Across Northern Europe: Authentic Belgian Beer

Belgium is home to the EU, many very fine restaurants, important art and beautiful architecture. But it is also a tiny country with a giant selection of excellent beer and if you like beer and live in New York (where Belgian beers are fairly scarce and cost close to $10 with tip) you can easily justify a trip to Belgium simply to drink beer.

If I’m being honest I’ll admit to having done that. If I’m being really honest, I’ll admit to having done it twice.

I don’t like to drink alone so I met a friend this weekend for a survey of lambics and trappists. I arrived in Brussels a day before him and decided to sample some tourist attractions. Having already visited the beer museum (and the EU headquarters, thank-you-very-much) I scampered to the Cantillon brewery. The guidebook gave the address of a street just off the map and when I arrived the sign was so small (and so not in English) that I nearly turned around.

When Paul Cantillon started making beer in Anderlecht more than a century ago there were heaps of traditional breweries in Brussels but today there is just the one. Cantillon is fighting the good fight in part by giving tours of its 19th century production behind the subtly marked door at Rue Gheude 56.

I graduated university and have been to several breweries and have a pamphlet here on the process but making beer is still quite a mystery to me. But what became clear on my Cantillon tour is that the beer makers of the world have sold out to new techniques and changing public desires, leaving Cantillon nearly alone in defending the ancient traditions. They do so with the stubbornness of someone selling a product they know almost no one wants but insist they should.

“A true lambic is never sweet,” the guide/brewer told us. “But the masses want sweet. And since there is no protection in Belgium for the traditional methods, you cannot tell by the label if you are drinking a true lambic or they simply call it a lambic because people know the name.”

One principle difference – I’m cheating from the pamphlet here – is the type of fermentation. Cantillon uses “spontaneous fermentation” meaning they simply pour the wort (the base liquid of mashed up grains) into a big, flat pan and it let it cool overnight. Instead of inoculating it with yeast cultures they let the special Belgian air do it naturally. This is apparently how all beer was made until Pasteur got creative in the 1860’s.

It’s at this point – if I’m being honest again – that my thoughts generally turn to the beer tasting and I fail to learn how to make beer. So soon after they poured small glasses of the Gueuze and Rose de Gambrinus. Gueuze is a mix of one, two and three year old lambic; Rose de Gambrinus is a fruit beer with fresh raspberries (not fake syrup!) in two year old lambic.

The Cantillon, as promised, is not a sweet beer. It’s a bit like eating Wheaties when you’ve grown up on Frosted Flakes. But the taste is complex and different and worth a try. I bought two bottles and had them ready when my friend arrived that night.

I explained to him the different types of fermentation and the use of the traditional methods. I told him how all the Chimay and Leffe and Kwak and La Couffe and Rochefford and Palm and Duvel we were about to drink wasn’t how the monks made it 500 years ago. This seemed to weigh much more heavily on me than him.

“I don’t know, I like the Belgian beers,” he said. “However they’re making it seems good to me.”

And with that we went out into Brussels and bought pitas for dinner and drank a giant Chimay Grand Reserve on the church steps of the Grand Place. The bottle was $4.50 at the grocery store outside town instead of $18 at the bar in New York.

I’m in Amsterdam now with another friend and the two bottles of authentic Cantillon beer are chilling in her refrigerator. I can report that they are heavy bottles which I’ve carried diligently through three cities and two countries in hopes of finding someone appreciative of their authenticity. My friend is German and favors Becks Green Lemon beer when Smirnoff Ice isn’t readily available. Wednesday I’m going to Denmark, and I’m afraid the Gueuze and Rose de Gambrinus will be joining me.

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Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport
  5. Why Bother Going to Berlin?
  6. A Perishable Feast
  7. Globians Film Festival
  8. The Elusive Dutch Drivers License
  9. Terror in Berlin

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.

Across Northern Europe: Terror in Berlin

I’m in Belgium now but I have a word more about Germany because simply being a tourist in Berlin will get you thinking. I’d love to take a history class on the last century in Berlin: WWI leads to Hitler leads to WWII leads to the DDR leads to the fall of the Berlin wall. How’s that for a syllabus?

A couple days ago I was at the Topography of Terror, an outdoor museum that lost funding before it was completed. The exhibit stands where the Gestapo and SS once set up shop and is complete enough in it’s telling of terrible things.

