Monday, May 13, 2013

Around Bruges in less than 80 Beers

During a trip to Belgium in April 2013 I spent two days in the beautiful city of Bruges, which has witnessed a revival of the local beer scene with a number of great pubs and cafés opening up. Plus the odd brewery or two. An indication of this revival is the recently published "Around Bruges in 80 Beers" by Chris Pollard, who has visited 80 drinking establishments in Bruges. My goal was much more modest, to spend two days just enjoying the history and rich beer culture of Bruges. This post is a recapulation of my experience as a beer tourist in Bruges.

A great way of getting around Bruges in 80 beers?

Bruges for dummies
Bruges (for once the French and English agree on the spelling of a name, while the locals insist on Brugge) is the capital of West Flanders in the north west of Belgium. Receiving its city charter in 1128, new canals were dug out connecting Bruges with the sea, and the city quickly became an important trading port for ships from the Hanseatic League. For the next three centuries, trade was good and wealth amassed in Bruges - resulting in many of the spectacular buildings seen in old town Bruges today.

In the early 16th century most of the canals connecting Bruges with the sea had silted up or were in the process of doing so and the city lost its position as the favored trading port in the Low Countries to Antwerp, causing a slow but lasting decline which saw the population dwindle from 200,000 around 1500 to only 50,000 by 1900. In hindsight, this decline was very fortunate for the preservation of old town Bruges as it meant that there was little money for new projects or renovations to demolish the impressive, old buildings.

Luckily, Bruges also made it virtually unscatched through two destructive world wars, which ruined so much old history in Europe, leaving old town Bruges one of the best preserved late medieval cities in Europe. Today, the entire old town is classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Belgium.

Cafés and pubs lining the Grote Markt in Bruges.

Bruges tourism
There seems to be two modes by which tourists get to Bruges. The one favored by many tour groups, in particular those with elderly folks or Asian tourists, is by bus from Zeebrugge, the port of Bruges, where large cruise ships dump their passengers by the thousands, resulting in dozens of buses heading into Bruges and large tour groups crowding the same streets, squares, churches and buildings. For more adventurous tourists, traveling alone or in small groups, train is the preferred mode of travel. Bruges is located on the main railway line from Brussels to Ostend, about an hour from the capital.

While I was in Bruges I heard that two large cruise ships had arrived in Zeebrugge, both sending multiple groups of tourists into Bruges, so it was no wonder that Grote Markt and most adjoining streets were so crowded that locals and single tourists had to walk in the streets when they tried to pass.

I'm not sure if there are any slow months for tourism in Bruges, April certainly wasn't, and with two million visitors every year you'll either have to tolerate some crowdiness or stay away from the Grote Markt area. Which means you'll also miss out on some of the better pubs and shops.

De Kelk was closed during my visit

Enjoying beer in Bruges
I certainly didn't have time to check out 80 different drinking establishments and I sacrificed some of the more famous ones because of the crowds of tourists, such as Staminee de Garre and 't Brugs Bertje - two highly rated beer bars close to Grote Markt. I was also recommended De Kelk in Langestraat, by a nice bartender I spoke with. De Kelk opens late, at 7 pm, unfortunately it didn't seem to open at all on the Tuesday I was there. I still managed to visit some great and some not so great beer places, in this section I'll focus on the pubs and save the breweries for the next.

Café Rose Red
On my first night in Bruges, after giving up on the crowded places near Grote Markt, I found myself walking through a quiet side street named Cordoeaniersstraat, which seemed more like a residential area than a place to find a good beer bar. Outside number 16 I spotted a blackboard with chalk letters listing several quality draft beers and in the hallway there were many metal placques of great Belgian beers and breweries, including all the trappists. When I peeked inside the first thing that caught my eye was a hundred red roses hanging from the ceiling. I had arrived at Café Rose Red.

