|  Meantime

Beer in Brussels pt1

Brewery Street, reads the sign – welcome to Brussels, City of Beer. Friterie Flagey, said to be Brussels’s best chip shop, is nearby. What could be better?

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Brussels is a city with many things to offer – great architecture, museums and art galleries, lots of characterful streets and squares, together with great food (not just chips and chocolate) and outstanding beers.

However, to get the very best out of this fascinating and quirky city, you need to explore and discover. Brussels hides some of its most interesting treasures, but the more you get to know the city, the more you will come to love it.

Something to mention about Brussels is that it is not always the gleaming technocratic city that you would imagine the capital of the EU to be. The only part of Brussels that most people ever see (on TV) is the so-called EU Quarter, all modern shiny steel and glass. Do not be surprised when you discover that most of Brussels is not like this at all. Much of Brussels is, frankly, quite shabby, but in a unique, stylish way.

Brussels is not to be compared to your best suit, all pressed and shiny – it’s more like your favourite old pair of jeans.

Be brave – embrace the shabbiness, that lived-in feel and all the stories that cluster round every building and cobbled street and you will soon start to feel and enjoy Brussels’ wonderfully distinctive atmosphere.

I have been a regular visitor to Brussels since 1981, and in this blog post I want to try to help you discover some of the best places to experience the Belgian beer culture – one of the world’s best and most distinctive.

Belgium, and in particular Brussels, is home to some of the world’s most interesting and most unique beers. In this first part I am focussing on my top five beer bars in the centre of Brussels (in no particular order), whilst in the second part I will be looking at some more off-the-beaten-track places to enjoy a world class beer.

You will soon come to realise that beer isn’t just a cold beverage in Belgium. It’s a national passion.

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The Grand Place – the heart of Brussels and one of Europe’s most impressive urban squares. None of the five bars mentioned in this entry is more than ten minutes’ walk from here. Amongst all these stunning gilded palaces, one of the most impressive buildings – of course – is the Maison des Brasseurs, the Brewers’ Guild House.

La Mort Subite – 7 rue Montagne aux Herbes Potageres

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“Faded Grandeur” is the phrase that perfectly describes this unique temple of beer. Close to the Grand Place, at the end of the swanky Galeries Saint-Hubert, this wonderful bar is one of the best examples of a grand fin de siecle café/bar in Europe, even if it doesn’t appear to have been redecorated since the 1920’s.

A long busy room, with benches and tables to share, nicotine stains and tarnished gilt, wood panelling, chandeliers and lots of mirrors.

If you search carefully, you will find the place where legendary cabaret singer Jacques Brel used to sit. (If you don’t know who Brel is, Google him. You’ll be surprised at the famous names that have covered his songs. How about Frank Sinatra and David Bowie for starters?)

La Mort Subite has a full list of great traditional Belgian beers, including those of the Mort Subite Brewery, of course. Unusually, at least to British ears, the brewery is named after the bar, not the other way about. At one stage, the bar and the brewery were under the same ownership, and it is the only place that I have ever found that always sells the Mort Subite Faro on draught. The focus here is very much on beer – snacks are available to help the beer go down, but not full meals.

Beer to drink here? Either of the deeply traditional Brussels artisanal lambic beers from the Mort Subite brewery of course – the Gueuze, which is pretty tart but wonderfully refreshing, or the Faro, which may remind you of a slightly sweet cider. Either way, a simple bowl of cubes of mature cheese will be all you need.

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Nothing seems to have changed here in a very long time, and this is probably one of the most attractive features of this must-visit bar.

The name, “Mort Subite” (it means “sudden death”) is not a reference to the fate which awaits you if you indulge in too much Gueuze – it is the name of a dice game, which was once popular here. When one of the players had to go back to work, the game could be settled by a single, sudden death, throw of the dice.

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Prices painted by hand on the mirror in the old-fashioned way, but also recently a no smoking sign has been added. Jacques Brel would not have approved.

Until the Seventies, the Mort Subite beers sold here were lambics bought from breweries outside Brussels, in the Flemish Pajotenland area, which were stored, matured for up to three years and blended in premises near the café.

Today, the beers which bear the Mort Subite name are brewed by the brewery Mort Subite, in Kobbegem to the north west of Brussels.

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The waiting staff at the Mort Subite are famous for being a bit grumpy, but in the last couple of years the tradition has been relaxed, and recently the occasional smile has even been noticed.
Open daily from 10:30 until 1:00. Sunday midday and early afternoon is a particularly nice time to visit.

The Greenwich – 7 rue des Chartreux

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Only a moments’ walk from the tourist infested streets round the Bourse, the Greenwich can be a wonderfully calm haven for a cold beer.

This somewhat grand café/bar, close to the Bourse, is distinguished in the evenings by its packed tables of chess-playing regulars. It’s quieter in the afternoons. With its beautiful fin de siècle décor and furniture, it’s a large, square space with a long bar down one side, and is the Brussels chess players’ venue of choice. Bobby Fisher is just one of a long list of grand masters who have played here.

