beer

Brugge, Belgium: Halve Maan Brewery

We made it into Brugge (Bruges) the day after visiting the Ardennes, and though there were any number of museums we could have visited (I was hoping to return to St. Jan’s Hospital Museum, which I haven’t been to since long before my blogging days. It is a former plague hospital!), we instead ended up on the Halve Maan (Half Moon) Brewery tour. I had been on this before (the same trip where I visited St. Jan’s), but not for over a decade, and frankly, I didn’t remember much from the original tour other than the free beer at the end. Tours in English take place every hour on the hour for €10, including a beer, and we managed to get there just as one was starting (I’d imagine, judging by how crowded ours was in the off-season, that they do fill up from time to time, so may be worth pre-booking if you’re more organised than we were).

  

Even if I had remembered the first tour better, it was still worth going again, because a lot has changed since 2007. They have doubled their production, which created the need for a new bottling facility (everything used to be made under one roof) outside of town, which in turn created the need for a pipeline to get the beer to the bottling facility (at first, they were using trucks, which is obviously cumbersome and not the most eco-friendly way), which was opened in 2016. It stretches 3.2 km underground, and Halve Maan are clearly quite proud of it, as it was the focus of much of the tour. The pipeline actually consists of four interior pipes, two for beer, and two for water, so they can clean out the beer pipes by pumping water through, and can track a leak to within a metre of where it occurs, which is pretty impressive for something that long!

  

An important thing to know about the tour is that it has a lot of steps. We were warned before starting that there were 220 steps over the course of the tour (not all going up, fortunately), and some of the steps were so shallow that we were advised to go down backwards, which is far from my favourite thing, but I managed. The benefit of going to the top of the brewery was that it offered excellent views of Brugge, so we had no need to climb Belfort, which had the most awful steps (as I learned on our last visit to Brugge) – however, it was also incredibly windy, which was less ideal. I was very glad to re-enter the warm brewery.

  

In addition to learning about Halve Maan’s beer (which only comes in a few traditional varieties – the blonde is the one you get to taste at the end of the tour), we also learned a lot about the history of the company and about the history of brewing in the city, which to me was the most interesting part. Up until the 1950s, Belgians used to have beer delivered straight to their homes, first by horse-drawn cart, and later by trucks, and the beer industry in Brugge thrived. However, when supermarkets moved into the city, they began to drive small family breweries out of business, and now only a handful, including Halve Maan, remain. In an attempt to diversify before they were driven out of business, some of the breweries began manufacturing soda as well, which frankly is more appealing to me than beer! Halve Maan made a lemonade (I assume 7-Up style rather than still lemonade), but it was discontinued in the ’70s, much to my disappointment.

  

As I mentioned earlier, the entire brewing process used to take place under one roof, which is why the building has ended up with so many different levels, each of which used to be dedicated to a different stage of brewing. Until the 1950s, they even roasted their own malt, which was done in a room with grating on the flooring, to allow the heat from a fire several stories below to penetrate. It got crazy hot in here when the fire was going, so men would only be able to spend a minute or two at a time stirring the grain before they risked passing out (and speaking from experience, breweries are pretty damn hot in general. I worked in one during a heat wave, and it regularly topped 40 C in there, which is no picnic, and that was just from the heat of the kettle and pasteurising tubs). There was also a special room with a copper floor that the wort was pumped into to cool down to around 20 C before yeast was added.

  

Our guide also told us about the patron saint of brewing, St. Arnold, who actually became a saint because he encouraged people during a plague epidemic to drink beer rather than water, because it was safer (frankly, I don’t see what that would have done against plague, which is not waterborne, but it’s certainly good advice against cholera and intestinal parasites. I think they meant plague in the sense of epidemic disease, rather than bubonic plague specifically). A comfortable retirement as a monastic brewer seems like a solid way to get sainthood – far better than being martyred! St. Arnold is commemorated with a statue inside the brewery and in the tap room, which was of course our last stop, where we claimed our free beer. I’m not a huge fan of non-fruit beers, but Halve Maan do produce a very consistent, drinkable product, and you can’t beat their logo! The brewery was so named because the brewery originally on this site was called the Moon, and when Henri Maes took over in 1856, he decided that by calling it Halve Maan, he could include his initials and pay tribute to the brewers that had gone before (the Maes family still own the brewery). I do love a moon (I’ve currently got four tattooed on me!), so of course we picked up a poster, even though as I’ve said multiple times, I really don’t have room for more wall art.

