To start off, here is photographic evidence of everything!
On arrival at Hotel Erasmus, Tom introduced me to Pierre Celis. It was at this stage that I knew this was going to be a great beer trip. Before I'd even checked in and seen our room, Pierre had told me a potted version of his life story. He was totally charming, and spoke to me as if I was someone special. Little did he know that I was just another beer fan who enjoys running all over Belgium sampling decent beers and visiting great beer cafes. Pierre, the gentleman that he is, took the time to tell me all about Stella, Miller, Austin, and life starting out at Hoegaarden. In exchange, I told him about the Babble Belt. Even though he hasn't got a computer, he seemed interested.
After spending some time with Pierre, we let him finish his lunch in peace, and checked out our wonderful room. Ours was the only room at Erasmus which is both newly refurbished and overlooks the canal, and it really is worth every penny of its 170 euro per night asking price. You get supreme comfort and two giant windows which open to reveal the little courtyard at the back of the hotel, and the canal just behind. Yes, not only did we have a living beer legend and 150 beers downstairs, but we had a room and a view to die for.
After a lunch of tasty and plentiful stoofvlees in Erasmus, we ventured out to check out Brugge in May. Those who have been paying attention will know that this was our first time in Brugge outside of January. Being fans of the deserted, frozen version of Brugge, we were not exactly sure what to expect, but we needn't have worried. Yes, Brugge was very busy, full of trotting horses, packed with tour groups, with boatloads of visitors touring the canals in the boats which are tied up and resting in January, but its still the same great place and we weren't unduly perturbed by the early summer version of our favourite city.
Being tardy sort of people, it was fully 4.10pm (10 minutes after opening!!) when we finally rolled up at 't Brugs Beertje. Daisy welcomed us as usual, and we quickly got stuck into her rapidly diminishing supply of Boskeun from De Dolle. While it was somewhat odd seeing the door of the Beertje wide open, and sunlight outside, we knew we were back in our favourite café. After a couple of quick beers, however, it was soon time to head to the station and catch our train to Izegem, where we planned to spend the evening at 't Kroegske.
On arrival there just after THEY opened, at 7pm, we were warmly welcomed by Danny and Nadine, who quickly gave us the immense beer list and started to chat away. What wonderful hosts, they made us feel totally welcome as soon as we walked in. The ambience was once more soothing, relaxing, quiet and restful, with Irish music playing softly in the background. The surroundings really are amazing - where else can you find such a combination of gentle, friendly hosts, relaxing music, superb beer and unparalled breweriana? Our third visit confirmed, if any confirmation was needed, that 't Kroegske is one of those places which is absolutely top class and totally timeless. We will always make a point of returning to in the future.
Beers that evening included 1972 Eylenbosch Gueuze, Mort Subite Oude Gueuze, 1997 Boskeun - which demonstrated just how much sweeter the old version was - and a Samaranth from De Leyerth. Amazing how much better this one tastes in front of the brewer...
Next day it was my birthday, which of course was the excuse for the entire holiday. After spending the day wandering round Minnewater, the Vismarkt, the Burg and the Markt, calling at 't Strijderhuis for coffee, we made it to Daisy's at precisely 4.04pm - we were now getting the hang of this. Once more, it was not as busy as we had feared, and we easily got a table. Rose de Gambrinus, Achel Blonde and XX Bitter were my choices before we headed to 't Vlaamsche Pot for dinner, where I bravely tucked into another Flemish rabbit. This time I got my revenge and left the restaurant fully teethed. This was not so risky as it sounds, seeing that we were about to meet up with Joris. Pity we didn't know him when the previous rabbit incident occurred in Watou a couple of years back!
Anyway, on our return to 't Brugs Beertje, we soon met up with Joris and Lut, then Johan, Filip and Catrien, and Podge, Siobhan and some of Podge's tour group. Joris and I completed another beer exchange, which I am sure I must have got the better end of, and we soon settled down to a serious evening of sampling beers and enjoying the fabulous company and excellent surroundings.
