BEER TREK 2012: New Adventures in the Beer-o-Sphere

The continuing saga of Michael 'fezz' Nazarec at large in the world of beer, hunting down new and varied species of the fermented ambrosia in its natural habitat: breweries, brewpubs, beer bars, restaurants, train stations, airports and beer festivals.
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Current Posts: fezz's picks: the Top 12 of 2012; Back to Brussels, London Calling; Get Lost in Maastricht; Amsterdam and Beyond; In Bruges and Ghent; Mussels in Brussels; Brussels Beer Weekend #14; Further Adventures in the Beer-o-Sphere; Calgary's Best & Wurst; A Wee Peak at Vancouver Craft Beer Week 2012; A night out in Denver; Drinking Beer in L.A.

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fezz's picks : Top 12 Beers of 2012

I did some traveling this past year, which allowed me to try some distant brews, but I also have the great fortune of living in Vancouver, British Columbia, somewhat of a centre itself when it comes to beer and an ever-fermenting beer culture. So these are my picks, two six packs of the best brews I found in 2012, in no particular order, but all outstanding in their own unique ways...

Smoke & Mirrors Imperial Smoked Ale
Coal Harbour Brewing Co. Vancouver, BC 
I closed my eyes and was transported back to medieval Bamberg, Germany, home of this rauch style of beer. Big, deep, dark, malty with a heavy smoke presence that blends, balances and completes this bold brew. Engaging yet smooth, not for the light-hearted either, know you're getting into a big beer here. I've been lucky enough to enjoy this beer on tap and from the bottle, impressive both ways. Wonderful with any kind of barbequed meat or even a spicy rice dish or even a lamb risotto.

Son of the Morning Strong Golden Ale
Driftwood Brewing Co., Victoria, BC
This is another big, bold beautiful beer. It is golden hued pale yellow, floral and aromatic, full of subtle and gorgeously balanced spices, complex malt overtones and enough hidden hop to dry out the finish. I wish they brewed this year round, this Belgian strong is a strong and wonderful limited release.
Share this golden ale with some sharp blue cheese, or an aged cheddar.

Hoppy (Happy) Lovin' Christmas
Mikkeller Brewing Co., Copenhagen, Denmark
A Christmas IPA made with ginger and pine needles, you say? A truly well balanced brew, add a smack of grapefruit from wonderful hopping. Big head, spicy nose, some fruitiness, surprisingly uncomplicated and smooth. Enjoyed this with a very tasty Thai meal at Thai Pagoda in Canmore, Alberta, where owner Peter will guide you through his extensive beer list, hands down the best in town.
Twice As Mad Tom India Pale Ale
Muskoka Brewing Co., Bracebridge, ONT
A twice dry-hopped double IPA that is copper-hued amber in colour, but bold and balanced at the same time. Floral aromatics lead to a steady bitterness marching through your palate, with warming malts and English characteristics, this is a well considered and marvelously hopped pale ale. I hear the cask version is exceptional.

Hopwired India Pale Ale
8 Wired Brewing Co., Marborough, New Zealand
Made entirely with New Zealand malts and hops, this is a special brew. A malty sweetness is well tempered by a rich combination of hops both fruity and citric, tropical and earthy. Full white head, pours rich amber, aromatic and inviting, this brew is a delicate palate warmer, as well as smoothly balanced, all leading to a coyingly spicy and definitely  'more-ish' finish.

 Pray for Snow Winter Ale
10 Barrel Brewing Co., Bend, Oregon
 Eight different malts were used in the making of this seasonal, plus herbal, spicy and citric hops, all aged in brandy barrels for several months picking up nuances of oak, vanilla and candied fruit. Dark ruby in colour, rocky but quickly dissipating head, fruity aromatics leads the palate to some roasted malt, hints of chocolate, wood, subtle spices, all well balanced and hinting at the brandy hidden in this complex winter warmer.

Uncharted Belgian IPA
Lighthouse Brewing Co., Victoria, BC
Another great Belgian style ale from the island. This unfiltered abbey style incorporates two yeasts, and packs an amazing punch taste-wise, crossing over from Tripel malts to IPA strength hops. Pouring golden amber and slightly cloudy, the nose is citric, the palate hop laden and earthy with juicy malt tones permeating all. It shows off a tall white head in a tulip glass, offers estery notes on the tongue and elicits a smooth and well balanced spiciness all the way to the finish. 

