Golden Pints 2013

golden pints

The year that was 2013 saw ‘craft beer’, whatever the hell it is, become a truly, sort-of mainstream-ish and widely-noticed thing of some kind.

What I mean is, we in the beer blogoshire (hat tip to Boak and Bailey for that infinitely preferable alternative to the cold, corporate-sounding blogosphere) say more than ever before, but we communicate in increasingly fuzzy and inconsistent terms. The year has seen attempts to unify people and ideas, but there have been just as many fractures and splinters within already fractured and splintered groups.

There’s been a collective obsession with measuring What This Is All About, as people try and define Who We Are as drinkers and what beer is, as A Thing. I’ve read loads of blogs and articles this year about things in the present, events that are still unfolding, as if they are already history. Well, they’re not.

I hope 2014 sees a more patient and reflective attitude; less trying to define everything and more trying to understand things.

Many have struggled, even more so than usual, with their choices for this year’s Golden Pints, which has got to be a good sign. I have tasted some fantastic beers this year, many of which rank among the best I’ve ever had. I’ve even been asked to write what I think the best beers in the world actually are, which was of course broader in scope, but still a task laden with similar difficulties.

As with any test of naming the Best Thing You Had of That Type This Year, this feels more a test of memory than anything else. Taste as a sense is (I am told) the one with the strongest links to memory, so this should be easy. It isn’t, though, partly because of the vastly different flavours I’ve bombarded my palate with, but also because of the Inherent Obstacles in beer writing (the memory of a man drinking beer).

As with last year, I’ve tried to focus on what is new to me; beers that have Expanded My Mind in some sense.

Best UK Cask Beer

To ‘doge’ this issue: wow much difficult.

This should be an easy win for Oakham Citra, a beer that has been in almost perfect condition every single time I have tasted it. It’s a sensational pale ale that I will happily order a second or third pint of, and I say that as somebody prone to ordering as many beers in as smaller measurements as possible these days.

That said, even a shoddily kept, limply pulled, warmly-glassed, flatly served pint of cask Beavertown 8 Ball Rye IPA puts all five toes right into the nuts of any other cask beer in the country, including Citra, so there.

Best UK Keg Beer

This is an even messier decision to make. On a good day with no breeze and good-to-firm ground, a pint of BrewDog Dead Pony Club is hard to beat. It has a brightness all the way through its middle, right to the last drops that languish in the very bottom of the glass. Just delightful.

Unfortunately, Dead Pony is simply outclassed by the one-off wonder that was Kiwi Wit, the NZ-hopped version of Camden Town Brewery’s Gentleman’s Wit (thanks to Tandleman for reminding me of this). Only a single keg of that gloriously beer was made, a damned uncommon delight of gooseberries, grapes and citrus. Urgently address its absence from our lives, Camden.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

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It would be remiss of me, given my constant harping on about canned this and canned that, not to award this to a canned beer. Even if I hadn’t been going on about canned beer all the time, I’m pretty sure that Camden Hells Lager in its exceptionally decorated can would have knocked my block off regardless. The freshest, crispest lager with the best possible protection from everything but your ravenous thirst. It’s the definitive version of Hells as far as I’m concerned.

Best Overseas Draught Beer

I spent the last part of my holiday in Belgium this year in the beer Mecca that is Moeder Lambic, and there tasted the sensational IV Saison by Jandrain Jandrenouille. It’s a beer so flavourful and wholesome and perfect that it outshone almost every beer I’d had on the trip, with the exception of…

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer

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I had Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus for the first time this year, at the brewery. No further explanation needed.

Best Collaboration Brew

Another tricky one. Wild Beer Co/Burning Sky/Good George’s Shnoodlepip is about as craft as it gets, and I mean that in a good way. An experimental but totally quaffable beer that is worth every penny and Does Things to your palate/mind.

On the other hand, Weird Beard/Elusive Brewing’s Nelson Saison had a purity and elegance to it that was quite disarming. If you asked which I would like to have four pints of right now, I’d pick the Nelson Saison every time.

Honourable mention goes to BrewDog/Brodie’s Berliner Weisse, which taught my face a new expression: Berliner Weisse Gurner Eyes. A proper gob slapper.

Best Overall Beer

Beavertown 8 Ball. It’s been present at some of my favourite moments of the year, and I think of it often. A total class act.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label

I love Beavertown’s branding. All the little details, the boldness, the oddities, it’s cool without really trying too hard, i.e. the definition of cool. Once they (as rumoured) move into canning their beers, they’ll look sensational.

