Antwerp: old buildings, old beers, and getting old(er)

I’d never been to Antwerp before and all I knew about it was diamonds, Jews, and the renowned beer bar Kulminator. Well, the diamond thing is pretty low key to the casual observer (I saw a few stores by the train station) and for all I knew I was the only Jew in town. Kulminator really is one of a kind, though. More on them later.

Antwerp is less hectic than Brussels but still a big city with a lot going on and some seriously beautiful old buildings and tricky cobblestone streets. Even the train station is attractive.

BART stations do not look like this

BART stations do not look like this

I know this is a beer blog, but look at this crappy cell phone photo with no processing. It’s hard to take a bad picture in Antwerp.

Not pictured: tourist boys climbing the statue the next day trying to cop a feel

Not pictured: tourist boys climbing the statue the next day trying to cop a feel

Anyway, on to the bars.

Paters Vaetje. We missed a few bars due to Belgium’s notoriously loose definition of “posted business hours” — one bar we failed to go to actually listed its closing time as “???” — but  Paters Vaetje was there for us every single night until late. The first time we wandered in, we met a Belgian guy who used to live in California. We went the next two nights upon two different bars we wanted to visit being closed. It was worth it every time, with its nice staff, central location, and solid beer list. Nothing but good times.

Paters Vaetje, near the big church and with its own stained glass

Paters Vaetje, near the big church and with its own stained glass

Gollem: The Antwerp outpost of a popular mini-chain of bars in the Netherlands, but with its own character. Another bar conveniently located right off the main square, with food and a blackboard helpfully identifying beers from Antwerp. They have a contract-brewed house IPA called Precious. Groan. Also one of the many places in town to have a “bolleke” of De Koninck, which manages to be the most popular beer in town without being a sad pilsner. Hooray!

Local beer, Antwerp style

Local beer, Antwerp style

Bier Central: Conveniently located by the train station with a good selection at very fair prices. I sucked down one more Cantillon bottle than I should have because I felt like I couldn’t afford not to. The bartenders, at least on the night we were there, were douchey even by San Francisco standards. If you don’t like tourists, maybe don’t work at a bar next to the train station?

Oud Arsenaal: I was told I’d like this place because I like old man bars. Guilty as charged. The difference is, old man bars at home don’t have Rodenbach on tap. This is near the Rubens House (culture) and Kulminator (beer culture?) The restaurant next door fed us well before our visit here, even if the peas blended into my mashed potatoes made for a visual surprise.

That's right, the cow cheeks weren't the most confusing part of this meal for me

That’s right, the cow cheeks weren’t the most confusing part of this meal for me

Kulminator: The one of a kind time capsule, both literally (the beer cellar) and figuratively (classical music and an overall old-time vibe). The husband and wife team here have been upping Antwerp’s beer ante since 1974. Here’s what The Good Beer Guide To Belgium and Holland had to say:

“…This is the edge of the old town but it well worth locating for this elegant cafe and its superb collection of beers, Antwerp’s essential visit … The range of beers tops 500, which is huge even by Belgian standards … Try the interesting range of over 200 vintage ales, up to 10 years old. … Rumors that [owner] Dirk’s mustache hides a beaming smile are without foundation.”

That’s from the edition of that book published in 1994. Not a thing has changed, except that the selection is even bigger now. Click here for some history.

It's Kulminator. Like it or don't. You probably will though.

It’s Kulminator. Like it or don’t. You probably will though.

I’m not as into aged beers as many beer nerds, so I thought Kulminator’s cellar might be lost on me. I ordered mostly draught beers (some of which were still several years old), but fortunately a few people in my group were bolder. I got to sample a bone dry Pannepot Grande Reserve from 2006 and an aged Orval that bore no resemblance to Orval, among others. On our last night in town, my husband had the owners unearth this bad boy from 2007:

Coffinesque bottle boxes are one of Belgium's many odd charms

Coffinesque bottle boxes are one of Belgium’s many odd charms

My only complaint about Kulminator is that the bar cats wanted nothing to do with me. What an eccentric, wonderful place.

Don't ask what's going on with the decor. Just appreciate it and keep drinking.

Don’t ask what’s going on with the decor. Just appreciate it and keep drinking.

Also in Antwerp, we found our way into a genever bar, which was fun and educational but probably not the smartest move :) There’s quite a variety to Belgium’s national spirit, but I only have one liver to give for my country. It was refreshing to taste a liquid other than beer and lukewarm hotel-sink tap water, though.

Finally, selfishly speaking, Antwerp is where I turned 40. This was my first beer of my birthday, and a fine one it was. Cheers.

Yet another beer that's no damn good after 6000 miles of travel. Maybe in another 40 years I'll have another one.

Yet another beer that’s no damn good after 6000 miles of travel. Maybe in another 40 years I’ll have another one.

