Bar/fly: Belgian beer in Brussels

By Michael Lamb

When beer is the answer, Michael Lamb doesn't care what the question is.
On offer are a mere 196 beer choices - and precisely none of them are Stella or Heineken. Photo / iStock
On offer are a mere 196 beer choices - and precisely none of them are Stella or Heineken. Photo / iStock

To the Belgian beer drinker, the term "craft" beer is not the johnny-come-lately preserve of beardy hipsters quaffing the latest microbrew from jam jars.

For them, artisanal beer is as Belgian as Tintin or waffles or Jean Claude Van Damme: peasant brews made for one and all.

Take Moeder Lambic, the bar I'm headed to tonight in Brussels. On offer are a mere 196 beer choices - and precisely none of them are Stella or Heineken.

Their motto is "beer is the answer" - to which the question could only be, "Do you have a refreshing beverage available?"

To warm up for this encounter, I visit to a small and very old family-run brewery called Cantillon, tucked down an unremarkable side street about 1km from the centre of town.

The first thing that hits you as you step through the big, old timber front door is the rich, musty smell, as if beer has somehow been infused into every rustic brick and beam, and 100 autumns heady with hops and wheat have been and gone.

Or 115 autumns to be precise. Founded in 1900, Cantillon is one of a handful of traditional lambic breweries left in Belgium, which means they brew beer the ancient way, using natural fermentation.

So instead of lab-raised yeasts being carefully controlled and managed into the brewing process, their yeasty micro-organisms simply waft into the building from the surrounding Senne River valley.

Angled shutters under the eaves control the airflow, and spiders control any wayward insects attracted by the sweetness of the fermentation - lambic brewers are very much pro-cobweb.

From the equilibrium of nature's biological brewhouse flows the base Lambic ale, which is matured for one to three years.

Batches of different ages are then blended and bottle-fermented a second time to create "gueuze", your baseline lambic brew.

With that potion sorted, the brewmaster produces their signature flavours, from the more common kriek (cherry) to those flavoured with raspberries, elderberry flowers, apricots, caramel or grapes.

Cantillon's signature Cuvee Saint-Gilloise is a 2-year-old lambic in which hallertau hops have been cold-soaked, and their Grand Cru Bruosella is their best 3-year-old lambics but without the sugar-nudged encouragement of secondary bottle fermentation.

For a beer schmuck like me, who is usually perfectly content with a super-chilled crisp lager, these lambic ales are a whole other species. They're like sipping on the Middle Ages: earthy, complex, tart, relatively flat and rustic in the extreme, with a friendly 5 per cent alcohol content.

Having made my way through a tasting session at Cantillon, it was on to Moeder Lambic. Here are 40 artisanal beers on tap alone, before you start thinking about the dozens of bottled brands.

A place you could, if you were an amateur beer nerd, say something like: "I'm after base notes of damp dog hair, a whiff of monk's armpit, and a flowery finish", to which the barkeep will simply nod sagely and fill a glass with what you have described.

In fact, unless you are a bona fide master of beer, it is far better to let the bar staff guide you than make any pretence at knowing the distinctions of all the brews on offer.

They are not there to sell beer, they are there to help you enjoy beer.

Like most good Belgian establishments, they'll happily give you a quick tasting session to help you narrow down the right brew for your session. I saw one lot of tourists insist on seeing a list of all the beers available, which only tells the bar staff they have no idea what they're ordering. Plus, at Moeder Lambic, it turns out such a list doesn't actually exist.

After a glug or five of gueuzes, a snifter or two of Belgian IPA, a wonderful Westmalle Tripel (an ale with amped alcohol content), and one or two slices of their very nice quiche, things went a little fuzzy, so I wandered off into the non-stop party that is Brussels.

When I got back to my Air BnB, my host had left a kindly welcoming note - attached to an even more welcoming bottle of his favourite gueuze. Hmmm, one more can't hurt, can it?

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Emirates flies from Auckland to Dubai with direct connections there to its Brussels service. Economy Class return fares start from $2346. emirates.com

ONLINE

For details on the breweries go to cantillon.be or moederlambic.com.

- NZ Herald

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