Until then, there’s only one brewery that dominates any shelf its beers go on: Partizan. So, so pretty.

Best UK Brewery

I think The Kernel have hit – and maintained – a momentum that’s frankly astonishing. Every beer coming out of the new brewery in Bermondsey has been a showstopper. Freshness is key.

Best Overseas Brewery

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Cantillon. My trip to the brewery is etched into my mind permanently.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013

Three different beers in the space of an hour from Burning Sky were enough to convince me they are a new force to be reckoned with. The Saison l’Automne was just fantastic, sensible strength and bursting with flavour. Believe the hype.

Pub/Bar of the Year

Really tough. I’ve been massively impressed with BrewDog Shepherd’s Bush every time I visit, but it’s still early days there. I’m fairly certain it’ll be a contender for my favourite bar this time next year.

Really, there can only be one contender. It’s a pub where I’ve met loads of ace new people this year, and tasted some incredible beers on every visit. If pubs are places where people + beer x location = bliss, then the location in that equation for me this year has been Craft Beer Co Islington.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013

This is quite simple, really. My summer wouldn’t have been the same without Urban Sessions, a great place that had some of the best beers (including Nelson Saison) that I’ve had all year, in a location perfectly suited to the glorious summer we enjoyed. I really hope that something else like it will happen next year.

Beer Festival of the Year

If I have to pick one it would be London’s Brewing.

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I’m not joking.

I’ve been to plenty of beer festivals this year, from the daft and craft to the golden oldies, but London’s Brewing has to be my favourite because it took us all down a peg or two, and I think we needed that.

You need a good, solid fuck-up every now and again, especially in a movement that can occasionally get its head stuck up its arse fairly frequently, just to make it clear just how things really are.

It’s easy to get feverishly excited about the diversity and the variety and the experimentation and just how nice everyone is, but if you can’t organise a piss-up in a brewery, in a very literal sense in this case, you’re not perfect.

Never again etc.

Supermarket of the Year

Waitrose always seems to have just what I want, whenever I need it to, so I can’t ask for much more than that. Still, credit is due to M&S for getting an impressive range of beers in from some of the country’s best breweries. Popping into an M&S Simply Food in a train station for a journey-enhancing bottle or two of Citra IPA is heartwarming experience.

Independent Retailer of the Year

I’ve made an effort to visit Utobeer in Borough Market several times this year, and they’ve just about won the crown from Kris Wines, which has let me down a couple of times with a few past-their-best imports.

Online Retailer of the Year

Don’t use online retailers much, but all my Abstrakt Addict parcels from BrewDog were delivered without issue.

Best Beer Book or Magazine

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Joint winners:

Leigh Linley: Great Yorkshire Beer – every page written with real love for the subject matter. A lovely read.

Mark Dredge: Craft Beer World – the passion and excitement about every beer is representative of the very best aspects of the craft beer scene.

Best Beer Blog or Website

I’m going to cover this in a separate post at some point, so stay tuned.

Best Beer App

Untappd – if only for  the debate it creates about what beer apps should or shouldn’t be like.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer

Nothing has made me chortle this year as much as Let There Be Tim.

Honourable mentions for Boak and Bailey, for participating as much as analysing this year; Nate Southwood for never, ever changing; and Zak Avery for this tweet alone:

Best Brewery Website/Social media

@BrewDog is still the one to beat, though I love Wild Beer Co’s new website and Camden Town’s is very smart these days.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

It’s been said elsewhere, but Fraoch and haggis at EBBC13 was sensational.

BONUS AWARD: The Tin Hat Trophy for Best Effort at Tackling the C-Word

After reading so many earnest, heartfelt pieces about defining ‘Craft’ this year, I found Craig Heap’s What is Craft Bear? and Defining Craft Beer Through the Ages to be the best and most useful contributions to the debate, because they made me laugh and not want to self-harm.

Here’s to next year.

The Trouble with Cantillon

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Cantillon: please consider bringing back this incredibly cool dragon logo. Far better than that dodgy old fat bloke falling off his chair.

Another post that should have gone up weeks ago and, yet again, I’m in an awkward position.

You see, I’ve read plenty of blogs and articles about Cantillon, each of them gushing over the weirdness, the smell, the gaps in the roof, the barrels, the cobwebs – oh how they love the cobwebs – and all the rest of it. I’ve read them and thought: right, I get it. It’s a special place. Lambic and Gueuze are undoubtedly Very Important Things. The brewery is a lonely bastion of a dying art form, and we must all kneel down at its spontaneous altar and take wild-fermented sacrement. I understand, okay?