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Day trips: Malle (Westmalle) and Mechelen (Het Anker)

The small city of Mechelen is about halfway between Brussels and Antwerp and a relatively easy and quick train ride. Unlike Brussels, Mechelen (population 82,000 or so) actually seems to want you to visit. Signage is good and the city center is easy to reach on foot from either train station. It’s another one of those places with an attractive town square that turns you into a camera-happy tourist whether you’re normally into architecture or not.

If you’re here for beer, Mechelen’s home brewery is Het Anker. You’ll find a cafe in the city center, another on brewery grounds, a distillery, gift shop (of course), and even a brewery hotel. If you want an official tour of the brewery or the distillery, contact them in advance for a reservation. We didn’t bother, but still enjoyed an afternoon in this pleasant town drinking fresh Gouden Carolus beers. Mechelen is where I crossed one of the more adventurous foods off my Belgian to-do list, filet americain, seen here in the form of “toast kannibaal.” Sorry, vegetarians.

Both cafes were pleasant but I’ll give the edge to the one adjacent to the brewery despite the less convenient location. Visiting both allows you a head-clearing walk between beer sessions, which is almost always a good idea.

The bar at Het Anker's brasserie, adjacent to the brewery. Photo by Rick.

The bar at Het Anker’s brasserie, adjacent to the brewery. Photo by Rick.

Belgian beer fans from the US will recognize some of the beers on offer: Lucifer,  Cuvee van de keizer blauw (and rood), Hopsinjoor. By going to the source, you’ll also find a few interesting things that rarely or never make it onto a trans-Atlantic boat, like the Gouden Carolus Classic (yum) and Ambrio. I had no idea Het Anker made a bock!

German beer adrift in the land of Belgians...plus a cute goat

German beer adrift in the land of Belgians…plus a cute goat. Photo by Ann.

Fans of drinking local might kick things off with a Maneblusser, an easy drinking blonde with enough flavor to keep things interesting. It’s 6.2%, which starts to feel very low after a few days of Belgian classics. From the Het Anker website:

The inspiration for this brew originates in the night of January 27th in the year 1687. The moon projected its reddish glow on Saint Rumbold’s tower, which was wrapped in a dense fog. “Fire, fire, the tower is on fire!” shouts the dreary voice of a drunken man. The alarm was sounded and people were making haste to help extinguish the so-called fire. Before the tower was reached, the moon slowly moved through the fog. From that moment on, the Mechelenians are called the Maneblussers or “Moonextinguishers”.

There are a few other cafes in town where you can sample the local goods. We hit Afspraak on the way back to Antwerp. It’s very near one of the train stations in town and has food. If you enjoy Het Anker beers — and I’m not sure why you wouldn’t — I recommend Mechelen as a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Belgium’s bigger cities.

Small pours + decent prices = trying lots of beer!

Small pours + decent prices = trying lots of beer!

Pilgrimage to Westmalle

If you don’t love Westmalle, what are you doing in Belgium? Right? So we had to take the bus out to the small town of Malle (two syllables) to pay our respects. It’s a reasonably short bus ride from central Antwerp and you can buy your 3 Euro ticket on the bus. Groups may or may not get a fare break depending on the driver’s disposition. The bus stops literally in front of the brewery and cafe, so this is a good excursion for that day when you’re tired of walking everywhere. Judging by the umpteen Westmalle-branded bike racks out front, this is also a popular cycling destination.

Visitors may walk around the brewery/abbey grounds, but the monks have better things to do than entertain you, so your drinking will be done across the street at the Cafe Trappisten.

They're brewing back there...somewhere...

They’re brewing back there…somewhere…

If you’re expecting old world charm, guess again. The place is shiny and modern, and at 40 I was the youngest person in the place. Odd. Don’t come for character, do come for Westmalle Dubbel (2.90-3.30 Euros, draft) and Tripel (3.60 Euros, 33 cl bottle). What else do you need in life? There’s also a half-and-half blend of the two (3.60 Euros), which I’m glad I tried but seemed like less than the sum of its parts. There are meals, snacks, and oh yes, piles of Trappist cheese.

As Anthony Bourdain would say, this does not suck

I’m 100% glad I went, and depending on your reverence for Westmalle beers you might want to go too, but it was also refreshing to get back to the more colorful and characterful bars of Antwerp afterwards.

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Day trips from West Flanders

Safely mixing beer tasting and driving is tricky, but if someone in your group is willing to stick to small portions, it opens up some interesting possibilities in the West Flanders countryside. You might want to base yourself in a rural town for a day or more, since driving and parking in Ghent was a motherfucker and it’s probably just as bad in any other city.  You can also do some stops fairly easily by train and bike, or with a lot of walking. Don’t rely on small towns to have cabs, but don’t rule out the harder-to-reach breweries just for the sake of convenience either. There are so many places to go in West Flanders we could only scratch the surface, but you could do a lot worse than to hit these three places if you can.