On his arrival, Podge presented me with the new Bob Hendrickx book, and although this is the fourth or fifth edition, it is the first time I have taken the plunge and joined Bob's band of mad café chasers. For those who don't know the deal, the book features 295 Flemish cafes, and when you visit one you claim a stamp in your book, and your second beer is free. So, apart from loads of free beer, your incentive is to collect loads of stamps. Those with over 100 stamps get a crate of beer free, and those with over 200 get three crates. If you get them all, you get something amazing, but my Flemish doesn't stretch that far. However, the free beer is of course a side issue for obsessive types like me, and just going out and getting as many stamps as possible is the main aim of the game. When Daisy gave me my first stamp, and the free teddy beer (what else would you expect as your free gift in a café called Bruges' Little Bear?) that came with it, I was instantly hooked. I fear that nothing will be the same again.
So began six days of charging round Flanders collecting Bob H stamps! A new obsession has most definitely started...
Leuven and Mechelen
On the Saturday we went to the first of several places that we hadn't been to before - Leuven. En route we stopped off at O'Reilly's Irish bar near the Bourse in Brussels, to watch Man United virtually wrap up the title and eat a huge breakfast. (yes, that was me eating the breakfast not Man United).
Anyway, we arrived in Leuven late afternoon, and were immediately struck by how stunning many of the buildings were. Joris was right - it is a beautiful mediaeval city, with some stunning architecture, particularly the town hall and the cathedral, which together form two sides of the Grote Markt. Tim Webb says that the Grote Markt is stunning at night - yes, it is, but I would add that its mightily impressive by day as well.
We checked into our hotel, the centrally located Holiday Inn, which is about two minutes walk from the action. After a quick wander round the centre, and dinner at the pretty average Domus huisbrouwerij, we jumped back on the train for an evening in Mechelen.
Our first stop was a new-ish old brown café called 't Hanekeef. A small, locals café near Nekkerspoel station which has about 40 beers, with plenty of quality on the list. It has a 'cock' theme (as in hens) and real atmosphere. After a Mechelsen Bruynen, I claimed my free beer courtesy of Bob H, after which we were on our way to our main reason for our second visit to Mechelen: Den Stillen Genieter.
Unfortunately we were not impressed at all with this one, which is, after all, a bar which comes very highly recommended on the world beer tour. This was our second attempt to get in. Last time, it was closed when it should have been open, and we knew no better, so we hung around outside hoping for the best, but nothing happened. Since then, a certain famous beer writer living in Belgium had told us that, in similar circumstances we should ring the bell, so when we turned up at 8.15pm (it 'opens' at 8pm) and found it closed, I rang the bell, and sure enough they appeared and opened up. The music - funereal/Gregorian chanting - was hurriedly put on, the shopping bags were quickly removed from the floor, and we settled in to peruse the extensive list of beers. We had the place to ourselves for over an hour, and needless to say there was no atmosphere whatsoever. Its not really surprising, however, that the place was empty - how much business can they can do if they only open up when someone rings the bell? The owner remained silent, despite my obvious enthusiasm for obscure and hard to find beers.
Then there was the performance with the beers. The café makes its reputation on a huge beer list full of quality, rare beers. However, the first four that I ordered were all unavailable. Why on earth do cafes not update their lists to avoid disappointing customers? Few things wind me up more than this - I think I should start a campaign to get all cafes to update their lists and stop claiming that they do 300 beers when they clearly don't. I mean, I could write a very long list with 500 beers on it, but it doesn't mean that I actually have 500 beers in stock. Ok, so actually I do, but that's another story, and I don't have 500 different beers, nor do I claim to sell them. Grrrrrrrrrrrrr...
Anyway, fifth time lucky I pulled a Fantome out of the hat - the first Fantome beer that I have had with a Flemish name - Ne Dorstige Kajotter. Translations welcome, but the (otherwise strangely quiet and uncommunicative owner) told us that it was brewed for some local boy scouts group. The phrase 'only in Belgium' springs to mind once more!
Having got thoroughly pissed off at this ridiculous performance of sending our friend to the cellar repeatedly only for him to return and tell me that 'its out of stock' time after time, we left, hugely disappointed, an hour before our last train. This was so we could go to a decent café or two in Leuven and find a bit of life.
This we found in plentiful supply in the giant Universum, just up the street from our hotel, where there is a decent, if unexciting list of beers, all of which appear to be in stock. After a couple in Universum, we wound the evening up in 't Blauwe Schiut, which isn't really a beer bar but which also, amazingly, has beers in stock. This meant a good, if very late, end to another day of beer hunting.
