Room With a Brew

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2001

"Stella Artois and Maes," the flight attendant replied in a Flemish accent when I asked, "What beers?"

Forty minutes into the overnight Sabena flight to Brussels, the Belgian airline was offering two lagers of its own nationality. Moments later, as the Stella's frothy head drenched my tastebuds, the beer drinker's dream odyssey officially began.

Background: For years, my good friend Mitch Picciano and I have sampled the world's best and worst beers while watching televised Redskins games -- including several Belgian beers that always stood out for their extraordinary character and complexity. Mitch once bivouaced in Brussels on business for a night and left with the impression that beer doesn't get any better than that.

In fact, Belgians are renowned worldwide as beer epicureans. They are gastronomes who appreciate more than 450 varieties of their heady brews the way wine experts savor a fine French cabernet. But before you book a flight to Brussels, understand that beyond the simplest lagers, Belgian beers are so unlike conventional American beer that conventional American beer drinkers would hardly recognize them as beer. In other words, if this Bud's for you, Belgian beers probably aren't.

But for Mitch and me, Belgium was a beer mecca and this was our hajj. Counting on cheap off-season air and hotel fares and our wives' charitable indulgence, we plotted a mid-winter, long-weekend escape -- three full days and nights there testing the blissful boundaries of beer tasting at its best.

After our eight-hour flight, at 9 a.m. we hit Brussels' cobbled streets running. The pubs were just starting to stir, so we unloaded our bags at the hotel and hiked four blocks in sub-freezing January air to Grand Place. A historic square lined with majestic baroque guild houses, the city's centerpiece is the touchstone for beer tourists in Brussels -- a hard city to navigate, harder after a few beers.

At the Brewers Museum, $2.50 bought admission to the small displays of 18th-century and modern brewing equipment housed in the vaulted stone basement of the brewers' guild house, dated 1698. A movie screen demonstrated step-by-step how beer is made.

"I prefer the end of the process," I said, heading toward the museum's comfy pub, decorated with antique tankards.

On this morning, Pierre Mars, the museum's bartender, served complimentary draughts of a dry amber ale and a delicious traditional Belgian brown beer -- both in bulky, stemmed glasses labeled "Paradise," a generic label used to conceal the identity of the beer donated to the museum by Belgian brewers.

The pump now primed, we walked a half-hour to the Cantillon Brewery, home of the Gueuze Museum and the city's last operational brewery. Enter the chilly brewery's wooden doors and expect never to view beer the same way again. This is where owner Jean-Pierre Van Roy makes "lambic" by using spontaneous fermentation of wild airborne yeast -- the way beer was made centuries ago.

"What we brew now is to sell in 2004," said Van Roy, explaining how each of the 15 to 18 brews a year, requiring the cold temperatures between November and April, produce about 5,000 liters of lambic that then age in wooden casks for three years. Preparing for a brew, he sent us on a self-guided tour ($2.50 ) with brochures that explain each stage of the process.

For 45 minutes, we strolled through the mashing house, past the cooper hop boilers, and to the attic cooling room -- the holy sanctuary where wild yeast and microbes enter through holes in the moldy, centuries-old, clay-tile roof to begin fermenting the wort in the open-top, room-sized, copper cooling tub.

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