Obligatory trip to Westvleteren, sort of

Many people have visions of driving to the St. Sixtus abbey to pick up a case of Westvleteren, but you won’t be shocked to hear this is difficult in 2015. A quick google gives you tales of making hundreds of attempts to call the hotline to make a reservation to come in at a certain hour…nope. In the end they’re monks, not capitalists, and they’re overwhelmed. What you can do is have lunch and some beers at In De Vrede, the delightful little tourist trap across the street from the brewery, which has a gift shop where you can buy a six-pack if you’re there at the right random time. We weren’t. That’s okay.

It's real and it's spectacular

It’s real and it’s spectacular

You’ll still be able to enjoy fresh glasses of Westy blonde, 8, and Hype Juice (I mean “12.”) I enjoyed my lunch, some of each beer, tastes of cheese and ice cream (!) made with the beer, and an amusing hustler of a waiter who flirted with one of our friends a little when her husband was there and a lot when he wasn’t. It just feels good to drink the most overhyped beer(s) in the world for prices in the neighborhood of five bucks. And yes, they’re exceptional. I said overhyped, not overrated.

Eclectic beers at the perfect size at De Struise

De Struise makes some great beers, like my beloved Pannepot. They also make some weird beers. And some of their great beers are a bit on the intense side (Black Albert, Cuvee Delphine…). So how wonderful is it that (at least on the day I was visiting) they offered 8cl  (3 ⅓ oz) glasses of beer for a Euro? It’s a great way to taste a lot of beer while not getting too much of the strong stuff. At those sizes, drivers can have a little fun too and cyclists won’t wreck their bikes.

I'm crushing your head 8 cl at a time!

I’m crushing your head 8 cl at a time!

As it turns out, my favorite of this visit was restrained by De Struise standards: the delicious and well balanced oud bruin Sour Tan. I could have drank a lot more than 8 cl of this. I also enjoyed the dark sour Sigma, the hoppy saison Rio Says, and the self-explanatory Expresso Stout.

Outdoor fermenters and barrels at De Struise

Outdoor (!) fermenters and barrels at De Struise

As a bonus, if you buy beer to take home, they throw in a 750 ml bottle that is only available as a “free sample” with a bottle purchase. Nice!

Nano hop farm at De Struise

Nano hop farm at De Struise

We want to be friends with De Dolle now

Service all over Europe can be brusque by American standards — no one relies on your tips to make a decent living, so no one needs to wear a fake grin and kiss your butt. However, you can tell some servers in Belgium really like what they do for a living. Els, the wife of De De Dolle owner/brewer Kris, is one of those bartenders. (I hear his 96-year-old mother still gives tours, too, but she wasn’t there this time. What a neat family!)

We happened to show up at De Dolle the day they released their Easter beer, Boskeun. We’d all had this beer in bottles in the US and found it pretty good, but fresh it was simply incredible, one of the standouts of the trip (even next to Oerbier Reserva 2012, which on a normal day would have been the best beer of my week). The tap handle had an animatronic Energizer bunny attached to it that played drums when the beer was poured. Our friend Betsey wanted to take a video next time someone ordered one, and instead Els offered to let her get behind the bar and pour the beer herself. So fun! It’s one thing when a mediocre beer needs a gimmick, but if you mix a good beer with a fun gimmick with a cheerful barkeep, you’re in business.

Kris was tired after a long day but was also very nice, and seems like an interesting guy. He did all the art in the brewery and all of De Dolle’s labels. Here’s a good article if you’re interested in learning more about Kris, Els, and their brewery. They’re open very limited hours, so plan carefully if you want to make it.

If you lived here you'd be double fisting by now

If you lived here you’d be double fisting by now

Sun sets on our De Dolle beers

Sun sets on our De Dolle beers

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The big hub: Brussels

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first: It’s the busiest, grittiest city in Belgium. It’s where the airport is and it’s full of foreigners but it seemed like the hardest place to get around. (Maybe that’s just because I was there first when my jet lag and my foreign country navigation skills were at their worst.) Brussels is in Flanders but everyone speaks French, not Flemish, which is confusing. Street signs and many other important items are thus in TWO languages that aren’t the one you’re used to, which makes maps a Sisyphean challenge, especially after a few beers. People here seem more get-out-of-my-way and New Yorky than in other parts of the country. I’ve also never seen so many stores displaying beer in the window, which is a bad idea in any country.

Despite its drawbacks, a trip to Belgium wouldn’t be a trip to Belgium without a few days in Brussels. And with a train station in the basement of the airport, you can be drinking a good beer very soon after landing.

Obligatory non-beer note: this city has one of my favorite buildings, Brussels’ town hall, in one of the more mind-blowing public squares in Europe, tourist-clogged Grand Place/Grote Markt. Go at night for thinner crowds — you probably won’t be able to help but pass through the square a few times anyway.