Next night, after our day trip to Liege (more on that below) we checked out two more Bob H cafes in Leuven, the excellent 't Vliegend Varken, a new refurb of an old bruin café with a pig theme. It works, (trust me), and they also sell Westvleteren 8 and 12. I asked for an 8 just to check that they had it in stock, and we were delighted to find that they did. Our last café of the night was the entertaining Ramblas, where we had a mighty Duvel just to get our Bob stamp. Well, Bob doesn't claim that ALL the cafes in his book are beer cafes, just that they are good in some way. This was a salsa bar, quite different from our usual haunts, but we enjoyed it nevertheless. And the best thing? Having taken Theresa to this place, she declared that she liked Bob H a lot, as he had finally got me to go to some different types of bars in Belgium, not just those with long lists as per Tim Webb's Guide! That means permission to travel all over the place seeking 'stempels', I think.
In summary, Leuven has several decent, if unspectacular bars, and the scene has been greatly enhanced by 't Vliegend Varken. The city itself is well worth a visit. The architecture is superb, the ambience of the city is cool, and it's a great base for getting to places like Liege, Mechelen, Brussels and Hasselt. Definitely check Leuven out, it's a highly under-rated city. We will definitely be back.
Mechelen? - another pretty city, but really, I couldn't be bothered with the antics at Den Stillen Genieter. Considering the café itself has Kulminator pretensions, it really should be a world classic, but they definitely need to make more effort. As for the Hanekeef, well, in years to come it could be up there with Oud Arsenaal in Antwerpen - yes, this one has great potential. And just check out those cocks...
On Sunday May 4th, we finally hit Liege after umpteen trips to Belgium where we hadn't quite got there. As it had variously been described to us as a 'dump', a 'dump with some pearls', and a 'great place to visit', we didn't really know what to expect. Anyway, we took the half hour trip from Leuven and arrived at Guillemins station just in time to jump on another train down to Angleur, home of the world famous Vaudree.
Arrival at Angleur can only be compared with arrival at Berlin's Lichtenberg station in the old days of the Wall and the east/west split. Lichtenberg was in the old east Berlin. For those who missed that particular treat, think remote station, no staff, no signs, middle of nowhere, grimy suburb, and 'what on earth are we doing here'. Fortunately we had Tim W's accurate directions, and you can see the Vaudree from the train, so we knew where to go.
Thinking we really had hit the height of madness - tramping round this obscure, deserted and not very pretty suburban part of Liege on a very hot and sunny Sunday morning, we finally got to the Vaudree (and to think we did all this and no Bob stamps in sight as its all just over the divide and into Wallonia...). And what did we find? Well, to be honest, Vaudree is nothing particularly special: it's a pleasant enough café in the most remote and unlikely location for a place with such a long beer list. It's clean enough and pleasant enough, but if it weren't for the long beer list, none of us would pay it very much attention at all. It has what I consider to be a typically Wallonian modern-ish feel to it, not at all like the great Flemish classic beer cafes such as 't Brugs Beertje, Oud Arsenaal, 't Kroegske and the Kulminator.
After perusing the huge list closely, I asked for a beer, then another, then another, then another - yes, the first three beers I asked for were all out of stock. After Den Stillen Genieter the previous evening, this was getting silly, and very frustrating. I was getting desperate so I ordered one from the 'new beers' list thinking they must have those in stock - a Gouden Carolus Ambrio. I was presented with a Gouden Carolus Classic. The waiter insisted that the Classic was indeed Ambrio. I showed him the entry in the Webb guide for Het Anker which clearly shows the two different beers, but when he insisted he had given me an Ambrio, I gave up and drank my Classic. Anyway, Gouden Carolus Classic, good though it is, was not really what I intended to drink from a list of, allegedly, 1000 beers. My view is that overall its an ok place, and I'm glad to have finally got there, but its another great example of a place with a giant list of beers, many of which probably don't exist. They also have an amazing number of rubbishy beers on the list, not least some unbelievable fruit beers that you just don't even want to think about. It also suffers from games machines, and our meal was average at best.
