Mrs. Beernerds and I just wrapped up a wonderful 12-day trip to Europe for our belated honeymoon. We spent nights in Bruges, Brussels, Amsterdam and Paris, and also took a day-trip to Normandy.
This obviously wasn’t a beer trip per se – that whole “honeymoon” thing – but I couldn’t travel to Europe without tracking down some great beer.
So, instead of clogging up Twitter timelines with a couple hundred (or more) posts on the trip, I’m bringing the blog out of retirement. Over the next few days, I’ll post recaps of the beery parts of the trip.
Of the 35 or so beers that I sampled, I only took full tasting notes of two. I didn’t want Mrs. Beernerds to spend chunks of the trip watching me type into my phone. Still, I jotted down what I drank and where I drank it, and took pictures of just about every brew.
Whenever possible, I made a point to drink beers that we can’t get in Texas. I was armed with a couple of lists of breweries/beers/vintages to look out for, and I happily found a few of my top targets. I think I only ordered “blindly” (meaning, without any prior research/knowledge of the brewery and/or the beer) a handful of times.
There were also couple of times that, after drinking something new but underwhelming, I fell back to an old favorite, and I made sure those occasions were worthy (a great beer from the region) and rare.
I also drank a half-dozen pints of Guinness. Man United played three times during the trip and, inevitably, the places I tracked down to watch the games were Irish-style pubs with limited beer selection. No complaints, though; Guinness was my first favorite beer and, when short of good alternatives, I’m happy to have it as my fall-back beer.
Without further ado, here’s the first installment. We flew from Houston to Paris, but that same morning we took a series of trains to the beautiful medieval town of Bruges.
Cambrinus was our first bar of the trip, and even our first real meal of the trip. It’s a modern gastropub-style establishment, apparently named after Gambrinus, “a legendary king of Flanders, and an unofficial patron saint of beer”. It was surprisingly quiet when we walked in on a Friday afternoon. It’s no more than 1.5 blocks off Bruges’ famous main square, which seems to be swarmed with tourists at all hours, but even that slight distance made Cambrinus a perfect place to sit down for a quiet, hearty meal, and for two truly great beers.
The beer menu was more of a beer book, with a wooden cover and over a dozen pages of beers sorted somewhat by style: general Belgian ales, lambics, Trappists, and a couple of other sections. I would have loved to study it more closely, but my advance research gave me no choice but to go straight to the Trappist beers, where I was thrilled to see a section for Westvleteren, listing the 12 (quad), 8 (dubbel) and blonde.
An aside on Westvleteren: It’s a traditional Trappist brewery (brewing began in 1838), and to this day the monks brew the beer themselves, onsite. Despite the acclaim that continually comes their way – Westy 12 is BeerAdvocate’s top-rated beer in the world, with the 8 ranked 15th on the same list, and the blonde ranked 39th among Belgian beers – the monks have resisted any efforts to commercialize their beer. As a result, they brew very limited quantities (only enough to pay the bills) and the beer is extremely hard to find.
This would not be my first taste of Westvleteren, as I had managed to score 4 bottles of the 12 on the De Struise web store early last year. Until recently, the only way to buy any Westy online was from people reselling it, for top dollar naturally. That changed a bit when Westvleteren partnered with the online De Struise store to sell very limited quantities of the former’s beer. I managed to get my hands on four bottles of Westy 12 last year. I drank one immediately, traded a second, and am aging the last 2 bottles.
Undaunted by that initial disappointment, at Cambrinus I didn’t hesitate to order the 12 right off the bat (the ~9 euro price tag didn’t put me off either). This fresh bottle of Westvleteren 12 (the cap read 11.02.14) was very good. I love quads, and this was pretty close to how I imagine the perfect quad – dark and sweet, fruity and malty, a bit spicy, with a kick from the alcohol and the yeast, and full-bodied with just a touch of Belgian-style fizz. My only complaint was that this bottle was still hot, and tasted boozier than I expected. If nothing else, that makes me even more excited to age my 2 remaining bottles for a while longer.
By starting the trip with what many people consider the best beer on the planet, I knew there was nowhere to go but down. I didn’t go too far down, though, as I stuck with the same brewery and ordered the 8, a dubbel. I briefly considered going with something different, but I didn’t want to risk missing out on something so rare. My research said a couple of other places on our itinerary might have Westy, but this was the only sure thing. As it turned out, I didn’t see it advertised anywhere else, so I made the right call.
The 8 was, unsurprisingly, also very good. Dubbels and quads tend to be very similar – I sort of see dubbels as turned-down quads, or quads as amped-up dubbels. This was the case here, with the two beers a lot more similar than they were different. That went for the booziness too – the two bottles were about the same age (the cap on the 8 read 21.01.14), and like the 12 before it, the 8 was a bit hot. It was still a great beer, though, and I would love to get my hands on a bottle or 4 to age.
I would have loved to spend a few more hours at Cambrinus to fully explore their menu, or simply to stare at the hundreds of bottles behind the bar. But with the meal finished and the two bottles of high-octane beer in me, it was time to explore Bruges.