small dish of salty nibbles with every round. You might find yourself straining to get the attention of the waiters during peak times, but they’ll give you their undivided attention once hailed over.
We delighted in the discovery of both of these cozy venues, especially in advance of the main event, Cantillon. But, as we quickly found, Brussels is heaving with drinking posts that are worth your custom and deserve an extra day or two spent in the city to explore.