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.

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.

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