They don't make 'em like this anymore

They don’t make ‘em like this anymore

Cantillon, duh. For a long time, Cantillon was the only brewery within Brussels city limits, and it’s still the only one that encourages visitors. A trip here is the biggest no-brainer in town, and it’s conveniently located near the Brussels Midi/Zuid train station (which incidentally hosts the biggest flea market I’ve ever seen every Sunday morning). You’ll get a handout and can do a self-guided tour where you can touch the tanks and gawk at the coolship. No one was brewing on our visit, but cellar stuff and bottling was happening. I thought it was notable that the bottling guys were doing one of the most boring jobs in beer without listening to any music (my bottling job in 2013 would have ended in murder if not for Internet radio). Your visit ends, of course, with a few tastes of Cantillon. There are beers, t-shirts, glassware, and other swag for sale. For context of what Belgium costs once your plane ticket is paid off, 375 ml bottles were for sale for as low as 3.70 Euros, glasses of sour are under 3 Euros, and those big bottles you have to sell your firstborn to get in the Bay Area are $7 or $8 as opposed to $40 or $60. If you like sour beer this is a must, and if you don’t like sour beer you should probably still take this opportunity try it at the source.

Poking around Brasserie Cantillon's nooks and crannies

Poking around Brasserie Cantillon’s nooks and crannies

Moeder Lambic. I went here every night I was in Brussels (the more northern location of the two). It’s a tourist attraction to be sure, but that’s because it’s awesome, not because it’s pandering. The bartenders looked like they had just been airlifted in from the Mission but could not have been friendlier — in the European “I will take all the time necessary to answer your questions and help you out in a very pleasant, competent manner” way, not the American “hi my name is SanDeE* and I’ll be your server today!!!” way. Much like Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in heels, Moeder Lambic bartenders do everything your favorite beertenders do at home but for barely any tips and in three languages. As a fellow server, sitting at the bar on a busy Saturday night and watching them work was a joy. You’d put up with slow, useless bartender if you had to for this selection, though. Ever had gueuze on cask? You will. This is heaven for sour fans but other styles are very, very well represented. As a bonus I discovered a new-to-me brewery here, Verzet (Flemish for “fun time”), and enjoyed their oud bruin and hoppy blonde.

Fantasticness everywhere you look at Moeder Lambic

Fantasticness everywhere you look at Moeder Lambic

A La Becasse: This time capsule of a cafe has tables only, so go with at least one other person if you don’t want that awkward turtle feeling. A bit of old school Brussels right in the tourist center with an interesting couple of Timmermans beers I did not try because I was dying for a fresh Orval and Timmermans is not my favorite. In the course of my one beer there, the server took both a meal break and a smoke break (inside the bar). Ah, Europe!

Le Coq: I was in the neighborhood and it was listed in my beer book. This came off as more of a neighborhood joint than a serious beer bar, with mostly the crap side of Belgian beers on tap, but the bottle list was on point and I got to enjoy a fresh De La Senne in the city of its birth. When I was there the jazz soundtrack was right on and seemingly hand-picked. A fine example of how seemingly everyday bars in Belgium have a selection many “beer bars” in the US would envy. On a different day, a group of us got lost and ducked into a locals bar outside the tourist center where our appearance was clearly going to be the talk of the regulars for the rest of the night — and the beer was great there, too.

Even the public art in this country likes beer

Even the public art in this country likes beer

Poechenellekelder. Let’s assume your curiosity got the better of you and you went to see that dignified symbol of national pride, the little boy pissing in a fountain. You’re now a stone’s throw (or a strong pee stream) away from Poechenellekelder. Remember when you were a kid and those TGI Fridays/Bennigans places with a bunch of crap on the walls were really fun? This is like that, but with creepy puppets, world class beer, and a full menu. Our table had name plates at every seat, so one could adopt a Belgian persona for the night. Call me “Jacques le Grande.”

This place is going to haunt my dreams for years to come

This place is going to haunt my dreams for years to come

Delirium Cafe: Close to everything but a little hard to actually find, and both worth the effort and not. It’s a zoo, but it’s a fun zoo with good people watching if you’re up for it. Three floors, with the quieter top floor offering a few American beers at grass-is-always-greener pricing that will make you chuckle. Prices otherwise seemed low for the location with the round of six beers I fetched totaling 20 Euros. Same alley as the female counterpart to Mannekin Pis squatting over a chamberpot. I don’t know.

The first rule of Delirium is ...

The first rule of Delirium is …

Porte Noire: This cool bar in a cellar is open real late, though I’m not good at staying out til 3am so I didn’t get proof. It was a great stop even earlier in the evening, with an impressive bottle selection and some beers on tap I’d not otherwise seen yet.

