Monday, 10 November 2008

Hasselt (part two)

The train started to move a minute after we were seated. "That was close." said Mike. "No it wasn't. We had chance to walk through two carriages and sit down. We had, literally, a couple of minutes to spare."

Mike opened his bottle of water. I opened my Maredsosus 10, sorry, Tripel. He continued to criticise my purchasing decision. "How much did you pay for that?" "Dunno. Together it was 1.57." "My water was 37 cents. So the beer was 1.27" Mike was using the mathematics of Ronald Reagan. "1.20, I think you'll find is the right answer." Mike spent some time running through the Trappist possibilities I'd passed on. "But this is what I wanted to drink." I left it at that. We could easily have still been arguing the toss long after the beer had been tossed down my throat.

I'm starting to recognise much of the route between Antwerp and Hasselt. How many times have we passed along it? "It's time we visited Aarschot again." Mike suggested. "Yes, it's ages since we last drove around the town aimlessly, hoping to find Holeman's." "I can remember where it is now." "That's great. Except that it's closed down."

The train got pretty full. People even came and set next to us, despite the bad karma we were radiating. Though only after the seats next to the odd-looking bloke drinking a half litre can of Jupiler through a straw had been taken.

I'd printed out a Google map with the Jenever Museum and festival site marked. The last 10 minutes of the train journey we passed discussing the best route to take. I would have walked via the Grote Markt. This the way we went last time. I'm a creature of habit. Mike was for a more complicated route, following the ring road. The thought of being in front of groaning shelves packed with jenever made me less argumentative than usual. Me and Mike are always arguing. Strangers probably take us for an elderly gay couple. One where the spark has gone, but neither partner can be arsed to move on. "Any way you like, Mike. I don't care."

We did take Mike's route. I stopped to photograph the first pub we came across. "Why are you taking a photo of that?" "It's a pub." "Are you going to photograph every pub on the way?" I hadn't thought of that, but it sounded like a good idea. "Of course." "Why don't you save your photos for the festival?" "I'll photo that as well." There was only room for another 486 images on my camera card. That would have to do.

I snapped another four pubs before we got to the museum. Then I snapped that, too. What an exciting day. In front of us was a family with two kids under 10. I wonder if they'd let me have their tokens for a free jenever? We didn't pay the entrance fee, as we were heading straight for the bar. "It's only for buying bottles to take out. You can't drink there." The nice young lady behind the counter said. What? We had half a dozen borrels there last time. I'd been looking forward to a couple of Korennwijns to set me up for the festival.

While I was photographing the barrels in the yard, Mike had already got through three samples. After serving him his fourth, the barmaid was strict: "That's your last." He was lucky. She didn't appear to want to let me have more than one. It tasted like lighter fuel, with a little coriander added. Don't think I'll buy a bottle of that. "A bottle of Villiers 1990, please." I wasn't taking any chances. I know that's a cracking jenever. I bought a bottle last time I was here. In the happy time, when you could buy various shots and decide if any were worth the full bottle.

Mike was disappointed. I though the might even cry. That's what I felt like doing. It seems the pubs in the area complained to the mayor that the museum was undercutting them. So they aren't allowed to sell shots any more. What a bunch of miserable gits the publicans are and what a twat the mayor is. He's just taken away one of the main reasons for visiting Hasselt, the moron.

It was only 13:20. The festival didn't open until 14:00. We'd expected to fill most of that time borreling in the museum. What to do? "We could find a bench and crack open our jenever." Mike didn't bother answering, just gave me a "do you think I'm a tramp" look. We headed in the general direction of the festival. I was still hoping for a quick jenever opportunity. But most of the pubs were closed.

The festival had a new venue. Much closer to the centre of town. Kunstlaan 5. In a cultural centre. Sounds easy to find, doesn't it?

Kunstlaan is some bit of hideous 1970's town planning, with various public buildings on it. Most without house numbers. Some sort of medical school, a secondary school. I guessed they were numbers 1 and 3. So, the beer festival site must be next. Instead, there was an expanse of grass with an ugly concrete theatre on its far side. "That might be it." I suggested. "It's a theatre." said Mike, sceptically. "But what about that doorway" I pointed to a large set of unmarked doors in the building's middle. "That's the theatre." Mike wasn't at all convinced.

