I’ll get it out of the way immediately, and then we can move on: only a total bore could ever find Belgium boring. In Brussels, I found a slightly wonky kind of paradise. But then I was here to drink beer for a weekend, having heard so much about Brussels being to beer what Venice is to canals, or what LA is to movies, and what Jerusalem is to God.
The initial signs don’t look that promising. You disembark from the Eurostar into the claustrophobic, labyrinthine station, only to find a scruffy area of dual carriageways and soulless high-rise office blocks outside it. But, after a brief dogleg under a flyover and through an imposing, turreted, medieval gate, you’re suddenly in the old city, walking through a trendy, charmingly scuzzy neighbourhood centred on an old flea market that’s been open 365 days a year for 200-odd years. Leathery-faced old locals smoke fags down to the butt, rooting through the chintzy paintings and old typewriters, along with the fashionable, attractive young folk and their exotic dog breeds. The Marolles is a classic, rough-round-the-edges cool quarter, a Brick Lane from a parallel universe, where buskers play accordions rather than beat-boxing – chubby, bearded players who wouldn’t look out of place in a Rubens painting, accompanying Bacchus on his revels.
Brussels often feels like this: ordinary and odd at the same time. Belgium’s two most famous modern artists, Tintin creator Hergé and surrealist René Magritte, developed a visual shorthand for this curious sensibility that’s forever juxtaposing the strange and the miraculous with the mundane, the everyday.
The beer’s probably the ultimate embodiment of this sensibility, but another contender must be the chips, the first thing I ate, from a van in the street, queueing up behind two sparkies and a bloke fixing the water main. Never on God’s green earth will you taste finer chips than the ones I ate that sunny lunchtime in the Marolles flea market: the fat on these beauties fills your palate, their elusively familiar golden greasiness haunting your tastebuds long after they’re gone. Mine even came with a dollop of Béarnaise, something I’d always associated with posh steaks, in this case unceremoniously splattered out of a plastic bottle into the cone. Unlike in Britain, where we still approach good food with a New Labour-style spin of the “hand-picked, vine-ripened” variety, Belgians are so familiar, so at ease with good food it’s second nature to them, and their approach to the delights of the gut is refreshingly self-assured and down to earth.
Already beginning to feel like this was my kind of town, I went over to the bar on the side of the flea market for my first beer of the trip. I opted for a gueuze, a beer with a reputation for being an eccentric Brussels speciality, one you never really see outside the city, which made me suspect it might be a bit “challenging”. But the Bruxellois wear gueuze like a badge of honour, and it seemed soft not to have a go.
The waiter brought the beer to my table, ominously named Mort Subite – Sudden Death – which glowed a beautiful amber colour in the sunny midday light. It was a revelation: no hoppy dryness at all, its bite coming from a lovely, sharp, cooking-apple sourness instead. Somewhere between a malty real ale and a proper traditional cider might come close to the mark. Gueuze spontaneously ferments in the bottle, pops out of it like champagne, and has a similarly delicate fizz, giving it a wonderfully rich and satisfying feel in the mouth. It was so refreshing and moreish I polished it off in half a dozen big, thirsty gulps. Halfway down, I noticed that “The Final Countdown” by Europe was blasting out of the speakers. Then I did a lovely big gassy burp and the memory of the exquisite chips came back to me in all their splendour. I was beginning to feel delighted to be in Brussels. I walked off in a vaguely central direction, happier and happier, wondering what joys beckoned in the Belgian metropolis.
Except for the occasional horrific postwar fuck-up, the architecture of Brussels is an intriguing mix of northern European and Latin styles: baroque churches next to gabled merchants’ houses, flighty Catholic panache amid the sensible northern brick – again, that marriage of the fantastical and the everyday that seems so odd to a British sensibility. I found an art nouveau bar I liked the look of, Taverne Greenwich, a place, I was delighted to discover, where Magritte used to hold court and hustle his paintings. Nymphs and foliage traced delicate curves round the bar; even going to the toilet felt like having a piss in a Toulouse-Lautrec poster. The splendour and elegance of the decor was matched by the finesse of beer and the food. Rabbit was on the menu, cooked in gueuze.
