Brussles, Belgium —alone, clueless for directions I asked two passers-by where I could find a hostel. And now was my first chance to practice my year of French on actual Francophones.
“Excuse moi, monsieuer, ou est ce que une auberge des jenes?” (Excuse me where is a youth hostel?)
With an odd look, two men kindly pointed me in the right direction.
I went on with my bike in tow loaded down with heavy pannier bags. Ahead of me was three weeks of biking across Belgium into Luxembourg to my destination Neuchâtel, Switzerland. This was my reward after 6 years of working in a cubicle mostly for corporate america while going to school full time the past two—a European bike tour, including taking in the best beer I could find.
After I settled into my room and locked my bike down, I went out seeking refreshment. Again I bumped into the same men who previously helped me. “Salue, Excuse-Moi, ou est-ce-que une brassarie?” (Where is a bar?)
Qu’est ce que vous savez? (What is it you want?)
Une Brasserie? Ou est ce que beer, si vous plait. (A bar, where is beer please?)
They smiled and then looked at each other. I didn’t know if it was my odd French or my odd request. But rather than giving me directions, they spoke English, “Would you like us to show you where to find beer?”
“Once moment”… They talked amongst themselves for a minute. “We are going out for beer tonight. Would you like to join us?”
Reinheld and Bart, two Brussles natives showed me the way to beer, and gracious hospitality taking me on a tour of Brussels finest pubs, where we sampled their finest beers. Within the ancient walls of pubs that were built at a time when Utah was was full of Indians, and white men began brewing what would be their eventual demise.
I sampled six different types of Belgium beers in four of the oldest pubs in Brussels. I also learned of King Leopold’s conquest of the Congo and Belgium’s former colonial greatness. There is something about great beer that makes one think of history. But back to beer.
I had come from a world where one beer wasn’t much different from another: Coors, Budweiser and Miller beers were all pretty much the same. Belgium beers had their own very unique flavors and identities. Maybe its my non-conformist nature, but I appreciated the vast variety. I learn most of the variety in flavor is not a result of additives, but conditioning and tweeking any one of the four basic ingredients (malt barley, hops, yeast and water) in so many manners it baffles the mind. There are over 700 Belgium beers coming from 170 breweries.
Bart said, “You must understand, this is just a very small sample of the great beer we have.”
The beers I tasted spoke of craftsmanship, history, culture and quality, going back to a tradition that began in the Dark Ages, when beer and bread were the staples of life.
I knew from my previous visit to Europe that the Europeans had a much better appreciation for fine beer. But in Brussels, not only was the beer spectacular, but each beer was served in its own specific glassware—ranging from short, stout and rounded to elegant and long fluted. The presentation of a cask conditioned Lambic beer, which required three months of fermentation in oak barrels, was served to me in a beautiful round glass. This presentation within the ancient musky walls made from carved stone, now polished after 400 years of men’s hands rubbing against their surface, made me appreciate this moment. I was told to take in the aroma, and sip.
One beer came served at room temperature: quite a shock to me who always assumed the best beer was the coldest beer. Two were very high alcohol content, and the Belgian Lambic and sour cherry ales were their national pride.
The evening ended with me saying many thanks to a couple of new friends. I never forget the genuine hospitality they gave me and I will never lose my appreciation for excellent Belgium beer.
After this experience I no longer could stomach drinking American pilsners, which only tasted good when pounded. The watered-down mega-factory-made beers churned out and marketed and consumed with the notion to be cool you needed a Budweiser, or a Miller or Coors in hand at parties— was a farce. We have all been duped. These beers are all far inferior to craft beers. But luckily it seems there is a growing number of people who are like minded in and share this epiphany.
In the past 10 years it has been a pleasure to watch the emergence and growth of Utah’s craft brew industry in lock-step with the growth of the craft brew industry growth all over the world. Beer can be produced and exported to the farthest corners of the world, but local beers speak of character, charm and a reemerging artistry that can’t be reproduced in mass quantity. I now feel pride in Salt Lake City for our excellent craft brews. An appreciation for quality replaces the need for excess. I hope in 200 years we remember this time as a true beer Renaissance in Utah and the age when local craft brews eventually won back the market share taken by macrobrews.
Read the previous installment in this series: Monks and Great Beer