“2010 Kerstbierfestival” is the latest episode of One Pint at a Time.
Due to time constraints, the last beergeek.TV episode, Euro Christmas 2010 Part II, used only a part of the footage shot at the Kerstbierfestival. This episode is an extended look at one of our favorite beer festivals.
In an era where beer festivals are becoming more and more tests of strength and fortitude, the Kerstbierfestival is a breath of fresh air. When I tell people about the festival, the first thing I say is that you can use your “inside voice” as there is no loud din drowning out conversation. Long lines to get the latest hip beer don’t exist. In fact, there are no beer lines to get some of the best, most unique or rarest beers in the world. Truly, the Kerstbierfestival is a gem in our eyes.
So enjoy our time at the Kerstbierfestival…
For all the episodes of One Pint at a Time go to beergeekTV.
All during our trip, there were problems with airline and train travel in Western Europe. With plenty of snow and ice, delays and cancellations were the norm. But besides our little Amsterdam to Brussels train adventure, these problems had always effected other people.
We had a full schedule on the last day of our trip with the highlight being the ‘lambic tripleheader.’ Our day would start at Cantillon in Brussels. We then would take the train to Beersel to tour Oud Beersel and eat dinner at the Drie Fonteinen cafe. The only thing putting a damper on the big finale was the cold that Merideth had been fighting for the previous few days. She was no longer fighting it, Merideth was sick.
Cognizant of the air travel problems, I checked to see if our flight got out on Monday prior to leaving our hotel for the day. The flight to Chicago departed a few minutes late, but I left our hotel feeling pretty confident that we would be home the following day. Walking out of our hotel, we were greeted with a rare sight on the trip, the sun. From Place Rogier, it was a half hour walk to the Anderlecht neighborhood, the home of Cantillon.
We visited Cantillon on our day trip from Paris in 2004. But as Merideth observed, we really didn’t understand the magnitude of the place then. Six years later, we were very aware of the living history. Though ‘only’ a little over a hundred years young, Cantillon looks and feels old. Our entrance was perfectly timed. As we entered, a barrel appeared out of the cellar being lifted to the upper level.
After the awe of being back at Cantillon subsided, our next observation was “Gee whiz! It’s darn cold in here…” We joined a half dozen other people in the sitting area clustered around the wood stove. We did the tour back in 2004, so we opted just to have a few beers.
Though many of Cantillon’s beers are readily available in the States, the experience of drinking it at the brewery hovered around a wood stove for warmth is what beer travel is all about. Beginning with the Gueuze, we followed that up with a two year old Lambic served from a ceramic jug. The oddest beer was the Faro, our first ever. (A Faro is a Lambic with unrefined sugar added) Flat and sweet, Merideth compared the taste to that of a wine cooler. I somewhat agreed. My favorite was the wonderfully tart and dry Kriek, our last beer.
It was while we were drinking our last beer that I received the call from American Airlines. Seeing the number on the Caller ID, I immediately realized they weren’t calling to say we had been bumped up to first class. As I expected, the robo-voice on the other end said that our flight to Chicago was canceled and that they were working on re-booking us. We were concerned and a bit worried at first but decided to continue on with our day as planned. We would deal with getting home when we got back to the hotel.
[Our flight was canceled because Brussels airport ran out of de-icing fluid]
It was a short walk to the Midi train station, our departure point for Beersel. Midi was crazy and full of travelers trying to get to their Christmas destinations. Seeing the long lines at the train station got me thinking and feeling quite anxious. On the train ride to Beersel, I began to question whether our decision to continue on with our day was the correct one.
Walking up the hill from the Beersel train station, we entered a snowy, peaceful and quiet village. It was really hard to fathom that we were only six miles from bustling Brussels. We still had a few minutes before we had to be at Oud Beersel for our tour. A quick beer at Drie Fonteinen was in order. As we approached the cafe, we got a bad feeling. The parking lot was empty, the cafe was dark. The sign on the door confirmed our second disappointment of the day, Drie Fonteinen was closed until January 6th.
Passing through the village and into a more residential part of Beersel, it was another fifteen minutes walking to Oud Beersel. We trudged along the snowy sidewalks making our own paths through the uncleared snow. As my shoes started to soak through, all I could think was what a pleasant walk this would be in the summer. Arriving 15 minutes before our tour, we recorded some beergeek.TV footage while we waited for our tour guide to show up.
The brewery is only open the first Saturday of each month so we organized our tour through De Geuzen van Oud Beersel, a group founded in January 2007 to promote local traditions, including the brewing of Lambic beer. Our guide, Werner, was right on time and we started what would be our coldest beer tour ever.
Early in the tour, we received the final bad piece of news on the day. Due to health laws, brewing is no longer done in Beersel, but down the road at Boon. The Beersel site only being where the lambic is barrel-aged and then blended. For us, that meant Oud Beersel couldn’t be counted on the List. We persevered through the third setback of the day and soaked in all the history.
Before our tour, Werner poured us their Oude Lambiek. The brew is packaged like boxed wine (“Bag in a Box”) and is their effort at wider distribution of their Lambic beer. Since it’s not carbonated, it sounded like a good idea to me. And it tasted just fine as well.