Oude Gueuze Tilquin a l'Ancienne
Gueuzerie Tilquin, Rebecq-Rognon, Belgium
Twenty years ago I discovered the Bier Circus in Brussels, with an already amazing cellar. Now in a new location but still concentrating on some of the best brews in Belgium, this last trip I was offered a Tilquin, a fairly new Wallonian blender using both Flemish and Brussels-area lambics, combining  them to perfection in this bottle conditioned treat. Big head, slight cloudiness, citric and sour nose, full on sour palate smoothing out to a complex yeatiness, tarty tones and a dry finish. This corked, cloudy amber, sour joy was sublime. 

Straffe Hendrik Quadruple 
Huisbrouwerij de Halve Maan, Bruges, Belgium
11 %
A jet-black, complicated, malt forward brew, boasting hints of chocolate, coffee, figs, prunes, caramel, very intense and chewy.  Well balanced, delicately carbonated, this big beautiful brew finishes dry but displays some fruity sweetness and yeastiness. It hides its strength well in its complex character. I was told at the brewery that one batch was aged in Bourgogne wine barrels for a whole year, packaged in corked bottles and sold only through the local newspapers. The staff each got a glass, but the entire stock was sold out in three days.

VanderGhinste Oud Bruin
Brouwerij Boctor, Bellagem, Belgium
This is a top-fermented beer blended with lambic and aged in oak for 18 months resulting in this specific West Flanders old brown. Reddish brown in colour, with a thick mousse head, a fruity nose initiates, some slight sourness and semi-sweet malt follow, combining for a complex yet thirst quenching brew, a slight bitterness drying out the the wonderfully tangy and tart finish.

Trainwreck Barrel Aged Barley Wine 2012
Philips Brewing Co., Victoria, BC
Mahogany brown in colour, thin tan head leaves some lacing, boasting nutty, dark fruit aromas, huge malty architecture underpinned by perfect bitterness to uphold the complexity: notes of sherry, vanilla, oak with hints of dark sugars, very warming but the alcohol is balanced in the deep dark malt here, amazingly smooth for a brew of this strength. Something to settle down with on a long winter's night.

Pigs Ass Porter
Harvest Moon Brewing Co., Belt, Montana
Opaque deep brown, tawny head leaves good lacing, bready nose, plenty of body without a sharp bite, medium bodied, smooth palate of caramel, chocolate and black malts, roasted, creamy with hints of chocolate, nuttiness, nice drying hops in the long finish.
 It was wonderful to find this in a wilderness of mainstream lagers, went great with barbeque and spicy butter chicken too!


Happy New Beers to one and all for 2013!

Back to Brussels, London Calling

The train to Brussels the next day is uneventful. We pass through Leuven and notice acres of palleted kegs piled high next to the Stella Artois plant, home of beer giant InBev. We see the first rain of our trip and meet an amazing young man who studies piano in Maastricht, but lives in Antwerp, commuting on weekends, Zheng Qiu Chen (check him out, who guided us on our trip.
We reach Brussels Gare Centraal readily, dump our bags at our hotel on the very busy Charles Buls Square and get into power shop mode. My favourite beer shop for variety and price is Beer Planet so we head there first. I easily manage my 8.5 litre duty free allotment in 19 various sized bottles. We shop for souvenirs next and other things we noticed first time through, then its quick siesta time before we head out for our last night in Brussels.

