Her sweet scent led me though a narrow Belgian alley and, holding her by the hand, I felt her shy chill slowly warm to mine. We paused. Slowly I found my face tilting towards hers, and the bar fell silent. The old school juke box melodies drowned out in the moment.
I felt the weight of her kiss and instantly knew I would be hooked. Her name was Leffe, the sweetest girl in town. Belgian blondes are not hard to find and this place has plenty of them, staring at you invitingly. Brussels is said to be home to over 460 different types of beers, with some 300 of them residing in my neck of the woods, a three story bar in Fidelity Alley called Delerium Café, one of the more famous bars in Brussels.
In this packed bar decorated with vintage beer signs, I soon learned the secret to these brews. Each Belgian beer has an individual glass, and if that fact doesn’t impress you, than nothing will.
The most unique glass houses a darker ale called Kwak, and ordering this is not as easy as it should be. Due to the popularity of its beautiful glass in some bars you must leave your shoe as a deposit to ensure you do not get away with a free souvenir pint glass to take home. The unique glass takes the shape of a ball and a shoot, ensuring the final part of your pint flows smoothly as you take your final sips. Due to the round nature of the base of the glass dome it is suspended in the air by a wooden frame and it looks more like it belongs in the back of a science lab than a pub.
The afternoon in the pub rolled on and soon it was not just the blondes seeking attention, as darker blends also smiled and waved, with the odd Pilsner keeping them company. Like a kid in a sweet shop, I could not resist. Licking my lips, a wink in the right direction was enough to send another brew my way. I could almost feel the spark as my tongue tried in vain to decipher the correct flavors. “Daughter of a monk,” the barman gulped, revealing the secret. Six beers in Belgium are made exclusively in monasteries and their “daughters” are hardly allowed out in town.
Ordering a Trappist brew is not made easy for the locals. Each customer is limited to two crates a week and must book well in advance. To collect the brew patrons must supply their car registration plates and are limited to a certain number of crate orders per year. This secrecy keeps the legends alive and ensures they never find their way over to the high streets of Brussels. To keep with religious traditions, the monasteries’ accounts are closely monitored to ensure they do not make any profits over and above what they need to keep the breweries producing their smooth, silky brews.
Having visited one of the monasteries just outside Vienna in Austria as a teenager seeking a quick thrill I still remember the magical atmosphere of these uniquely hidden areas. Ordering a stein of a Trappist beer feels like a rite of passage and I would love to carry on more research about the beers in Belgian monasteries one day.
After a busy early afternoon learning to become a beer connoisseur, I decided to try straightening up and guided by the deep, darkened cobbles I tried to explore some more of the city’s charm, which include Manneken Pis, a rather curious statue of a little boy urinating facing the laughing crowds in the street corner. He is joined by his sister Jeanneke Pis in Fidelity Alley, while the peeing dog Zinneke Pis completes a trio of charming statues that draw the tourists.
Those crowds can be completely avoided if you step into the city’s botanical gardens for a quiet break. Hugged by tall, grey business buildings, this is a unique spot and if you explore it properly you will find a quiet hidden bar offering a wee snack. Caffe Botta offers refreshing Italian cured meats and you must not forget to order some of its home-made ice tea – a secret recipe with a dash of alcohol to go with your lunch.
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Article originally published on the Sunday Times of Malta
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