The bar at Café Rose Red is tucked away in a corner

Café Rose Red has actually been around since 1987 but I've got the feeling that their focus on good beer, in particular trappists and lambics, are of a later date. Inside, Café Red Rose provides a cozy and fairly quiet atmosphere, sitting well with the slogan "Trappist Beer - Taste the Silence". It opens at 11 am every day and closes at midnight, except Sundays when they close at 10 pm.

In addition to the red roses (all in plastic, by the way) hanging from the ceiling, the café is kept in a simple, rustic style with well worn wooden tables and chairs and a small bar counter, with the beer taps, tucked away in one corner. The walls are decorated with beer signs, there's a cabinet - almost like a religious shrine - with bottles of Westvleteren XII and a mirror doubles as an information board for Belgian sour ales. I felt at home!

Except for some finger food, Café Rose Red doesn't offer much for the hungry, this is a beer café more than a place to go out to eat. But the beer selection is immaculate. On draft, they had Dupont Rédor Pils, Lefebvre Hopus Blond, Het Anker Gouden Carolus Triple, Malheur Novice Triple Black and the Straffe Hendrik Quadruple from local brewery De Halve Maan. The bottled beer menu was even more impressive, with a large selection of geuze and trappist beer. In fact, the menu said that Café Rose Red is an official ambassador for Orval in the years 2012 and 2013!

Gouden Carolus Tripel on draft at Café Rose Red

I was also impressed by the dedication and knowledge shown by the bartenders, they really cared about the beer they sold. At one point I asked about the vintage of an oude geuze, since the bottle I'd ordered didn't say, whereupon the owner, Veireman Kris, actually called the blender to find out for me! (For those curious, it turned out to be the 2010 vintage of Hanssens Oude Gueuze.)

Because I enjoyed the atmosphere so much and still had many beers to try after the first night, I returned the second night to enjoy some excellent bottles of De Cam Oude Geuze, Engelszell Benno (the new Austrian trappist brewery) and Dupont Avec les Bons Voeux. I can safely say that this place came closest to my heart in Bruges.

If you're planning to stay in Bruges for a few nights you may want to check out Hotel Cordoeanier which is located at the same address and with the same owner.

't Brugs Bieratelier
The latest addition to the Bruges beer scene is named 't Brugs Bieratelier or 't Brugsche Bieratelier (as it says on the sign above the entrance). This is a small beer pub which opened up five months ago, on December 1st 2012. It would have remained below my beer radar if I hadn't met a nice fella from Australia, at Café Rose Red the night before, who gave me the rough directions as "close to De Halve Maan". So the next morning I walked around Walplein and several side streets until I found it, in Wijngaardstraat 13.

The bar opens at 12 o'clock every day (and closes whenever the last customers have left) so after a quick stop at De Halve Maan, which opens two hours earlier, I was waiting outside the Bieratelier when the doors opened. This gave me the chance to get a good impression of the bar as well as keep up a long conversation with the young bartender.

View of the bar at 't Brugs Bieratelier

Though just five months old, the Bieratelier has already acquired the atmosphere and the looks of a really old drinking establishment. Much thanks to its old, rustic interior. I was told that the well worn bar counter was 150 years old and had been purchased from the Netherlands, the rest of the wooden furniture also looked old and the floor had been laid with old, wooden boards, almost like on an old sailing ship. The most surprising feature is the low bar counter, when you're sitting on the stools at the bar you feel you're almost siting on the bar! This, combined with the tinyness of the place, about 20 people can sit comfortably by the bar and another 20 in the adjoining room, makes for an intimate bar experience.

Regarding the beer selection, the Bieratelier have a very simple philosophy - they want to provide high quality Belgian draft beer. Period. They don't have a bottled beer menu because they don't sell beer on bottle and there are only 12 taps, but each one has a unique, well crafted Belgian ale. The taps remain unchanged for a full month, the next month they change most if not all to showcase another set of quality draft beer. When I was there in April, they had St Bernardus Prior 8, Hercule Stout, Timmermans Tradition Lambicus Blanch and a number of other excellent beers on draft. I could easily have spent the entire day there, but had to move on to visit other places - though from now on it was going downhill.

