One of our fondest memories of 2008 was the Kerstbierfestival, a Christmas beer festival in Essen, Belgium. The last two days of the Year in Beer, the festival made quite an impression on us. So much so, that attending on Sunday was more important to us than our goal of reaching 600 breweries on the trip.
[Read our blog post from 2008: “The Kerstbierfestival“]
From Brussels, it was an easy, albeit longish, journey to Essen. We just missed a train in Brussels, watching it pull away from the platform as we reached the top of the escalator. This caused a much longer stopover in Antwerp. By the time, we pulled into the Essen train station, I was busting at the seams with excitement to be back.
Two years ago, we walked the almost two kilometers in frigid weather to the festival. This year, with plenty of fresh snow covering the town, we took advantage of a new service of the festival: a shuttle bus from the train station. We, along with another dozen festival goers, were whisked in relative comfort and warmth to the festival. Fifteen minutes after getting off the train, we walked into the Heuvalhal. Though it would really pick up later in the afternoon, the hall was sparsely populated when we arrived at half past one.
Everything at the festival was just like we left it two years ago. Long rows of tables dominated the gym, broken up only by the token booth set up in the middle. The beer was at the back left of the hall. Brewery flags hung from the rafters and local business advertisements adorned the walls. Those already in attendance quietly chatted and sipped their beers. While Merideth found us seats, I purchased our tokens, booklet and tasting glasses.
Settled into our seats, we started to flip through the booklet to see what beers to drink. We focused on beers that had ‘rare’ and/or ‘Belgian exclusive’ in it’s listing. My first beer was a Barleywine, KerstSmiske 2010, a rarity on draft. As usual, Merideth took much longer to decide. The excruciating process was made even longer by some confusion as to whether her first choice was still available. She did end up with her first choice, Blonde de Noël from Brasserie Augrenoise. Merideth was drawn to the beer because it was brewed at a home for the mentally handicapped who also help with the packaging of the beer.
A big draw of the Kerstbierfestival is the amazing beer selection, with 150 or so Christmas beers and winter warmers. But for us, the festival’s real charm is that it is so mellow and relaxing. Unlike many American beer festivals, it’s not a test of strength and fortitude, where you leave with ringing ears and a hoarse voice. Most of the trip, we were constantly on the go. The Kerstbierfestival was our our first real opportunity to slow down and unwind a bit. We even found time to play our first game of Scrabble on the trip.
Over the course of four hours, I tried eleven beers, Merideth six. Some of our highlight brews were:
- Stille Nacht – Dolle Brouwers
- Winter 11 – Hof ten Dormaal
- Zwet – 3 Fonteinen / Proefbrouwerij
- Rochefort 8 Cuvée 2010
- Bush de Nuits – Dubisson
- Duvel Triple Hop
- Vorst (7e hemel) – Proefbrouwerij
- Red/White Christmas – Mikkeller
All good things must come to an end, however. While it may be a couple more years before we return to the Kerstbierfestival, we will be back.
It was snowing pretty heavily as we walked out of the festival and hopped on the bus to take us back to the train station. As the bus negotiated Essen’s snowy streets, we were somewhat nervous and worried. It took us two hours to get out to Essen in good weather. How long would it take to get back with the snow falling? We had a big final day planned and couldn’t afford to get stranded. As luck would have it and much to our relief, we were able to catch an intercity, direct train back to Brussels.