We visit A La Mort Subite one last time. The atmosphere is relaxed, I order a bottle of Rodenbach (5.2%, classic blended Flanders red ale, tart, fruity, ruby red) while Donna opts for a Grimbergen Blonde (6.7%, smooth and balanced, fruity nose, yeasty) from the tap. Next up, Chimay Blonde (8%, white label, hoppy nose, fruity palate, classic Trappist)) and Mort Subite Lambic Blanche (4.5%), a new beer from a venerable old brewery. This latter brew is an actual wit beer featuring some caramel maltiness, an understated lambic sourness, frothy head, small acidic nose, pale blond colour, slightly cloudy, hints of candi sugar in the long finish. Next we check out a curious little local 'estaminet' down a dark alley entrance, A L'Imaige de Nostre Dame on our way to dinner, a genuine 16th century cafe, low ceilings, wooden beams, two
tiny rooms. They appear to have no draft this day, so we coax a bottle of Beersel Oude Gueuze (6%, tart, refreshingly sour) from out of our distracted barmaid, take in the ancient atmosphere and move on. After a relaxing dinner, it's back to Delirium Village for one last tour. We start in the Delirium Taphouse, enjoy a Vivien IPA (a hoppy favourite) and an Ename Abbaye Double from the Roman brewery (6.5%, roasted malt, hints of dried fruit, caramel, dry finish) then descend the back stairs to the main room of the Delirium Cafe. The place is packed as always, but we manage to
share a table with a couple from Cleveland, chatting about beer and international travel. I go to the bar and order a big bottle of Augrenoise (6.5%, bottled conditioned, cloudy, straw coloured, citric nose, quickly dissipating head, wheaty and winey with a slight sourness). We finish with a 750 ml. bottle of Saison St. Feuillien (6.5%, traditional golden farmhouse, warm and rich) and decide it's time to stumble home. Instead, we stumble into the Monastarium for one last look around (100 Trappist/Abbey beers, 400 vodkas).
Unbelievably, it's Black Russians we order, chatting up the bartender, who we'd met first time through. The smooth tall drinks are absolutely delicious and go down way too quickly. Now it really is time to go, but our bartender has a parting gift for us, two corked bottles of oak-aged La Trappe Quadrupel (10%) to take with us. Wow! I sure do love this place! Unfortunately, our hotel room faces the busy square and is so hot we have to have the windows open. A cacophony of late night partiers, earlier morning garbage and delivery trucks conspire with all the beer we'd enjoyed and deliver me a tremendous hangover by the time we actually rise late the next morning. What was I thinking?
Double espressos at the train station don't seem to help much. Slowly, we do make it to the airport for our short hop to London Heathrow. Mercifully, our beer laden bags
were checked in Brussels right through to Vancouver, so we easily navigate the free public buses to our nearby hotel. Donna's friend Helen is waiting for us downtown, so we quickly head right back out to the tube and find ourselves in Picadilly Circus in no time. Helen's has done her real ale homework and takes us to the Dog and Duck, featuring four hand pulled tasty real ales. Topaz Gold (4%) seems to be the bar favourite, a golden pale ale from Admans, fruity with medium bitterness and a long dry finish. All too soon they're out. Junga (3.9%) from Itchen Valley, a very dark and roasty, malty mild-like brew, gets my juices flowing and I'm starting to feel human again. Up next, Lamplighter (4.8%) premium bitter, amber, heavier malt but a balanced, dry finish. Reverend James (4.5%, rich fruity palate, aromatic, long
and dry) from Brains in Wales completes our real ale quartet. We enjoy these pints on the sidewalk outside the pub huddled under a skinny awning as sheets of rain pour down on the streets for about half an hour, then stops. We take the cue and make our way to Bodeans, Canadian owned I'm told, serving an amazing selection of pulled pork, barbequed chicken, ribs several ways, coleslaw, you get the picture - delicious and much needed sustenance. I managed a bottle of Spitfire (4.5%) a premium Kentish ale from Shepherd Neame, amber, floral, hoppy, and finely balanced. This really put a wonderful cap on a great meal and a brilliant night out. We made our way back to the tube and said our goodbyes. Thank you muchly Queenie! Back at the hotel I think we both didn't really want to fly home in the morning. Travel is so seductive and romantic, who wants to go home until you have to. Gotta pay the bills. But there will always be a next time. The trick is keeping the time between now and then relatively short. Cheers for now.

