Zythos BierFestival 2008

I know that there was a sizeable contingent of West Middlesex branch members at this year's Zythos BierFestival, as the various photographs demonstrate, but I hope that this review of the beery delights of Antwerp, a small area in Brussels and the Stadfeestzaal in Sint-Niklaas might encourage even more people to consider attending next year's festival.

Setting out bright and early on Friday the 29th of February from the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras my friend Chris, a St Albans branch member, and I had the good fortune to board the 8.05 am train to Brussels at the same time as John Rooth, West Middlesex branch member and the national secretary of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW).

A handy benefit of travelling to Brussels by Eurostar is that your return ticket entitles you to a return journey to any station in Belgium. However, rather than heading off to Antwerp straightaway we decided to visit a couple of pubs that John had ticked on a recent visit to Brussels which are both within 10 minutes walk of Midi station. Our first port of call was the Brocante, 170 Rue Blaes, which is a truly smoky brown bar. The contrast between smoke-free pubs in Britain and one of the smokiest bars in Brussels is quite remarkable. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a beer in this basic but friendly pub ; the first photo shows Chris enjoying an Orval and John tucking into a Girardin Kriek. I cleansed my palate with an excellent Hanssens Oude Kriek. Walking a couple of hundred yards up the road back to the station we stopped off at the rather more refined Skieven Architek, 50 Place de Jeu de Balle, a welcoming bar/restaurant/ brew pub. Chris and John tried the house blonde whilst I went for the stronger house brown. Both beers were of good quality and this is definitely a place worth popping into if you are waiting for a train at Midi station.

There are, of course, many other fine specialist beer bars in Brussels a goodly number of which are detailed in John Rooth's article on our branch web-site.

Moving on to Antwerp our first port of call had to the Kulminator, 32 Vleminckveld, a truly unique bar which, as far as I can see, has not changed one iota in the 13 and a half years since I first visited Antwerp in 1994 . I cashed in my birthday drink voucher - some 4,500 beer lovers are registered on their birthday database - and had a superb Avec les Bons Vouex from my favourite Belgian brewery, Dupont, whilst Chris enjoyed a very fine 2003 Tongerlo Dubbel Bruin. Old beers, some from deceased breweries, are a feature of the wonderful telephone directory sized beer menu, which details the 600 plus beers on offer. John Rooth, who had arranged to meet some other members of the SPBW hierarchy during the course of the evening, was steadily working his way through a number of the excellent Lambics on offer.

After a couple more drinks with John we headed off to the Waagstuk, 20 Stadswaag, to meet up with a couple of Belgian friends I first met in Cambodia. Located to the north of the centre of the city the Waagstuk offers some 80 beers in a very civilised setting. The beer range includes a house beer called Zeppelin which is an excellent 8% stout brewed, according to Tim Webb's Good Beer Guide to Belgium, by the Proef brewery and a number of trappist beers to include the elusive Westverleteren Extra 8. Westverleteren beers have always been hard to track down and the Westverleteren Abt 12 being voted the world's best beer by readers of ratebeer.com a couple of years ago - the Extra 8 came 3rd - has only added to their rarity. The Waagstuk also offers good wholesome Belgian "pub grub" at reasonable prices and is definitely not to be missed.

The following morning we took the train, a journey of some 20 minutes, to Sint -Niklaas and were once again lucky enough to bump into John Rooth who was accompanied by Bill English. The venue for the festival is a stone's throw from the station and we joined the queue for the festival. Having missed the last couple of festivals I was most impressed to find that first, there was an English language programme and second, Camra members were entitled to two extra tokens. A token (jeton) entitles you to a 15cl serving of any of the beers on offer and costs 1.20 Euros which the way the exchange rate is going is the best part of a £1.00.

Turning to the beers on offer there were 54 brewery bars and a Trappist bar offering beers from 5 of the 6 Belgian Trappist breweries - no prizes for guessing which one was absent ! Some 230 different beers were available including Lambics, Trappists, Abbey beers, Wheat beers, Oak Aged ales, Brown Ales & Stouts, Saisons, Winter beers and Honey beers. It was difficult to know where to start and it is equally difficult to select the highlights from the 50 or 60 beers that I tried over the 2 days of the festival. At a push my top five would be - in no particular order ;

  • Bersalis ; Oude Beersel.
  • Saint - Monon Brune ; Saint - Monon.
  • Hercule ; Ellezelloise
  • WinterKonnick ; De Konnick.
  • Bonsecours Blonde ; Caulier.
  • Having said that there were a considerable number of old favourites that I did not have the time to try.

    Why, you may ask, should there be an English programme at a Belgian beer festival? The answer is that the festival attracts a growing number of English speaking customers. From our branch you can see photo's "show-casing" John Rooth, Bill English, Graham Harrison and a very tall friend, Dave Kernick, Simon Croome and Jackie Eves. Staff from last year's Ealing Beer festival who were spotted included Vic Beale, Adam Miller, Bryan Betts, Tom Maderios and a wide-awake Brian Pipe.

    Taking our leave of John and Bill, who caught the last train back at 11.30pm, Chris and I headed back to Antwerp in the early evening and headed up to the Groote Witte Arend at 18 Reynderstraat. Although the range of beers on offer does not begin to compare with the Kulminator or the Waagstuk it is a really elegant courtyard bar - albeit the weather didn't allow us to sit in the courtyard ! and we relaxed over a good meal and a few glasses of the excellent, and aforementioned, WinterKonnick.

    Back on the train again to Sint Niklaas the following morning and we found that John and Bill had beaten us to the festival and had also managed to save us a couple of seats. A considerable number of beers were sampled before we returned to Antwerp and caught a train to Turnhout, a fairly small town up near the Dutch border. A friendly local helped us to locate the Spytighen Duvel, a great bar with over 300 beers on offer. In all honesty we weren't able to do the "mournful devil" full justice given the number of beers we had tried at the festival and that, it being a Sunday, the last train back to Antwerp was just after 9.00 pm. Definitely a place to return to!

    Feeling a little tired on the Monday morning we settled for a bolleke in the Oud Arsenaal, 4 Maria Pijpelincxstraat, followed by a couple more WinterKonnicks back at the Groote Witte Arend. Please note that the Belgian beer shop a couple of doors down from the Oud Arsenaal has closed but you can by a decent range of beers, at reasonable prices, in the pub.

    One slight disappointment was that the excellent "Rag-Time" band who used to play at the OBP 24 hour beer festivals in Antwerp have not made it over to Sint Niklaas but I was pleased to see a display of Belgian Morris Dancing on the Saturday afternoon. The last couple of photo's show some of the Morris Dancers in action and a snap of the Dupont bar.

    Hope to see you there next year - the 7th & 8th of March 2009.

    John Bush - March 2008