“World history sometimes seems unjust, but in the end it reveals a superior justice.” That quote was translated into English on one of the displays from the WWII period and it reminded me of Martin Luther King Jr.’s hopeful formulation that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

But in 1944 it wasn’t that kind of movie and the quote is from Joseph Goebbels the Nazi propaganda minister. He was right, I suppose, but I’m not sure he knew it.

I spent a fair bit of my time in Berlin wishing I was traveling with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president has famously denied the Holocaust and when Mike Wallace interviewed him on “60 Minutes” some months ago, Ahmadinejad basically asked, “If it happened, where is the evidence?”

Berlin, indeed much of Germany, is an answer to that question. Perhaps most stirring at the Topography of Terror are the audio recordings which play with the push of a button at several of the displays. One live radio report describes the hysterical crowd on the night Hitler was named Chancellor.

But the button I wished Ahmadinejad would push was from October 4, 1943. It was Heinrich Himmler, the SS commander speaking at a Nazi party meeting. “I want to talk to you quite openly here about a very difficult topic,” he said. “The extinction of the Jews.”

Germany is peppered with such horrible things. But tonight I’m in Belgium where the museums and monuments don’t make you think so much. That might not be fair though, since it was only a few decades before Hitler that Belgium’s King Leopold II’s pursuit of rubber led to the death of 5 to 22 million people in the Congo.

Back home in the United States of America our wealth was derived with the help of an unspeakable forced migration. Slaves worked land that was free because it’s native inhabitants had been exterminated or relocated.

I thought of that sometimes as I walked through Berlin; how Germans face their grandparent’s misdeeds much more than the rest of us.

“This was the worst event in the history of the world,” a thirty-something German told me. “And it’s important that we remember it, so that it never happens again. But sometimes it’s too much.”

I thought he was right and I thought if there were fewer people like the president of Iran, it wouldn’t be so necessary.

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Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport
  5. Why Bother Going to Berlin?
  6. A Perishable Feast
  7. Globians Film Festival
  8. The Elusive Dutch Drivers License

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.

Across Northern Europe: The Elusive Dutch Drivers License

I met Ella, Hilde and Amber in a Stockholm hostel two years ago this summer just after they went to the Roskilde music festival. They were roadtripping from their home in Rotterdam, Holland and we got along famously. So famously, in fact, they invited me to drive south to Denmark with them in Hilde’s sister’s tiny car. It was an act of generosity, yes, but also one of convenience: I could drive.

Though all three were well into their 20’s, only Hilde had her license. Driving in Holland just isn’t so simple.

To be fair, Ella knew her way around a steering wheel, having taken several dozen lessons as part of Holland’s rigorous, expensive divers-license gauntlet.

“I was taking lessons two to four hours a week,” Ella said today, license now in hand after completing an eight-month process that took her sister three years.

But back in 2005 in a Swedish parking lot, a perfect metaphor played out for the difference between American and Dutch driver certification: It was the Dutch learner teaching the American licensee how to drive.

Though I’d been driving for nearly a decade my mastery of the stick shift was non existent and since that July afternoon I’ve often credited Ella with giving me the direction my various amateur instructors hadn’t: basically encouraging me to ride the clutch as I started in first gear. She had plenty of chances to offer advice as I stalled and sputtered and the giggling Dutch girls asked if I was sure I had my license.

Amber would like to drive too but she’s held back by a common complaint: It’s just too expensive. Before you can spend several hundred euros taking the theoretical and in-car exams you need the green light from your instructor. Typically that comes after 40 or so lessons (though Hilde’s mom had more than 60 when she finally attempted to get her license in middle age). Each lesson is roughly 30 euros, bringing the total cost over $2000.

The various hurdles are paired with a general sense that driving just isn’t necessary. Holland is biker-friendly and covered with train tracks. But still, today, it was nice to have the driving option as they headed to another music festival, Holland’s own Lowlands festival.

“When you have your license you get the feeling that you need it,” Ella said. “But really there’s very good transportation without it.”

An old van pulled up to Ella’s apartment and the Dutch girls piled in with some other friends. Though two-thirds of the trio are now street legal, they were still bumming a ride.

“Even when you have your license,” Hilde pointed out. “You still need a car.”

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Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport
  5. Why Bother Going to Berlin?
  6. A Perishable Feast
  7. Globians Film Festival

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.

Across Northern Europe: Globians Film Festival

If you’re in Berlin and have a few free hours this weekend skip down to Potsdam, about 20 minutes away by express train. You’ll find the Globians World and Culture Documentary Film Festival presenting films which are especially geared to the global tastes of Gadling readers.

