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.

[Scene missing]

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…