Get Lost in Maastricht

 Maastricht is located in the south of the Netherlands in the province of Limburg, a Dutch peninsula tucked in between its neighbours, Belgium to the west and Germany to the east. From original Roman settlement to the birthplace of the European Union, Maastricht is a delightfully historic city built on both sides of the river Meuse, with many squares and cafés, featuring some wonderfully unique cuisine and a deep beer culture.
After our train-bus-train ride from Amsterdam, we relax on our hotel's terrace, watching the square and quenching our thirsts with fruit beers. The local De Ridder Brewery makes Wieckse Rosé (4%), it's bubbly and clear pinky red, sweetish, cranberry-raspberry tart and easy to drink. The St. Louis Kriek (3.2%) is an aged lambic, sweet but with sour overtones, also pinky-red, tighter head, fruity aroma, delicate body. We followed that up with an Erdinger Weissbier (5.3%) a classic German wheat beer, banana and cloves notes in play, cloudy, creamy and smooth. Across the square and seemingly on the wind, we hear the
sounds of distant music. Ready for a stroll, we wind our way through the narrow cobble-stone streets, drifting ever closer to what we discover to be a music festival, their annual Bruis Free Festival and they were rocking day two with a full line up on two stages. The weather was great, blue sky, +20s, and the fair grounds were packed. We saw several very cool Dutch bands (including the Mary Shade Experience, Ozark Henry) and sipped back many Brand Weizen beers at 2 Euros a pop, what a great afternoon! With bands still playing and the sun going down, we make our way back into
the labyrinth of the old city looking for food. After getting lost (what's new?) we circle back around a church terrace and find Café Seijk, a beautiful little classic diner serving traditional Maastricht dishes and great wine. We jump right into two amazing dishes, Maastricht Zoervleis (horse stew in a dark, rich and beery sauce) with Belgian frites and apple sauce and the daily special, a roasted 'lapin' with a beautiful side salad of fresh seasonal veggies. Stunningly delicious, served with aplomb and humour from our fantastic waiter and perfect after an afternoon of dancing and beer at the free festival. Sated, we eventually find the river and our bearings, making it back to our hotel terrace (which seems to be the happening place on the square!) for a night cap of Affligem Dubbel (6.8%) and conversation. We meet a nice couple on holidays from the
north of Holland, but their English is halting and our Dutch non-existent so we just laugh a lot and drink our beers. Then we meet a couple of locals guys back from the festival who regale us with tales of the bands, the festival, the city and life in this lovely little part of the world. Slowly the night winds itself up, fewer and fewer cyclist whiz by, the pedestrian traffic seems to evaporate and only the odd bus and occasional taxi seem to cross the square now. We decide to call it a day as the tower bell in the square strikes 12. Good night Maastricht, tomorrow is another day.

 Of course it was. We cross bridges, explore parks, enjoy coffee in the sun and before we know it, it is time for a beer. We find ourselves in another beautiful square, Vrouweplein, at Café de Comedia,  where all the chairs face out, the better for people watching, and settle in to do the same. The café features the beers of another Limburg brewer, Gulpener. Neither of us cared for the Gulpener Lager, but their Chateau Neubourg Pilsner was passable, the Belgian wit Korenwolf was cloudy with substance and flavour and the Dort was the copper coloured, more malty
alternative. The day was warming and so were we. Off into the streets we go again, intrepid explorers, perusing boutiques and after additional window shopping we are happily lost again, in the maze of streets, until we find the 'speciaalbierencafé' Café Falstaff in the delightful Amorsplein in time for lunch. A tasty smorgasbord of local delights was the way to go, cheeses, chacuterie, dips, bread, bitterballs, accompanied, of course, with a couple of delicious beers. Palm was promoting their Hopper (6%) beer, made with their own estate grown Hallertau hops - some hop dryness, gold, carbonated, easily drinkable brew. Also, Ciney Blonde, (7%) a Belgian strong ale of character, tight white head, clear amber, malt accented, dry finish. A nice pair of beers to start, but the next up

were even lovelier. La Trappe Isid'Or (7.5%), brewed for the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Brasserie de Koningshoeven at the monastery, in limited edition numbered bottles. Spicy aromatics, cloudy, yeasty, creamy and a long finish, this is a very special brew indeed. Also on the table was Urthel Hop-It (9.5%), pale gold, fresh herbal nose, golden yellow, a big malt based bully of a beer but hopped up, truly one of the first Belgian double IPAs, bitter and balanced with a long, dry finish allowing the hops to prevail. The rest of the day went by in a blur, more sightseeing, nosing around interesting public statuary, awing at historical architecture, we might have slipped a siesta in there too, then we sat by the river and thought about this beer journey we've been on. Pretty lucky, pretty fantastic.
That night we dine on 'moules et frites' one more time, accompanied by monk made Orval (6.9%, orange-amber, creamy, smooth on the tongue, notes of bread, yeast, fruit, spices) and Judas Tripel. (8.5%, strong Belgian pale ale, golden, fruity, hints of spice). It's another quiet night in town, in fact we are only 2 of 5 people eating at Basilica this evening, a Monday. The waitress tells us tourist season is pretty much over, students are all back at school, the evenings are getting cool, autumn has arrived. Time to head home.

