"Please do not practise your French here. We are Flemish and we hate the French".
So said the faintly-bearded nipper behind the ticket desk at Brussels airport station to Mrs Beer Nut's request for two returns to Bruxelles-Central. Welcome to Belgium. Having finally soothed his hurt sense of semi-national pride, we acquired the tickets. For Brussel-Centraal, of course. It was 9pm last Thursday and herself was over for a meeting the next day. With nothing better to do with the 24 hours, I tagged along.
For the second time, we checked into the Grand Sablon, a decent and conveniently-located hotel, though sadly no longer offering free wi-fi. It does lack quality pubs in the immediate vicinity, so we plumped for the Café Leffe at the bottom of the street. By 10 we were perusing the menu in the clean, brightly-lit, but rather soulless pub-restaurant. The menu is quite short but mercifully not limited to AB-InBev beers. I opted for a Kasteel Bruin, having never had it before, and feeling the need for a warmer after coming in from the icy streets of sub-zero Brussels. Thick and syrupy are the operative terms here. It's 11% ABV, very flat, boozy as hell and offers the same sort of warmth as Benylin. Not recommended. Then, in typical Beer Nut style, I ordered the other beer in the same range: Kasteel Triple. Just as well I did, too: it's really quite good. The aroma is orangey but the flavour has all this and more: honey and caramel as well as a slightly astringent sourness, all based on a heavy bready body. Redemption, then, for Kasteel.
As midnight approached, the Café Leffe waiters began taking in the menu boards and putting the chairs on the tables. We took the hint and departed.
Next morning, I hit the snowy streets at 9.30. First port-of-call was the legendary Brussels throwback brewer, Cantillon. I was in no rush so spent three quarters of an hour ambling southwards to the brewery near Gare du Midi. I'd been here once before, four or so years ago, and while there was nothing happening that day, it was all go inside last Friday. The bottling line was running full pelt and three-metre-high palettes of empty champagne bottles were becoming similarly-tall stacks of fresh Cantillon beer. I wandered around on the self-guided tour and came back for the tasting. It had been a long time since I drank Cantillon Kriek and I think I've lost my taste for it. The sweet cherry juice interrupts my enjoyment of the sour gueuze beneath. Tasting finished, I was heading for the door when one of the lads from the bottling line asked if I wanted to try what they were bottling. Yeah, I kinda did. Turns out it was three-week-old Iris, and it was stunning: the fresh tannic Goldings with which it is dry-hopped stood out a mile. They aim to let this bottle condition for three or four months before sending it out, but demand is such that these days it leaves the brewery much younger. Comparing it to the maturer variety, that's no bad thing, in my opinion.
11 o'clock had come and gone when I left with my purchases. My plan was for a crafty one up at Bier Circus while I waited for places to start serving lunch. A quick spin on the metro and some wandering had me there by 11.40. No consideration for morning drinkers here, unfortunately, as it doesn't open its doors until lunch is ready at noon. Down the street I found somewhere much more understanding of my needs. Seven other blokes had beaten me to the tiny bar called Treurenberg that morning. I had the critical eye cast over me before they returned to their papers and pils. I wanted something light and quick and saw "Pale Ale" on the menu. Expecting John Martin's I reckoned that would do admirably. A sip told me that that's not what I got -- it was much more tannic with big heavy slabs of toffee. Tasty with it, but a surprise nonetheless. Turning the glass revealed it to be a substance called Whitbread Pale Ale. It seems to me to be another of the Belgian-brewed English-style ales, but I can't find a record of anyone in Belgium brewing it. So it could be American, or it could be British (nope, Belgian, says Laurent). Still good, though.
That saw me through to noon when I made for the Bier Circus. Years ago I had visited it in its old delightfully dingy premises. Now, with big windows on two sides, it's anything but. The bright sunlight and tiled floor give it an unfortunate clinical feel. The beer list is still first rate, and includes a couple of cask lambics. I picked out the beer which has been top of my Belgian hitlist for a while: Hercule Stout. It's very opaque and rife with suspended floaty bits. The beige head lasts all the way, and the reason for the round dimpled mug is very apparent on lifting it: this is one of these beers that does all the work in the nose before sipping -- powerful sweet and roasty aromas waft from the surface. At 9% it's not surprising that there's more than a touch of treacle about the flavour, as well as more of the stouty roasted grains. This is complicated by a yeasty bitterness right on the end. The whole is a velvety smooth beer and I rather enjoyed it, even if the flavour doesn't quite live up to the aroma's promise.
I had ordered stoemp as my fuel for the afternoon and was very surprised that instead of a big bowl of mash, vegetables and sausages swimming in gravy, my stoemp came in a neat terrine, with sausage and bacon on the side, accompanied by a stemmed glass of onion gravy. Weird. I had been sitting opposite a blackboard offering Brigand IPA so that's what I finished here with. It's the perfect shade of red gold, but the alarm bells began ringing when I could detect no aroma from this at all. The taste is sharp and tripel-like in its yeastiness, but with very little hop character. A fail.
I sat over it anyway, and then decided a head-clearing walk was in order, so at 1.15 I set off again, past the beautifully snow-bound Parc de Bruxelles, and on to a shop where I could continue my mission without taking any more beer on board. Alas it didn't work out that way. Beer Mania is several things. Mostly it's a beer shop boasting some 400 Belgian brews. It also sells some basic home brewing supplies. And right at the back there's a café in which you can try any of the stock, for a mark-up, of course. I wasn't going to. I really wasn't. Except then I found they had their own house beer, contract brewed. And then I noticed how desperately cool the handcrafted glass is. Sold! Mea Culpa is a blonde ale of 7.5% ABV. It's a little darker than one might expect, with a spicy aroma and a pleasant rough, grainy character. Light, tasty, and great fun to drink.
Back to the shopping trail, then, and I picked up some handily-portable cans of Rodenbach in a convenience store as I headed back down to the old city. The next destination, reached at 3.30, came recommended by Boak & Bailey, suggested to them by Andreea. Poechenellekelder is situated over the Mannekin Pis's left shoulder and is an oddly-shaped small pub, with far more levels than there ought to be, in this drinkers' opinion. Puppets dominate the bric-à-brac, and the smallish menu is complemented by lots of specials blackboards. I went for one such: N'ice, the winter ale by La Chouffe. I think I'd be hard pressed to tell this blind from plain old La Chouffe: it has a lot of the pepperiness, with only a sharper, drier character singling out the flavour. I was disappointed by the beer, but cheered up by a phone call from the missus saying that her meeting had ended early and she was on her way to Grand Place. I finished up and headed out. We met at the Brewers' Guild building -- a lacklustre chain brewpub if memory serves me -- at 4.
She was paying for dinner so that came with a bottle of Bordeaux. However, there was time at the end to nip across from Rue des Bouchers to Au Bon Vieux Temps for a couple of swift ones before making for the airport. Well, she had a couple of swift ones; I had to sacrifice some time to collect the baggage up at Sablon. On my return I sunk a fairly quick Westmalle Dubbel, noting that the pub still insists it's the only Belgian trappist available on draught -- Chimay Blanc comes this way too.
Seven o'clock passed as we were on the train, and we were through security by 8. Time for a farewell beer. The airport bar concession is controlled by AB-InBev, but they're not as charitable towards outside beers here as in Café Leffe. And even though the departure area bar sports Leffe parasols, not even that is available. Canned Hoegaarden or canned Stella are your lot. We went with the former, obviously.
Slightly behind schedule we boarded our flight on the stroke of 9pm.