Thursday, February 2, 2012

Did we visit the best beer bar in the world?

Not to be dramatic, but yeah, I kinda think we did. The third weekend in January, fresh off a quick trip to Rome (sure to come up in another post), we took the train to Antwerp, Belgium. Train tickets are 30 euros round-trip, it takes only 2 hours from Leiden, awesome! Well, at least it seems awesome until you wake up early on Saturrday morning, get to Den Haag for your connection, and then hear an announcement that your train has been canceled, just sit tight and take the next one... an hour later. So much for Dutch precision.

But we made it to Antwerp, albeit a bit later than we hoped, and got started on our relaxing weekend trip. Our take away message from the weekend was that Belgium is completely underrated as a vacation spot (we'd also visited Brussels back in September). Like the country itself, the food is somewhere between Dutch and French, with elements of the satisfying, hearty simplicity of the former mixed with what we'll politely call the "somewhat more expansive" flavor profiles of the latter. Oh, and they love to cook things in beer.

Booking through Airbnb, we stayed at a great apartment (definitely worth looking through the pictures in the link) with an awesome host, and we were well set up to wander around Antwerp checking out cool vintage shops and taking advantage of Europe's winter sales.

Not sure what we'd do with them, but we definitely wanted a collection of these
dudes that were hanging out in an art shop window.

Rockin' the new winter style, and enjoying the hell out of some espressos at
Caffenation [winners of the 2011 World Aeropress Championship
- this is the kind of stuff I prioritize when I travel
 (double bracket time: 2012 WAC will be in our future home of Portland!)].
But the focus for this post is meant to be the beer. We spent Saturday night at Kulminator, which is either so old school that it doesn't know about websites, or so awesome that it doesn't need one. I'm actually leaning towards the old school explanation, since this place has been buying and storing great beers longer than anybody I know has been drinking them.

The huge book on the stand is the guest log, but the other two are beer menus!?

Stacks upon stacks of the mythical Trappist-brewed Westvleteren.
True fact: there's no lighting in this picture; God smiles contentedly  on His favorites.
Making the "right" pick in an establishment that offers vertical, vintage year tastings of beers you can't even find most places isn't going to happen. You could even stick to their draft selections, which included a hugely alcoholic (17.5% ABV) Black Mikkeler from 2007. Reviews are mixed on this particular beer, and we didn't try it, but my guess is that some aging will have been great for a beer that powerful and flavorful.

Looking through the menu - second to last column is the year, last one is the price.

Our first drink of the evening. It waited 13 years in that bottle for us.
We started with a gueuze, a very sour, spontaneously-fermented style traditional to Belgium. We actually looked for something from Cantillon, a gueuze brewery we'd visited in Brussels, and were surprised not to find many on the menu. Later in the evening, a guy sitting next to us said that visiting Italians drank it all, because they love sour beers (and Cantillon is some of the best) but don't really go for the more bitter, hoppier styles Belgium is also known for. We were more than happy to try a gueuze from Brouwerij De Troch, dated to 1999. The first reviewer on says "Incredible smell. Old shoes. Stanky cheese. Rotting peaches. Taste is over the top. Cheap Camembert rind, chlorine, a mild acidity, old lemon, tart candy, malodorous socks. Yes :-)"

How do we compete with this type of visceral description? Well, my notes say that it "still packs the sour punch you expect, but less aggressive on the roof of the mouth, not as much of the 'post-vomit' feeling you often get  from a gueuze without the protection afforded by food."

So, yeah, maybe it's not a style for everybody. But we loved it! It makes me a little sad that we haven't been able to resist drinking all of the Cantillons we brought back, as I'm sured they would've aged at least as well, and given us something with which to celebrate when we turn 40!

Our second beer. So thoroughly predates the internet you can't even read about it online.
For our second beer, we knew precisely what we wanted to do. Order a beer from the year we were born. And yes, this is one of the very few bars in the world where you can actually sit down, and look through several options for beers that were released in 1982. We settled on something called "Fine Old London Christmas," which, despite the name, comes from the Belgian Brouwerij Bosteels, makers of award-winning Karmeliet. When you're having the unique experience of drinking a beer this old, describing the taste seems almost anti-climactic. I'll be honest and say that the initial flavors were a bit lacking, as if they'd smoothed out so much that they just dropped out altogether, leaving all the flavor on the back end. The after taste lingered pleasantly, with a mellow, malty sweetness that was still more complex than an Irish stout (at least the imported ones I've had). Brouwerij Bosteels has our sincere thanks for their hard work nearly (gulp!) thirty years ago.

Our nattily attired final beer of the evening.
We finished off the evening with a recommendation from the young guy sitting next to us, who had a journal of beer tasting notes that put our poorly-remembered impressions thoroughly to shame. He advertised the beer as being "completely unique, you can't say it's like any other beer, more like Calvados." A 2005 Special Reserva of Stille Nacht, this was the perfect way to end the night, the beer equivalent of listening to some angry but just can't help being cool jazz in a dim apartment. My initial impression on drinking the beer was of the combination of spicy/herbal and citrus flavors that I first recall experiencing with Avery Brewery's Maharaja Imperial IPA, but in this case the flavors weren't cut short by hops. While it was well balanced, the beer tended towards sweetness, but not in the chocolatey, toasted direction I'd expect from a darker beer. It's hard to tell from this picture, but there was a really nice mid-brown amber tint to the beer.

If you like beer, I give Kulminator my fullest possible recommendation! It's a really cozy space, you get to try all sorts of cool beers, and for all that it's actually not very expensive - which is great, since it turns out to be cash only. I've pasted below a couple more pictures from our experience, including some at the end just to prove that we occasionally check out things other than coffee and beer!

When Nisha imagines that Portland will inspire us to take up hiking, I'm pretty sure she pictures me like this guy
 - traipsing around with a basket full of beer on my back.

What qualifies 1986 as the "year of the beer"?
I have no idea, but I desperately want this as a  T-shirt.

One of the owners.
"How am I supposed to remember where we parked the Delorean?"

Open town square + dramatically lit buildings is a winning combination.

If they were going for authenticity, shouldn't they be open on Sunday afternoon?


  1. 1. I love airbnb (used them when I came back to richmond actually!) 2. love your adventurous spirits. 3. Miss you guys!

  2. hey benita! great hearing from you :o) hope intern life is treating you well!! and yes, can't recommend airbnb enough - would never have thought people had places available in RIC. miss you too!!! don't be a stranger.

  3. I love Davs' sweater. Very stylish, would love to have one like that! Also, loved reading about the beer. You guys always inspire us to try new drinks. We have added St. Germain and Champagne into our weekly routine and try out new beers as frequently as possible. Looks like Antwerp was a blast! Oh, and I can definitely see you guys taking up hiking in Portland--that is the kind of hiking that involves wearing knee-high socks and silly hats with a big old bag of beer on your backs :). I would totally partake. Love and miss you both.

  4. I've been lusting after that sweater too! Ive tried it on a few times thinking I could pull it off but alas its big enough that it looks like I'm wearing football padding :o) Glad you guys are still trying out new beverages...AND yes, yes, yes to outdoor beer adventures in Portland (knee high socks included)!!

  5. I will have to bring along my Pabst to the brewery