Stevo and I, after our journey from Cambridge on Friday morning, got in the mood with a couple of pints of Sambrook’s Wandle Ale at the excellent Betjeman Arms in St. Pancras station. After two hours on the Eurostar we dumped our belongings at our hotel, which was only ten minutes from the festival venue.
Beer drinkers! Your hearts may miss a beat at the prospect of drinking in Earl’s Court, on Cambridge’s Jesus Green, in the Wulfrun Hall in Wolverhampton or the Corn Exchange in Bury St. Edmunds. Believe me, the setting of the Grand’Place in Brussels beats them all. A number of small tents were set up in two rows within a metal stockade bestrewn with hops. The buildings around the square are exquisitely decorated with statues, gargoyles and gold leaf, and have been there for hundreds of years. We were blessed with good weather, which made the pleasure of drinking alfresco even better.
A word about the organisation. The tents were manned by employees of the various breweries providing the 290 beers on tap there. Hence Palm, Affligem, Boon and Bavik, to highlight but four of the shorter-named breweries represented, each had a stand. Beer tokens in the form of Belgian Beer Weekend bottletops could be purchased for a euro each from three kiosks around the edge of the square. According to the strength of the beer, these were exchanged for the required beer. Tables were provided to stand around, although there were no seats. Clearly only serious drinkers were catered for.
Those of you who have drunk Belgian beers in bars in the UK will know that there is an insistence on using the right glass. This is invariably one carrying the name of the brewery and shaped often quite grotesquely. Those of you who have tried Kwak will know that it comes with its own wooden gibbet. Now imagine the 200 or so different types of glasses required for the 290 beers on offer. There was buying a one-size-fits-all glass as you find at UK festivals. Oh no. I said the Belgians take their beer-drinking seriously. When you purchased your beer you were given it in the specified and appropriate glass. When you had finished, you left your glass on one of the tables, and off you went to buy a different one (or presumably the same if you really liked it). Hence hordes of glass collectors were also employed, who presumably had at some stage to sort out the glasses and return them to the appropriate brewer. Along with the bureaucracy presumably required to convert bottletops redeemed from each brewer into hard cash, the festival appears to provide paid employment to a lot of people.
The seriousness of drinking was confirmed by a remarkable public demonstration stand on the Saturday afternoon. Two local brewers, behind the masquerade of a blind tasting, took some thirty minutes to explain how to prepare the said glasses, how to pour the drink and how to remove the (substantial) excess head on the beer. Stevo and I tried to picture a similar stand at the GBBF, but couldn’t.
Catering arrangements were minimal – there was a frites and mayonnaise stall somewhere, and one dishing out snails. But the various cafes around the Grand’Place were extremely accessible and welcoming. There was no issue about security – if you didn’t have bottletops you wouldn’t get served. Tourists circled the stockade I suspect in the same way that the gentry wandered round Bedlam in previous centuries, but I have to say that behaviour was very good, apart from a few rowdy Germans towards the end of the evening. Stevo and I met a range of nationalities that truly reflected the international occasion. We met many Scandinavians, in Brussels to experience beer that cost less than £8 a pint. We met a number of Australians, who were generally not happy to talk about cricket nor Australian lager. But we didn’t talk to any Belgians. Whether Stevo and I looked forbidding, or just English, we couldn’t tell.
The beers were wonderful, and too numerous to mention. We found it difficult to maintain our normal festival pace, not only because of the to-ing and fro-ing with a different glass but also because we found it impossible to gulp down any of the beers. Not only were they distinctive and (sometimes) tasty, but we found that they lay a little heavily on the stomach. The call of nature was not so persistent in Brussels, which was just as well, given that we appeared to be keeping a number of old ladies in employment with our 30 cents payment for every visit.
There was another wonderful element to the Grand’Place: it was only about 400 metres from the Delirium Bar. This amazing creation has only been open for five or so years, but on entering you would think it had always been there. Down a small alley in the restaurant area tucked behind the Grand’Place, it has an unprepossessing front, but wait till you see the inside! The upper bar purveys 30 draught beers at any one time, and is generously decorated with tin signs advertising old and still existing breweries. If you go in early (it opens at 10 a.m.) it is sparsely populated, and you can see and get served at the bar. If you go in late (it closes at 4 a.m.) it is packed, there is an industrial-scale fug of cigarette smoke (the Belgians can still smoke indoors, and it does seem compulsory) and service takes a little longer. There is a colourful beer menu, and it does food. Be warned, however – it is a young person’s place. An informal visual check, followed up by a one-to-one interview (“How old are you?” “I’m 65”. “I think that makes you the oldest person in this bar”. “I think you’re right”) confirmed this.
On the Sunday, when Stevo and I had used up all our one hundred tokens (that did include 4 euros for two LaChouffe elves’ hats), we naturally wandered off to the Delirium Bar. To our initial consternation, we discovered that the top bar was closed, but to our eternal gratitude the lower bar was open. This was decorated with upturned beer trays, and we noticed some depicting former disasters of UK brewing, like Brew Ten and William Younger’s Tartan. The lower bar specialises in bottled beer, and at the last count stocked 2009 different brands, one for every year of Christianity. The beer menu here resembled a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and took almost as long to read.
Seeking some kind of guidance through Belgium’s beers, I had consulted in advance Roger Protz’s 300 Beers to Drink Before You Die! This proved to be very useful, although I appear to have reached an age, and stage, where all that is left in the book are 8% and above. Such was the case with Belgian bottled beer. Roger, your taste was impeccable bar one beer. Cantillon Kriek, which incidentally set me back £12 for two bottles (as luck would have it, it was my round) and was probably the sourest beer that Stevo and I had experienced in our long histories of bar-propping. It took us each 45 minutes to finish the equivalent of half a pint. Readers, if you do decide to drink this before you die, we suggest you make it about five minutes before.
After a nostalgic walk around the Grand’Place on Monday morning, we caught the Eurostar back to St. Pancras. I have to say it was a relief to be able to down a pint, again of Wandle Ale, in a time closer to what I was used to. Stevo and I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend, and would recommend the experience wholeheartedly to any other discerning drinkers. But do lay off the Cantillon Kriek!