If I’m ever in Brussels again I’ll check out Beer Mania and its Congolese immigrant neighborhood Matonge. I walked through the area once, but it was too early in the day and there was nothing to see except people getting their hair did. It sounds like a nice nightlife area, though. I’d also give Mort Subite a whirl even though I usually try to avoid giving money to Heineken. Part of a trip like this is accepting that what you get to do is a drop in the bucket — but what a tasty drop! :)

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East Bay Beer Goes To Belgium

I went to Belgium in 2001 for a few days, where I discovered this weird sour beer that kinda tasted like wine and had a waiter upsell me some awesome dark beer made by monks. I was living in the good beer mecca of Germany at the time, and had experimented with what we then called “microbrews” back in Boston in the 90s, but I might not be the beer dork I am today if not for those few days in the land of the Trappists.

For years I’ve been saying I’d go back someday now that I know something about beer, and this month I finally did. I turned 26 in Belgium the first time; this time I turned 40.

Click through to the destinations for anecdotes and pictures (updated as I get around to it), and stay on this page for a while for practical info if you’re planning your own trip.

The destinations:

This is just what we did in a week+ this time…there’s plenty more to see! We didn’t even touch Wallonia. If you’re going, do you own research to find out what your own must-see destinations are.

And just for fun:

Wanna go?

Before we get into this, it’s worth noting that this may be a less expensive trip than you think. Good beer in Belgium isn’t particularly pricey by American standards, and is a positive bargain compared to Bay Area prices. Food can be as splurge-y as you want it to be or you can eat street food and $4 kebabs. And remember, you don’t have to tip here like you do at home: if you tip at all it’s as simple as rounding up the final bill at the end of a session. Lodging can be plush, or you can go on the “all I’m going to do is sleep there” theory and cheap out. No one’s forcing you to buy souvenirs, and walking around looking at Belgium’s beautiful old architecture is free. The worst bite out of your budget will be the flight, which is why you should have a frequent flyer miles credit card if you like to travel. Of course, there are circumstances (financial and otherwise) that can make a week abroad unrealistic for many people — but if you don’t have small kids, serious health issues/disabilities, or lots of debt, you can probably make this happen if you really want to. (You could do it with kids or health problems too, but it would be harder and I have no advice on that.) Start saving and planning today! :)
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Beer practicalities:

  • You want The Good Beer Guide To Belgium for this trip. The maps are terrible and the index/layout can be a bit confusing, but it’s helpful overall.
  • As the above-mentioned book warned me and experience proved, opening hours in Belgium are more of a suggestion than a rule. Be flexible.
  • Brush up on your metric because that’s, of course, what the beers are measured in: 25 cl (about 8 ½ oz), 33 cl (a little over 11 ounces), 50cl (half a liter, 16.9 oz) and 1 liter (almost 39 ounces)
  • I never did figure out how to tell if a bar has table service or not, sorry :)

Non-beer practicalities:

Credit cards and debit cards didn’t seem to work as well as I remembered from last time. If you’re used to doing everything with credit cards at home, you will have to adjust your worldview. Cash presents its own problems, as not every ATM accepts American debit cards. Everyone in our group always got money eventually, don’t panic and try again at the next one.

Everyone speaks English. It’s perhaps polite to offer a “je ne parle pas francais” in Brussels/Wallonia or an “is English okay?” in Flanders, but you’ll be fine

Water becomes more important than ever on a beer tourism trip, but you will not be getting offered tap water in Europe. Only Americans ask for it. If you ask, you’ll get an absurdly tiny glass. Carry a resuable bottle and fill it yourself, and/or be ready to buy bottled water every day. Bottled water is almost always mineral water. There is no such thing as ice water.

Coffee is easy to find but tends to be of the espresso/Americano variety rather than drip. The type of coffee you’re used to will be easier to find in tourist places like train stations.

There’s a lot of walking to be done and a lot of cobblestone streets and sidewalks to trip on. It should go without saying, but wear comfortable shoes good for walking. If you have mobility issues I don’t know what to say…I can’t imagine navigating Belgium with a wheelchair or canes :(

Bathrooms (call them “toilets” if you want to be understood) won’t be what you’re used to. Just remember, at least you’re not using a squatty potty! It’s part of the adventure. Unless you need something accessible, then it just sucks.

There are a lot of steep, narrow, twisty staircases in this part of the world. If you have trouble with stairs for whatever reason, it will take more doing to find lodging without them.

Speaking of lodging…know thyself. If you’re going to drink past the last bus or tram, it might be worth it to get a hotel near nightlife. If you’re going to be doing a lot of day trips, get a hotel near the train station. If you’re comfortable with Airbnb, there are a lot of good options (we stayed in a great one in Ghent)

I might splurge for a temporary phone next time, or at least a local sim card. Lodgings and SOME bars had wifi, but I sometimes craved it while lost on the street. I can read a map as well as anyone, but it’s humbling to try and navigate medieval urban planning, particularly in Brussels where maps are in not one but two languages I don’t speak. There were times it also would have been good to be able to text people in our group, as the smartphone era has made all of us unaccustomed to the old “meet you at ___ at ____ o’clock” sort of planning (and sometimes delays and mistakes just happen.) Also, there were a few menu items I couldn’t figure out and would have rather googled than having to ask the waiter.

