80 Brussels Boozers (and what to drink)

My title doesn't have quite the same ring to it as that chosen for the book that this post is about. The 80 beer series has returned to where it began with the release of the second eidition of around Brussels in 80 beers. I caught up with author Joe Stange to find out what he's been getting up to:

BIK: How did you get involved with 80 beers?

JS: I was living in Brussels and writing a book on the best places to drink the best beer in Brussels. Then I heard that Tim Webb wanted to publish one akin to Podge and Siobhan's Around Bruges in 80 Beers. And I thought, "Oh, shit. I'd rather not compete with that." So I called Tim. I explained that I was a journalist who was already working on such a book, and might he need someone to write it? So he put me together with Yvan De Baets, and we co-researched and wrote the first edition. My background was news reporting, plus two years of living in Brussels and filling a notebook with beer and pub notes.

BIK: How did you find the time to check out so many pubs & bars? I assume there must have been plenty that didn't make the cut too!

JS: At this point many years of research have gone into it. I have a working list of nearly 200 cafés, but there are many hundreds more in Brussels. I can't get to them all. I lived in Brussels for four years until 2010, and I've managed to get back two or three times per year since then. Most of that time I spend just walking and tramming around the city, following leads and occasionally finding something new. I follow local Brussels media too, because they occasionally write about new cafés or restaurants. Still, I'm sure there are a few good ones out there that I haven't found. If so, let me know!

BIK: Are you impressed with how much the bar scene in Brussels has moved on in the last 6 years?

JS: Yes and no. There are more bars, cafés and shops run by people who are selective about Belgian beer and know what they're doing. So that's great. It was harder to narrow my list down than it was in 2009 for the first edition.

On the other hand there are also an absurd number of ridiculous trendy "concept" bars that either don't care about beer or are content to relay mainly on the products of one large beer company. Meanwhile Brussels hotel bars are stuck in the 1980s.

Also, Belgian bars are starting to play with international craft beer, which is fine, but unfortunately they come at international craft prices. As in other well established beer countries, the Belgians generally refuse to pay much for beer. I'm cheap and old-fashioned so I like it that way.

The Corbeau (Raven)

BIK: What are your thoughts on how Belgian beer as a whole, moving to more modern interpretations of styles whilst some breweries still preserving traditional styles

JS: Our cultural borders were always liminal, never hard and fast. What we once learned were "Belgian" beers were also heavily influenced by British ale, German lager and French wine -- and influence has many vectors. But Belgian beer does have a certain identity and common characteristics -- light body, sturdy foam, lively carbonation, expressive yeast, bottle conditioned -- and I get annoyed when lazy brewers chuck all that away in a doomed attempt to imitate a California IPA, for example. 

BIK: A topic i think will come up in conference: brewers without breweries (commissioners, gypsy or otherwise). What are your views on these type of breweries and are they overall a good, bad or indifferent thing for Belgium?

JS: The chief problem is not hiring a brewery -- it can be a sensible arrangement -- but lack of honesty. People want to know where their food and drink is made. The label should tell them the place of manufacture. Also I have little patience for misuse of the words "brewer" and "brewery." I want to protect the language there. A brewer is someone who physically brews beer. A brewery is a building that houses functioning brewing equipment. If you are not those things, do not use those words. There is no shame in being an excellent marketeer or successful entrepreneur who is sensible enough to hire skilled technicians to make a product. Own it, instead of pretending to be something you're not. It's disrespectful to the people who do the production work.

BIK If you had time for just a single place in Brussels, which would it be?

JS: The Brocante, on Place du Jeu de Balle. Great list of lambics, lots of odd local snacks, interesting bric-a-brac, and a cat or two.

BIK: If there was one bar you'd suggest people visit to get an authentic taste of Brussels history and beer, which would it be?

JS: Lots of choices here but I'd single out the Bon Vieux Temps. Dark, ancient and unchanging, a wonderful place to sip a Trappist and talk quietly or admire furnishings.