This weekend’s slate of films focus on Asia: from Indian call centers to Tibetan orphanages to Chinese suicides to Japanese gigolos.

Director Joachim Polzer created a thematic program, starting with general long-term travel last Saturday (full disclosure: my film opened the festival) and following with nights devoted to Latin America, the United States, Europe, Africa and other less geographic themes.

The festival began in 2005, some 15 years after one of Polzer’s interview subjects told him, “We are all Globians.”

“The word stuck with me,” Polzer said.

At the time, Polzer was making documentaries himself in California and was struck by the number of quality English-language films that never made it to Germany.

“People think ‘American documentary, what is that?’ but there are lots of good programs on PBS and other places that people here don’t know about.”

With that premise he launched Globians in Potsdam, Berlin’s smaller sibling to the southwest. It’s not the easiest place to attract interest in English-language documentaries but Polzer says its better than being “the 20th film festival in Berlin.”

The modest audience of 300 in 2005 doubled last year and doubled again this year. More than 70 features are on this year’s roster.

The common thread of the three films I had a chance to see was unique perspective. “Back to the Ice: A Year in Antarctica” is a portrait of long-term stays in one the planet’s harshest environments. “Dark Water Rising: The Truth About Hurricane Katrina Animal Rescue” is a revealing, at times gruesome story of animal rescuers who seem somewhat ignorant to the simultaneous human suffering. “Match & Marry” explains the unorthodox coupling of Orthodox Jews in New York and elsewhere.

All three films told stories that I haven’t seen told elsewhere, stories that aren’t easy to tell for various reasons. Those difficulties were also evident in the limited production value and at times incomplete nature of the stories. They will all struggle to find a wide audience, which is too bad because they offer rarely seen perspectives. The chance to get a glimpse runs til Sunday and will return next summer for the festival’s fourth year.

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Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport
  5. Why Bother Going to Berlin?
  6. A Perishable Feast

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.

Across Northern Europe: A Perishable Feast

The difference between traveling and vacationing is a favorite topic of longterm travel writers. It’s not hard to see which group they hold in higher regard or believe they belong to. I try not to be competitive when it comes to travel — it’s so terribly tacky — but I’m sure I fail sometimes.

For me though there is a real and important difference between a short trip and long trip and I’m reminded of it now in the middle of my not-so-short, month-long jaunt. For me, you only truly feel like a traveler when you can’t see either end of your trip. When you can count how many days you’ve been away or how many you have left you are on a “vacation” from your life. But when you’re lost in the middle of it, it IS your life and you can inhabit the road like a new apartment. That’s the feeling of travel we get addicted to.

Since I’ve been back from my yearlong trip I’ve tried to figure out if I wanted to go on another big trip. I spent a few weeks in Costa Rica this winter asking myself, “Is this what I want to do?” And on the day we all rode the ferry in the bikini-hot sun and found a little beach village at the end of the dirt road I knew there was nothing finer. And on the slow, meaningless, empty, pointless days I wished I had a job for goodness sakes.

But here I am in Berlin traveling again and remembering that feeling of living on the road instead of visiting it. How can I tell the difference? The first sign came around 3am two nights ago at a club too far from my hostel. I was dancing, which meant I was traveling, because I don’t dance at home. “Why don’t I dance at home?” I was thinking as I danced there.

You can’t describe or even understand how you change when go away or how you change when you go back but it’s chemical and unstoppable and you can feel it and taste it but never touch it. You can just see what it does, like make you dance or talk to someone on the street. You need to get a little roughed up and jaded by being away and then you get in that groove.

A few days ago I mentioned Hemingway’s theory that Paris is a movable feast you can take with you wherever else you go. But the change I’m talking about doesn’t stay with you when you’re home. It’s a perishable feast you can bring home like a French peach in August. You can bring it home and have it there for a week until it rots.

That’s what makes it so special too. I made a damn feature length documentary about traveling and wrote elaborate things about it all. But the Swiss girls in the next bunk own that more than me now. They’re away for the summer and they know what I’m talking about better than I do. And when they go home their basket of new food will go stale and someone else will be eating French peaches without us.

But last night it was the four of us — the Swiss girls, the Canadian guy and me — drinking German beer in Berlin. Holly and Nadine are 19 years old and I am not. I’m not sure what we found to talk about but we spoke all night and into the morning.

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Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport
  5. Why Bother Going to Berlin?

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.