Public transit was generally fairly easy to deal with both within and between cities. However, transit to rural areas can go tits-up a lot more easily than in the big cities. Plan accordingly, and Plan B accordingly, and don’t forget to breathe.

Also, don’t forget to eat! It’s easy to get a cheese plate at every bar and never eat a real meal, or to be having such a good time you forget dinner. It helps if there’s one person in the group who tends towards “hangry” and demands food (that’d be me!), otherwise you might want to set a phone reminder. There were mornings that definitely would have been uglier if not for that late night plate we eventually got. It helps that Turkish places are open late and pita durum/doner kebab is good drinking food. Many of the local specialties are fun to try anyway.

Hennepot (mixed meat in aspic) turned out to be good. Try something new!

Hennepot (mixed meat in aspic) turned out to be good. Try something new!

Okay, back to the destinations:

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East Bay Beer Goes To Belgium: Don’t want to be an American idiot

<long boring frequent-flyer-mile-oriented story deleted> so I was the first of our group to arrive in Belgium. I figured I’d walk around, have some beers, enjoy the silence.

I’d planned on declaring “vacation” and “birthday week” and whatever other justification necessary to start drinking beer at Old Belgian Guys Are Drinking Beer O’Clock (which is like 10am at the latest). However, I couldn’t bring myself to enter a bar today until well into the afternoon.

Not everyone here knows me so let’s lay it out:

  • I normally have no problem with walking into a bar by myself (or seeing a movie by myself or whatever)
  • I normally laugh off the awkwardness and difficulties inherent in trying to communicate with someone with whom you share little or no language
  • Normally the disorientation of travel is all part of the fun

I don’t know why I wasn’t feeling it on Saturday. I didn’t actually enjoy myself until the third bar (and not because I was tipsy — it was hours and hours after the second bar). Part of it was that Bar #3 had an actual bar, which is far less weird for a solo drinker than pulling up to a table by yourself. It also increases the chances that someone will strike up a conversation with you, which someone did. But most of today’s problem was in my own headspace. Man, French is hard, foreign countries are hard, picking a beer is hard!

I-Have-No-Idea-What-Im-Doing-1

WAH WAH FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS. For goodness sake, I used to work at a Belgian-heavy beer bar, I even knew most of the beers on the menus.

Then it occurred to me that how I experience solo bar-going on a bad travel day must feel similar to the intimidation some people feel at a specialty beer bar. Maybe it was good for me to walk around all day feeling the full force of my social awkwardness and functional illiteracy in both French and Flemish. This is how some of my customers feel when they walk into one of my workplaces and look at the beer list.

What I’m saying is, I’ll try to remember today next time a customer gets flustered and blurts out something like “I don’t know! A pale ale or a hef or whatever! Just pick me something! I’ll drink it!”

In other, better news, I am in love with Moeder Lambic. More on them later.

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East Bay Beer goes to Belgium: Day 1, passport control

Passport guy: Vacation?

Me: Yes

PG: Just you traveling today?

Me: Yes

PG: Staying with friends?

Me: I’m meeting up with the rest of the group tonight and tomorrow

PG: How long, I’m guessing two days?

Me: Actually we’ll be here until March 9

PG: *suspicious look*

Me: We’re here to drink all your beer

PG: ha ha! You can try!   * stamps passport*   You know, Belgian beer, it is not like Budweiser

Me: Oh, I know!

PG: Or the other one, Blue Ribbon…

:)

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Piggin’ out at Sau & Brau 2015

SF Beer Week has been over for a week now, but I sense some of you are still recovering, so I don’t feel bad that I’m still recapping. It’s okay if you pour yourself a glass of water while we do this.

Let’s talk about Sau & Brau 5. With food from one of the few New Oakland restaurants as delicious as it is cool (Chop Bar) and beer from a brewery with a little something for everyone (Drake’s), you know you’re going to have a nice night.

(Disclosure: I’ve paid my way into Sau & Brau in the past and found it totally worth it, but I got offered a media pass this year and I’m not dumb.)

The calm before the storm. Photo: Ann Niemczyk

Drake’s didn’t invent the pig roast, but they sure have gotten the formula down to a science over the years. This event is so good I’ve seen a pregnant woman go for the pork and a vegetarian go for the beer.

Both of them, and many others, also go for the people. Sau & Brau has become somewhat of an SF Beer Week staple for many. It brings out the old-timers you hardly ever see at a beer event and the barhoppers you see at seemingly every beer event, as well as newcomers discovering how good a time they can actually have in increasingly beery San Leandro. It sells out faster and faster every year.

