So on the Friday of my Belgian visit, we decided to jump on a train to Aalst, a small city N-W of Brussels, on the way to Ghent. We try to visit a new place each time we come to Belgium, and some friends from Leicester CAMRA had mentioned Aalst as worth a visit, so as it wasn't far on the train and seemed to have a fair smattering of places in the Belgian Good Beer Guide, we headed off after brunch at Noordzee.
I had carried out some pub research beforehand, putting all the Aalst GBG entries onto a Googlemap, and also referencing a couple of other good sources:
Our plan was to head into the Dutch Inn when first off the train while we considered our route for the day, as this is on the Stationsplein, and was meant to be an interesting brown cafe in the “Dutch style with carpets on tables” and a decent beer list – however, it was all closed up, unusual for a bar on a prime Friday lunchtime. So we had to quickly form a Plan B – head to the bars south of the station.
I was getting the impression that Den Babbelaer might be the most comfortably beery of the bars, and as it did tapas-style food it seemed a good place to plan to spend some time. It was -9'C and had just started to lightly slow, so we marched off swiftly and soon found it. We were the only customers at first, but that was grand as we exchanged some pleasantries with the lady behind the bar and asked her about their Orval Ambassador status, what the soup of the day was, and how business was being affected by the cold. There were puppets hanging up and a small stage area in one part of the pub, so I suspect it may occasionally offer some theatre similar to Toone in Brussels. There were also glass cabinets showcasing Trappiste beers and the geuze/lambic traditions, and many interesting pictures and brewery signs on the walls.
|The geuze and lambic display|
First up beer-wise were a St Feuillien Saison, a light session ale that's pretty easy drinking with slight sourness and slight yeastiness, and a La Chouffe – best to order in some familiar and commonly-stocked beers while we perused the rest of the beer list and thought about lunch. The mini-meatballs in homemade tomato soup sounded hearty, so we had some of that, some bitterballen (to find out what they were), and some Orval cheese. This was served in two huge slabs, so it seemed only right and proper to order an aged Orval to go with it. There are several pubs in Aalst that have the 'Orval Ambassador' status, which I think would be similar to the Oakham 'Oakademy of Excellence' – i.e the brewery 'trusts' the bar to look after and serve their beer properly, and the bar may be on some kind of preferential customer list. The menu offered three ages of Orval – current, 1 year old and 3 year old. I went for the '3 jaar oud' to go with the cheese, and was rewarded with a complex and interesting beer. I'm still not necessarily certain I 'like' Orval – I mean, I appreciate it's complexity and in separation (or even in other beers) I'm a fan of the flavour elements that are found in it – but it's not something I tend to reach for time and again, the way I would with a Rochefort 10. But it was interesting to taste one that had been cellared for a while and note down my impressions of it – the sourness was muted, the lacticness more pronouned, with notes of cigar and treacle towards the end of the mouthful. A La Trappe Quadrupel was also consumed, and a pleasant few hours passed while the bar gradually filled up with people finishing work and having a restorative for the journey home. By this time it hadn't escaped our notice that the snow was getting increasingly heavier all the time, so although we had been very cosy all afternoon and were reluctant to go, we knew we should probably move on if a few more places in Aalst were to be checked out before the train home.
So I had a few other tips that should have been spitting distance from Den Babbelaer: 't Half Maantje and Zevende Hemel, but one was closed (on a Friday afternoon? Why?) and the other seemed to have turned into a more residential premises – we found the exact address but the door was closed and there was nothing remotely pubby about it, other than an Orval Ambassador plaque dating back to 2007 beside the building number.
So feeling a bit put out by three of our listed pubs being closed on a Friday afternoon, we headed off towards the next recommended GBG listing – Kastanjehof. We had to carefully pick our way through the snow-slippy streets and bitter winds so were pleased to find this one open and full of warmth. It was also full of the biggest array of 'pub tat' I've seen, though it was an interesting collection if a little puzzling. Still, we had a Gordons Christmas (thick and syrupy, but fine for this kind of snowy day) and a Slaapmutske Tripel while we perused the collections of “stuff” and fended off the attentions of a friendly dog. As the day was getting on, we reluctantly piled on the layers again and set off towards the Grand Place, where Podge's beer guide listed a few more possibilities. We'd decided by now that we should try to find a bottle something from the local Glazen Toren brewery – we'd hoped for the Winterscotch but corner cafe Bieaard only had their Ondineke – it caused much consternation and discussion between the bar owner and waiter as the beer we'd asked for came in a 75ml bottle – but once it was produced we gave it a go. It was perfectly acceptable but unfortunately not as exciting as I'd hoped, but never mind, if you don't try things, you can't form an opinion!
We set off again station-wards, hoping this time to find the Dutch Inn open, but as it was still mysteriously closed we checked train times and opted for a quick beer in Bergenhof – this was a basic and grumpy-service kind of place, which Podge's guide lists frustratingly as having 70+ beers, but when asked the bar lady was adamant they had no kind of beer list from which to order. So suspecting we were missing out on something different to try, we played it safe and asked for a Tripel Karmeleit and a Westmalle Tripel, which were duly produced.
So there were some hits and misses in Aalst – some bars were closed, the snow curtailed our wanderings a bit, and some beer finds weren't as good as others, but overall it was a good option for a day excursion from Brussels, we'd happily go back to hunt down some of the other bars on our list, and failing that, if we had to spend the whole day nestling by the radiator in the cheering surroundings of Den Babbelaer, we'd be plenty happy enough.