It was the best of beers, it was the worst of beers. To my friend, Steve Ruis, co-owner of two swanky beer and cheese joints in our hometown of Grand Rapids, MI (Art of the Table and Aperitivo), it was the best of the more than thirty beers we tasted on our two-city Belgium beer tour. To JP Van Seventer, our friend from Amsterdam, and me, it tasted overwhelmingly, lip-twistingly, noxiously sweet-sour. Mostly sour. “Sniff it first,” Steve suggested. “It has the aroma of old socks.” JP and I heartily concurred but this was not exactly a selling point.
Steve was our small group’s beer Einstein and we were the flat earthers. Steve had attended many fancy pants beer tastings where you take a sip, swirl the beer around in your mouth, think deep thoughts, and—get this—spit it out. Then you say things like, “nice pour,” “slightly acidic malt aromas,” “I detect a hint of oak and cherry,” “light texture but long finish” and the only one we understood, “it has the aroma of old socks.” And then they sip and—get this—spit a new beer.
JP and I, on the other hand, take a big swig, empty our brains and—get this—swallow. And then we do it again. We might or might not grunt our approval or disapproval. Unless Dr. Steve asks, and then we think for a second and say, “Nope, didn’t like that one,” or “Yep, darn good.” And stuff like that.
Here was a typical evening: Steve studies the menu, comments on the ingredients, recounts the history of yeast, and then explains how space curves around a beer’s density in such a way that one’s taste buds are maximally massaged. Ninety minutes later, he’d order some of the best beers that Belgium has on offer, from breweries named Westmalle, Westvleteren, Affligem and Rochefort. By the time they arrived, JP and I were so parched they all tasted darn good.
We had our first beers with lunch in the courtyard of Antwerp’s De Groote Witte Arend, a restored 15th century patrician’s house. The building, with its own chapel, was so awesomely old, a Bud Light would have tasted rich, dark and deeply mysterious; one might walk into the chapel to ask God to reveal its mysteries. So you might be inclined to take with a grain of salt my claim that three of the beers sampled were truly outstanding: De Arend blond tripel, Moeder Overste and Grimbergen Dubbel. Dr. Steve opined that fresh, draft Belgian beers are quite different, better even, than their bottled counterparts available in the US.
Our cheese plate included Poperingse Hommelkaas, one of the best cheeses I’ve ever tasted in my life. If anyone knows how to get Poperingse Hommelkaas in the US, even illegally, please contact me immediately.
We finished the evening at Bier Central (which google translates as “Beer Central”) with massive quantities of hot and crispy frites dipped in mayonnaise interrupted by sips (but no spits) of nine different beers. The cream of that crop were the Tripel Karmeliet and the Westmalle Dubbel; in fact, the best loved beer in the world (by that I mean loved by the three of us) was the Karmeliet—probably because of the Styrian hops, which I know nothing about but which are listed in their ingredients (note to self: ask Dr. Steve about Styrian hops). We did learn from Dr. Steve that the Westmalle has great lacing but that must be really different from the stuff sold in shops all over Antwerp.
Day two took us to Brugge, which would be a magical, medieval, unmissably fabulous city even if they their law required spitting out beer after every sip. But it doesn’t! No Belgian beer tour would be complete without a pilgrimage to T Brugse Beertje, a homey pub run by matrician, Daisy Claeys. The Beertje menu is like a sticky late 19th Century Sears and Roebuck catalogue (if, instead of shotguns, electric belts and bathtubs, Sears and Roebuck had sold only beer, hundreds of kinds of beer). Daisy, proprietor for over 30 years, was the perfect spirit guide. The Beertje website even has a page dedicated to (and I’m not making this up) Hairy Bikers.
Here we encountered the sock-smellin’ beer, Oude Gueuze Tilquin à L’Ancienne. On Beer Advocate, which rated it a robust 94, we read such comments as “smell is full of bright acidity while at the same time cushioned by a light funkiness,” “smell is big and funky, lemon, green apple, oak, barnyard and musty horseblanket,” and “the funk (in a subdued way) is like a stale astringent burn.” The comment that gets me: “Not a beginners lambic for sure.”
We closed the evening with dinner and—surprise, surprise—a few beers. My final beer was Belgian’s holy grail, the Westvleteren 12, considered the best beer in the world. In 1838 monks at the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Vleteren started brewing evidently under the pretense that beer would make chastity more tolerable and pay for a life of meditation and prayer. And, like Jesus, they bless the poor and disdain the rich. In order to ensure that capitalist roaders can’t profit from reselling their big-ranked, small-batch beer, they require visitor-buyers to register their phone numbers and license plates. They allow visitor-buyers to purchase just one case per person, thus preventing resell at exorbitant prices. Violators are, I’m just guessing here, reported to Interpol with predictably horrific consequences.
What can we learn from this tale of two beer cities? First but not foremost, there are objectively good beers and the stinky-sock beer may or may not be one of them. Second but foremost, almost any beer tastes darn good in the company of good friends in lovely cities like Brugge and Antwerp.