Happy people! Photo: Ann Niemczyk

Happy people! Photo: Ann Niemczyk

Sau & Brau also gets bigger every year, partially because Drake’s keeps expanding. Employees get in the pig line last, but they do (except for the vegetarians) enjoy the swine along with you. Not a bad job perk.

I hesitate to say it also gets better every year, because it’s always been pretty damn good. But I’m running out of superlatives here. Whole hogs, good veggie sides so you can feign healthfulness, and a huge variety of beer…what else do you need to know?

Here’s the advice you should refer to next year if you decide to go:

Bring some cash: Your entry to the event is pre-paid, but you do want to tip your bartenders, right? Right.

Relax: Get in line when your section is called and don’t bother trying to sneak into line early — there will be plenty of food to go around. I totally neglected to get a table this time so I got in line late with employees. It was fine. There were three pigs this year and I saw staff putting away leftovers at the end of the night.

Chop Bar's unflappable staff dishing out the food for hours! Photo: Ann Niemczyk

Chop Bar’s unflappable staff dishing out the food for hours! Photo: Ann Niemczyk

Also, unless you have a hollow leg, don’t go too nuts trying to get your money’s worth from the unticketed first hour of the event. Every year, there are people trying to give away excess beer tickets towards the end of the night. You’ve got Hopocalypse and barrel-aged beers available, you may not need as many tickets as you think.

Drink water: There was plenty of palate-cleanser available, along with clean cups, and the bathroom situation was as good as a beer week bathroom situation is going to be. (There were two indoor bathrooms available and extra portapotties outside for those who valued speed of access over indoor plumbing).

If you want to make sure you get tickets next year, follow Drake’s on Facebook or Twitter (which you should probably be doing anyway) so you can see when they go on sale.

Who's that asshole in the yellow shirt? ;)

Who’s that asshole in the yellow shirt? ;)

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SF Beer Week, Drinking In An Indian Grocery Store Edition

If you want proof that good beer is possible in any setting, look no further than Bottles Beerzaar in El Sobrante. A former project of the folks who brought you the Beer Baron’s Livermore Saloon and Perry’s, Bottles is under new ownership but still rocking a large beer selection inside a strip mall Indian market.

Or as the beer buyer’s business card says: “Samosas, saris, and shit-tons of suds.”

When you arrive at Bottles, it’s easy to think there’s been some mistake. But if you keep strolling through the food, you’ll find fridges full of beer bottles on the left and a small bar on the right. On the Thursday of SF Beer Week, the bar was packed with locals enjoying Track 7 beers out of Sacramento.

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The SF Beer Week event brought out some new faces, but if you’re sitting at the bar at Bottles you’re most likely a regular — someone who lives or works in El Sobrante, Richmond, San Pablo, or around. There’s a lot of customer overlap with Elevation 66 and my workplace Albany Taproom, the only other real beer options in the area. We’ve got some fun neighborhood bars up here where BART fears to tread, but not too many places that are going to tap, as Bottles has recently, Cellarmaker/Berryessa Fruity Rebels or Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin.

All the beer guys here put in part-time hours as a labor of love. This may never be a destination bar for someone in SF or even Oakland, but if you happen to drop by, everyone is more than happy to share their clubhouse with you. And as befits this part of the Bay Area, one of the last havens for normal working stiffs, this is craft-or-whatever beer without an ounce of pretension, attitude, or what-can-we-get-away-with pricing.

In the end, Bottles is one of those quirky places that shows there’s still some flavor left in the Bay Area. If you walk in at 2pm on a Tuesday, don’t expect anything other than bottle shopping, but as the week goes on and the hour gets later it has potential to become a nice neighborhood gathering spot. It’ll get even more appealing if the plan goes forward to have a more official cafe with hot Indian snacks and meals available…for now, people can and do buy food off the shelf and out of the fridge to go with their beer.

I wish there was a good public transit option, but that wouldn’t be very West County. I’ve walked the two miles from my house (not pleasant) and taken the bus (okay). But with 4 ounce tasters available for $2, you should be able to stay sober here.

Next time you’re in Les Claypool’s hometown, you can stop by Bottles at 3550 San Pablo Dam Road to buy some beer to go at very competitive prices and maybe sit at its semi-secret bar. Follow them on Facebook to see what’s on tap.

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Good times at the SF Beer Week opening gala

Screenshot 2015-02-11 at 11.28.37 AM

Ah, the SF Beer Week opening gala: the one time every year I turn into the stereotypical beer blogger asking for free shit. I scored a media pass again this year, and here’s what stood out.

My plan failed within an hour. The festival is roughly organized into SF, North Bay, South Bay, and East Bay. I was going to do this thing without leaving the East Bay — you know, sort of like how I live my real life — but I kept getting distracted. I also neglected to take a single photo, but these are better than mine would have been anyway. My other plan was to bring a burrito and lots of water, so at least that plan succeeded.

