Transforming Bruges

In Bruges, it’s all about beer. The small Belgian city is a medieval Disneyland, a late 19th century simulacrum of a 13th century town that never really existed. It has foggy canals, winding streets, and if you look in the right church at the right time, you might catch a glimpse of the actual Blood of Christ. Since the underrated indie flick In Bruges came out in 2008, the city has a quirky reputation, like a Twin Peaks of the Low Countries. But most tourists come for one of three reasons: chocolate, beer, or both. For us, it was all about beer.

We only had one day before returning to our semi-long-term home in France. Because my child is under legal age and my wife has only recently started sipping cherry-flavoured Kriek lambics, I brought my Mom along as a drinking partner. We have different tastes. I got my start on Albertan Big Rock Grasshopper wheat beer, and have since preferred blond or white ales, while Mom enjoys the dark side – red beers, porters, dubbels, and even high numbers. Before leaving France, we’d found a valuable middle ground in La Chouffe, a spicy unfiltered Belgian blond with just enough hoppiness to lend it weight. We resolved to use this as our springboard for further explorations during a pub crawl in Bruges.

A quick aside about hops: they are a necessary evil, but c’mon. I came to Europe to escape the tyranny of India Pale Ales, which have dominated the North American craft beer landscape, mainly because the heavy hoppy flavour covers up any imperfections in the brew. Yes, IPAs were a global phenomenon in the 19th century – but when in Belgium, do as the Trappist monks have been doing for much, much longer: brewing complex, multilayered beers that make even the most refined IPA feel like a punch in the mouth.

Before starting our mutual romp, I snuck away for lunch and had a Prologue beer: Leffe Blond, a beer so ubiquitous in the Low Countries they even made it into a cheese. Light and zippy, this beer has a sharp aroma but very little finish, or aftertaste. Leffe and La Chouffe are two perfect launch points into Belgian waters: strong, but not too strong nor too complex to discombobulate a palate more accustomed to North American brews (ie. mostly swill).

My plan for Chapter One involved Le Trappiste, a legendary Bruges basement bar. After 40 minutes up and down a dozen winding streets that were all, somehow, named Snaggaardstraat, we found Le Trappiste – closed for another two hours. No problem; there are hundreds of bars in Bruges, and most of them serve hundreds of beers. In an archetypal dingy tavern on Kuipersstraat, I tried Orval, a Trappist ale with a nutty aroma and a banana flavour, with sour notes verging on what the cicerones call “horseblankety” (yum). Mom took Le Chouffe a step darker with Mc Chouffe, a brown dubbel variation of La Chouffe. Both were hits, but not homeruns.

On nearby straat, in a franchise bar called Des Amis, I ordered Chapter Two: Brugse Zot Blond and Brugse Zot Dubbel for myself and Mom, respectively. The brewery, De Halve Maan, is apparently the last in Bruges’s city centre; they make Straffe Hendrike, a fancy tripel or quadrupel, but we erred by ordering their more “lighthearted” options (the Brugse Zot logo is a jester, so it’s a fun beer). Both Zots are crisp and clean, but comparatively bland in the land of earthy, spicy, fruity, musty, bubblegum and horseblanket beers. Fortunately, I guess, you aren’t likely to encounter Brugse Zot outside of Belgium. We moved on.

Finally, Le Trappiste was open, and we descended steep stairs into a candlelit cave with low, arched ceilings fanning out from brick pillars. We ordered snacks and got recommendations from the bartender, based on our findings thus far. Mom got a Troubadour Magma – according to the server, “If you don’t like this, you don’t like beer” – and I got St. Barnardus. The bottle’s cheesy label gave me pause, but from the first sip, I was a convert. If the Trappist monks had been onhand to accept my application, I would have been sworn in and tonsured by the third sip.

Which adjectives describe perfection? This was a witbier, hazy and white-blond, with a fruity, rosy aroma and a fizzy melon flavour that settles to a dry, velvety finish. The other common topic in beer-tasting circles is “mouthfeel,” and St. B’s witbier hits the target with a light but full feeling, and just enough carbonation to keep things moving. Best of all, the hoppy curse of the IPA crowd is all but absent from this beer. I’ve had a couple of St. B’s other offerings since then, and they make all the same right moves. This may be the best beer on Earth.

As for Mom’s Troubadour, the one the bartender swore by? She rated it two dozen hiccups and a lot of warm smiles. Then she divulged a deep, dark secret – and, in referring to it as “one of my two biggest secrets,” she set up a terrific payoff for next year’s pub crawl. Tragically, my notes became oddly oblique at this point, and I can scarcely trust my memories. Something about a beloved childhood pet? Clearly, it was time to wind down.

Instead, we did Chapter Four, also in Le Trappiste. I tried to order a Kameleon Tripel (a beer I’d read about online), but ended up with a Karmeliet Tripel. Maybe they’re the same thing? In a city that doesn’t even spell its own name right (Really, Belgians? Brugge?), anything is possible. It was heavy and sweet, and this time I was the one with the hiccups.

It was suppertime. We ate at De Beurze on the Market Square, and I had Chapter Five, which may have been a Hoegaarden white – but evidence is scant. The last record in my notebook from that evening reads, “The story behind the walls, behind the beer, behind the ring,” so at least beer was still on my mind at some level. The next day, I could say that I learned a lot – about navigating faux-medieval towns, about the costs of failing to hydrate, and unquestionably a lot about beer.

And yet, I know I have much, much more to learn. And Belgium is just next door.

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