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Antwerp's house rule: don't drop a bollek

Michael Jackson's autumn trip yields several discoveries

Given all the time in the world, I would make at least four visits a year to Belgium, one for each season, and base each trip on a different city. I would always make it a long weekend, starting on Friday, because some beer cafés do close on Sundays.

If you have already visited Belgium, and thoroughly explored the many delights of Brussels, I suggest an autumn outing to the country's second city, Antwerp.

Perhaps because Brussels is more obviously cosmopolitan, it tends to overshadow Antwerp. Maybe people see Antwerp as a muscular, workday, port city - but that is part of its charm.

I have even heard people confuse it with Amsterdam - but that is in another country, albeit the one next door.

Antwerp's most famous beer bar is Kulminator, at 32 Vleminckveld (tel 232-45-38), close to the centre of the city.

This darkish little café, with more than 500 beers, about 200 of them vintage-dated, is in no circumstances to be missed ... but do leave space for a few other calls, too.

On my most recent visit, I was pleased to see that Taverne Bierland (28 Korte Nieuwe Straat, in the Old Town) seemed to have enlivened itself under a new ownership.


The number of beers had dropped from 1,200 to a mere 465, but their presentation was much improved and, as a grizzled journalist, I like drinking in a former newspaper office.


The number of beers had dropped from 1,200 to a mere 465, but their presentation was much improved and, as a grizzled journalist, I like drinking in a former newspaper office.

I also found a place I must have walked past 20 times: Aux Armes de Tirlemont, on the main shopping street, Eiermarkt, at the corner of Suderman Straat.

You will spot it by the statue of the Virgin Mary outside. This pubby place is also known as "The Small Café", "The Leaning Café" (it does), or simply "the Gueuze Café".

It is said to be 400 years old, and I don't think anyone has ever cleaned the nicotine stains off the wallpaper in those four centuries. (How odd that I find this so attractive, despite being a militant non-smoker.)

The tiny main bar has benches round the walls, marble-topped "sewing machine" tables and an iron stove. The tiny inner bar has only one table.

A natural cellar dispenses a beautifully clean, sharp, quenching De Neve Gueuze. The café also served De Neve Kriek until the brewery stopped making it in the classic, unfiltered, form. Now, an unfiltered Kriek from Hanssens - with a teasingly rhubarby esteriness as well as the cherry character from the fruit - is the house offering.

Although the Gueuze-Lambic family are its specialties, this estimable establishment also provides De Koninck Ale, without which no Antwerp café could hold up its head, so to speak.

Unlike the denizens of some cities I could name, the Antwerpers show a lot of pride in their local beer. If you have never tasted it, you have one of life's great pleasures to come.

De Koninck is a soft, perilously drinkable ale: a toasty maltiness at first, then a spicy, almost cinnamon-like fruitiness; and finally the delicacy of Saaz hops in the finish.

In cafés where it is the house beer, Antwerpers order it as a "bolleke". This word sounds vulgar to an English speaker, being pronounced "bollocker", but it simply refers to the ball-shaped (well, rounded...) goblet in which the beer is served.

If you are a male, it would be much more embarrassing to ask for a flute. This refers to the narrow, tube-shaped glass that was used in Britain for lager, but in Antwerp slang also indicates the male member.

This is thought suitable only for the pleasure of female drinkers.

Try a bolleke at the studenty Café Den Engel, on the Grote Markt. Have another glass at Quinten Matsijs, at 17 Moriaan Straat (corner Hoofdkerk), with beuling (black and white puddings).


It offers a free glass of De Koninck to anyone who has already bought 10, and I have been tempted to wonder whether these people are then tipped through a trapdoor into the beuling machine.


Quinten Matsijs has been there 400 years, but you should not stay so long. It offers a free glass of De Koninck to anyone who has already bought 10, and I have been tempted to wonder whether these people are then tipped through a trapdoor into the beuling machine.

You need to stay alert for your visit to the pilgrim. There are two cafés with versions of this name.

The one you want is Café Pelgrim at 8 Boomgaardstraat (corner Mechelsesteenweg), opposite the De Koninck brewery. The beer here is brewery-tap fresh, and some devotees take it with a shot of De Konick yeast (in Flemish, gist).

You can tip a dash of this into your bolleke, to give it that cask-conditioned feel, or drink it straight from the shot-glass, chased down by beer.

Either way, you will not subsequently be, to use John Mortimer's poignant phrase, "a stranger to the lavatory."

Before this discussion descends to a vulgarity beneath even that of the lusty Antwerpers, I should mention that the other pilgrim is a rather fancy cellar bar and restaurant to which you should go only if you are in an expensive mood.

Café Pelgrom, with an "o," serves the malty-but-dry Ster Ale. The café is in Pelgrim Straat, and the brewery north of Antwerp and close to the Dutch border is in the village of Meer.

I did visit the brewery, which is heartily traditional, with an open mashtun and a bricked-in kettle. The owning family, the Sterkens, can trace their history in Meer to 1654, and there is evidence of a brewery on the site since 1731.

The owner showed me a diary entry of his great-grandfather, which in 1868 recorded that: "The Guild of Bowmen drank six and three quarter-barrels and eight pints." Another entry recalled: "The doctor bought a quarter-barrel."

A month later, the entry was repeated, and again four weeks. The priest, on the other hand, bought half-barrels, but of a weaker beer...

Rural life has its attractions and I was delighted to be taken on another sidetrip into the country by Flemish beer-writer Peter Crombecq, whose Bier Jaarboek (published by Kosmos, of Antwerp and Utrecht) is an invaluable guide.


Look up nine or ten words in a Dutch dictionary and you are set to go.


Because it is ordered very systematically, this book does not require fluent Flemish/Dutch. Look up nine or ten words in a Dutch dictionary and you are set to go.

Our trip took us out of Antwerp to the hamlet of St. Pauwels, near St. Niklaas, in the direction of Ghent. Our destination was a farmhouse that has been turned into a beer restaurant called Grouwe Steen.

With Peter as a driver, I was free to sample enough beers to fill a notebook, then ravenously tuck into a Panneke Spek. This is a dish of sliced potatoes, onions, red peppers, bacon, and grilled cheese, and I firmly believe that its buffering action helps prevent hangovers.

Grouwe Steen is the meeting place of the local branch of the Objective Beer-Tasters. This establishment is so good that it should have been mentioned in my book on Belgian beers.

It wasn't. Somehow it slipped through the net, perhaps because it is not in a major city. I shall instead mention it everywhere else, starting here. The café is in the street of the same name: at 11 Grouwe Steen Straat, Sint-Pauwels, East Flanders (tel 03-776-66-06).

You should know about it. Apart from anything else, it opens on Sundays.


Published Online: OCT 1, 1997
Published in Print: SEPT 1, 1991
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel

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