Amsterdam and Beyond

Into the Netherlands
The trip from Bruges to Amsterdam took about 3 hours, traveling through Ghent and transferring in Antwerp. We actually got off in Den Haag for lunch, locking up our luggage in the station, and wandering through Chinatown looking for beer and food, in that order. In no time we found Café-Restaurant Rootz, located in an old coach house right in the old centre of The Hague. They had a bottle list of some 80 beers, mostly Belgian plus 14 taps and feature a large terrace. The 'wissel-tap' or rotating tap that day was
Scheldebrouwerij Zee Zuiper Tripel, a very tasty 8%, cloudy, pale gold very drinkable beer, some malt sweetness, fruity, hints of spice (it's name means 'drinker of oceans', or something like that) and the Brand Pilsner: a crisp, clean and refreshing beverage. After a fortifying lunch, our server cheerfully recommends De Paas, a small beer cafe on our way back to the train station, featuring a floating terrace in the canal. Unfortunately, they were running late and were not open as we passed by. Maybe next time.

It was a straight run into Amsterdam from here, except for the unexpected change of trains in Haarlem. It is a beautiful warm sunny day as we arrive in the Central Station and make our way (the wrong way I have to admit) to the Prinzgraacht (canal) in order to find our hotel. My bad. It was a nice afternoon for a walk, but not so pleasant with luggage bouncing along the cobblestones in tow. Eventually we made it, showered, changed and headed for a evening out on the town. 
We cruise the long shopping streets and find many a café on the even smaller side streets, some quiet and pensive, an after work spot for locals, others were busy, just cranking up for the evening to come. One of the former was where we found Witte Trappist (5.5%) from La Trappe. This is something new from the Dutch monks, a very well balanced white beer, tart and thirst quenching, cloudy pale yellow smooth with hints of spice, yeast and malt tonality. We continued our vague wandering and soon came across a small alleyway just off the main shopping drag, crowded with a laughing, friendly crowd. The tiny bar, Café Belgique was well into happy hour, DJ spinning a great selection of tunes, barmaid pouring continuously from 8 taps, the crowded room spilling into the street of this self-serve bar café.
Luckily, two seats at the bar open up just as we survey the room, and that was it, we were there for the evening! Every inch of wall space is covered in beer trays and other Belgian beer memorabilia, and the place seems to pick up steam as we settle in, feeling right at home, chatting with customers waiting for beer, as well as the DJ and barmaid. We start with La Trappe Dubbel (7%, soft aromatics, sweet malt & caramel characteristics) and St. Feuillien Saison (6.5%, tangy, rich, warm golden ale), move on to Zinnebir (6%, blonde, fruity, complex, thin bitterness) and Floreffe Abbaye 
Blonde (6.3%, malt, fruit,citrous) then La Chouffe (classic big 8% blonde ale, spicy, yeasty, woody) and Blanche de Bruxelles (4.5%, cloudy, tart, some spice, malty tonality). The party was in full swing by this point, when I discover more interesting beers in the bottle menu, especially two new Belgian brews I don't know: De Graal SloCK (6.5%, hazy gold, bitter hoppy, spicy - they use Duvel yeast) and Strandgaper from Scheldebrouwerij (6.2%, floral, bready, malty edge,  gently bitter finish).

Well, fun is fun, but hunger was setting in now, so we stumble off
into the night in search of something hearty, just not sure where we are going to find it. It's not long before we fall into the large and beautifully restored historic building housing Heffer, dating from 1637. 8 beers on tap, twice that in bottles, and an extensive menu, whatever your fancy. We feast on ribs and hearty salad, and quaff a couple of Lindeboom beers: Gouverneur Brune (6.5%, ruby, malty) and Lindeboom Pilsner (3%, bare, blond and beautiful!) I'm sure I must have tried the 'wissel-tap', but notes are scarce. After this we stroll the fabled Red Light District, taking in the midnight
madness, window shopping in the well lit galleries, watching the throngs of people out on this gorgeously warm evening, the tourists, the late party people just getting started, locals going home. And the bicycles, the miles and miles of bicycles locked to each other, on every fence or pole! Truly a night to remember, if only I really could. We got lost again, this time I opted for the gentleman's way out - a taxi. Home James, tomorrow is another day!
The next morning we are up fairly early, all things considered. We take the tram to the station (10 minutes), stash our bags and head out to find brunch. We end up in the flower market area, at a little place called Gewaeght Café. They have only two beers on tap, a light beer
and a dark beer. We order one of each. Turns out the light beer is Weihenstephan Weizen (classic Bavarian wheat beer, cloudy, tall, banana, cloves, yeasty and more) and the dark is St. Christoffel's Brune. This brew seems to be an oude brune at first sip, slight sourness, balanced with fruity aromatics, but malty and more complex, silky smooth, long finish. We buy amazing sunflowers in the market before we leave the square, the most beautiful we've ever seen! On our way to the train, we drop by Prael, only one of three breweries within the city limits. Their new taproom is right around the corner from their main storefront/brewery, featuring their line of unique and delicious 
brews many named after Dutch pop stars of the past. No less than 14 beers on tap this day, we choose the Johnny Kolsch (5.1%, tall, light, refreshing, smooth)) and their 'seizoenbier' Hepie-Hepie Dubbel (8.5%, dark brown, malt accented, nutty, fruity) at the inside bar, then sit out in the street on the pub picnic tables. It's quiet here now, but Prael is building a shelter across the lane, part of their on going commitment to help those who cannot help themselves. They hire those who need direction to work at the brewery too, and help to get them back on their feet. We shop briefly in the main store, then head to the train. Our next stop is only a half an hour away, in Bussum, where friends are awaiting our arrival for the weekend.