BIK: If pressed for your favourite Belgian beer, what would you name?

JS: Saison Dupont.

A man of good taste obviously, recommending one of my favourite Belgian beers! Joe kindly arranged to get the book posted to me in time for our trip to Brussels to give it a proper road test. Its certainly had that and now appears a few years old, replete with beer stains and foxed cover! We've been to around ten of the eighty outlets so far and found something great to drink at all of them. Joe's writing style is both conversational and observational with plenty of details on the history of the place, some great photos and each page is rounded out with a beer suggestion and some pithy tasting notes.

I started out trying to drink the suggested beer in each venue, but as with all transient things a number of the venues no longer stock the suggested beer. No worries though as there are plenty of other belgian beers to choose from!

I'll probably do a full round up of all the places that we get to over the weekend, but in the meantime I'd recommend Neutnigenuf for great beer cuisine, moder lambic fontinas for beer choice and le Fleur en Papier doree for atmosphere. Don't forget cantillon and de la senne of course!

Barrel store at Cantillon

The book is very reasonably priced at £10.99 and can be brought on line from www.booksaboutbeer.com, on Amazon or in many branches of Waterstones/ other reputable bookstores. For those attending the conference there's a Waterstones opposite the Hotel Marivaux and Bier Tempel also holds copies. If you're around next weekend (4th-6th September) then Joe and publisher Tim are around for Brussels beer weekend and launching their book at Delices & Caprices on Saturday at 1pm.

Happy bar hunting!

Cheers to Joe for taking the time to answer my questions, if anyone wants to catch up with him, share suggestions, jokes or pictures drop him a line at BXL80beers AT gmail DOT com or on Facebook here.

*I always thought the name was "Strange" to the extent I was about to report a typo on the front cover...


Tyrone's Turn

For too long the focus on good beer in Northern Ireland has been centred around Belfast. Well not any more: enter the Wine Rack in Stewartstown. Now, as you would guess from the name, wine plays a big role in this shop and you won't find a better advocate of all things vinous than proprietor Michael Mulgrew. But Micky's also a fan of the fruit of the hop and has recently massively expanded his beer selection to become the best in Tyrone (if not all of NI, Belfast excluded.)

Just a small selection
of what's available!
The new beers are lovingly presented in a fancy dancey new fridge; to ensure all beers are delivered to you in tip-top condition and comprise a range of the best from the island of Ireland, UK and even further afield. Prices are keen and plenty to choose from; so get yourself along there post-haste!

Alongside increasing the range in his shop, he has formed the Mid-Ulster beer club which has already hold a sold-out tasting of Farmageddon and McGargles Beers with more in the offing. I can exclusively reveal the next event will be on Saturday 3rd October 7-10pm and feature not one but two of the best breweries Northern Ireland have to offer; Belfast's flying-run start-up Boundary and local favourites Pokertree. Brewers Matt and Darren both know each other fairly well (having been co-organisers of ABV); so expect a good bit of craic and tall tales as they guide us through their respective beer ranges. If we're lucky we may even get to sample some brand new releases. (If you want to get ahead of the game Micky keeps a good stock from both brewers in the shop). To book for the event (tickets cost £12) please call in to the shop or give Micky a ring on the number below.

Following that tasting we hope to welcome 8 Degrees into our midsts as part of their grand tour of the North later this year. Stay tuned for further details. Tastings should be a fairly regular occurrence, probably alternating with wine events, with even more plans for next year. Did someone mention antipodean brewers? ...certainly wasn't me.

36-38 The Square, Stewartstown BT71 5HZ
0288773 8092

Full Disclosure: Micky reached out to Beer Ireland for help with improving his range and I responded. After all the shop is mere minutes from my door; so benefits me too! Every county should have a flagship destination like the Wine Rack, which will challenge other local outlets to up their games. Micky has even more things planned but I'll leave those for another day. I have not and will not be receiving payment for my advice, but have of course been given some free beer samples.