(This is Part Two of a post recounting Matt and my trip to Belgium and Netherlands this past summer. Read Part One here.)
In Bruges: “If I lived on a farm… ”
You know that village in the movie Hot Fuzz, where Simon Pegg’s character gets sent? Where the village is perfect in every way? Where there is a murdering band of cloaked citizens lurking in the alleys? Bruges was just like that cute little village, except for the murdering band of cloaked citizens lurking in the alleys.
Bruges was perfect. Cobblestone streets, churches on every other corner, quaint canals bordered by buildings with triangular peaked roofs, and a beautiful Market Square (Markt) framed with intricate Gothic facades that gleamed in the shining sun. We stayed in Bruges for two days, wandering through the streets (it was actually pretty easy to get lost here), side-stepping into bottle shops (again, filled with Westvleteran XII), visiting museums, eating moules frites, and chatting with the locals.
Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan, aka Bierbrowerij Straaf-Hendrik
On our first of two days in Bruges, we took a guided tour at De Halve Maan (meaning half-moon), a family-run brewery containing a museum of old-fashioned brewing techniques housed in areas of the brewery that are no longer in use. The tour led us through the old malt house and up to the highest floor which housed a relic from days gone by – the brewery’s coolship. We actually stepped into this copper container to climb through a small doorway out onto the rooftop. Immediately below us was the brewpub’s courtyard, and beyond sprawled the city of Bruges. It was a beautiful sight.
Then, it was time for a drink, or three. We tasted the Straffe Hendrik Heritage, an 11%, chcolately, bourbon barrel-aged Quad, Straffe Hendrik Tripel Wild with Brettanomyces, and The Lunatic, a deliciously creamy blonde ale.
Afterwards we took a relaxing ride through the quiet canals, sharing the waters with gaggles of white swans. Then, it was nap time.
Café Rose Red
That evening, we were wandering (totally not lost) through the winding streets and came upon an inconspicuous doorway in a back alley, only noticeable because of the small crowd of people standing nearby, chatting loudly. As we came closer, we saw that they were gathering in front of the entrance to a bar named Café Rose Red. Their beer list was written on a chalkboard easel outside, and it included Cantillon Lambic and Westy 12; in we went.
To our surprise, there at the bar sat Matt #3, one of our newfound friends from Brussels! We pulled up next to him and he generously shared his bottle of Cantillon Mamouche with us. I ordered a Westvleteran 12, but the bartender explained that while it is listed on the menu, he wouldn’t feel comfortable serving it because it was too young. They typically age it for a few weeks to a couple of months before serving it, which takes away much of the harsh alchohol burn that’s characteristic of a freshly bottled version.
“Oh well, I guess I’ll have the Cantillon Lambic, then,” she said for the first and last time in her life.
The following night we visited Bierbrasserie Cambrinus, a well known restaurant and beer bar just a few blocks from our bed & breakfast. We sat at the bar, and the bartender handed us a 3” ring binder bursting with beer choices. Moments later, a tap on the shoulder had us turning around. “MC, Matt!” There sat Nick and Robyn–two more of our Brussels friends were eating dinner at the table just behind us!
We continued to drink and chat with the bartender, who we discovered was a huge Chicago Bulls fan. He was looking forward to watching the game that night–er, morning–at 2am at his father’s bar, Le Trappiste. As if on cue, his father walked in the door and sat down at the bar next to us. We told him we were on a beer tour of Belgium so invited us to come to his own brewpub later that evening. Continuing to ride this seemingly endless wave of serendipity, we of course took him up on that offer, but not before we ordered a bottle of Westy 12 to share.
To enter Le Trappiste, you descended a stairway that took you down below the cobblestone streets of Bruges. This bar was a scene right out of Indiana Jones. Dripping candles, double barrel ribbed vaults made of chalky brick shaping the Romanesque ceiling, and a beer list to match the magical vibe, I half expected to see the cup of Christ sitting in one of the enclaves. More Cantillon flowed as the hours ticked away. The next afternoon, we were departing for Antwerp by train so … eventually … we wandered back through the streets of Bruges, admiring the quiet canals illuminated by street lamp one last time.