As we had a busy schedule and, lets face it, limited success in actually finding anything remotely interesting to drink at Vaudree, we quickly finished our beers and headed down the street to the next target - Petit Vaudree, which is truly excellent. A small street corner café, well worn in, this is easily the best of the four Vaudrees. It has a much smaller beer list, but its more focussed and easier to navigate. The bar is lively, full of atmosphere and people, a real locals boozer. By now, the heat was pretty intense for the first weekend of May, so we sat outside, I ordered a Cervoise de l'Avouerie d'Anthisnes from Silly, and they served it up. I would definitely highly recommend this great little café, despite its crazy location.
It was early afternoon already and we needed to get back to the city centre. On arrival back at Angleur, we soon found out that we had encountered a handy gap of an hour and a half between trains back to Guillemins. Because of the gap, and as Guillemins isn't really in the city centre anyway, we decided to take John White's advice and find a bus. This worked a treat and we had a great ride right through the city, along both banks of the river, and ended up slap bang in the centre, just a few minutes' walk from our next café: Les Olivettes.
This was another John White recommendation - he had said that we shouldn't under any circumstances miss this one. And was he right? Most definitely!!
This café is something else. A tiny brown café in an obscure side street in the city centre, as soon as you enter you feel the place oozing with atmosphere and ambience. It's a 'café chantant' - a singing café - and, yes, everybody rolls in and just starts to sing. Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, that sort of stuff. Its good singing too, not crooning, and everyone joins in and sings along to the songs. Amazing stuff, everyone going to Liege should definitely seek this one out. You don't go here for the beers - I think they do one Trappist and a couple from Val Dieu - but you come for the wonderful atmosphere.
We could have spent hours here but had other urgent business to attend to. So, walking for about 15 minutes straight through the heart of the city brought us to Vaudree 2. In many ways this is a complete re-run of Vaudree, except that this one is slightly more modern and much more central. Again, it's a pleasant, typically Wallonian take on a beer café, with the usual very long list, heavy on undrinkable fruit beers. And, as at Vaudree, the first beer I ordered was out of stock……
Anyway, we did find a beer second time around, drank it and left. We were now heading on an out of town excursion to the latest addition to the Vaudree empire - yes, it was Vaudree 3. Not wanting to bother with finding a bus and waiting for the next service, (one per hour), we decided to jump in a cab. It was only about 5 miles north of the city, and it's very easy to find, being right by the main road just past Rocourt. For those who've had too much beer already by this stage, it has a huge neon sign announcing 'Vaudree 3' right by the roadside, so you really can't miss it.
This Vaudree is an even more modern version of the other two (it only opened in February this year), but with a smaller beer list of only around 400. It's got a huge main room with central bar, and a giant terrace outside. This was the place to sit on a day that was now scorching hot, so we enjoyed a couple of beers while we waited for our cab driver to return at the appointed time. He did, and we left, having secured all the necessary details.
So we'd achieved our objectives - visiting all four Vaudrees and Les Olivettes, and getting a feel for Liege. Overall we thought that the Vaudrees were ok, but nothing amazing. Their beer lists are padded by amazing amounts of rubbish, and what decent beers there may be are hard to find due to lack of information. On the evidence of my ordering, many also appear to be out of stock. And after the third Vaudree, it was all beginning to feel somewhat formulaic.
However, we loved Les Olivettes, which was easily the best café of all we went to that day, despite its short beer list. And overall we really liked Liege. Yes, its grimy, but Joris is right - it certainly has some pearls hidden away. And we liked the fact that its slightly grimy, not particularly attractive but well worn and lived in. We will certainly be back.
To cap a great day, while standing on the platform at Liege Guillemins station, we found out that Manchester United were Champions again, two friends having been constantly updating me by text message on Arsenal's defeat by Leeds which sealed their fate. So Liege will forever be a place I look back on with very happy memories. And to think that they were apparently the best team in Europe...
Hasselt and around
On the Monday we left Leuven in beautiful sunshine and headed over to Hasselt. Another city which certainly isn't rated particularly highly, again we really liked it. Its not especially spectacular but we found some decent bars, again thanks to Bob H. We stayed at another Holiday Inn, about 5 minutes walk from Grote Markt. Definitely a good place to stay, especially as we got another good deal on the rate.
After a quick lunch it was back to the station, however, for we had arranged to visit the Kerkom Brewery in nearby Kerkom-Sint Truiden. On arrival at Sint Truiden station we were met as arranged by one of brewer Marc Limet's staff, who drove us the three or four miles to the brewery, which is way out in the countryside.