By the way, 't Brugs Bieratelier also arranges guided beer tours "to discover the most original pubs in Bruges" every Monday and Saturday at 1 pm. Just sign up in the bar and for €39 you'll be taken around Brussels to sample the atmosphere and beers of the best pubs in the city.

The 17th century home of Bierbrasserie Cambrinus

Bierbrasserie Cambrinus
After my visit to the Bieratelier it was time for lunch which I decided to have at Bierbrasserie Cambrinus in Philipstockstraat 19, since they open at 11 am every day. I was hoping that this beer restaurant would offer a menu of good beer and food pairing. And with windows declaring that they've got 400 types of beer, this seemed like the perfect place for a lunch (or dinner).

Named after the legendary Cambrinus (Gambrinus in English), king of Flandres and patron saint of brewers, Bierbrasserie Cambrinus is located in a beautiful red brick building from 1699, with that common Dutch crow-stepped gable street facade. Inside you'll find a long bar on the right and a number of wooden tables for both larger and smaller groups.

On draft they offered ten beers. Unfortunately, the beer selection revealed a strong preference for InBev and the pub was out of several interesting bottled beers, so in the end I had my lunch, a rabbit stew, with a glass of Blanche de Namur from draft. The food was decent, but not impressive. The three women working in the bar showed little interest in the beers I asked about and were also fairly slow in looking my way when my glass was close to or empty, even though it was just a handful of other guests in the restaurant. Thus, after finishing my lunch I walked over to the bar, asked for the bill, paid and departed the place as quickly as possibly.

Despite a high rating on RateBeer (Bierbrasserie Cambrinus is currently number 3 in Bruges with 93 points), I found the beer restaurant lacking in every possible way; poor draft selection, the most interesting bottled beers were sold out, uninspired food, slow and ignorant service.

De Struise Brouwers beer shop on the Burg square

De Struise Brouwers Beer Shop
While in Bruges I also made a point of checking out the shop that De Struise Brouwers, one of the highest rated Belgian craft breweries, opened up on the Burg square, right next to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a couple of years ago.

From the outside, the shop looked really well stocked and nice but I had to wait until 1 pm for it to open. When I entered, I was apalled by how warm the shop felt, it was certainly above 30 C. This is not good for storing beer, and most of the bottles stood in uncooled shelves, so I decided not to buy anything as I didn't know how long the bottles had been stored warm. For such a great craft brewery I am surprised they don't take better care of how their bottled beer is sold!

La Trappist
In addition to the pubs and cafés mentioned above, I heard talks to the effect that Bruges will soon also get a dedicated trappist beer pub. Supposedly, it's going to be called La Trappist and open up in May. But there's one worrying fact, it's owned by InBev.

Brouwerij de Halve Maan is the oldest in Bruges
- founded by Leon "Henri I" Maes in 1856

Something's brewing in Bruges - about breweries and festivals
In addition to the pubs mentioned in the previous section, Bruges also offers visitors old and new breweries as well as an annual beer festival. Let's start with the old.

Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan
There has been a brewery on Walplein in old town Bruges at least since 1564, when it was known as Die Maene ("The Moon" in English), but it's with Leon Maes that the story of the modern brewery starts. Affectionally known as Henri I, Leon was an entrepreneurial spirit and in 1856 he purchased the old brewery, with some help from his uncle Canon P.J. Maes. He quickly threw out the old equipment and constructed a new and, for that time, very modern brewery. Brouwerij De Halve Maan was born.

De Halve Maan, which means "The half moon", was one of several breweries in Bruges, but as the years went by so did the other breweries. When Brouwerij De Os closed in 1985, De Halve Maan became the only brewery left in Bruges, but they were not about to give up. And almost thirty years later, the sixth generation of the Maes-Vanneste family is running a very popular brewery and tavern on Walplein, where tour groups tired of walking the streets of Bruges can stop by for a quick brewery tour and some cold beer in the tavern.

