The day after I returned from Esquelbecq, Urbain and I were once again joined by those British troopers I’ve dubbed “The Geeks.” Ian, Mes, Mes’ brother Nick, and Mes’ fiancée Sim sloshed through rain and mud, tunneled under the Channel, and crawled to our doorstep, tired and, of course, very thirsty. We had a full Sunday, though; why wouldn’t we? First we took a tour of an old, retired brewery and maltery called De Snoek, filled from cellar to roof with dusty iron and wood brewing devices of all functions. We all looked like kids in a candy shop, ogling at and drooling over the history and gravity of it all: this place could be completely functional, providing the most traditionally-brewed beers in the world, if only someone would spend the effort to put it to use! Of course, it would probably take two full days of hard work to complete one brew, but it could be done in shifts…
It was a chilly Sunday, too, and we’d had our fill of the old, cold historical brewery so we hopped over to Esen, hometown of De Dolle Brouwers, or The Mad Brewers. Next to a steadfast fire with pillowy warmth in the tasting room spotted with the brewer’s art, we sipped and slurped our De Dolle beers in the Sunday quiet. I tried Stille Nacht (Silent Night), their robust holiday brew. The brewery’s slogan is “strong and wet”, and this was certainly wet and quite strong, at around 12% abv; it was a stille afternoon for me. I think I would keep it cellared for another year to let it dry out and pick up some wildness for a little extra spice. We said hello to Kris Herteleer, the brewer and artist, on our way out and were treated to a special goodbye tasting. Kris brought us to a room in the brewery, unscrewed the top of a plastic jerrycan, and poured us a sample of some thick, slick, dark and chunky liquid. My curiosity piqued. A sip gave me notes of dark, tart cherries and bittersweet chocolate, soft alcohol, and a smooth acidity that coated my mouth and slid down my throat. Yum. This was Cosmos Porter, a reserve stock of their real old-fashioned British porter. The chunks were slightly stringy, and I thought they might’ve come from the strain of Lactobacillus that inoculated the wild brew and like to colonize the top surface of the wort. Sounds nauseating, I know, but it was good, trust me.
De Dolle's tasting room
The next day, without a chance to exhale, Urbain, Carlo, and I squeezed into the pine-green Berlingo and gassed off to Brussels. Along the way we stopped at CoEnCo, a Belgian brewery engineering consultancy company that is helping Urbain with a certain project that might get some press soon. Stay tuned, of course… The visit was coincidental, though, since I recognized the style of the minibars that CoEnCo constructs; the bright copper, stainless steel, and stylized writing were unmistakably similar to the minibar of my former host Gerolf. And, in fact, he was a customer of theirs, nine hours and one country to the south.
In Brussels the three of us parked by the gigantic pointy church (can't miss it if you go) and hurried to our final destination: Delirium Café. It was my second time, but this time it was business. Well, almost. Urbain and Carlo exchanged words and laughs with the owner, Claude, in a foreign tongue (French, Belgian-style) and reviewed which Struise beers should be ordered next. What was in the works at the brewery. We then worked our way past the bar and into the catacombs of Delirium’s beer cellars. The expanses were cavernous but cramped as well, stacked floor to arching ceiling with endless bottles of beer waiting to be enjoyed. The café has or had the world record for most number of bottled beers available – something like two thousand. As the grown-ups meandered the corridors and talked business, I snuck off with my camera and rifled through all the dusty bottles I thought might be something special. In fact, I didn’t even need to do my own searching. Claude must have been pleased to have an eager American beer lover in his cellars, since he nonchalantly handed me a small bottle, caked with dust and label-less, of perhaps one of the most sought-after beers in the world: Petit Orval. The low-alcohol, "session" beer is brewed for the monks at the abbey and is only available to the public at the on-site café. I plan on saving that one for my deathbed. After a full tour we made our way to the upstairs draft bar and sampled just a few of their huge selection. I tried a Speculoos beer from Het Anker, just for kicks. Blegh.
Backstage at Delirium
Well, exactly one week later Urbain and I popped our heads into another must-go beer bar, The Kulminator, in Antwerp. Urbain stayed close to home with his choice of beer: the killer Struise Mikkeller. I wanted something vintage, since Kulminator’s known for its array of well-kept old gems, and I told Urbain on the ride over that I wanted something “figgy”, so I chose a 1999 Rochefort 6. It was slightly oxidized, giving a bit of a cardboardy taste, but was robust, raisiny, slightly nutty, and perfectly figgy. While Urbain went to a dreaded business reunion, I hung out in the peaceful bar, enjoyed their Mozart and Bach playlist, and read my book.
In between these outings and my next adventure, the brewery was relatively quiet, but we were productively abuzz with activity in the boss’ apartment. I helped Urbain install insulation, a floor, and a closet corner after a trip (my first) to IKEA. They say ee-KAY-uh. I say eye-KEE-uh. I’m not sure either is right. Nobody knows. But it blew me away, and it took us the whole day to wander the store, pick out some furnishings (including a new bed) and pack it all in the car. Apart from the home projects, we also prepared several orders of beer for export. At one point, Urbain received three calls in a quarter of an hour, all orders for beer: one from Canada, one from Italy, and one from Japan. We once used packing tape to hold beer in the van. It didn’t quite work well enough, but it worked.
As I previously said, I’m now enjoying Amsterdam with a couple friends. After a three-hour train ride turned into a nine-hour train fiasco, I finally found my way to my couchsurfing host. Belgium and The Netherlands have received more snow than most people can remember and, although this kind of snowfall happens weekly in New Hampshire, it has been wreaking havoc on just about everything here in the lowlands. The day I arranged my travel to Amsterdam the train system in all of Holland was out of commission. I was able to befriend a native who helped me jump from train to train to eventually snake our way to the city. But I’m here and will be spending certainly my oddest Christmas in the hustle and bustle, then I'll be moving to another couchsurfer’s welcoming abode in the Belgian Ardennes to hopefully find some cross-country skiing. After a few days of the Ardennes I’ll be scooching up to the Belgian coast to the town of Nieuwpoort (where Urbain grew up) to spend New Year’s Eve with Wim, my couchsurfing friend from Poperinge, and some of his friends for a few relaxing days of board games. Then it’s back to Struise! And there’s a lot more to do at Struise, so stay tuned!
Amsterdam, strung up