Marc greeted us on arrival and showed us round. Everyone was very welcoming, friendly and hospitable. The brewery is in a very old farmhouse, where brewing has been going on for 125 years. Marc took the brewery over about 5 years ago and has been slowly expanding his 'Bink' range. We sampled Bink Blonde, Bink Bloesem, Bink Bruin, and Adelardus, the 'fifth' beer, which, after all the mystery, I found was already listed in Tim Webb! All the beers are named after local people or names or folklore, and they certainly have a sense of history befitting the fine surroundings. The lovely old tasting room is only open in the winter, but we were shown inside and I was allowed to take some photos. It is truly sublime, the most perfect brown café I've ever seen. In summer, however, the sampling café is housed in a section of the old farmhouse across the courtyard, which is a fine place to sample beers in its own right.
We tasted all the beers and chatted to Marc, who told us of his plans for a sixth and seventh beer - a Tripel and a special 125th anniversary beer - and after being shown round, we were given a lift back to the station, where we picked up the train back to Hasselt. Marc and his staff were so friendly and helpful it was unbelievable, and we are truly indebted to him for his excellent hospitality and warmth.
We spent that evening at the famous Hemelrijk, which apparently has the best selection of beers of any café in Limburg. And very impressive it is too. They do way over 200 beers, on a list with many decent choices. They have lots/most of the Limburg beers, and I was able to sample Limburgse Witte, St Gummarus Tripel and Dubbel, all from St Jozef, plus Sezoens from Martens. They also now do some pretty serious Italian cooking, which we sampled on both nights. Huge pasta dishes and a range of fine meat dishes complement the smart surroundings perfectly. A cosy brown café it is not, though it's very comfortable and had a certain atmosphere, especially when it filled up later.
Other Hasselt bars that we ventured to over the two nights included Het Schaap - dark, trendy and lively, we felt a bit old in there, but its got these brilliant sheep painted just above the bar - De Egel, which is a better than average 'Irish' bar which now sells Hapkin and Rochefort 8 among other decent choices. Both were Bob H choices and we happily picked up our free beers in both. For sake of completeness we also hit the other two Bob H choices, Café Café and 't Stookerijke, which is a jenever bar. Yes, the free drink was a jenever, and very nice it was too. Café Café is another café that your average babbler beer fanatic would never visit, but a couple of free waters made our visit very well worthwhile. And yes we got our stamp there too.
Despite being in Hasselt on a Monday and Tuesday, we found many lively and interesting bars as well as the Hemelrijk, and I would happily return to spend more time in this under rated town.
Northern Limburg and Antwerpen provinces
Our hotel arranged a car for us to hire on our last day, so on a damp and drizzly Tuesday morning we left Hasselt and headed north. Our route was planned around a couple of places that I had long since wanted to visit, plus of course some strategically located Bob H bars that we decided to visit as well.
First stop was Het Gezellehuis, in Heusden Zolder, about 20 minutes north of Hasselt. Of course the only reason we went was because it's in Bob's book and they served coffee - even for us it was way too early for beer. And of course being a Bob H café we got four coffees for the price of two.
Next up was the nearby Ter Doolen Brewery. The drizzle had stopped by the time we hit Helchteren, and went on out into the countryside to find the brewery. It was just before lunch and the place was deserted apart from a couple of hardy locals. Being a bit damp for the courtyard seating area, we chose seats inside by the log fire, and enjoyed sampling three beers on tap. This is a lovely brewery sampling room and the courtyard would be great in the summer. The castle behind was inaccessible, and try as we did, we just couldn't find the 'Elvis lives' flag.
For lunch we again just happened to find another Bob H café in the right place - 't Torenhuis, Peer, which is also in Tim Webb. Here we had the best stoofvlees ever, tasty and well presented. The whole place is superb, with a witch theme starting to dominate. With almost 60 beers on a decent list, this place is worth checking out for either food or beer. And of course we got our free beers courtesy of Bob!