  

Most of the rest of our time in Belgium was taken up by drinking beer, eating chocolate and waffles (and frites, sans mayonnaise), and hanging out in our unexpectedly amazing hotel room (it had two bathrooms and was bigger than my flat!), though I did force my brother to a WWI site in the form of Passchendaele 1917 Museum, which I visited on my last trip to Belgium. I won’t be blogging about it again, as it is roughly the same and still very entertaining (and moving. It’s impressive that they manage to achieve both aims), but they did add a temporary exhibition in an outbuilding on America’s entry into WWI, which I found quite interesting (the exhibition was all in Flemish, but they had free exhibition guidebooks in English). We also dropped by Tyne Cot again, since it is right by Passchendaele, and that too was incredibly sad, as always, but very worth a visit. We ended our Belgian sojourn in Brussels, where we took my brother to Delirium Cafe, enjoyed waffles near the Grand-Place, and almost missed the Eurostar back after waiting in an incredibly long queue only to get to the front and be told we shouldn’t have been waiting in the queue after all (there were no signs anywhere to indicate this. I checked), but we made it in the end. I also discovered this amazing village called Beselare en route to Brussels, where everything was witch-themed (including the Sand-Witch shop). We sadly didn’t have time to stop, but I googled it after and they apparently host a witch parade every year, so I will probably be back for that or the next Kattenstoet (2021) before long!

London: Fuller’s Brewery Tour

dsc08083-copyAs I’m sure I’ve said before, I’m really not much of a drinker.  I’ll have a gin and tonic once every few months, or the occasional cider or perry, but my extremely low alcohol tolerance coupled with some fierce gastric reflux has pretty much put a stop to any kind of more serious/regular drinking (not that I was ever a serious imbiber, but I did go out to the pub quite often when I first moved here in an ill-fated effort to be more sociable.  Ill-fated because I am not naturally sociable, and spending most of my free time with people eventually made my introversion rear up in a big way.  And didn’t win me any friends).  So a tour of Fuller’s Brewery in Chiswick wasn’t a natural choice for me, but my parents were still in town, and they are both interested in beer, plus the limited amount of people allowed on each tour meant there wouldn’t be any crowds.  Fuller’s it was then!

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Actually, it was a good chance to go, because Marcus has wanted to take the tour for years, and we were clearly unlikely to do it on our own, so my parents’ visit provided the perfect excuse.  Happily, Fuller’s participates in the National Rail 2-for-1 scheme, so I was able to get us all half price tickets by booking online using the 2-for-1 discount code (advanced booking highly recommended, perhaps even required).  £6 for a tour + generous tastings seemed like a pretty good deal, even to a light drinker like me, considering a pint in London will set you back at least £4.  (However, shortly after our visit, Fuller’s closed down many parts of the brewery for refurbishment, and will re-open in December, with a new brewing museum as part of the tour, so it will then cost £20 instead of £12, without the 2-for-1.  Basically, you should DEFINITELY get the 2-for-1 if you visit after they re-open, because £20 is a ridiculous price.)

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We all met at the Mawson Arms, the pub next to the brewery, about 15 minutes before our tour time. We were then led into the brewery, and given sexy high vis jackets to wear on the tour (probably necessary, because people kept whipping around the corner of the road that runs through the brewery on forklifts and things). Our guide was called Martin, and though he repeated himself a lot, he still did a good job of being entertaining/amusingly “Lahndahn” enough for the American tourists (my parents weren’t the only ones. There was also a group from Chicago…since my parents are from Cleveland, this didn’t go over too well as the World Series was imminent at the time of our visit.  I hate all sports, so I didn’t care either way, but my father promptly took against the man in the Cubs hat).

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Even though I’m not a beer fan, I have been on brewery tours before (Cantillon, Heineken, De Halve Maan), and although Fuller’s is a fairly large operation, the tour was more in the same vein as a medium sized brewery like De Halve Maan than something as high-tech and glitzy as Heineken, where you don’t actually get to see the brewing facilities.  Fuller’s was founded in 1845 when John Bird Fuller inherited the brewery upon his father’s death and joined with investors Henry Smith and John Turner, who provided the capital and contacts that allowed operations to expand.  But the site has been used as a brewery since at least the 1600s, operating under a number of different owners. Some equipment from the 1800s is still hanging around (I think the oldest stuff just pre-dated Fuller’s), and a few old pieces are still used in the modern brewing process.