The great Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte used to play chess here in the 1920’s and also tried to sell his pictures to the regulars. The received wisdom in the Greenwich is that he was a better painter than chess player.
There is no music here lest it distract the players’ concentration. This makes it a very quiet bar, except for occasional cries of “Checkmate!”
The Greenwich offers a full menu, including such Belgian favourites as Moules frites and Carbonnade Flamande (large chunks of beef braised in dark beer and mustard).

Male visitors should definitely take the opportunity to see the amazing antique ceramic urinal. Very probably the poshest pub Gents toilet in the world.

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Unlike La Mort Subite, the Greenwich has been sensitively restored recently. And, no – I have no idea why it’s called the Greenwich.

The Greenwich is well worth visiting for its décor and ambience, and its presence as an oasis of tranquillity just yards away from the bustling shops and tourist traps. It has a good selection of classic Belgian beers, rather than being an innovative craft beer geek bar. Therefore, it is a great place for one of the most distinctive Trappist beers, brewed for many years by my friend, and Meantime’s friend, Jean-Marie Rock – Orval.
Orval is a beer that demands to be sipped and savoured, as complex as the game of chess itself.
The Greenwich is open daily until 12:00 midnight.

By the way – if you turn right out of the Greenwich and walk to the end of rue des Chartreux, you come to the Spinnekopke with its traditional tiled floor, red checked tablecloths and wooden benches. This wonderfully old school establishment operates as a bar before midday and between 3pm and 6pm. At other times it is a restaurant, serving excellent French and Belgian cuisine.

Lambic is available by the glass or litre jug.
Place du Jardin aux Fleurs 1,
Closed Saturday lunchtime and Sunday.

Au Bon Vieux Temps – 12 rue de Marche aux Herbes
“The Good Old Days” is a very appropriate name for this bar which has been here since 1695. The interior looks like a cross between a venerable gentleman’s club and an ancient Gothic church, complete with wood panelling, chandeliers and stained-glass windows – in fact the window depicting the Madonna and St Michael (the patron saint of Brussels) did originally come from a local church.

You approach this gem of a bar down a long narrow alley off the rue de Marche aux Herbes – you need to look out for the sign as this bar is not visible from the street.

Au Bon Vieux Temps was popular with British soldiers just after the Second World War, and it does have some resemblances to an old British city pub, including permanent adverts for Mackenzies Port and Bass Pale Ale.

This is a lovely place to visit, especially in the colder months, as it exudes cosiness and a convivial ambiance for a couple of beers and a chat. However, be aware that it is not one of the off-the-beaten-track places that I will be describing in the second part of this post. You will hear tourist voices (often North American) here – early afternoon is a good time to find this charming bar relatively quiet.

The excellent friteur (chip shop) next to the Bourse is within three minutes’ walk, so having some fantastic chips and then walking round the corner to Au Bon Vieux Temps is a really nice (and really Belgian) thing to do.

Au Vieux Bon Temps used to have a restaurant on the first floor above the bar, but this has been converted into an apartment, so stick with the chips. They are amongst the best in Brussels, after all… And don’t forget the mayo.

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A beautifully traditional interior with wood panelling, stained glass (some of which originated in a local church) and a cast iron Flemish stove.

It is a peculiarity of the bar that all the beers sold are bottled. This practice dates back to a time, not so long ago, when draught beers in Belgium tended to be the everyday lagers, whilst speciality beers would be normally served in bottle.

If you have ever wanted to try the mythic, and very rare, Trappist beer from the Abbey at Westvleteren, ask the bar staff here – you may be lucky, although do be aware that this hard-to-get nectar comes at a price.

By the way – off the same little alleyway as Au Bon Vieux Temps is another quirky little pub, called L’Imaige de Nostre-Dame. It appears to be ancient, modelled upon a medieval Dutch kitchen. It has a good selection of Belgian beers and is worth looking into. However, because it you get to it before you get to Au Bon Vieux Temps, it is often very busy with tourists.

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Looking into the snug at the Bon Vieux Temps – a favourite spot for an unrushed beer.

The last time I was in Au Vieux Bon Temps, a Belgian guy was talking to some Chinese tourists. He told what I thought was a rather unlikely story about a legendary regular who sat at the same place at the bar every night and drank twenty bottles of that wonderful Trappist beer, Chimay.

Chimay makes several beers, and they range from strong to very strong, which is why I find this story a bit far-fetched. However, if you’re wondering what to drink here, how about a bottle of Chimay by way of a tribute to this heroic Brussels drinker?
Au Bon Vieux Temps is open every day from 1:00pm until late.

La Becasse – 11 rue de Tabora
This amazing wood-panelled bar was already a pub when the present owners’ great grandfather bought it in 1877. It was previously called The Estaminet, but he rechristened it La Becasse, “the Woodcock”. Old photos show that very little has changed inside La Becasse in a good many decades.

The legendary Beer Hunter Michael Jackson featured La Becasse in his ground-breaking World Guide To Beer, saying, “Lambic is a speciality of the Café Becasse…..served from the barrel in stoneware jugs.” That was in the mid-Seventies, but the good news is that it still is today.