Bussum and Beyond 
Ulli and Edzer's house is a short walk from the train station, and they are waving to us as we walk up the street. Donna presents them with the sunflowers and we all relax in their spacious back yard. Thoughtful as always Edzer has laid in a few bottles of Westmalle Tripel for me and some Brand Pilsner for everybody else. Ah, refreshing! We do some catching up, then decide to go for a drive
to visit Cafe Demmers, an excellent little pub in neighbouring Naarden, an old town surrounded by a medieval fortress wall. We sample some excellent Dutch brews: De Leckere Willibrord Amber Special (5%), a hazy copper-colored beer, slight malty sweetness, caramel notes, some hop nuances; Gulpener Chateau Neubourg Pilsner (5.5%) very clean and crisp, sparking yellow-gold, good balance, dry finish; and the Vestingbier, made by locals members of the Vestinggilde (Fortress Guild), basically friends of local caterers, specializing in traditional high quality fare. This brew is 6.5%, blond in color, fresh and fruity, with a well balanced palate and a dry finish. In business since 1885, Demmers has 8 continuously rotating taps featuring local, Dutch as well as Belgian specialties.

The next day we decide to hit the beach, as in drive up to Noordwijk and take a dip in the North Sea. The weather is still gorgeous, the country side beautiful and crossed with canals as we take the scenic route to the sea. It's Saturday and a perfect day, as the crowds usually like to hit the beach on Sunday. In tow is a cold mixed pack of Hertog Jan beers: Weizener, Oerblond, Karakter, Grand Prestige and Natuurzuiver, all good beers in their own styles.
We do dip our toes (some of us more) in the North Sea, walk around the town a bit and stop here and there for a refreshing Wieckse Witte (5%) always served with a slice of lemon and a little plastic plunger that allows you to squash the fruit into the bottom of your glass. It is a wonderful day, topped off by very delicious and spicy Indonesian take-out, a local favourite, from nearby Hilversum. The evening is spent in earnest conversation, eager laughter and a switch to some very lovely wines. This turns out to be one of the best days on our trip. Dank u wel Ulli & Edzer!!