Despite looking like a large brewpub from the outside, and they do serve their own beer fresh from tank in the tavern, De Halve Maan is actually a fairly big brewery by Belgian standards, with an annual production of 30,000 hl beer.

The bar at De Halve Maan brewery tavern on Walplein

There are two good reasons for visiting De Halve Maan rather than just buy their beer at pubs elsewhere. One is to attend a tour of their brewery, which takes place every hour around the day, and the other is to have their Brugse Zot Blond from draft, which is only served unfiltered at the brewery tavern. Everywhere else, or so I'm told, you'll get the inferior filtered version.

In addition to the Brugse Zot, which comes in Blond and Dubbel versions, De Halve Maan brew several types of beer in their Straffe Hendrik series, including a delicious 11% Quadrupel and a more ordinary 9% Tripel. If you can find these on draft, and in Bruges the chances are pretty good, they tend to be a lot more full bodied and flavorful than on bottle.

The name Brugse Zot, by the way, means "Bruges Fools" and is said to originate with the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I, who had acquired Flanders through his marriage to Mary of Burgundy (the lady celebrated with Duchesse De Bourgogne). At one time, in the late 15th century, he was staying in Bruges to watch the famous annual Holy Blood Procession, in which the locals jump around and make mad gestures. The next day some citizens had approached Maximillian to ask him about sponsoring an institution for the mentally ill. Maximillian had replied, "Just close the city gates and Bruges will be one big mad house". Since then, the citizens of Bruges have been known as Brugse Zot.

Brouwerij Fort Lapin
Just north of old town Bruges, in Koolkerkse Steenweg 32, a new brewery called Brouwerij Fort Lapin made their debut early 2012 with the Fort Lapin 8 - an 8% abbey tripel beer. Their beer labels carry a pair of rabbit ears above the "o" in Fort, which harks back to the French meaning of the name - "fort lapin" means "strong rabbit".

Fort Lapin is a really small brewery, producing just 300 hl beer annually, and so far they've only got two types of beer in their lineup, the aforementioned tripel and a very tasty 10% abv dark quadrupel named Fort Lapin 10.

The Fort Lapin beers should be available at the better beer pubs in Bruges, but I've also found their beers as far away as Leuven.

A bottle of Fort Lapin Tripel in Bruges

Brouwerij "Bourgogne des Flandres"
In September 2013 a new brewery is scheduled to open up in Bruges, I don't know what it will be called but it will be a brewery dedicated to the famous beer that used to be made by Brouwerij De Os: Bourgogne des Flandres - "The Burgundy of Flanders".

Bourgogne des Flandres is a sour ale made by mixing 50% lambic and 50% Scotch ale, so when De Os closed in 1985 the recipe was picked  up by lambic brewery Timmermans in Itterbeek. Timmermans, since bought up by the John Martin Group, still makes the beer but this fall production will move back to Bruges, the original hometown of Bourgogne de Flandres.

Brugs Bier Festival
If you're planning a visit to Bruges and cold winter weather doesn't sound too scary, you may want to consider the annual Brugs Bier Festival which is held in De Halletoren, the big tower by Grote Markt, usually in the first weekend of February.

The festival, which is also known as the BAB-festival after the organizers Bruges Autonomous Beertasters, was first held in 2007 and typically attracts some 70+ Belgian breweries, serving several hundred beers to the visitors.

A glass of Brugse Zot at De Halve Maan

For more photos of pubs and beers in Bruges, see this Flickr set.


  1. Just left the Rose Red cafe. We sought it out after reading your review and were very pleased with the place! I had a selection of four draft beers while my wife tried a lambic. We will probably stop back by to sample their trappist selection this evening.

  2. Hi!
    My name is Amy and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for posts about Bruges to share on our travel site and I came across your blog...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at amy(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you soon!

  3. A couple of notes. Struise knows how to store their beer. Most Belgian beers are bottle conditioned and ferment at high temperatures, so storing them at room temperature or even higher is not a problem. If anything, it helps the continuation of the fermentation process. Also Le Trappiste is not owned by AB Inbev. You got some bad information.