THIS IS my year for beer travel, with group tours planned to Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Austria, as well as several Eastern U.S. destinations. I got things started earlier this month by leading about 150 beer lovers on a very cool river cruise to the Netherlands and Belgium.
Eight breweries, two lectures, a beer dinner and many onboard bottle-shares later, and I’m left with exactly what I look for in travel: a sense of surprise.
Here are a few discoveries that caught me off guard.
Not all Heineken is skunky: A visit to the Heineken Experience, a “please-touch” beer museum in Amsterdam, was mostly a waste of time that focused more on the company’s slick advertising than its beer.
The tour wrapped up with a tasting in which we were told that most of beer’s bitter flavor is in its foam (nonsense). Nonetheless, the samples of freshly made Heinie were excellent – a pleasant departure from the usual off-putting, metallic flavor of those imported green bottles.
There’s more to Holland than Heineken: La Trappe Blond, a light-bodied, deceptively strong golden ale from the Netherlands’ famous Trappist brewery, was my fallback beer for 10 days, and I was never disappointed.
De Molen, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, makes about 1,000 varieties, it seems, and they’re all very good, especially strong Rasputin imperial stout and quirky, sweet-tart Braggot Brett.
Maybe you’re already familiar with both breweries, which distribute to Philly. Here’s what you’ll need your passport for:
Pampus Bombard, an unusual, smoky barleywine with a touch of cherry from one of the Netherlands’ up-and-coming small brewers.
Jopen Northsea IPA, proof that the Dutch have caught the American hops bug. I enjoyed a glass at Arendsnest (The Eagle’s Nest), an Amsterdam pub with tremendously beer-savvy bartenders.
De Hemel Grand Cru, a strong, dark ale I would’ve saved for my cellar if I hadn’t cracked it open during one late-night bottle-share along the Scheldt River.
‘T IJ Zatte, a superb Belgian-style tripel served on draft at the brewery’s busy, windmill pub.
Oersoep God Is Goed, a tart red ale drained quickly at the Stoom warehouse brewpub before we raced back to our departing boat on the Netherlands’ Waal River in Nijmegen.
Kulminator WTF? This Antwerp cafe is fabled as the greatest bar in the world, and I agreed after my last visit 15 years ago. The big surprise: Kulminator ain’t what it used to be.
Yes, the beer list – stocked with hundreds of unusual bottles – is awesome, with cellared bottles that go back 10 or 15 years. It’s a mecca for beer lovers.
But when I go to a bar, I want more than a list of great beer. I want to actually drink it.
I ordered a 5-year-old Struise Pannepot spiced quadrupel, and then waited. Twenty minutes . . . 30 minutes . . . an hour. It never showed.
When I asked about its whereabouts, there was no explanation. I tried to order a different beer, no luck. The same happened to others at my table.
The service wasn’t the only thing lacking attention. Tables were covered with boxes and debris, stacks of empty cases blocked doorways and there was a general crustiness throughout.
This was not quaint, unhurried European atmosphere. This was shameful neglect.
Sorry if this sounds like a cranky Yelp review, but Kulminator has slipped. Thankfully, Antwerp has other beer-centric options, including Cafe de Rooden Hood (Red Hat), where the menu offers artful beer recommendations for every dish. (Cognac-soaked mussels and De Koninck Triple D’Anvers, yum! )
Westy is back: The renowned, hard-to-find Westvleteren 12 is famously available only to those willing to wait in line at the monastery where it is brewed. Distribution in Europe and America had been so limited that, when the abbey released a one-time supply of sixpacks in 2012 to fill a budget gap, hundreds lined up at retail shops to shell out 85 bucks a pop.
But on this visit, I found surprisingly plentiful supplies of the iconic, unlabeled, gold-capped bottles throughout Amsterdam and Brussels. Several of my tour mates brought bottles home as treasured souvenirs.
I enjoyed a glass at the first bar we hit, Cafe Golem, a wonderful dive-like beer heaven in Amsterdam where the bartender told me they hire someone to pick up a single case each week at the monastery.
I’d go back for another round, only I’ve set my sights on more surprises at my next great beer destination. You’re welcome to join me in December, when I’ll lead a river cruise to breweries, beer cafes and Christmas markets along the Danube.