We approached the doors. There was no sign of activity nor sign of signs. Mike went in to chat with the security guard. I scanned the horizon for a more likely candidate. Mike beckoned me in. This couldn't be it, could? "This can't be it, can it?" I asked dubiously. "Sure is. Look, there's a sign." Hidden in a corner, was sign with the words "bier weekend" written in about 12 point and a little arrow. How had we managed to miss that?

The building reminded me of something. Those polished plywood banisters and fake marble floors. What was it? Up a flight of stairs and through a roped-off room and there it was. The festival entrance. That had two tiny "bier weekend" signs.

It wasn't quite two o' clock, but a few people were already inside. Still plenty of seats to choose from. I remebered what the building reminded me of: a secondary modern school. One built in the late 1960's. The festival was inside what looked like the assembly hall.

They use tokens at Hasselt, but in quite a complicated way. The beers are individually priced - 14 tokens for, say, Pannepot. Red tokens, costing 25 cents, represent 10. White tokens represent 1.

It's waiter service, too. You fill in the number of the beer you want on a ticket then hold up a paddle with "dorst" on it. Then a waiter comes and collects your order slip. A minute later, you beer is in front of you. A great system. You don't have to keep getting up and down to fetch beer. The beer comes to you.

None of those stupid little measures, either. The draught beers are 25cl. You get a full bottle of the bottled ones. Brilliant. It means you can actually drink normally and not be pissing around with a mouthful of this and a mouthful of that. One of the main reasons I only stayed about 2 hours each session at the Copenhagen festival was the piddling little measures. I had to get two at a time just to have something left in my glass by the time I got back to my seat.

What is the point in drinking 20 10cl measures of different beers? How many of them can you actually really taste? I see beer festivals as somewhere to drink, not just to sip at thimbles. I rarely bother drinking more than half a dozen different beers. I won't taste them properly or even remember, unaided by notes, what the majority of them were. Quite often, I'll drink 6 glasses of the same beer at the ZBF. When I've found one I really like. I've abandoned trying to sample every beer brewed. Let's face it, the majority aren't anything special. Many are special in the wrong way: specially crap.

Mike ordered a Rodenbach Vin de Cereale almost before his arse had touched the seat. He'd taken a look at the beer list on the festival website. He generously let me have some. What a great beer! Full of soury goodness, like Foederbier. Wonder what the difference is? Then I glanced at its strength. 10%. 10%??? They've hidden that one well. I ordered a hoppy draught beer from Het Anker, Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor. Quite pleasant. Bitter, but not ridiculously so. The lining of my throat was still intact by the end of the glass.

Having missed out on my jenever breakfast, my eyes were drawn to the heavy end of the menu. They had a couple of interesting-looking Anker beers in 75 cl bottles. "Maybe we could split one of these." I suggested. "That's three glasses of 11% beer." "Don't worry, I'll drink two. I've only got one bottle of jenever for the journey home" What a generous bloke I am.

I tried a 33cl bottle first. Adriaen Brouwer Finest Dark was one. Nice colour, but not a great deal of flavour. Bit of roast here, a touch of caramel there. Mike had a Mac Ben, a beer which had attracted my attention by its tasteful branding. I took a sip and feared all my fillings would fall out. Just a tad sweet.

"Look, there's a beer described as an Imperial Porter." Mike shouldn't have said that. Not if he hadn't wanted a 20 minute lecture on why the concept of an Imperial Porter is so lucicrous. "Who brews it?" I asked. "Struise." I should have guessed. "Maybe we should try it." "No," said Mike firmly, "I'm not drinking any more of their beers." We'd shared a bottle of Black Albert a few days earlier. It hadn't been great. Little aroma, sour and just barely drinkable. And a really pretensious label where they boast of creating a new beer style: Royal Belgian Stout. No, it wasn't a new style. Just a poorly-made strong Stout. We'd drunk it after a Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout and before a Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. Both knocked spots off it.

I managed to persuade Mike to give one of the big Anker beers a try. The dark 11% one. Cuvee van de Keizer Blauw. Mmmm. Just the smell was intoxicating. The signature Anker spicinees. It was so nice to sniff, it took me a while to get to the liquid. Not a disappointment. Flavourful, but balanced and harmonious. Like liquid Dundee cake. One that was heavy on the rum. Just as well it came in a 75cl bottle. True to my word, Mike didn't have to drink a second glass.