My first Fort Mason festival! (No, really). While I didn’t love the lengthy public transit trip from the East Bay to Fort Mason, the place worked out nicely. It was loud and full — duh — but I didn’t feel cramped, and there were even enough bathrooms! (Side note: men may disagree, as the line for the men’s room was the longer one. Odd, since appreciation of good beer in this region usually seems quite gender-balanced to me. Is the gala an exception?) There were plenty of food vendors and dump buckets, and everything was easy to navigate, even for a first-timer to the venue. Good job, organizers.

The inevitable Pliny the Younger discussion: I was already inside on my media pass when the doors opened to the public at 6pm, and the swarm of people moving towards the Russian River station like fast zombies was a sight to behold. (Three cheers for the event staff on hand to manage the line). Here’s the thing about Younger at the gala, though: it’s going to be mostly consumed during VIP hour by media, brewers, and sponsors who are less excited about it than you are but figure “there’s no line, so why not?” By the time you get to the front of the line –which Celebrator writer Mike Pitsker aptly joked was big enough to have its own area code — it’ll probably be gone. That’s okay. The other RR beers pouring at 6pm were Supplication (I mean, seriously! we are so spoiled here!) and Russian River’s award-winning pilsner, which I heard nothing but raves about. There will be other chances to get Younger, or some other triple IPA that’s just as good.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the North Bay… Marin Brewing was pouring Brass Knuckle, another fine entry in the extreme hops category. I personally was even more excited about Al’s Not Here Man, a smoked lager. It was a collaboration with Al from Russian River but, Al couldn’t make it to brew day, hence the name. Move Bamberg a little higher up the bucket list, but in the meantime we have Larkspur.

Beyond the Bay: I keep hearing about the promising, growing beer scene in Sacramento, and one name that comes up a lot in these discussions is Track 7. One of the pleasant surprises of my night was their chocolate peanut butter milk stout, which I tried out of morbid curiosity but wound up liking a lot. Their Panic IPA, though I was wrestling with hop fatigue by then, also went down nicely. With a tasting room just a few light rail stops from the Amtrak station, I see a train trip in my future.

Don’t write off Trumer at beer festivals. Yes, Trumer technically only makes one beer, the delightful-when-fresh Trumer Pils. For this party, they brought out a version of the pils with citra hops added. Fun!

The award for Most Impressive Pour With No Line goes to… North Coast, who was serving 2011 Old Stock. Amazing. Not the smartest choice for me, at that ABV, but amazing.

I said this last year too, but: barrel-aged Calicraft beers. Forget everything you think you know about Buzzerkeley until you’ve had it in a zin barrel. Calicraft also brought some non-traditional, low-alcohol (!) meads with fruit that I expect to become crowdpleasers as the weather turns warm.

Sneaky fruit beer: I asked for the story behind High Water Pono Pale Ale and was told it was brewed to celebrate owner Steve Altimari’s first vacation with his wife in years, a recent trip to Hawaii. I sipped, then asked if the tropical fruit profile was all southern hemisphere hops. Answer: there’s Mosaic, but also fire-roasted pineapple. Another surprise from the people who made a beer that tastes like s’mores.

A win for the gypsy brewers: Bison was pouring Whiskey Thief, a collaboration between them, High Water, Pine Street, and Uncommon. I was expecting one of those barrel-aged beers that tastes so much like whiskey you might as well just be drinking whiskey — not this time! Whiskey Thief is a scotch ale with smoked malt and heather, no barrel needed. Slainte!

I’m tired of hops now. I like IPA, but so many breweries focused so hard on aggressive, West Coast-style beers that I was burnt out by the end of the night. I get that for some breweries, that’s the strength of the house and they’d be silly to bring anything else. I also know it’s SF Beer Week and if this area is known for anything beer-wise, it’s big American hops. The gala is a chance to win the hearts and livers of some of the region’s more serious beer drinkers, and you’ve got to give the people what they want. I appreciated the breweries that brought non-hoppy options, though. At one point I bemoaned a lack of lower alcohol options that weren’t session IPAs, and apparently at that point I should have gone to the Freewheel table. I enjoyed their bitter so much at Perdition the next day I had two. (And yes, bitters have plenty of hops, but in that balanced English way.)

This really is a pretty great festival. I now remember why it sells out fast every year. I wish I had the alcohol tolerance to have tried more, because the quality and quantity of choice was insane. Best of all for impatient people like me, there are now enough breweries represented that you can avoid beer lines entirely if you want to. I’m sure whatever Cellarmaker and Rare Barrel were pouring was fantastic, but I was just as happy to try new breweries and revisit ones I hadn’t sampled from in a while, and sometimes even have time to chit chat with the person pouring. Even with no plan, or a plan that breaks down, you’ll have a good time at this fest.

Thanks to the SF Brewers Guild for the pass, but more importantly for a great night for a whole lot of people.

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