Let’s talk about beer for a moment. Over the years, I came to like Belgium beers. Part of it, I realize, was reflexive. If you like beer at all, you’re supposed to revere the fermented hops from that little country in the corner of Northern Europe. They’re considered not merely the Cadillac/Rolls Royce/Champagne of beers, but to devotees, quaffing them is a near religious experience. That Trappist monks are involved in creating some of the best specimens is, perhaps to some, no coincidence.
My real Belgian beer education, though, would begin with gusto in the lively college town of Ghent, yet another coincidence. In the heart of the country’s Flemish region, Ghent overflows with warm hospitality and an almost accent-less English. Canals slice up the place as beautifully as they do in Amsterdam. Abutting those canals were plenty of old squares and plazas. And every single one of them seemed to have no fewer than five bars or pubs. They were our classrooms.
RoomNate, Wilse and JosWay — my three travel mates with decidedly un-Christian names — first met up with me at Het Waterhuis a/d Bierkant, a canal-side bar that defies pronunciation. Over rabbit sautéed in Chimay Red we sampled La Chouffe and Frambois Girardin and several others over a short time span known to most people as lunch.
Surrounding every meal afterwards, it was on to Westmalle, Kwak, Karmeliet and Orval. Troubador and Duvel could easily be dog names and it was many a night hour where they proved to be man’s best friend (can’t say the same for the following mornings). Leffe, Rochefort, Straffe Hendrick, Hoegaarden, Bruges Zot, Kriek; I could keep going. Every one of those beers had multiple depths of flavor, a spectrum of rich colors and every other adjective/noun combo you would see in a typical restaurant review.
But for me, it was much more than the high quality brew inside the glasses. It was what happened outside of them. I could remember walking into the storied pubs of Ghent and Brugges, past tables with multiple, half drunk glasses lounging on top. The patrons rolled them around and sipped them in an unhurried fashion; much like wine.
And then the glasses themselves. Every brewer had their own, varying in shape, size and even handle. No pub we had stepped inside dared pour beer from one brewery into another brewery’s glass. When the full glasses sat on a tray they looked like royal baubles fit for a king.
What does all of this mean, exactly? That beer doesn’t have to be the unlimited, nameless bubbly at happy hour. It doesn’t have to be something to be pounded at an alarming rate. Good beer — to an extent, a relative term — can be something savored over time like a single malt Scotch or a Beaujolais. The Belgians weren’t being hoity-toity. They were reveling in a long, rich history of a beverage that exerted a tremendous amount of human toil to create. The least they can do is to sip it slow.
WHAT: Tripel Karmeliet (in the Karmeliet glass), Delirium Tremens and an ugly ashtray
WHEN: September 19, 2010
WHERE: Ghent, East Flanders, Belgium