Like wine in France, a cooking style has evolved round Belgian beer, cuisine de la bière, the most famous example being mussels cooked in wheat beer. I got stuck in, watching Brussels go by the window, drinking a Trappistes Rochefort 6, a malty, refined beer with a hint of Earl Grey or Darjeeling tea about it; blistering barnacles, I thought, I’ve landed in a gourmand’s paradise... I was beginning to suspect they might have to roll me out of this city by the end of it.
As evening fell, I found myself in the dignified, bustling Place Sainte-Catherine, surrounded by the stylish young Bruxellois starting their Friday night. Intrigued by the Rochefort 6, I decided to try more Trappist ales, the beers brewed by monks. Westmalle Dubbel is a dark beer that arrives in a chalice that wouldn’t look out of place in a Catholic mass. “Body of Christ,” I mumbled to myself happily as I received my holy communion. What a perfectly crafted balm Westmalle Dubbel is: the colour of a stout, but much lighter in the mouth, with the distinct flavours of dandelion and burdock, like an obscure and wonderfully rich Victorian herbal temperance drink, only with a substantially higher alcohol content than your average mass-produced lager. Surprisingly, the Westmalle Tripel tasted lighter and less boozy than the Dubbel, almost like a blonde beer, a super-Leffe, but with a distinct and delicious candied nose that brought back memories of Hubba Bubba, if an artisan version of Hubba Bubba existed, rather than the industrial garbage only children can stomach, which magnificently belied the fact it was 9.5 per cent abv.
Oddly (as usual), monks and beer go together in Belgium. Around 1,000 years ago, they were the first to add hops to barley, when they realised it had antiseptic qualities – in those days beer was a way to fight illness and “preserve” water in an age when it was unsafe to drink. Beer was also full of nutrition, a cornerstone of the diet, so much so that it was known as “liquid bread”. My next drink, Trappiste Rochefort 10, was virtually a supper in a glass – “liquid bread” indeed, and a dense, spicy, expensive dark rye bread at that. Weighing in at a hefty 11 per cent abv, this was easily the biggest, most complex and uncompromising beer I tried in Belgium. Drinking their colossal creation, I thought of the monks and their vow of silence, patiently brewing this exquisitely crafted beer. An act of devotion: for the art and the love of it, with the profits going to charity and the upkeep of the abbey, getting silently pie-eyed throughout the day, feeling the grace of Christ descending like the Holy Spirit upon their hooded heads...
After my Trappist ales, I wandered off in a pleasantly swervy manner over into the streets of the Saint-Géry quarter, a cool-as-you-like warehousey spot with graffiti by Invader and boutiques selling YMC clothes and Comme Des Garçons Converse, alongside the cream of contemporary Belgian designers – Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela, Raf Simons et al – confirming to me what a stylish and sophisticated lot the Belgians are. Wandering these streets somehow reminded me of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, if the Northern Quarter did curvy, wrought-iron, art nouveau balconies and medieval gabled roofs.
By evening, the fashionable Place Saint-Géry was heaving, the pavement cafés were banging out deep, minimal basslines, and young Brussels was going for it in a way that reminded me of Shoreditch when I were a lad. I drank a Chimay Cinq Cents, another deceptively light and refreshing Trappist number, but by this point I’d had so many beers my writing had gone from neat lines to a spidery scrawl, and it was time to put the notebook down.
Up bright and earlyish and back to the sun-dappled Place Sainte-Catherine, sheltered and shaded from the bright sun by plane trees and, remarkably, not at all hungover, which frankly amazed me. Perhaps the beer’s crafted with such quality that it doesn’t have the toxic effect pint after pint of europiss does: “liquid bread” might be pretty on the money after all. I had a full Belgian breakfast – again, a full English from a subtly wonky parallel universe, consisting of a half-runny boiled egg, cured Ardennes ham, hard cheese, brown bread, a croissant, orange juice and coffee. I’d just polished it all off when I spied the waiter taking a slender flute of Rodenbach Grand Cru to the father of the young family at the adjoining table. After being briefly surprised, it struck me this was an excellent idea, and I decided to follow the expert’s example.