La Becasse sells Lambic Doux (young, sweet Lambic) and Lambic Blanc (white Lambic – a blend of young Lambic and “white” Wheat beer) in traditional hand-painted stoneware jugs not very different to those used by the Pajotenland peasants in Bruegel’s paintings.

La Becasse has a very good list of Belgian classic beers, but it is these Lambics that you must try here – firstly because they are light, fruity, refreshing Summer beers – not tart and acid like Gueuze, but almost more like cider than beer – and quite delicious. The second reason is that these highly distinctive beers, brewed by Timmermanns in Iterbeek, are more or less impossible to find anywhere else, especially on draught. La Becasse only offers bar snacks, but a generous bowl of cubes of cheese is the perfect accompaniment for these gorgeous beers.

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A jug of cool draught Lambic in La Becasse – a uniquely Brussels pleasure. Some mature cheese makes it perfect.

If venturing down a long narrow alley to find Au Bon Vieux Temps is a bit Harry Potter-esque, then going down another alley to get to La Becasse is a bit like entering Narnia.

It doesn’t look promising to start with – rue Tabora is hardly one of central Brussels’ most imposing streets. It can be a bit difficult to find the alleyway and, when you do, it does not look inviting at all. However, when you get to the door and step inside, a different world is revealed.

If going into La Becasse for the first time feels almost like a religious experience, then you are a proper paid-up member of the beer enthusiast fraternity. Good for you – reward yourself with a jug of Lambic.

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Perhaps I shouldn’t be telling you this, but at the time of writing, La Becasse is up for sale. If you win the Euromillions this weekend, promise me that you will buy it and change absolutely nothing.

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La Fleur en Papier Doré – rue des Alexiens

Another of Matisse’s favourite haunts.

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I have no evidence for this but my theory is that the great painter went to the Greenwich, a posh bar in the centre of town, in his best suit when he wanted a civilised evening playing chess. However, when he wanted a rather more relaxed time, with more noise and more beer, he came here. Just my theory…

La Fleur en Papier Doré is a little way out of the Grand Place/Bourse area, and is much more bohemian and arty than the Greenwich. It almost epitomises that shabby chic, distinctive Brussels vibe. It is in a pretty undistinguished street, with nothing else of any interest in it, to be frank, and with La Becasse and Le Bon Vieux Temps is a good example of how Brussels hides away its little treasures.

At the rear of the main bar there is a large blow-up of a black and white photo of a gang of 1920’s bohemian ne’er-do-wells, and I imagine them as Matisse’s mates when La Fleur was a hangout for Dadaists and the Belgian Surrealists. Matisse and his crowd left poems and sketches on the walls that display over 100 years’ worth of memorabilia.

It was nearly closed in 2007, but is now restored with a modern extension at the rear. The winding stairs up to the toilets are so steep that they have provided a knotted mountaineering rope to help you with your ascent. Careful when you’ve had a few…

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Once again, La Fleur has a very good list of Belgian classic beers. My choice of what to drink here would be a fine Gueuze, just because it’s so wacky and distinctively Brusselois. They have several to choose from, but go for a Cantillon, brewed about 20 minutes’ walk from here.

La Fleur does a full menu of Belgian pub-type food, but the kitchen closes in the afternoon after lunch has finished. A Croque Monsieur (toasted ham and cheese sandwich) comes well recommended as a light lunch to help soak up the beer.

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A fine Gueuze from the local brewery, Cantillon. The bowl of nuts was offered free, to help it down. Proost!
La Fleur is closed on Mondays, other days 11:00 until midnight, but closes early on Sundays.

Notes on Lambic –
“Lambic” is a distinctively Brusselois style of beer, unique to the area. It is brewed with around 30% wheat, and very few hops, which are usually aged for 2 to 3 years. The beer has no brewers’ yeast pitched into it, but spontaneously ferments by wild yeasts found in the air. It is matured, usually in wooden barrels or vats for up to 3 years, becoming more tart with lactic acid from the wood as it ages. It is rare to find unblended lambic on sale, but where it is to be found, it often resembles a slightly sharp cider.

“Gueuze” (pronounced “Gurs”) is a blend of various ages of lambic. It is normally a golden or copper colour, hazy (the best are unfiltered), and quite acidic and tart. It also has funky earthy, woody flavours from the wild yeast and the wood. It is normally sold in bottles, but sometimes can be found on draught. It is unique to the Brussels area and is brewed in Brussels itself, or more usually in Pajotenland.

“Faro” is young lambic which has been sweetened. This was a very popular beer in the old days in Brussels, but very rare now.
“Kriek” is lambic in which sour cherries have been macerated for months or years.

“Frambois” or “Framboozen” is the same thing, but with raspberries.
These are probably the beers that the Flemish Masters painted medieval peasants drinking. They are unique, and are made with as much skill, love, care, passion and time as champagne. Gueuze is Brussels in a glass. All that said, the Lambic family represents the most challenging style of beer in the world.

In the second part of this blog post, we will be venturing into the Marolles, St Catherine, Anderlecht, Ixelles, St. Gilles and Pajotenland to discover some off-the-beaten-track gems.

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