Next to an evangelical religious centre and opposite a welfare office in a rundown suburb of Brussels near the Eurostar terminal, I am drinking a glass of wonderful – but rather strange – beer.
The taste is hard to describe: sour and bitter, yet tangy and seemingly grapey. There are no bubbles. The colour is chestnut. I take another gulp from the small, bulbous glass: Belgian beers tend to be strong, hence the glass size. This one is about 5.5 per cent; weaker than many others, which can be up to 13 per cent.
“Ahhh, so wine-like, it is very close to the aromas of a sherry,” says Jean Van Roy, whose great-grandfather Paul Cantillon founded the Cantillon Brewery here in 1900.
Since then it has produced lambic beers, which are made by a process known as spontaneous fermentation in which airborne, natural infections cause the beer to ferment – rather than additives such as yeast. This happens in a copper tub in the attic of the charmingly rickety brewery.
“This beer was recently included in a blindfold wine-tasting and many people didn’t even realise it was not a wine,” says Jean, as though this is a very good thing.
The brewery produces 170,000 bottles a year and Jean, who is wearing old jeans and battered boots, personally oversees production.
We are joined by Yvan de Baets, a 37-year-old who plans to open his own brewery in Brussels next year; currently Cantillon is the only one. Despite the rivalry, Jean and Yvan are close friends as they are both passionate about old brewing methods.
Yvan is critical of people’s taste for “sweet” mass-produced beers such as Stella Artois. And he has a theory about this. “It all goes back to the American GIs – they may have helped us to win the war, but they brought over Coca-Cola. We loved it and our taste buds changed. We began to like sweet things. Children now are so used to sweet tastes that they are not ready for bitter tastes when it comes to the age when they drink alcohol. But beer should be bitter.”
He describes strong mass-market beers as: “The yellow water that makes you crazy!”
With his jovial demeanour, Yvan makes a good drinking buddy when he takes me on a tour of some of his favourite bars in his local neighbourhood in the Commune of Saint-Gilles, in the south of Brussels. “Beer should not just be a quickly made beverage. It is part of the culture and history of this country,” he says after we settle at a small wooden table.
We are in Brasserie Verschueren, a cheerful Art Deco bar popular with artists. “They have little money, so that keeps the prices low,” Yvan says conspiratorially. We are sharing a 750ml bottle of blond malt beer called Moinette. It is 8.5 per cent, with a fantastically crisp taste, and costs 6.5 euros (£4.65).
On the far wall, there are colourful slats representing every team in the Belgium football leagues. In the days before television, locals would come here to watch scores come in over a beer. Yvan tells me about the plans for his brewery, Brasserie de la Senne (the Senne is the main river in Brussels). He is already producing the beer by sharing facilities at a brewery outside the city, but production will more than double when he gets his own premises next year.
We down our beers and move on. At our next stop, a lovely corner pub called Moeder Lambic near the commune’s grand town hall, we meet the young owner, Jean Hummler, 29, who pours us glasses of Taras Boulba, one of Yvan’s beers.
It is bitter, but bubbly and fresh – not too sour, not too strong (4.5 per cent). Jean serves up a plate of salamis, cured hams and goat’s cheese nibbles as I take a look around.
Inside there are long racks of classic Belgian cartoon books, many faded from old age, which are popular with students, basic wooden tables, a few regulars talking animatedly, and a sign above the bar that says “ EFFORT MINIMUM” in big red letters.
Jean is chatty. “We have more than 400 Belgian beers here,” he says. “I store more than 10,000 bottles. We have no Stella, no Leffe and no Hoegaarden. Like you have junk food, you have junk beer. We serve the good stuff.”
We try La Gueuze Cantillon, a slightly bubbly version of the spontaneously fermented Cantillon beer we tried at the brewery. It is excellent – combining the unusual sourness of lambic beer with a livelier aftertaste.
“Oh I am just crazy about Belgian beer!” exclaims Yvan, staring happily into his glass.
And as we set off into the city centre for the rest of our pub crawl, I can’t help but start to feel the same.
Need to know
Tom Chesshyre travelled with Visit Flanders (020-7307 7738, www.visitflanders.co.uk) and stayed at Hotel Orts (00 32 2 5170717, www.hotelorts.be), a small, trendy hotel with downstairs bar, close to the main drinking spots. Double rooms from about £143 with breakfast. Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) has return fares to Brussels from £59; journey time 1hr 51m.
Everything you need to know to take the train to Brussels: timesonline.co.uk/eurostar
Ten stops on the Brussels beer trail
Cantillon Brewery, 56 rue Gheude.
Open Mon-Fri 9am-5pm; Sat 10am-5pm; closed Sundays. Tours, at 4 euros (£2.85), are about half an hour. You can buy bottles of lambic, gueuze and raspberry-flavoured beer.
Brasserie Verschueren, 11-13 parvis de Saint-Gilles.
Art Deco haunt popular with arty types. Outside seating overlooks pretty church. Close to the Saint-Gilles m?tro station.
Chez Moeder Lambic, 68 rue de Savoie.
On a quiet corner, a ten-minute walk from Brasserie Verschueren; more than 400 beers on offer. The closest m?tro is Horta.
Le Greenwich, 7 rue des Chartreux.
A 19th-century interior: high ceilings, columns, old wooden panels and best known as a place to play chess. It is said Ren? Magritte once tried (and failed) to sell his surrealist paintings in return for a drink here.
Booze ’n’ Blues, 20 rue de Riches Claires.
Decorated with 1960s American paraphernalia, plus an old jukebox playing Otis Redding and the Contours.
Au Soleil, 86 rue du March? au Charbon.
In a lively neighbourhood south of the Grand Place with a 1970s-style lime green and yellow interior and chatty regulars. Good selection of strong beers.
Poechenellekelder, 5 rue du Chêne.
A few steps from the Manneken Pis (or “pissing boy”) fountain. Interior full of weird and wonderful puppets; an excellent beer selection as well as a decent menu. Good choice for lunch.
A la Mort Subite, 7 rue des Montagnes aux Herbes Potagères.
Close to the art galleries and the European Parliament, with a 19th-century interior and red-waistcoated waiters; a good place to try a gueuze beer.
La Brouette, on Grand Place.
A wonderful spot to take in the 17th-century Flemish Renaissance architecture of Brussels’ most famous sight. Sit outside or try a seat with a balcony view. La Chaloupe D’Or on Grand Place is also excellent.
Au Bon Vieux Temps, 12 rue de Marche aux Herbes.
A 17th-century hideaway. Stained-glass windows, brass chandeliers and lots of cosy corners. A few doors away, A L’Imaige Nostre Dame is another small pub with character.
First published in The Times, December 8 2007