I had been dreaming of drinking in Europe ever since we booked our plane tickets. I started looking up different breweries and reading blogs to research “must-try” beers. I was stoked! Once I got there, however, I slid out of the beer-hunter mode and relaxed into more of a casual drinking vibe. I think it happened when I spent nearly a whole day driving to Westvleteren, Belgium, on the 3rd day of our trip. Saint Sixtus, the famous Abbey that makes the world’s “best” beer was on my list of must-see places. However, when we arrived the tasting room was closed, even though Google had assured me it would be open. That night instead of St. Sixtus I drank an amazing selection of Belgian Ales at a secret squat bar located across the street from the house we were staying at, then stumbled home at closing time to continue drinking more delicious beer that we purchased from a Night Shop down the street. This topped drinking a single beer, no matter how high it may be rated.
I didn’t go out on a limb after that to seek out beer experiences because I was only there for 3 weeks and there were amazing things to eat and drink and see and do everywhere we went. I became a little more laid back than I usually am and let the beers come to me. Not seeking them out didn’t mean they weren’t there, it just opened up the opportunity to try things that I may have otherwise overlooked. At one point I considered not drinking every day of the trip – at home I usually only drink beer once or twice a week. That decision lasted only until we sat down for dinner at a burger joint in Marburg with an amazing selection of German craft beer, I just couldn’t resist!
I noticed a big difference in that there were either these fantastic old country beers, made traditionally and locally with a big following, and then the new craft beers that were creative and interesting but there wasn’t any sort of fervor towards them as there is in BC. It seemed like many of the styles were influenced by trends set by the North American brewing scene. I only met a few people who were into the new world style of beers and most of them were behind the counter in establishments selling craft beer. A few of the regular folks I met were intrigued by them, but many felt that it was gimmicky, and preferred their tried and true local brands.
I really enjoyed my time in Belgium, the people we met there were as into beer as I am, maybe even more. We were staying with friends of Scott’s brother, whom we had never met before. Breaking the ice they offered us some tea and cookies. It came up in conversation that writing about beer is a hobby of mine. Sven, one of our hosts, leaned close and asked me with a wry smile “You like beer?”. He then left the room and came back with several bottles of Rochefort Trappist 8 that he replaced our tea with. Our other host, Jereon, was busy working on his computer but after a few minutes he couldn’t resist joining in on our educational session. We headed over to the clandestine pub across the street where their friends joined in suggesting beers for us to try and explaining the nuances of each. The next night they gave us a tour around Ghent, taking us to an authentic Genever bar (the spirit from which Gin evolved) and a troll-themed beer cellar. Even though Sven no longer drinks, he was an authority on the beers and spirits of Belgium. We were up both nights until the wee hours of the morning – Belgian beer has a way of making that happen.
We tried explaining to the Belgians the new world styles of sour beers being brewed in BC. Their noses wrinkled at our descriptions. They agreed that a lambic beer might be possible if brewed under the right conditions, but a dry-hopped sour? No, that just wouldn’t be right they said. An overtly-hopped IPA might be acceptable in some situations, but it would ruin the flavour of any beer that was drank afterwards. I suppose that the obstacle is that when living in a country with some of the world’s best beer there isn’t much interest in experimentation: if it’s already been done right then why make any changes?
Germany had some wonderful beers, but while there was a lot of options there were many similarities between them. Not that anything is wrong with that, Pilsners are a great beer: easy drinking at lunch time, dinner time, and 3 in the morning. I also tried some dark beers, wheat beers, and lagers. They were delicious, but after a few days I began to thirts for something more unique. It wasn’t easy to find; in Marburg, a city of 81, 000, the only craft beer store had recently closed down. We were pointed in the direction of a grocery store near the university which carried a decent selection of European and American craft beers. I found Stone Arrogant Bastard next to a German IPA with Mandarina Bavaria hops. Our host in Germany was really into hoppy beers – the only person I met on my whole trip who was – so I was glad to be able to find a selection of IPAs to bring back to her as a thank-you for our stay.
Amsterdam and the Netherlands seemed to be the most alert to the craft beer movement. Amsterdam has a number of craft breweries in the city who are gathering more international attention, including Oedipus and Brouwerij ‘t IJ. On my first night in Amsterdam I had a complex and well-balanced sour beer that was a result of a collaboration between local brewery Oedipus and The Commons, from Oregon. In The Hague we happened to park next to Dorst Craft Beer, a shop that had just opened up a few days earlier and had an amazing selection of craft beer available. I requested a good saison and the owner, Jamie, informed me that “I only sell beers that I like to drink, everything here is good”. He also suggested visiting a craft brewery in Rotterdam, Kaapse Brewing, which was located in a “food factory”: an industrial building that had been converted into a number of small food and beverage shops sharing a central community seating area. Small, with a focus on local and sustainable production, and hip in an run-down sort of way it wouldn’t have seemed out of place in East Vancouver or Portland.
In the old part of Lyon I found another craft beer shop, La Chope de Lug. The owner, Alfredo, informed me that while he’d been open for a number of years he found that interest in craft beer was just starting to gather momentum. He only sold beers produced in the Rhone-Alps area, which is one of the most brewery-dense areas in France. I was pleased to see that the French brewers were also quite creative – I found interesting collaborations and twists on old favourites such as a black saison and a tropical-hopped porter. He said that there are many micro breweries popping up in France over the past few years and while the movement remains somewhat under the radar, it is exploding right now.
I was able to find a number of fantastic bars, brew pubs and breweries along the way. Some I found by accident, some were a result of a Google search, and others were on recommendation. I really enjoyed the small, hole-in-the wall pubs that focussed on high quality beer. These places were less frequented by tourists and the tap lists were limited but impressive. Places like Bierproeflokaal In De Wildeman in Amsterdam and ‘t Brugs Beertje in Bruges, were serving beer long before the interest in craft beer came around, and will continue to serve long after the hype dies away.
I was able to find craft beer pubs in most towns and cities that I visited along the way from Amsterdam to Belgium and Germany to France. I’m sure if I had cared to look I could have spent the better part of each day going to different breweries, tasting beers, learning about production and sales. After my disappointment at Saint Sixtus I realized this was a vacation and I didn’t want to look for beer at the expense of other experiences I could have had along my trip. So the take home message is: if you like beer, go to Europe. You won’t be disappointed whether it’s craft you’re after or the famous traditional beers of each country.