Antwerp: Bierhuis Kulminator and “Pizza” Bolognese
We arrived in Antwerp in the afternoon with only one destination in mind–Bierhuis Kulminator. It was a Monday, so unfortunately all of the museums were closed, but we knew that this beer bar would be open. Kulminator has been named among the best beer pubs in the world by RateBeer.com multiple times, and has been described by some as a scene out of Harry Potter but by others as a cluttered hoarder’s haven. Based on these descriptions, we decided that we had to see this place for ourselves.
The owners are Dirk and Leen, a husband and wife who have been sharing their vast beer collection–now with approximately 800 Belgian and international varieties–since they opened their humble and homey establishment in 1974. Their collection is remarkable not only because of its size, but also because it includes vintage beers dating back to the 1970s; with enough money and friends to satisfy, Matt and I could have indulged in a vertical tasting of Chimay Blue from 1982 through 2015, including every single year in between. While this was an extreme example of what we observed in their menu, it was overall a truly impressive collection. Upon peeking through the beer cellar window, I spotted beers I had only heard of before.
Matt and I decided to order a more cost-conscious comparison; we requested two 12oz bottles of my personal favorite Belgian Trappist Quadrupel Rochefort 10 – one from 2015 and one from 2006. The differences were remarkable!
The 2015 smelled of tangy raisins, was very effervescent with a full and creamy mouthfeel, and had flavors of plums, dates, and even sharp cheese. The 2006 smelled a little papery, but still had a raisiny aroma. It was incredibly smooth, having lost almost all of its carbonation entirely. This went down like liquid caramel and smooth chocolate. The flavors had all mellowed and mixed into an amazingly delicate and delicious beverage.
On the walk back to our hotel, we had our eyes peeled for a late night snack when we came upon an Italian joint with a picture of a ginormous slice of pizza in the window. “Peeeeetzzzzaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh,” we drooled. Matt ordered the pizza with sausage. We anxiously awaited, our tummies growling. About 20 minutes later, our order came out.
“Where’s the pizza? That’s pasta.”
“You said pasta with sausage, no? Pasta Bolognese.”
“I said pizza, with sausage.”
Apparently our order had been lost in translation. We sad-walked our piping hot “pizza” bolognese back to our hotel room. It was good … but it wasn’t pizza. Early the next morning we would make our way, again by train, to our final destination of the trip: Amsterdam. We set our alarms for 4am, awoke and listened to the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup on Matt’s WGN Radio iPhone app, and headed out our hotel door.
Amsterdam: More than Meets the Eye
By now we were getting a little “beered out,” if you can believe it. In Amsterdam we did visit Gollem Beer Café, the Beer Temple (where they had a bottle of 2010 Dark Lord for $200 and no, we didn’t buy it), and In De Wildeman–all three of which had amazing international craft beer selections. We visited a coffeeshop, experienced the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum, explored the Anne Frank House, took a canal boat ride, and tiptoed through the Red Light District. We both felt these cliché experiences (some more moving than others) were necessary first-timers-in-Amsterdam activities but after all of this, we decided to mix it up and we booked ourselves a half day-long bike tour.
Our Mike’s Bike Tour guide was full of great “Amsterdam, where drugs are legal” jokes such as, “I bought some new shoes from a drug dealer the other day. I don’t know what he laced them with, but I’ve been tripping all day.”
**pause for laughter**
We started in the center of Amsterdam proper, speeding through the city streets and learning the rules of the bustling bike lanes on the fly (aka, actively trying not to die in a bike + car + tulip cart crash), occasionally pausing for historical anecdotes or the telling of a hilarious pun. The streets gradually thinned of traffic as we joined up with a lazy bike path that bordered a countryside lake. We stopped at a working windmill, then at a cheese farm where we tasted delicious cow cheeses and even witnessed a calf’s birth. (Matt took a video of that if you’re interested. It’s … gooey.)
As we rode on through the surrounding fields, hawks hovered high above and feathered pheasants peeped at us through the tall grasses. In this moment, I felt so lucky to be gliding along on two wheels next to my best friend as we explored the surface of the Earth.
While we hauled home a great deal of Belgian beers back to share in Chicagoland, the most meaningful souvenirs were definitely our memories. Traveling widens your perspective–your tastes seem to expand with your experiences and somehow, your own personal problems shrink to a smaller size in the grand scheme of things.
The best beer I had in Belgium was probably the Cantillion Fou Foun that I first sipped on back in Brussels at the beginning our trip, not because of its “white whale” status, but because it was truly the beginning of a wonderfully serendipitous adventure that I will never forget.