All of the best bars in Brussels have an impressive list of bottled beers: usually upwards of 30 to, in one case, over 2000, but more usually in the hundreds. However, I will concentrate on draught beers, most particularly my favourite lambic beers, in which wooden casks play a key role.
Briefly, lambic beer is produced by spontaneous fermentation using wild yeasts from the atmosphere. The wort is poured into large shallow open trays and when cooled is transferred to oak casks for further fermentation and maturation over several months: up to three years in some cases. This oak ageing process gives a very lactic taste to the beer. Old hops are used more for their preservative powers than for flavour. After a year the lambic is considered to be young. The longer the fermentation continues in the cask, the more sugar is converted to alcohol, and the sourer the beer becomes. Blending old and new lambics produces geuze beers. Fruit beers such as Kriek (cherry), Framboise (raspberry), or Peche (peach) are produced by steeping the fruit in lambic beer in the oak casks. Faro is a lambic, which has been additionally sweetened with brown sugar, to produce a secondary fermentation. Due to a recent Belgian legislation change, beers which use lambic technique somewhere along the process are allowed to be called lambic. This means that some of the more commercial labels such as Belle Vue, particularly with their fruit-flavoured ranges, tarnish the reputation of the 100% lambic producers.
In the spectacular Grand Place is the Brasseurs brewpub. This is a multi-level wood-panelled bar. The best choice is a sample pallet with Speciale Blonde, a 6% fermented beer, Grand Place White, a 5.2%, wheat beer Grand Place Brune 8 % and Brussels Tripel, a blonde beer also 8%. Also in the Grande Place is the Brewers’ Guild House, a brewery museum dating from 1695. After a small tour you can enjoy a pils and a Kriek. This is something of a blind tasting, as the museum is not allowed to say who brews these, so as not to be seen as promoting a particular brewer.
Opposite the Mannekin Pis statue is Poechenellekelder, whose theme is hundreds of puppet models of the famous little flasher, as well as many murals and posters. In here I had Lindemans Faro, a sweetened, filtered lambic beer.
Next stop in a hard-to-find alley off Rue des Bourchers is Estaminet Toone, an atmospheric, dimly-lit, wooden-decorated bar, with its own puppet theatre. This had Kwak and Mort Subite Kriek on draught. The toffee-flavoured Kwak is served in a glass shaped like a chemist's retort, held in a wooden frame.
La Becasse, a late- nineteenth-century brown café, with a backdrop of dark wooden panelling has sweetish Timmermans Lambic, and Kriek, served in ceramic jugs, by waiters wearing the traditional aprons.
On either side of the Bourse (stock exchange) are Le Cirio and Falstaff. Cirio is an ornate café bar with gold fittings on a red felt background, serving Liefmans. Falstaff is a well-preserved end of nineteenth-century traditional bar, with glass-framed dividers, traditional wood panelling and ornate mirrors, and stained glass windows depicting Shakespeare's bon viveur, Falstaff. The beer list, sadly, is quite standard, with Belle Vue Kriek on tap. Also nearby is Soleil a pavement café bar with a young clientèle and a fairly basic beer list.
Another old-fashioned brown café near the Bourse is Au Bon Vieux Temps, which has very ornate wood panelling and carvings in dark wood and sold De Kirsch Pils and Morte Subite Kriek. The café with the most spectacular beer list is Delerium, in an alleyway off the main fish restaurant area; this has over 2000 bottles available, from all over the world. Twelve beers were on tap with the Huyghe brewery well represented. Pink Killer, a grapefruit flavoured beer from Silly brewery, was an unusual draught.
The Morte Subite café is another end of nineteenth-century bar. It is a long bar with wooden panels and benches, serving Morte Subite Geuze, Peche, Faro and Kriek on draught.
Spinnekopke is a brown café with a large pavement area. It has a very good menu and serves draught Cantillon beers, including a Faro which they blend themselves.
The Paon Royal "Royal Peacock" is also close to the Bourse, near St Catherine's Church. This is a good place to eat, horse (cheval) being a particular speciality. This is quite cramped and very busy at lunchtimes. The De Koninck on draught is very good. La Paon closes at 10.30. Most of the bars open up very early in the morning, so may not do late opening, although it usually isn't a problem getting in at least one of the good ones in the central area up to about 1 am.
A couple of blocks beyond the Manekin Pis from the Grande Place, in the Marolles area, is Porte Noir, a brick-lined, candle-lit atmospheric cellar. This is the only bar in Belgium to have St Feuillien Tripel, a superb hoppy 8.5% blonde beer, on draught. . Next door to this is La Fleur en Papier Doree, where Rene Magritte used to drink. This is another friendly atmospheric café bar in which the Kriek was pleasant.
Heading uphill and out towards the Palace of Justice, we find Warm Water, a Giradin specialist café bar, and a great place for a substantial brunch. Most of the furniture, fittings and tablecloths are decorated green. This is the only bar which sells Giradin Faro on draught.
Nearby is the gourmet bar Restobieres. Alain, the proprietor and chef, handpicks unusual draught beers and the menu is excellent and unusual. I had veal liver and kidney and Kerkom Bink Blonde. La Rulles Triple was also on Draught. Alain's bar is also a mini-museum, with many artefacts celebrating Belgian history and the Royal family. We were given an impromptu guided tour as well as mein host’s impersonation of Mr Chouff. Alain tipped us off that, sadly, the famous Zageman bar is going to close down forever.
No trip to Brussels is complete without a tour of the Cantillon brewery in the Anderlecht district. This is a traditional lambic brewery. An explanatory leaflet and labels in English guide you through the beer-making process and you can try a sample of their beer afterwards. Cantillon lambics are an acquired taste as the older ones retain very little sugar and are sour and complex. The tasting palate included lambic, geuze, faro, kriek and framboise. These tended to be newer beers so as not to frighten the tourists, but some fellow visitors obviously did not share my love of lambic.
Nearby is La Laboureur, this is a basic café bar near the Eurostar station, but the Greek food and the draught sweetish lambic, served in ceramic mugs, are recommended.
There are some interesting bars in the Ixelles area of the city towards the South West, beyond La Porte de Namur. Le Châtelain, an impressive wooden and tiled floor café bar featuring large ceramic models and paintings of jazz musicians sold De Koninck on draught and had a bottle list of about 40.
Les Brassins, a brasserie restaurant bar, had a list of about 75
beers, and a very good menu. The Ultime Atome is a young, trendy, art deco bar and restaurant with around 100 beers on the list. The Beer Mania is an off licence with a difference. You can choose a bottle from the list of 400 and ask for it to be opened, and drink it at comfortable tables at the back of the large premises. While we were there a bottle of fermenting lambic exploded, spraying beer and glass around: a fairly common occurrence we were informed.
L'Horloge Du Sud is an African restaurant bar popular with students and has at least 40 beers on its menu. A feature of bars around this area was the sweet draught Pecheresse, a commercial peach-flavoured lambic produced by Lindemanns.
Stoumelings, a wood-panelled traditional local bar, had this and Celis White on draught. The Celis pump-clip bore an "Austin Texas" label, but this may because the original Brussels brewer took the brewing of this to the USA for a short while, before returning home.
The Art Nouveau-dominated St Gilles district, south of the Petit Ring, has some interesting bars. La Porteuse de l'Eau has a grand spiral staircase and stained glass windows in the ceiling as well as the walls. The large domed glass ceiling is particularly impressive. The beer list was small but the Bush Pesche wasn't too sweet. Verschuren, a basic café, reminded me of a station bar, but they did have the sour amber Rodenbach available on draught.
John Rooth - November 2006