Mike was keen to try a beer from an amateur brewer. Stephen Beaumont had tried some of the amateur beers at the Bokbier Festival. He showed me his notes and advised me to stay as far away as possible from them. In a different province, would be best. I couldn't manage to put Mike off, though. He ordered one. While he was away at the toilet, I sneekily ordered a Black Jack. Well. I've never had an Imperial Porter before.

Mike put on his disappointed face when the bottle of Black Jack appeared. "You ordered the homebrew." I said defensively. It had a label even worse than Black Albert. Ugly, amateurish and pretensious. Good combination. Only 7%? That's not very fucking Imperial. In the 1770's a standard Porter was that strong. Oh well, I suppose it's Struise's take on a session beer. The aroma was subdued, but pleasant enough, bit of roast, some dates, touch of cream. Maybe this hadn't been such a unwise choice. Then I tasted it. Uuuurrggh! This wasn't a bit sour, but fullon sour. With a big sideorder of burnt match. Like a glass of Sarson's coloured with dead match heads. Undrinkable. Even worse than some of the beers I've brewed, which is saying something.

I say undrinkable. That didn't mean that I didn't drink it. I hate throwing beer away. Even crap beer. If you don't breathe through your nose and knock it back quickly enough, you avoid most of the nastiness. Even the head looked nasty, clumping unnaturally. A sure sign of infection.

Mike had his "I told you so" face on. Smug bastard. What about his homebrew? The label was better than Black Jack, at least. He gave me a sip. Bastard. It was quite nice and technically clean, unlike the Black Jack. "Do you want to swap?" I said, knowing he wouldn't fall for it. "Fuck off! You ordered that crap, you drink it."

We used the last of our tokens on another Anker big jobbie. Cuvee van de Keizer Rood. Very nice. Full of Belgiany goodness. But just 10% ABV. A toothbrushing beer. Just as well I had that bottle of jenever in my bag.

"What time should we leave?" Mike asked. We planned on catching the 18:10 to Antwerp. "Ten to six should be alright." Twenty minutes to walk to the station? Loads of time. I was wrong.

At 18:12 the station was just in sight. "What do we do now?" I asked Mike. "I need to go to the toilet." he replied. On the corner was a pub. "I can go in there." He didn't intend buying a drink. Now I find that a little impolite. Walking in, using the toilet, buggering off. While he was attending to his bodily needs, I ordered a Korenwijn. Just to be polite, obviously. Politeness is my middle name.

We still had a good while to kill. The trains to Antwerp only run once an hour. I should have guessed what would be on Mike's mind: food. He suggested a kebab place on the same street as the station. "OK. I might even eat something." I did. Against my better judgement, I ordered a lamb kebab. It seemed fine.

There was a little shop next to the kebab place. "I need something to drink on the train." "I've still got that bottle of water." "I mean a proper drink." Big cans of Gordon's Finest Gold. Perfect. A delicate little 10% number. Two of those should do.

The journey to Antwerp takes a little over an hour. We were most of the way there and I still hadn't made much of a dent in my can. "Better drink quicker." I thought to myself. But something was happeneing in my gut. Something strange and unsettling. "Where's the toilet?" I though. And I didn't need a wee.

There was still a good bit left in my can when we pulled into Antwerp. I put it in my bag. I wasn't going to throw beer away. Even if I didn't feel like drinking it. My stomach might stop misbehaving.

What to do in the 40 minutes we had in Antwerp? I should have guessed what Mike wanted to do: eat. This time it was a shoarma. I genuinely don't know how he does it. Keep eating. Especially all that dodgy, greasy stuff.

Guess what? The train to Amsterdam was pretty full. We just managed to get seats. I put my unfinished can on the table. I stared at it until I fell asleep. There was still a disturbing bubbling going on in my guts. Must have been that kebab.

The journey was uneventful. We started the approach to Amsterdam. I could already see the no. 50 metro running alongside us. Then we stopped. "Must be a red signal." I thought. Fifteen minutes later and we still hadn't moved. Then there was an announcement. There were "technical issues" they were trying to resolve. "That means the locomotive's fucked." I said pessimistically.

After another 15 minutes there was a second announcement. The loco was fucked. They were fetching another to pull us into Amsterdam. It would take 30 to 40 minutes. "That means it'll be at least an hour." Mike said. We matched metros rattle past for a while.

"Things could be worse." I said. "How exactly?" "At least the lights are still on. I was on a metro that got stuck in Amstelveen. After 5 minutes the lights and heating went off. It was January." I should have kept my mouth shut. The lights went out five minutes later.

