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