Just before the Dutch border we found the Achel Monastery and brewery tap. Again set in remote, peaceful and pretty countryside, the abbey is well worth a visit, but on this occasion it was overrun with busloads of pensioners. Nothing wrong with this, but many of them were pushing these vicious devices that were a cross between a zimmer frame, a wheelchair and a shopping trolley. We were lucky to survive. We weren't particularly impressed with the refectory style café, which was a bit functional and somewhat at odds with the peace and tranquillity of the setting. With some thought and effort, I think they could make a whole lot more of it. However, I was very interested to see that they sell 75cl bottles of Achel Bruin in the on site shop.
After what seemed like an eternity, with many helpful Belgian road signs leading us completely the wrong way, we finally found our next stop, the wonderful In Den Spytighen Duvel in Turnhout. One word describes this one - WOW!! This is one seriously impressive beer café. It has an absolutely fantastic list with over 300 beers on it, including two Lou Pepe beers, Iris, Vigneronne, Fou Fonne, De Dolle Speciaal Brouwsel 20th anniversary, all three from Westvleteren, Malheur Brut Reserve, three from Kerkom and literally dozens of abbey beers. Well, you get the idea. The café itself has a wonderful ambience, great character and a very friendly owner. But by this stage of the day we were in need of a snack, so asked for their salami and cheese. We were given the biggest salami and cheese we have ever seen, which we really couldn't finish - and this was just a snack. This is a stunning cafe, right up in my top ten Belgian cafes, and we will definitely be back. As its reachable on the train from Antwerp, I feel an urgent visit to Antwerp coming on very soon.
Unfortunately, as I was driving, and as we had two further stops planned before we headed back to Hasselt, we only had time for one beer before moving on - in my case the excellent Lierse Caves from Verhaege. Then it was time to head into Holland, keep going due north, and end up back in Belgium. Yes, we were headed for the Belgian enclave, Baerle Hertog and the renowned 't Brouwershuys.
This is a fascinating town, with some streets being in Belgium and others being in Holland. Our café is most definitely in Belgium, and is another great place. At the front there's a small shop selling lots of beers, with the café being at the back. This is a long room with the bar at the back, lots of wooden seating and an impressive range of breweriana, together with various models of customs officers - a theme dear to the hearts of locals given the complex border arrangements. They have another upstairs room which is unbelievable - full of character, old bottles, old glasses, breweriana, it really is just the most gorgeous room. Conveniently I have a few photos, so check them out in due course.
However, we had our beer in the main café out the back. There, we were amazed to meet Malcolm, who babbled regularly around 18 months ago. Malcolm is a Brit who lives in southern Holland, and while the chances of meeting someone you know in a classic Belgian beer cafe are perhaps higher than you would think, we were still shocked that he just happened to be there when we dropped in. Malcolm has been very unwell over recent months, but is now much better, and seemed in very good form. He sends all babblers his best wishes. We had a great time sharing a beer and discussing old times, oh, and that title victory for United - yes, Malcolm is a committed Red too.
After 't Brouwershuys we jumped back in the car and headed south for our final desination, Westmalle. This was also overrun with pensioners on a bus trip, is ultra touristy and really does spoil the whole monk thing. You can see the abbey way across the fields, and it does seem quite secluded and peaceful, but surely they can't be that happy with such a huge tourist magnet being situated just across the road?
Anyway, we collected our Bob H stamp, the seventh of a remarkable day, and were pleased that we had now been to five of the six Trappist monasteries. Just Chimay to go...and yes, when I get there I'll bring my English/Dutch ingredients dictionary and make sure I discover the truth!!
On our last day we arrived back in Brussels in plenty of time to have lunch at the Bier Circus. After the odd happenings there last time, we were not sure what to expect, but I am delighted to report that normal service has been resumed. Both Patrick and Dominique were there, they were exceptionally pleasant, helpful and chatty, and the service was excellent. The new beer list also seems to have taken a turn for the better since December, and I was able to sample two new Loterbol beers, the Blonde and the Bruin, as well as an Ambree Biologique from Den Hopperd on draught. That little brewery is pumping out some fantastic stuff. Our food was a huge pile of stoemp, which was fantastic.
The Bier Circus was a fitting end to another wonderful trip, and they have now firmly restored my faith. Pity they don't feature in Bob H's book!!!
This write up is dedicated to John Sturm, who had to miss his trip. John, hope you get to rearrange your trip soon, and I look forward to joining you for a beer some time soon.