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A notorious Craft Wanker wanders the cellars, sucking different ages of lambic from damp patches on barrels.

The awkward thing is, having read all of that, and having thought it was well-meaning but over-enthusiastic, I now find myself having been to Cantillon and agreeing with every single word of it. It actually is a genuinely magical place.

It’s likely you’ve read all of that stuff about Cantillon, too. It’s fairly likely you’ve been there yourself. It is, after all, one of the few places that beer geeks might consider a pilgrimage-worthy destination, and rightly so. So what’s the point of me adding to all that’s been written? I might not be able to offer up a different opinion, but I might be able to persuade those of you who haven’t been to Cantillon to seriously consider a visit.

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Lens flare? Divine intervention? Hard to say once you’ve tasted the contents.

For one thing, during the summer, when the temperature is too high for them to brew, you are basically allowed to wander around the place unsupervised. Pay the nice people at the entrance the paltry sum of €6, and they’ll turn you loose inside after giving you  a machine-gun-speed briefing on the brewery and a leaflet. We ended up wandering in on a bit of the guided tour, but my favourite memories are from the solitary exploration of the place. The deafening quiet enhanced every smell, sight and touch; made every surprised glance a discovery, every surprised intake of breath a gasp. I imagined coming across the brewery in some bleak, post-apocalyptic setting, overgrown with plants like in Logan’s Run, and the whole place being exactly the same.

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I do love a good koelschip.

The whole place is a bit like the obligatory ‘museum’ bit of a larger brewery tour (like when I visited Brouwerij De Halve Maan), except it isn’t a museum, it is the brewery. Gauges and pipes are insulated with scrunched-up paper, vessels are laid open for you to poke your nerdy head into, and that smell pervades everything. It’s one thing being told that the atmosphere of the brewery does the brewing, but in Cantillon it’s a tangible force that you can detect everywhere.

Even the beer you’re given at the end is ridiculously good. Yeah, I admit, that first taste of dusty, sour, mystical, raw lambic required some serious thought. What is this? But as it sits there on your tongue, and tells you its story, you just have to keep tasting it. All those cobwebs and damp, sticky patches on the barrels, the dust, the air, the wood, it’s all in there. And as for the Rose de Gambrinous, well, it’s simply sensational. Once again, Belgium gave me a Beer Moment(tm). Lambic and Gueuze ARE magical and weird and wrong yet so, so right. It’s all about the context, and understanding. When I sat there, drinking those beers under the gaze of that dragon, I felt like I understood What It’s All About.

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A glass of wonderment, calling itself Rose de Gambrinous. 

You see? This blog has turned into just another fawning gushfest.

The trouble with Cantillon is: it’s all true.

Go.

Brouwerij De Halve Maan

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A notorious Craft Wanker loiters outside the brewery, begging for slops.

Walplein 26, 8000 Brugge

“They do a good tour, but be prepared to hear a load of bollocks.”

This was the glowing recommendation given to me by Melissa Cole. Broadly speaking, Melissa is right. On the tour of Brouwerij De Halve Maan, brewers of Bruges Zot and Straffe Hendrick, you will hear a few things that might get your Beer Geek hackles up. There’s also a lot of stuff about the magical medicinal properties of all of the ingredients, which is mostly fun if occasionally presented as fact. These minor quibbles aside, it really is a fantastic tour, and a lovely building to explore.

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It isn’t immediately obvious from the exterior that De Halve Maan was an old-fashioned tower brewery. The building above, with its coaching inn-style tunnel, sits in front of a courtyard where a restaurant and gift shop is located. Once you’ve bought your ticket for a very reasonable €7 (including a beer at the end), you simply have to wait until the next tour starts, which is on the hour.

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The tour starts in the shiny, modern brewhouse, where everything is situated on one floor. Everything is clearly labelled for visitors, and the brewing process is briefly explained. Whilst it looks as clean and new as, say, Camden Town Brewery, there is still a reassuring adherence to old-fashioned eccentricity. The control board below, for example, has a delightfully steampunk feel to it. Why have a touchscreen when big, pushable buttons and levers will do the trick? It reminded me a bit of Bertha, the magical factory machine from the kids’ TV show of the same name.

