Having turned in so early the night before, I was up early on Saturday. I had time to kill. Dave’s plane wasn’t arriving in Brussels until 17:30. I grabbed some of the complimentary continental breakfast my hostel offered (toast with orange marmalade and a slice of cheese and salami on the side) and headed down to the old city to see what I could do.
Arriving at the Grote Markt so early allowed me to get some great photos of the square unencumbered by throngs of tourists. I grabbed a waffle and strolled around. I headed over to the Mayer Van Den Berg Museum (which was amazing) to kill some time until the pubs opened. It was now just after 11:00. With all that time to kill, I figured I’d head north out to a bar called t’Afspanning Waagstuk. This former coach house features a house beer called Zeppelin, a Belgian stout. Since Belgian stouts were one of the things I wanted to highlight on this trip, I thought it was worth the trip off the beaten path to get there.
The streets of Antwerp are tricky. They can literally change names from block to block, very few run in straight line and there are very few right angles at intersections. Subsequently, it took me some time to get my bearings. This is a veiled way of saying I got lost trying to find it. But after about a half an hour, I was able to locate it in the corner of a tiny square. And it was closed! Damn! One of the quirks you need to get used to is the seemingly arbitrary adherence of Belgian cafes owners to their advertised hours of operation. So, disappointed and thirsty, I headed back toward the Cathedral.
There, I was able to locate Quentin Matsys. No, not this guy but the café that is his namesake. It’s a 16th century bar and very little seems to have changed in the 450 years since it opened. It’s difficult to convey but if you look at the pictures, you’ll see a typical Belgian “brown bar” of a bygone era. They even had an old bar game on the premises as well. Not sure of the rules but something about rolling a wooden ball into holes with assigned point values. Renaissance skeeball?
I ordered some Ardense Pate and an Orval and had a tasty lunch. Orval is one of my favorites but this is the freshest bottle I’ve ever had. The hops dominate which is good if you like hops. Some suggest that Orval is not at its peak until 6-12 months after it is bottled. I can certainly understand that argument but I have to say I liked it fresh as well.
At that point, it was time to head back out to the airport to meet Dave. I hopped the requisite trains, we grabbed his bags, took the train back to Antwerp, dumped his stuff at the hostel and headed out. Saturday night was critical for this trip because it was the only night we would both be in Antwerp while the famous Kulminator would be open for business.
Much has been written about the Kulminator and now I’m going to write a little more. The short story is the husband and wife team of Dirk Van Dyck and Leen Boudewij had opened the café in 1979 with the idea of offering rare beers. What they started to do next is cellar some beers for sale later. That is mainly what they are known for today. In addition to an extensive and well-chosen list of “fresh” beers, there is an extensive list (the size of a phone book) detailing their extensive collection in the cellar. There is really nothing else like it in the world.
I had attempted in vain to locate Kulminator 11 years ago and had missed it twice in efforts to locate it on Friday. But Saturday morning, I had studied the maps again and taken my GPS with me as well. I had finally found it and committed the route to memory so I could find it in the dark. Thus, we arrived at the Kulminator before 19:30. And we were most pleased.
Kulminator is not as small as the Paters Vajtje but we were lucky to find the last table open in what was a relatively full house. We were presented our enormous beer menus which took us a full 10 minutes to absorb on a cursory level. And that didn’t even include the impressive list of draft beers they had available!
I was not particularly looking to try any beers from the cellar. I’m not sure why but I just didn’t’ think that the extra cost involved would be worth it. But Dave was intrigued and to my surprise I saw that there were many aged beers that I considered to be reasonably priced. So I decided to take the plunge and try a beer from the cellar to start the evening.
My selection was a 2000 Boon Oude Gueze Marriage Parfait. This beer is one of my favorites but I had never had any aged Boon lambics, certainly not a eight year old vintage. Dave went back even further with a 1995 Saison Regal. He also ordered a plate of smoked cheese which he generously shared with yours truly.
I can’t say enough about how great my Marriage Parfait was. If you can use these words to describe a beer, elegant and exquisite would be the first ones to mind. It was so smooth and the flavors were meshing so well. It was tart and funky and dry at the perfect levels and in all the right places. It is one of the great eye-opening beer experiences of my life. I age beer myself but for the first time I see what perfect conditions and time will do to create such a delicate balance of flavor.
Dave’s Saison Regal was very good too. The age had darkened the beer a bit and the oxidation was surely evident in the nose. But it the mouth the beer was so smooth and spicy with just a hint of oaky and vanilla oxidation. Again, a great example of what the right conditions can coax out a beer.
In the meantime, the crowded conditions had brought a couple locals to the table so we picked their brains about beer and the best places for frties in Antwerp. A father and son group came in with a guitar and clarinet and serenaded the crowd with jazz standards, Sinatra and a strange but endearing version of Tom Jones’ song “It’s Not Unusual”.
Next, Dave’s interest in Abbey style beers prompted me to point him toward St. Bernardus Prior 8 (a smooth and flavorful Abbey Dubbel…St. Bernardus doesn’t make a bad beer.) while I tried the Gouden Carolus Christmas beer on tap. The Gouden Carolus had a unique spicing to it which I could not identify. Dave has correctly able to identify it as anise or licorice and it was a good compliment to the rich fruity dark malt.
Hunger and calls to home drew us away from the Kulminator and back down to the main square. Upon recommendations from the locals, we stopped at Frituur No. 1 for an order of frites topped with mayonnaise. They were good but a little mayo on my fries goes a long way. I vowed I would try some other style of sauce the next time we hit a frituur.