In Bruges and Ghent

 The next destination on our odyssey of beer is Bruges, capital of West Flanders, prominent UNESCO world heritage site, and this 'Venice of the North' was once a major port from the 12th to the 15th centuries. Laced with canals, it is a romantic spot to spend a few days far from the maddening crowds. Or, so we thought. We arrive in Bruges by train, a quick one hour from the Gare Centraal in Brussels. It's a short walk through station, park and square to our hotel, at one time a malthouse, how appropriate. It is a beautiful day and a another short walk to the centre of the old town, where we stop for frites, admire the tower, the square and the surrounding architecture and then look for a side street café for a beer. We then notice parades of tourists marching
through the square and the narrow streets, each group following someone with a number held high. We are told a cruise ship is in port, at Zee-Bruges, and this is their day in town. We settle into a spot on the street and the local De Halve Maan beer is on tap, so we enjoy Brugse Zot (6% golden blond ale, well balanced, smooth, refreshing, drinkable) and Straffe Hendrik (their 9% tripel, also golden, strong but balanced, malt held high by hidden hops, long finish). We soon realize that the brewery itself is not far away and that they give tours until 4 pm. So, off we go, negotiating long lines of numbered cruise groups, narrow streets and a couple of canals  to find the brewery. Resurrected in 2005 by Xavier Vanneste, the sixth generation of his family to brew beer in
Bruges, they offer an informative tour in several languages, have a large bar/restaurant, a shop and a comfortable terrace. After our tour, we settle there with a lovely couple from Basque and one of the tour guides, who regales us with her quick wit and funny stories of travel. She quickly tunes us into two other beers on the menu, a Brugse Zot Brune (a wonderful 7.5% Belgian dubbel, dark, nut brown, hints of fruit and caramel) and a Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel (11%, a jet-black, complex, malt forward & dry big boastful brew). Berinda tells us a batch of this last marvelous beer was aged in Bourgogne wine barrels for one year, packaged in corked bottles and sold only through the local newspapers. The staff each got a glass too, but the bottles were gone in 3 days. Sorry to have missed that one!
What a great afternoon! We slowly wander back through winding streets, (the crush of tourists now gone back to their cruise ship), a number of squares and shopping streets until we just happen to stumble upon 't Brugs Beertje, considered one of the best beer bars in Bruges. They have 5 taps and over 300 beers in bottles, truly an amazing choice on hand. Two of their taps beers that day were Kriek Boon (4%, cherry red, oaked, sour and bright) and an extra dry hopped Saison Dupont (6.5%, dry, funky and aromatic), just the thirst quenchers we needed after our walk.
Next up were De Dolle Brouwers Arabier (7.8% strong amber ale, white head, aromatics of honey & hops, fruity palate balanced with an earthy bitterness) and Femme Fatale from local Brouwerij De Leite de Rudderoode (6.5%, light amber, creamy head, malty nose, hints of fruit
on the palate, somewhat wheaty, dry finish). We very much enjoyed this friendly little pub, chatting with the locals at the bar and the staff were very knowledgeable. Tomas recommended riding bikes along the canal, suggesting Zee-Bruges was only an hour away. So, we made plans to do that the next day, checking maps and rental shops while enjoying another De Dolles Brouwers product, Oerbier, at 8%, a very effervescent brew, huge frothy head, cloudy amber, full bodied, bottled conditioned, aged to a well balanced smoothness. Stepping out into the tiny side street after this, we immediately smelled rich aromas flowing out of The Habit, a restaurant two doors down. So we sat down to a wonderful meal of local grilled meats and a farmer's salad to die for! Great first day!

We rent a tandem bike the next morning, riding through the city streets to find our balance and to get a sense of direction, finally heading out along one of the major canals to Damme. In our usual way, we get lost somewhere past Damme, but regroup with a couple of Jupilers in St. Josef and eventually (after 3 hours) find the harbour in Zeebruges. We lunch at the Old Steamer Restaurant on the marina on croque monsieurs and a couple of beers. Hoegaarden White (4.9%, very refreshing) and Ramée Abbaye (7%, slightly cloudy, yellow/gold, aromatic, hints of spices) and finish with
Blanche de Bruges (4.8%, another very thirst quenching pale yellow wheat beer, hints of fruit, some hoppy notes) and Verboden Vrucht (8.5%, strong dark ruby, sweet apple notes, fully balanced, hints of spice, dried fruit). Yummy! Now fortified, we begin our trip back. Our waitress directs us through Blankenberge, the seaside beach resort town next to Zeebruges, still packed with summer revellers, enjoying the great weather and then it's straight south along the bike highway, and sure enough, in under an hour we are back on the cobblestone streets in the old quarter in Bruges.
Showered and changed we head out for some pre-dinner beers at Staminee de Garre, another great beer café, not far off of the main square, tucked into a tiny alley. The place is filling up but we are seated with Lola and Rob, just over from Bristol for a long weekend and we hit it off marvelously. We talk about travel, the UK, Canada and of course beer, and carry on trying a number of selection from the house menu. They offer 4 beers on tap, one of which is their own house Tripel de Garre (11.5%, solid golden brew, well balanced, hiding its strength in complex flavours, hints of spice, notes of malt and fruit). There are about 150 bottles on the menu too, we all dive into a few we've never tried before.
Moinette Blond (8.5%, Saison-like tripel, beautiful balance, little funky nose, slightly cloudy gold, spicy notes, dry and full bodied), Bon Secours Bruin (8%, dark malt, complex tones of chocolate, coffee, nuts, well balanced, dry finish). Rob finishes us up with a round of Kwak, famous for its bulb-bottom glass seated in a wooden holder (8.4%, dark amber, bready, zesty, lightly hopped, malty, hints of fruit).