I knew exaclty where we were. About a 15 minute walk from my house. If the bastards would open the doors. But they wouldn't do that. "Too dangerous." And Mike had pissed them off. A conductress had come by and asked if anyone minded if they let people smoke in our carriage. "Yes. I do" Mike had chimed up. Before pointing out smoking was never allowed on trains. Thaat was about 5 minutes before the lights went out. I wonder if there was a connection between the two events? The lights stayed on in all the other carriages.

We got to Amsterdam Centraal at 01:00. Well after the last tram. It was OK for Mike. He could walk home. I had to take my chances the chaotic jungle that is the taxi stand outside the station. It operates on a funny system. The taxi drivers mill around, looking for someone going a distance long enough for them to get a fare they consider worthwhile. It's very Third World. Me and my Filliers made it home without too much trouble.

Dolores was waiting for me. As I had guessed, she had assumed that either I'd got drunk or Mike had got us stuck somewhere. For once, she was wrong on both counts.

Nationaal Jenevermuseum
Witte Nonnenstraat 19,
3500 Hasselt.
tel. +32 (0)11 23 98 60
fax +32 (0)11 21 10 50


Tim said...

I've given up trying to sample every beer brewed. Let's face it, the majority aren't anything special. And many are special in the wrong way, specially crap.

Lately I've been leaning towards this philosophy. The pub down the road from me has 24 rotating taps with a couple staples, including St. Bernardus. Every time I went in there I felt compelled to try some triple imperial porter with a slight bit of hope that it would be drinkable. Now I skip the crap and go straight for the Abt.

Ron Pattinson said...

Tim, wise man.

Zythophile said...

Let's face it, the majority aren't anything special. And many are special in the wrong way, specially crap

Welcome to Sturgeon's Law.

Zak Avery said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zak Avery said...

What the hell is it with the preface "Imperial"? I understand what Imperial stout is, but Imperial bitter, lager, porter - I mean what exactly is it meant to convey? Strength? Quality? Regality? Mikkeller Draft Bear is an "imperial pilsner" - how?

Anonymous said...

"Imperial" is a word commonly abused by US micros (and people inspired by them in Europe) to denote a rocketfuel-strength variation on the basic style in front of which said I-word has been stuck.
But don't we all know bigger is not necessarily better ? ;o)

Anonymous said...

To expand on what Laurent correctly wrote: it is marketing-speak, a disease that infects many companies today. It is my belief that sites like ratebeer and beeradvocate have escalated this to absurd levels.

Calling de Struise the best brewers in the world (ratebeer) is an example of this.

Anonymous said...

Although there were a number of negatives in Ron's report on Hasselt (i.e., finding the festival, the jenever museum disaster, etc.), I would still say this is one of the best beer festivals in Belgium. Both the choice of beers and the service were absolutely outstanding. If you like Belgian beer: Hasselt, Essen and ZBF are the troika of must-attend festivals.

Oblivious said...

There are also those who believe in imperial mild's!

Trying to explain what a throw back mild or history gets a little difficult

Kristen England said...

You'd have a bloody revolt around here if you tried to have a beer festival that didn't involve standing for extended periods allowing everyone to say how much better THESE beers are than the ones they get at their local place. Mind you they are all from the same distributor. Then you get the collection of HBT who either want to make everything they taste or already do make stuff thats MUCH better than what they are drinking. Then you get the 'expert' judges that poo poo every beer and try to tell you that this isn't a true bitter...they've been to London on a layover once.

If you took the milling and mucking about out of it, Im not sure what they would do. I am sure that the little social butterflies would NOT be happy.

I actually think it would be a good change of pace to have your beer brought to you. Im not sure how one can gauge their drinky level without moving about at these things. "Whow...are the rest of these floors tilted also!?"

Andrew Elliott said...

Hmm... I guess now that you mention it, Ron, Maredsous has started labelling it as a Triple. I think I'll stick to calling it the "10" though.

I think I'll continue the trend and open a brewery to produce Imperial Barleywine. Think it'll sell?

Anonymous said...

The homebrew club I'm a part of recently entered a "club only" competition where entrants were to submit beers for an "Imperial Anything" competition.

I was thinking I'd enter an Imperial Kvass or perhaps an Imperial No-Alcohol Lager.

Or maybe I'd go the other direction and pitch yeast into a bucket of malt extract syrup and call it an Imperial Scotch Ale.