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The real treats are upstairs. As mentioned above, originally De Halve Maan functioned a tower brewery, relying on gravity to propel the liquid through the brewing process. So up, up, up we go, ascending narrow steps and low ceilinged passages into the malting floor. Here there are all kinds of fine-looking brewing artefacts from the brewery’s 150 year history. It’s here on the malting floor you get a more in-depth talk about the value of each specific ingredient in the process.

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The tour guide, whose name I can’t remember, won me over after sizing up a chap who had been asking a lot of questions about what was or wasn’t regulated in Belgian brewing: “You’re German, aren’t you?” Cue laughter from everyone. The talk was a fan and factoid-packed, but could be politely described as being ‘unburdened by the truth’. To some extent you could understand the German guy’s constant questions; he admitted he was a homebrewer. However, I could tell that he was asking questions he knew the answers to, and was really just testing the tour guide, which is far worse in my mind that coming up with a few half-baked facts about the medicinal benefits of beer.

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Anyway, as I said, its the building itself that really makes this tour special. You get to see, or rather walk across, the old koelschip (a broad, shallow, copper vessel where hopped wort would cool down while being exposed to wild yeast and bacteria) on the way to the roof, where you can enjoy a glorious panoramic view of Bruges. Then, climbing down even narrower stairs than before (backwards), you get to see the beautiful old heat exchangers, fermenting vessels and maturation tanks. Tall people beware, you may spend much of the tour in an Igor-like crouch. To the guide’s credit, you will learn a lot of history as well as Beer Facts ™, and there are plenty of stories in the old copper vessels.

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1930’s heat exchangers are pretty.

When the tour is over, you’re guided to the lovely on-site bar, where you’re handed a cool glass of unfiltered Bruges Zot, the brewery’s flagship blonde ale. It’s a fairly common sight in bottles in the UK, and a decent Belgian blonde, but by no means exceptional. The unfiltered version (like most unfiltered versions of anything) is a superior product, with a more pronounced, zestier, citrus finish and a smoother, creamier mouthfeel. I can also recommend the Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel, which, whilst not the usual Trappist quad to find beer geeks fawning over, is a really decent drop – full and syrupy sweet, with a moreish balance of toffee, chocolate and coffee notes.

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If you know a bit about beer and brewing, and have a few people with you who don’t know much at all, then De Halve Maan will give you a very accessible and fun brewery tour. Even if you know a lot, the tour itself is still fun, and any ropey information is completely outweighed by the friendliness of the guide, the beauty of the building, and the delicious beer at the end. €7 well spent.

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In Bruges – Part 2

Some informative reading in Cambrinous, featuring TV's Alf, apparently.
Some informative reading in Cambrinous, featuring TV’s Alf, apparently.

In my last post, I covered two fantastic bars in Bruges: De Garre and la Trappiste. Below are two of my other favourite places I visited in Bruges: Cambrinous and ‘t Bruges Beertje.

Cambrinous, 19 Philipstockstraat

Cambrinous occupies one of those very ‘Bruges’ buildings: old red stone, zig-zagging to a tip like two sets of stairs at the top, oozing character and warmth. Some of the masonry on this particular building sets it apart. The King of Beer, Cambrinous himself, is depicted, straddling a massive barrel. Inside, a long bar overlooks a sunken seated area of booths and tables. We managed to get a window seat, where copper pipes and light fittings nestle in the corners.

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The beer list here is extensive, 400+ at any one time, and my eye is drawn to a brewery recommended to me: Brasserie De La Senne. Taras Boulba is their ‘Extra Hoppy Ale’, and in the glass it shines like freshly squeezed fruit juice. From Saaz hops alone it manages to squeeze out lemon, grapefruit, mandarin, lime and orange, building to crisp, dry, peppery finish. It’s a stunning beer, destined for enjoyment in sunshine.

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The food here was good too. Chicken and frites done simply but very well. Crisp skin on steamy chicken, crunchy fries and all washed down with the 2013 edition of Duvel Tripel Hop. Having missed the (by all accounts) sensation 2012 edition, I was eager to try this year’s interpretation. The hop bill is Sorachi Ace, Saaz and Styrian Goldings. The initial lemon/lime bittersweet balance finds depth in a silky, creamy mouthfeel, like lemon syllabub. Further in, it gains new qualities, a sharpness like a salad of peppery rocket and lemony vinigarette, before shovelling on pithy bitterness by the hop-kettle-full.

