A short drive then to Bruges itself, bags dropped at our well-located apartment in Ezelstraat, car dumped at the railway station then down to business. As any Bruges afficiniado will tell you, first port of call has to be the legendary Brugs Beertje, a small simple cafe with a great beer selection (over 250) and a unique atmosphere – created largely because you only really come here if you're a beer lover. We had the honour of being waited on by proprietress Daisy, whose knowledge of Belgian beer is unsurpassed. Beers which scored well included Witkap Pater Stimulo and Ellezelloise Quintine. Being unable to drag ourselves away, we also ate here though to be honest grub isn't what Beertjes is about.
Our second bible for the trip was Around Bruges in 80 Beers by Chris Pollard and Siobhan McGinn – it recommends 80 places to drink in the city (and in nearby Damme) and 80 different beers, one for each outlet. Over the next three days, we only managed 14 of them, partly because we visited one bar (Cambrinus) three times and also made the inevitable return to Beertjes.
Cambrinus was new to us, having opened in 2006, and we were mightily smitten. It has one sizeable rectangular room with dark panelled walls, brass lights – and over 400 beers. The huge beer menu comes bound in wooden boards but is well worth struggling with given the cornucopia of delights within. They even sell (at a price) the elusive beers from the Westvleteren Trappist brewery though we gave these a miss in favour of more affordable nectar. The food here was excellent and reasonably priced.
Another bar with a long beer list is Poatersgat which occupies a big vaulted brick cellar with low light levels to impart more atmosphere. Alan and I ventured here on our own one night and joined the other bright young things (OK, delete the other) who frequent the place (but all seemingly drinking decent beer rather than plastic fizz). We greatly relished Saison Dupont on draft and some oddities from the outer reaches of their list.
A discovery of note was 2be. This I mainly a tourist-oriented shop selling Belgian-made food alongside an enormous choice of quite pricey bottled beers. It has a “Wall of Beer” display which purports to feature, in a long glass case, every Belgian bottled beer plus its matching glass. At the back, though, is a small bar with a dull selection of draft beers and a few trappists in bottles – but a good number of the large 75cl bottles, all sold at the reasonable price (for Belgium) of 8 euros, regardless of strength. Having said that, the decision by Jane and I to share a bottle of 11.5% Urthel Samoranth at lunchtime wasn't perhaps the wisest we've made. There's a lovely terrace here overlooking the canal.
Belgian beers come in a bewildering variety of styles and I love most of them – though I just can't get on with the lambics and other sour beers (sorry Ron). However, as an unashamed hophead I've been delighted by the increasing number of genuinely hoppy Belgian beers. On this sortie I had my first taste of Senne Zinnebeer which is blow-your-socks-off hoppy while the likes of De Ranke XX and Guldenburg and Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel also hit my hop spot.
Our only venture outside Bruges was to the nearby village of Damme. 80 Beers suggests getting there by the paddle boat Lamme Goedzak which is what we did. I was a little wary as I'd kept a Bruges article of a few years back from the Bristol CAMRA newsletter where the writer was scathing about both the trip and Damme itself, concluding “don't bother”. The fantastic weather no doubt helped but we enjoyed the journey along the dead straight canal bordered by white poplars (supping Brugse Zot and Duvel from the boat's bar). Damme is lovely though two of the four bars featured in 80 Beers had closed (as had a couple in Bruges itself – pub closures aren't just a British problem).
We also visited the city's only working brewery, the Halve Maan. Jane and I did the tour here some years back when, despite the guide's pretence to the contrary, it clearly wasn't brewing. Now it certainly is, with the operational bit alongside lots of “heritage” equipment. They brew dark and blonde Brugse Zot and the stronger Straffe Hendrik. The tour was informative even if the guide was way over the top and you get a great view of Bruges from the brewery roof (and complimentary unfiltered Zot in the bar)
Finally, the crucial last stage – filling available space in the car with beer. Fortunately I'd stumbled on De Bierboom in Langstraat which had a modest but very choice selection of bottles at prices well below those of the beershops in the centre. The owner specialises in getting hold of new and unusual beers and as I write some of the purchases remain untested. We did though find many of the higher scoring beers from previous days including what was probably our joint favourite, Boskeun, a 10% Easter ale from de Dolle with a great honey taste. A few doors down is a supermarket selling mainstream (but many still superb) beers at knockdown prices.
I should of course point out that there's more to Bruges than beer and bars. The place reeks of history and there are masses of museums (including one devoted to Frites – Belgian chips). Most of all it's a wonderful place for just wandering about, soaking up the architecture. As one of the hitmen in In Bruges famously doesn't say, “It's like a fairytale”.