Sour beers like Rodenbach are also known as the “Burgundies of Belgium”. In Belgium, a bon vivant is fondly referred to as a “Burgundian”. Flanders was once under the rule of the dukes of Burgundy and the Burgundian Netherlands had its capital in Brussels. Burgundy, responsible for so many of life’s finer things – the world’s loveliest wines, popularising oil painting, kick-starting the Renaissance north of the Alps – is also the civilisation that gave us Belgian beers. In a northern climate too cold to grow wine, they invented beer that was just as delicious. And Rodenbach Grand Cru does indeed have the oaky richness, earthy complexity and bright fruitiness of a good red Burgundy, as well as the deep cherry colour, but there’s a real sharpener in the tail, a sour balsamic vinegar slap that lets you know you’ve been Tango’d, a taste you get to like more and more the further down the glass you get.
The dukes of Burgundy also built the Grand Place, which Victor Hugo described as “the finest square in the world”. There’s not much I can add to that – wall-to-wall medieval guild houses with sculpted swans and golden, wing-footed Mercurys balance on the gabled turrets. The most impressive guild house of the lot, amazingly, is the brewers’ guild, or Maison des Brasseurs, complete with beer museum and terrace bar – proof, if it were needed, that beer’s a cornerstone of Belgian culture in the way wine is to France, or ham is to Spain.
Everywhere in the medieval streets surrounding the square are images of the Manneken Pis: the little cherub pissing into a giant Duvel glass next to the seafood display of a restaurant; pissing a laser beam in the three colours of the Belgian flag onto a gift-shop sign. The appropriate guardian spirit for this city of beer. In the heart of this cheesy, charming knot of streets, I chanced upon the courtyard of the justly world-famous Delirium Café, a pub with over 3,000 different bottled beers. Though it was undeniably touristy, a friendly, drunken vibe spread its loving arms over the café’s medieval alleyway. I slowly turned lobster pink in the baking sun, laughing at two drunk Scottish pilots whose frankly terrifying flying banter made me relieved I’d got here by train, and a nice Dutch artist couple who, bevvied up some time later, abruptly got up to go and cycle 20 miles back to their campsite, which in its own way was equally scary.
Delirium has some amazing beers you don’t see enough of elsewhere, like Verboden Vrucht (Forbidden Fruit), a cloudy, mauve concoction that tastes of figs, dates, and even a hint of the barnyard, making it a grown-up version of the fruit beers that until recently were brewed “for the ladies’ and children’s market” – if you’re a fan of fruit beers, dig this one out. Another splendid find was Gouden Carolus Classic, mild and mellow and weighty and subtle, as dark as Guinness but as luxurious as Christmas cake. A beer that’s so rich it’s regal – it was the preferred tipple of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
But for my money, Gouden Carolus Tripel even beats the classic Trappist tripels to the post, because it just seems so perfectly poised between a wheat beer’s citrus freshness and the full-bodied complexity that these beers are famed for.
I woke up late on the last day – still not really hungover but tired, after fitting such a lot in, so to speak. I took it slowly, settling into the café A La Mort Subite before catching my train home. This was probably the most elegant and distinguished bar I discovered, full of photos of can-can girls and jaunty poet types, old wood and mirrors with price lists hand-painted on them, while the dignified, rotund old waiters in penguin suits – who’d lived and breathed this wonderful work their whole lives – brought the beers out on trays. Mort Subite, I discovered, was a popular card game once played by Belle Epoque Bruxellois in this choice spot.
“Omnibus omnia” it says on a famous old shopping arcade next to the café – “Everything for everyone” – and this could apply to the Belgian attitude to beer, which is democratic in the way that wine is snobby. On the terrace of A La Mort Subite, classy old ladies drank raspberry beers, romantic couples drank champagne-style flutes, trays of blonde beers arrived for excitable groups. All Belgian society seemed squeezed into this café, and it appeared that everyone was a bit of a connoisseur, but not in a wanky (or French) way: “C’est normal,” as they might say with a shrug. And there’s half the charm.
My last beer of the trip was a fitting and fond goodbye, and in some ways, my favourite: Mort Subite Blanche – a gueuze, but a gueuze wheat beer. It’s unlikely, but if you ever see this rarity in an offie, I strongly advise you to buy every bottle available: I’ve never drunk anything more delightful. It’s a reason in itself to travel to Belgium. I struggle to define this beer’s peculiar and elusive taste – rhubarb and custard? Vanilla? A pear drop boiled sweet? Whatever taste it was, in bed at home the next day, shattered but happy, I woke up dreaming about it.
I can almost taste it now.