Werner walked us through the historic brewery, explaining the uses and purposes of the vintage brewing equipment. He also told a wonderful story of community pride. Founded by Henri Vandervelden in 1882, the family went through three generations brewing Lambic beer. But the brewery closed in 2002. Two local men, Gert Christiaens and Roland De Bus, wanting to preserve the tradition in Beersel, took over the brewery in 2005. Rebranded as Oud Beersel, a year later, Oude Gueuze and Oude Kriek was sold again by the brewery.
After the tour, we sampled the Oude Gueuze and Oude Kriek. We have had both these beers before but not in this setting. Ever the Kriek-head, I absolutely loved the Oud Beersel’s version. Using 400 grams of cherries per litre, the brew had a wonderful, dry fruitiness.
Unfortunately, after an hour and a half inside, we were frozen to the bone. Plus, we had that whole issue of getting home to deal with. We thanked Werner for his time and apologized if we had acted a bit distracted. We walked out into the night and back to the train station.
Back in our hotel room, which would be the world headquarters of thebeergeek.com for five days, we learned our fate. We were stuck in Brussels one extra day. Yes, there are worse places to be stranded, but stranded we were. Thankfully, we were still in our hotel and they could accommodate us an extra night (Big thanks to the Hilton in Brussels for being so helpful!). And much to our relief, our house sitter could stay as long as we needed (thanks Lilly!).
The worst part of being stranded, no matter where you are, is the uncertainty of it all. We wanted to be home for Christmas but more bad weather was coming in. Who knew when we would actually leave. In fact, our re-booked flight was also canceled, we would now fly home Christmas Eve Eve.
In a perfect world, this would have been a great opportunity to try to reach 600 breweries. I was at 598, Merideth 597. If we were feeling adventurous, we could have hopped on a train to visit some nearby Belgian towns to get the necessary three breweries. But neither of us were feeling adventurous. The trains were still messed up and Merideth was still sick. We decided to hang around Brussels and check out some of the beer bars.
Located across the street from Manneken Pis, Poechenellekleder was not for the person afraid of puppets. The dimly lit old pub was full of puppets and mannequins. Making the scene more odd were the strange Christmas carols which sounded like they were sang by puppets. However, there was a great beer list and Merideth and I enjoyed a few rounds. We just didn’t make eye contact with any of the decorations.
My favorite old pub was Het Goudblommeke van Papier (La Fleur en Papier Dore). Quiet and friendly, the building dated from the 1700s and the pub was home of the several art movements. The oddest feature; the stairs to the toilet are so steep that there is a rope to help the customer get down them. I did the Tarzan yell several times. The draft selection was the InBev starter kit (Stella, Hoegaarden and Leffe) but the bottle list more than made up for it. Merideth drank Orval while I focused on Krieks, drinking the Oud Beersel and Boon versions. If all that wasn’t enough to win our hearts, they had cheese and dried sausage. Het Goudblommeke van Papier was also memorable for Merideth because she got her only scrabble win of the trip there.
Located down a long passage, we walked by A La Bécasse a dozen times without noticing it. I found it in the Good Beer Guide while planning our last day. Since we were going to be walking by, we might as well stop. The old school cafe was dominated on one side by the huge fireplace, which unfortunately had been bricked in. A La Bécasse also had really good cheese and dried sausage. But their claim to fame was the sweetened draft Lambic. Brewed for them by Timmermans, the Lambic was served in ceramic jugs. I’ll say that I am proud to have tried it once, but I don’t think I will be trying it again. It had a sweetness that lingered and lingered which I found a bit unpleasant.
We saved the best for last. The second Moeder Lambic location, a few minutes walk from the Grand Place, opened a year ago. Very, very modern looking, Moeder Lambic had something like 50 taps, including the rare draft Gueuze, Lambic and Kriek handles. We were unfamiliar with a number of the Belgian breweries they served. The friendly staff was very knowledgeable and patient, with a willingness to help us choose. I started with Avec Les Bons Voeux from Dupont and finished with Winterkoninkskethe from Brouwerij Kerkom. In between. there was the Kriek from Drie Fonteinen and De Ranke’s Hop Harvest. I was partying like it was my last night in Brussels. Merideth was going a bit slower than myself but might have ordered the best beer on the night, Equinox from a new Brussels brewery, Brasserie De La Senne. Moeder Lambic might have been our last stop on this trip. Next time in Brussels, it will probably be our first.
We did make it out the following day. Our itinerary was a bit crazy. We flew to Toronto on Jet Airways. From Toronto, we would catch a United flight to Denver and then on to Monterey. Early Thursday morning, we left our home for five days and took the train out to the airport. Everything seemed fine until our flight left two hours late. We missed our connection in Toronto. Getting American on the phone, they booked us on a flight to Chicago, then San Francisco. Our last leg to Monterey would be on United. The next two hours in Toronto would be the most stressful in all our travels. Carrying all our luggage, we had to change terminals, get our tickets, clear US Immigration and Customs and get through security. Lucky for us, the Chicago flight was held to let people get through the painfully slow process. Once we caught the Chicago flight, we were home free so to speak. Twenty six hours after leaving our hotel in Brussels. we walked in our front door in Carmel Valley. Our European Christmas Vacation 2010 was officially over.
