TAP IN TO BRUSSELS
In Belgium, if there’s a question, beer is the answer
So here we are, recovering from an afternoon’s sightseeing in historic Brussels. Sitting, exhausted, at a table in an open-air bar watching the world go by with a few Arrogant Bastards. No, no, not the locals. Still less our guide for the day Tom Pieters. In fact, the multilingual citizens of Brussels and, even more so, the rest of Belgium, are notoriously modest, achingly hospitable, patient and polite with visitors.
Arrogant Bastard is, in fact, the name of a popular beer. It is one of dozens upon dozens served by Jean Hummler, co-owner of Moeder Lambic – roughly translating to “mother’s brew” – in his bar overlooking the busy Fontainas place. Other beers on-tap include Psycho, Green Machine, Band of Brothers and the intriguingly named Witkap Stimulo, “a deep blond with a little orange tint, a nice, sticky head and a green-apple note in the aroma”, said one critic.
When it comes to beer – and most days it does, says Hummler – the Belgians are deservedly proud of their stellar (indeed popular Stella Artois brand) performance.
In terms of annual, per capita consumption (about 100 litres a head) they may lag just outside the world top 20, behind such thirsty nations as the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, No.19 Australia and, inexplicably, the Seychelles.
But they still claim to make more beers, in a wider mix of styles, flavours and colours than any other country. They have done so for centuries, much of it in the monasteries by Trappist and other orders.
The number of private breweries in Belgium may have fallen from a peak a century ago of some 3000, to little more than 100, but volumes remain healthy.
As our table becomes crowded with halfempty beer glasses and plate-loads of “complementary” nibbles – cheese, pate, charcuterie boards – Hummler explains that Belgians drink for pleasure, not to get drunk.
“You’ll find there’s no binge-drinking, no bad behaviour, here or anywhere in Belgium,” he says.
“Except when a boatload of English football fans turns up,” a friend adds with a grimace.
At Moeder Lambic, food is almost an afterthought, though there is a tantalising menu of cheeses, salads, sausages, pates, mustard, pickles and breads. Nice, but basically, beer accessories.
“You can ask for something but, basically, whatever the question, beer is usually the answer,” Hummler jokes.
Indeed, such is the local and visitor passion for real ale that there are plans to turn the elegant, old Brussels stock exchange into “Belgian Beer World”.
Asked to choose his favourite beer from the hundreds on offer, he hums and hahs. He likes the lot, including even the above-mentioned Arrogant Bastard, which turns out to be American in origin.
Typically, of cheerful, cheeky or downright derogatory real-beer names, it is mischievously promoted by its Californian makers as an aggressive, arrogant beer that “you probably won’t like”.
“It’s doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to appreciate this ale. We’d suggest you stick to safer and more familiar territory … maybe something with a multimillion-dollar ad campaign.” Not surprisingly, it is very pleasant. But best stick to the local stuff, probably. After all, last year Belgian Beer was heritagelisted by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Suitably refreshed and entertained, I set off for dinner at the nearby Belga Queen restaurant before turning in at the equally opulent Dominican Hotel.
THE WRITER TRAVELLED COURTESY OF VISIT FLANDERS.