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Unfortunately, the photos are about as exciting as the tour was (i.e. not very), because breweries are intrinsically not that exciting to look at.  There’s big tanks, some of which you could peer into and see beer being sloshed around, and more big tanks with other stages of the beer-making process in them (like wort and junk), and lots of hoppy smells (to be honest, some of them smelled more yeasty to me, but Martin claimed it wasn’t the yeast we were smelling).  Martin told us a little about the history of brewing, but it was fairly basic stuff (anyone who had watched one of that Ivan Day guy’s culinary history presentations at some point or another (and he seems to pop up a lot on the BBC…if you watch British cookery programmes, you’ve probably encountered Ivan) or one of Ruth Goodman’s various (Insert Historical Era Here) Farm shows would probably already know what Martin told us; basically, before hops came to England, beer was just a sweet barley-based liquid that would start to spoil within a day.  Hops act as a preservative, but of course the downside is that they taste like bitter crap).  The tour in general didn’t go into the sort of depth that craft/home brewing types would require, and some people asked technical questions that didn’t really get answered, but I wasn’t bothered by this because I’m not a beer nerd.

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Really I think we were just killing time until the group before us left the tasting room, because I’m convinced that the “tasting” was the only reason most people went on the tour.  The tour fee included what was essentially all you could drink beer; well, all you could drink in 45 minutes or so anyway, which is how long we were given before Martin rang the last call bell (still a much better deal than that “all you can eat cake” that wasn’t, from a few weeks ago).  Fortunately for me, because I only really like fruit beers and some sours (which are definitely not part of the current Fuller’s range), Fuller’s also owns a cider manufacturer, so there were a few ciders available, and the blush cider was surprisingly very tasty.  I do find most English beers drinkable though, even if I don’t really enjoy them, which is more than I can say for those super strong and disgusting American IPAs that seem to be all the rage these days.  Sadly, my parents, who are big fans of IPAs, decided they didn’t really like real ale because it was “too warm.”  But I managed to get tipsy in the tasting time allotted (not hard for me to do, given that a pint is pretty much enough), so at least the tour had some benefit!  Still, for the normal admission price (not the discounted rate I got), I think there are better tours around (Marcus recommends Sambrook’s), so this is probably only worth doing for the hardcore Fuller’s fan.  I guess it remains to be seen what their new museum will be like, though I don’t think I’ll be rushing off to visit it.  2.5/5.

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Brussels, Belgium: The Parlamentarium and Cantillon Brewery

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On our last day in Belgium, still riding high on the thrills of Kattenstoet, we decided to head back to Brussels early to give ourselves some time to do stuff in the city before catching the Eurostar back home.  (If I mention how much I prefer the Eurostar to flying, will they give me free tickets?  No, I don’t think so either, but it’s worth a try.)  We went to Brussels a few years ago, and I wasn’t terribly impressed with it then, but I don’t remember visiting many museums the first time around, and I also think the frites there are better than most of the ones in Brugge (must be the ox fat), so it was worth it just to get that cardboard cone of fried potatoes.  Unfortunately, we were there on a Monday, which is the museum closing day in Belgium, so it initially looked like we wouldn’t be seeing any museums this time around either.  Enter the Parlamentarium.

Aside from its amazing name, the Parlamentarium also had free admission, and of course its Monday opening hours to recommend it.  It sounded perfect, at least, until we actually had to find our way there.  We’d gotten into the Grand Place from Brussels Zuid with little difficulty (where I gobbled down some frites), but the European Parliament is located outside the touristy centre of the city, in a district full of scary embassies with soldiers clutching machine guns out front (America, I’m looking at you).  Strangely, considering how Belgium is renowned for being a flat country, Brussels appears to be built on a hill, and we found ourselves climbing it the whole way.  And we took a wrong turn at some point, which extended the journey.  And it was about 80 degrees Fahrenheit that day, which was a hell of a lot hotter than we’d been used to, so we sweated the whole way there.

But we made it in the end, albeit about an hour later than I would have liked to, because last entry to Cantillon Brewery was at 4, and it was at the other end of the city.  This meant our visit to the Parlamentarium would have to be a short one.  To get in, you have to submit your bag and person to a security scan, and then store your bags in the lockers they provide (which are free, at least), and I don’t think they encourage photography (save for with the cardboard cutout of Martin Schulz before the entrance.  And if I told you I knew who Martin Schulz was before visiting the museum, I’d be lying).  Because everything in the museum must be translated into the 24 official languages of the EU, to avoid having a million different signs in the Parlamentarium, they rely on audio guides.  The idea is that you scan certain points in the museum, and a short video will play in your chosen language.  However, it didn’t seem to be working correctly when I was there, as it kept trying to play me videos in French, only switching to English after the opening gallery.