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.
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.
The plan for our journey to Brussels was that we were going to get off the train at Roosendaal to attend the Kerstbierfestival in Essen. After a wonderful time drinking Christmas beers, we would get back on the train to continue our journey to the European capital. I was particularly proud of this plan.
We woke up Saturday morning still believing our plan was doable despite the weather. Before we parted the night before, Ferdinand advised us to get to the train station as early as possible. We took this advice to heart and were at Amsterdam Centraal two hours before the departure of the train we intended to take.
Chaos reigned at the station. Due to canceled flights and trains, the massive station was jammed with travelers. Not realizing how bad it was, I had put off buying tickets to Brussels until we got to the station. Pulling queuing ticket #294, we were shocked to see that they were only on #190. Luckily, there were computer terminals where we could buy tickets online.
Tickets in hand, we were up on the platform 50 minutes before our train. The previous Brussels train was late. Announcements stated that trains were being canceled and the ones that ran would take longer. The longer the delay, the larger the crowd grew on the platform. About forty five minutes into our wait, I was getting nervous about the plan. I said to Merideth, “once we get on a train, I think we should take it all the way to Brussels and pass on the Kerstbierfestival…” It was a hard decision, but Merideth agreed.
The train finally arrived. As it was pulling into the station, an announcement was made. There was a track change! Joining hundreds of other travelers, Merideth and I lugged our bags back down the stairs and up the stairs to the new platform and the waiting train. We found two fold down seats in the compartment by the doors and settled in for the journey to Brussels. For almost four hours, we were packed like sardines in the frigid compartment. But we did make it to Brussels.
It was late afternoon when we checked into our hotel and were finally ready to hit the town. We really needed a beer but had some time before the restaurant where we were having dinner opened. My bright idea was to head down to Cafe Delerium.
When I said we needed a beer, I meant a quiet and relaxing beer to help sooth our stressful day of travel. Admittedly, we have only been to Delerium once, but I don’t remember it being a frat party. Literally as Merideth and I walked in, “We Will Rock You” by Queen blasted from the speakers as the numerous revelers screamed the lyrics at the top of their lungs and pounded the table at appropriate moments. We reversed course.
Being close by, we tried Bon Vieux Temps next. Walking down the narrow alley, there was a couple in front of us. They opened the front door of Bon Vieux Temps, looked in, scoffed and walked away. I assumed the issue was overcrowding but as long as the customers weren’t screaming and pounding rock anthems, I was OK with it to get a beer. Opening the door, we were blocked by a wall of cigarette smoke. It was reminiscent of the Irish pubs we visited before the smoking ban. Repeating the actions of the previous couple, Merideth and I scoffed and left.
Giving up on the the idea of a pre-dinner beer, we decided to head over to In t’ Spinnekopke and wait for them to open. Famous for their beer cuisine, we tried to eat there on our day trip from Paris in 2004. Unfortunately, we needed to return to Paris before they opened.
This time, we were the very first customers and were sat at a table at the back of the restaurant. The tiny U-shaped restaurant exuded charm. Complete with tiled floors and red checked table cloths, it looked and felt old, but in a cozy and inviting way. Beer signs adorned the walls in a spartan, dignified fashion.
Gazing at our menus, we were confronted with the reality of being in a French speaking country, neither of our favorite language. I think I have said this before but French sounds like to me the teachers on Peanuts, “wah, wuh, wah…” But I am sure I dazzled our waiter as I flawlessly ordered my first beer, “Roash-fore Huh-weet” (‘Rochefort 8’ for those who don’t speak French good like I do). Admittedly, I did almost follow that up with “por favor.”
But we were mostly at Spinnekopke for the cuisine à la bière, or at least I was. Merideth surprised both myself and the waiter when she only ordered the croquettes. In her defense, she was getting a cold which was killing her appetite. And she really likes croquettes. Since, we were in Brussels, I eyed the moules for a moment. But the 23 Euro price tag and the fact that I have had bad luck with mussels in Europe, shied me away. I ended up having the delightfully tasty pork with a Carolus sauce, possibly my favorite meal of the trip.
It was time for dessert. Merideth and I scanned the dessert menu focusing on anything that said ‘chocolat.’ Suddenly, Merideth saw the beer sorbets, Kriek and Maredsous were on the menu that night. I ordered the Kriek sorbet while Merideth ordered the Maredsous. When they arrived, we swapped one scoop. The Maredsous was really good, the sweet maltiness made a nice dessert. But the Kriek sorbet was absolute heaven especially when paired with the Oud Beersel Oude Kriek.
Over dinner, we made our second big decision of the day. The plan for the following day had been to visit a brewery or two in our continued quest to reach 600 by the end of the year. However, we decided to put that goal on the back burner and take the train back out to Essen for the Kerstbierfestival.