In Bel­gium, if there’s a ques­tion, beer is the an­swer

Sunday Herald Sun - Escape - - DESTINATION BELGIUM - JOHN HUXLEY

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.


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