Before coming to France, I knew that beer was going to be a big deal, but I couldn’t figure out how to make that into a personal mission that didn’t end in AA meetings. Even if I tried a different Belgian beer every night, I still wouldn’t get through them all, and my liver and beer gut wouldn’t thank me for the effort. A far more reasonable goal involved trying brews from all 11 official Trappist breweries (ie. monasteries) – until I learned that some of them aren’t Belgian, and that one of them – Westvleteren – is nearly impossible to obtain. There was no point in coming home with an imperfect score.
So instead I went to Bruges, and drank my face off. This tactic was a bit like journeying to the Holy Land, then collecting random drinking cups in hopes that one of them will be the Cup of Christ. Some of my goblets were blessed indeed, even miraculous; but I came home unconvinced that I had found the Holy Grail of beer. Then, while griping about this non-problem to G, who moved to Northern France to address exactly these sorts of deficiencies in his own lifestyle, I was offered a shot at a second Crusade.
“If you go back to Bruges, I’ll give you directions to Le Garre,” Said G, “As one reviewer put it, ‘Le Garre serves the best Belgian tripel, which de facto makes it the best beer on Earth.’ He was not wrong.”
G is a Medievalist who often shepherds Canadian exchange students to destinations like Bruges. The daytrips can be exhausting – walking tours, boat tours, museum tours – but he always gives the kids an hour to themselves so he can sneak away to Le Garre. This year, G had been moving house instead of leading tours, so he was overdue for his pilgrimage. It did not take much arm-twisting to lure him away from renovations in order to serve as guide on my personal, one-stop drinking tour of Bruges.
Trains out of Lille run hourly, but we ran into delays during our transfer in Kortrijk. All told, the journey to Bruges took three hours, which made our outing seem briefly ludicrous to me. Would I drive from Edmonton to Calgary, or from Sydney to New Glasgow, just to down a single pint? In my twenties, certainly. But for two men with ten decades between them, it seemed a bit absurd.
Yet it was a nice day for a stroll in Bruges, and with G along, I was able to appreciate more of the city’s vistas. My first visit was soured by the revelation that much of Bruges’s famous Medieval architecture is actually more recent restoration work; G could point out which of the tapering brick towers were authentic, and which ones had housed visiting kings, etc. In fact, with G’s irreverent, subversive take on history, I got the inside scoops: which church had really housed the blood of Christ when the Basilica of the Holy Blood got sacked; where the Medieval lesbian commune sat; and which of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse has the largest erection. After that, more than ever, I needed a stiff drink.
Still, these matters cannot be rushed. We ate lunch across a square from Brouwerij De Halve Maan, the only active brewery within Bruges’s city limits. I ordered their signature tripel, Straffe Hendrik, which G says may well have been piped directly under the ground from the brewery. During my last visit, I tried De Halve Maan’s Brugse Zot blond, but found it lacking in substance. Straffe Hendrik (whose name means “punishing Henry”) was better, with a spicy citrus taste that complemented my bacon apple salad. A solid warm-up to the main event.
Like my flavoured crickets or my cat-poop coffee, I rate my beer experiences chiefly upon “anecdotability,” a perfectly cromulent word referring to the amount of storytelling potential that comes from the event. In this respect, De Garre delivered from before we entered the tavern, whose door is tucked invisibly inside a narrow, covered alley off the Breidelstraat, one of the busiest tourist areas of Bruges. There is no magic password but it might as well be Diagon Alley, hidden in plain sight to protect it from uninitiated Muggles who will instead get soused at the kitschy Beer Museum across the street. I was one of those Muggles once. Not anymore.
Staminee De Garre is three stories of tight seating, steep spiral steps, and ancient oak bars and banisters. The house beer is served in wide, heavy-stemmed goblets with a side of complementary cheese cubes. While waiting for the generous, pillowy head to settle, G recounted a previous visit to the crowded bar, where he sat across from a gloomy German traveler. “The weather is horrible,” The German reportedly said, “And I have many troubles with my family. But at least there is this.”
We toasted and sipped. De Garre delivered all the complexity I’d come to expect from Belgian beer – nutty, fruity, spicy – but it was also smooth and creamy, even buttery, a trait I’d only found previously in a stout like Guinness. Although it had a slightly hoppy aftertaste (not my favourite), it was subtle and short-lived. Besides, the beer’s 11.5% alcohol content swiftly eclipsed any such quibbles. I felt permeated with the room’s authentic warmth. We watched a young, attractive couple walking their baby between the tables. Her bright, vivacious grin matched our rapture perfectly. O brave new world, that hath such tripels in it!
I would have stayed for a second, but a cautionary tale from G persuaded me to quit before the strong beer, in combination with the steep stairs, made our “Paradise Regained” tale into a painful Fall from Grace. Instead, we each bought some De Garre to go. The tripel is not available in stores, and they only sell it for export in 1.5 litre magnums. I wasn’t sure how I’d convince S that enormous bottle must be shipped back to Canada with us; I also wasn’t sure I’d be able to drink it all myself without dying; but I didn’t care. I just didn’t want the De Garre experience to end.
Because it’s sad to know you’ve had the best. Where can you go but down? G and I set out for the train station, but something caught his eye in the window of The Bottle Shop, one of Bruges’s best-stocked beer stores. Could it be – those unadorned brown bottles in flat wooden crates? – it was! G had spotted a rare, dwindling shipment of Westveleteren, the most elusive of the 11 Trappist beers. I realized that now, I had a shot at sampling all of them before leaving Lille. Some might find it suspicious, to come across two Holy Grails in one afternoon. I’ve started to learn that, with the right guide and the right attitude, there are grails to be found everywhere.
Well, perhaps not everywhere. There will be the long train ride home, and there will always be morning after. But at least there is this.