I think this museum is for people more patient than I am; because there were loads of scanning points with fairly lengthy videos (or audio) for each, you would have had to stand there for hours to listen to everything, so I just skipped ahead to the interactive bits.  They had a giant map of Europe, with little moveable stands, the idea being that you scanned different points on the map to learn more about that country.  They also had a mock-up of the European Parliament (comfy chairs), with interactive screens where you could play games trying to match MEPs up with their seats, or vote on issues.

To be honest, I felt kind of embarrassed the whole time I was there, thanks to the UK’s Euroskepticism (and the antics of Nigel Farage).  It’s pretty ridiculous when the people representing you (well, in a general sense; as I’m not a citizen yet, I guess I don’t technically get any kind of representation) don’t even believe in the body they’re meant to be working with; seriously, what is the point of them even being there, other than to make themselves as obnoxious as possible and impede progress?!  I don’t like to get political on here, but I would categorise myself as more pro-EU than not (and having had the freedom to move here myself (which would not have been the case had I enrolled in my Master’s programme just a year later than I did, “thanks” to Theresa May! (ugh)) it would be pretty hypocritical of me not to support that same right for others), so visiting the Parlamentarium was eye-opening in lots of ways, and not good ones.  I wish I would have had a bit more time to spend here, for all that I wasn’t crazy about the audio guides, but I think a lot of it was just too political-sciencey to have held my interest anyway.  I appreciate that it’s free and open to the public though.  3/5.

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Even though we didn’t spend much time at the Parlamentarium, by the time we found a train station and caught a train back to Brussels-Zuid, it was already after 4, and we still had to walk to Cantillon, so I was sure they weren’t going to let us in.  Fortunately, the gregarious man at the front desk didn’t seem too bothered by our arriving 15 minutes late, as there were still a few groups in front of us he was letting in.  I’d never tried Cantillon before visiting the brewery, but I like lambics very much (I really only like lambics and fruit beers; I’m into sour but not bitter), and one of my friends always raves about their stuff, so I thought it was worth investigating further.  7 euros gets you a self-guided brewery tour (what they refer to as a living museum of gueuze, which apparently is pronounced guuuuuuhhhhz, at least according to the woman in the shop) and two samples of their beer (about a half glass each, whatever that translates to in ounces, since I don’t think they were pint glasses).

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The brewery isn’t all that big, as they have a fairly small-scale production, but the booklet they give you is pretty lengthy, and fully covers all the stages of the brewing process.  Really it was more about smelling your way through, as everything had a yeasty cheesy aroma that I rather enjoyed, there not being that much to actually see, since they weren’t bottling anything up at this time of year.  Gueuze is a blended lambic, made from lambics of different vintages, so I think they always have something brewing away (their Grand Cru is made of three year old lambic), there just isn’t anything to look at while it sits in barrels I guess.

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I did kind of rush through the tour because I was eager to get to the sampling portion of the experience, which is handed out by a man with a grey ponytail who was mentioned on all the Trip Advisor reviews (I don’t know why, but after reading so much about him I would have been a little disappointed if he wasn’t there).  We got a sample of gueuze and one of kriek, both of which were delicious (though I am very partial to kriek).  They have more beers available to taste, but you have to pay extra for them, and as they were about to close, we didn’t want to linger too long.

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If the taster sells you on their beers (as they clearly hope it will), never fear, because they have a variety of merchandise for sale next to the bar area, including t-shirts, cheese, marmalade, and of course, a range of Cantillon beer (though only a small selection of the various types they make).  We picked up four 75cl bottles, which in retrospect was a mistake as it meant we had to haul them back home, but they were quite a bit cheaper than they are in the UK, so whatever.  I know sour beer isn’t to everyone’s taste, but these guys seemed really passionate about what they do, and I loved their beer, so I enjoyed myself (even though the tour really isn’t worth 7 euros, but after getting the samples, you’re not likely going to complain about it); just don’t count on an in-depth or guided tour, because this isn’t the brewery for that.  3.5/5.  Until next time, Belgium!

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