At this point we pay up and head out the door, having completely forgotten about dinner. Bruges, unlike its larger sister cities, closes early, so we find ourselves alone on the main square, all the restaurants closed, munching on frites and skewered meats from the one of the two take-out wagons, the only things open at this time, watching the full moon hazily approach the old tower, thinking that, yes, finally, it's time for bed.

The next morning we take the 20 minute train ride to Ghent. Another prosperous medieval city, full of canals, tiny winding alleys and well preserved architecture. We hop the tram from the station to the historic city centre, jumping off at the Gravensteen Castle. Right across a canal sits Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, a lovely old pub right on the canal, large terrace stretching to the street and accompanying gin-house next door. They have some 140 bottles beers available with 16 taps, 3 of them house beers. Mammelokker Bruin (6%, light malt nose, beautiful clear brown ale, initial sweetness dries on the palate, becoming

smooth, well balanced) is the light 'lady's beer'. Gandavum Blond is a bit bolder and hoppier (7.5%, floral aromatics, gold hued ale, beautifully balanced palate, dry hopping pushing this beer to a dry finish) and their killer Klokke Roeland Amber checks in at 11%. Again, the aroma gives nothing away, maybe some light malt sweetness, a frothy head leaves lovely lace, deep gold/amber, smooth palate, balanced, complex, some apparent alcohol warmth belies its true strength, under-
pinned by a whole lot of hops, dry finish. We pair this with an excellent course paté made with the Klokke beer itself, served with a piquant horseradish-bite brown mustard. Right below the terrace, canal boats take tourists through the city as far as the river Scheldt, pointing out historical architecture and shedding some light on the city's past glories. We too take this leisurely ride, enjoy the views and discover a new brewery along the canal route, which we return to to investigate.

Located in the heart of Ghent, and built on the site of the original Lely Brewery (1383-1673) Annick De Splenter opened Gruut in 2009. In the middle ages, as the story goes, the river Leie divided the city, brewers on the French controlled west bank used spice/herbal mixtures or 'gruut' to flavour their brews, while the Dutch east bank breweries preferred hops. It was all about taxes and political power. Annick studied ancient brewing and researched 'gruut' to create her own mixtures for each of her beers. Unique and subtle, we were unaware of the lack of hops when we started sampling, the beers being well balanced and fully flavourful. Gruut Witte (5%) is very aromatic, fruity with herbal notes, soft and round with a spicy dryness and a sweet
creamy finish. Gruut Bruin (8%) has a fruity nose, a malty palate, with big notes of nuts (actually made with 3 types of nuts!), smooth with a fairly dry finish. Gruut Blond (5.5%) displays a floral nose, is a cloudy pale gold, full rocky head that falls to great lace, hints of orange and lemongrass. Gruut Amber (6.6%) is a deep copper, malty nose, rich palate, and delicately balanced. Gruut Inferno (9%) is a more traditional Tripel, strong, pale yellow, complex and the only beer here that does use hops. All were delicious! Thank you Tony & Annick for your time and information. By the way, they do a good lunch here too!

Our last stop in our short tour of Ghent was also found serendipitously, also spotted from the canal cruise. Aba-Jour is a medium sized room, after an odd entrance way, a nice little bar, their windows facing the canal. They boast about 100 bottled beers and 6 taps, including a rotating tap from Popperings, this day featuring Bios Hommerbier (big hop values here, but balanced, golden, long finish). Also on its own rotating tap, Dupont IX (an extra special
Saison, fruity, funky, cloudy, big flavour complexity). We looked at the bottle list next, quite a variety, lots of lambics, all the Trappists...
I choose Hanssens Artisanaal Oude Gueuze (6%). Very sour, straw-gold in colour, fine head falls to the surface of the beer, aromas of grapefruit & horse blanket, tart palate, acidic, not for the faint of heart. I loved it! We rounded out the afternoon with a Trappist classic Orval (6.2%). Impressive head, musty peach nose, almost orange in colour, a multitude of notes: flowers, pepper, copper, dried fruit, caramel, dry with some malt sweetness, long finish.