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Cambrinous’ menu is large, the service is quick, and the food is good. Everything there is very reasonably priced, too, but that goes for much of Bruges. What I really enjoyed about Cambrinous was the way it remained welcoming to families and tourists, but also provided a fantastic setting for hardcore beer explorers. Everyone was welcome and the beer was fantastic.

t’ Bruges Beertje, 5 Kemelstraat

This is The Place. You can’t go to Bruges and not visit Beertje. At least, that’s what everyone says. They’re right, too. It’s a truly wonderful bar.

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The problem is, I had such a good time in Beertje that I somewhat shamefully forgot to take any photos while I was there. True, a great deal of beer had taken its toll on this weary traveller, but there was more to it than that. I remember at one point wanting to take a picture of the beer I was drinking at the time, Brasserie De la Senne’s Zwarte Piet, and feeling suddenly awkward about it. Without the convenient crutch of photos to show you what it’s like, I’ll try to describe what it was about Beertje that made me feel that way.

We initially tried to visit mid-afternoon, and found the place closed. This only exacerbated my thirst, and by our eventual return several beers later, I still felt as thirsty as I had done when I’d first found the place with its doors closed and beery secrets locked away. It was a hot night, and people were just vacating a table as we arrived. Thank goodness, I thought, because I couldn’t have stood and nursed strong beer in this heat. The air was thick with a warm fug and the bubbling swell of conversation. A tiny bar somehow fills one entire wall, with liquid miracles being dispensed as quickly as they could be found.

I could see why it didn’t open until later. This place had no patience for afternoon shoppers who had wandered off the main road. This was a place for the seekers; people who know, or want to. Acolytes, weary from their travel and bibulous exertions were slumped over tables with elaborate goblets on them. We come here to pray, you see. Pray that there is more to it all than just the day-to-day grind. Beertje felt a little like the pub of collective imagination, where the barman produces the exact drink you need from beneath the bar, like magic.

This is The Real Deal, I thought, as I had on several occasions whilst in Belgium. This is It. A real tavern, like out of all those books and scenes in films. Except that the staff here, studious fellows, seem more like librarians, or guardians of some mystic archives. Indeed, so small is the bar that they often have to descend into cellars below, presumably where their arcane library is. You can test their knowledge, ask them for things like this or like that, and they’ll present you with the exact thing you need but had no idea existed. Barmen nipping off to find this, that and the other all the time? Surely the service must be very slow, you’d think? Not a bit of it. It might be because the place is so small, but the whole operation runs like clockwork.

In the back room, there’s photographs mounted above the fireplace, in memoriam to the Beer Hunter himself, a man who introduced generation after generation to Belgian beer, and the potential to have an experience like this. When I saw those photographs, and tasted what that barman gave to me, I knew. I couldn’t start clicking my camera to and fro, it felt wrong, unseemly. This is The Place.

Bruges itself is a unique marvel. I’ve been to cities and towns with historical importance, picturesque beauty, and wonderful food and drink, but very few manage to keep all of that AND be a thriving tourist destination. Many have to drop at least one of those balls. You’d think that be particularly the case when one of the best things about the place is the beer. But maybe that’s part of why it’s managed to keep it all together. Almost everything in Bruges demands that you treat it with a certain reverence, the beer included. It’s a fun place, don’t get me wrong, but it also feels very grown up, thoughtful and comfortable with what it is.

The drinking culture here is driven by tourism certainly, but with no laddish swagger or uncouth excess. Overindulgence is almost compulsory, but you are encouraged to go about it in such a classy way that it doesn’t really feel like ‘going out drinking’. You just feel like you’ve spent all day putting your palate to work, enjoying sights and sounds, and there are few better things in life than that. Here’s to keeping it classy, and having a damn good time doing so.

Next in the Beer Diary: De Halve Maan brewery, Cantillon and bars in Brussells…

In Bruges – Part 1

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View of Bruges from the roof of De Halve Maan brewery

Bruges is beautiful place. I visited it during a particularly warm spell, when every part of the city seemed lit for camera. The tourist board must do all of its promotional photographs on days like that. It’s a wonderful place to walk around, and feels like a cultural waypoint that has drawn in equal parts of England, France and the Netherlands. There’s cobbles, those very specific step-like rooftops, little delis, lace shops, chocolatiers and of course: cafes and bars, where some of the world’s finest beer is available.

I’m sure that many of you reading this will have been to Bruges. This was my first time, so please forgive me if my gleeful discoveries are all old hat to you. This trip meant quite a lot to me, because Belgian beer has always been a bit of a blind spot for me, and now, I feel like I’m so much closer to understanding and appreciating just how incredible it can be. These are the happy musings of a man who finally gets what all the fuss is about. These aren’t all the places I went to in Bruges, but they are my favourites of the places I visited. Please do share your own in the comments.

La Trappiste, 33 Kuipperstraat

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Once a club and ‘rendezvous’ bar (a Belgian euphemism for pick-up joint), the 800 year old cellars on Kuipperstraat have been taken over by two men with a plan. I met the Manchester-born half of that partnership, Martin, who welcomed us into the cavernous yet cozy bar below the sunshine-bleached pavements of Bruges above.

The lighting is gentle, provided in some part by a collection of pretty, mismatched light fittings acquired from second-hand shops. The bar itself provokes memories of home, or at least the UK. Shiny T-bars and fonts spelling out more than just the usual selection of blondes and lagers. Behind, a glassware and bottle-festooned backbar display, along with that most modern of touches: chalkboards displaying their regular and guest draught beers.

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The beer menus here are more than just laminated lists of names. Martin has ensured that almost every bottle beer they sell has a picture and description, to help people make wiser choices. He’s also more than happy to help guide anyone towards their ideal beer. Martin is a converter, a true believer in talking, showing and sharing. He’s one of those truly great bartenders, who goes about the day-to-day serving of great beer with a palpable sense of glee and accomplishment.

He shrugs off the bar’s commerical ties to AB-Inbev as an easy compromise. In exchange for stocking 4 of their brands, he can stock 8 other draught beers, 12-14 guest bottled beers and 80 regular bottled beers at any one time.  Belgian classics like St Feuillien Blonde and Troubadour Magma were stocked alongside Birrifico del Borgo’s Re-Ale and even the likes of Bateman’s Mocha and Marble Lagonda IPA (a nod to Martin’s Mancunian roots). While many bars can knock out a range of a few hundred bottles (see below), places like La Trappiste are a rarer, more precious thing. Here’s a bar with a real conscious identity that will always be able to surprise you.

De Garre, off Breidelstraat

We visited this place twice. The first time was the best, for a few reasons. First of all, I didn’t know where De Garre was, only roughly were it was supposed to be. I didn’t know, for example, that it is down that little alley. So after several reconaissances, actually finding it was one of those proper Beer Moments ™, where the joy of finding somewhere almost equals the taste of the beer. Almost.

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The second time we visited was when we were tired and thirsty, having spent the balmy evening walking the streets and finding Billy Bragg doing a free gig on the Burg Square. The first time at De Garre was still the best though, because we met great people there: a couple from Preston and an older couple from, I think, Michigan. We never learned each other’s names (though to me, the American chap shall always be Bill, given his enormous resemblance to former President Clinton). Bill was a homebrewer (in that off-handed American way, you know, he just has a whole part of his house plumbed in for it, cold store, that sort of thing, real casual) and he was talking to the couple from Preston about beer local to Bruges. I chipped in that I’d just been to De Halve Maan (coming soon to a future blog post), and everybody started talking all things beer. We had the upstairs part pretty much to ourselves, and we had a great, happy few hours of sharing beer and stories.

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De Garre as a pub/cafe/bar is a very intimate, oak-beamed, cozy place that encourages conversation. A little too cozy, actually. The second time I was there I banged my head on the way out of the toilet. It feels almost British in layout, but naturally with a focus on bottled beer as opposed to draught. The taps should not be ignored, though. In fact, you are quite likely to be offered a glass of the house blonde beer, Tripel van De Garre, on the way in. Naturally, it comes served with some complimentary cheese. Highlights from the beer menu on our visit include Hercule Stout, a muscular 10% stout named after legendary Belgian murder-solver Poirot, and Troubadour Magma, a sort of rich, rye-super-ESB that had that trademark Belgian Balance ™ covering up its 8.2% strength.

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De Garre reminded me a lot of Arcadia in Leeds, which coincidentally was where I had ‘proper’ Belgian beer for the first time. It felt quite poignant to come to the source of both the beer and Arcadia’s aesthetic inspiration. De Garre is a very warm, welcoming place, that becomes more than just bricks, mortar and beer. Its intimate atmosphere and perpetual background sound of cheerful conversation make it a charming, rewarding place with a life of its own.

In Part Two: Cambrinous, Bruges Beertje and my thoughts on drinking in Bruges…