Beer, bière, bierIn Belgium, beer (bière in French, bier in Flemish but said just like beer in English) is an institution. As much as the Mannekin Pis (terribly disappointing and underwhelming) and frites (delicious in every which way), beer is an integral part of Belgian identity.
In Belgium, beer (bière in French, bier in Flemish but said just like beer in English) is an institution. As much as the Mannekin Pis (terribly disappointing and underwhelming) and frites (delicious in every which way), beer is an integral part of Belgian identity. Any Belgian store, from supermarkets to tiny corner shops, is stocked with dozens of varieties of beer, from the fruity cherry-flavoured Kriek to the deliciously frothy Westmalle Trappist to the golden pink elephant-gracing Delirium Tremens.
I have been drinking more beer than water since I came to Brussels in September. It has been a heady experience, the hazy clouding of your senses as the beers, stronger than anything you get in Nepal, take hold of your system in a warm, loving embrace. There is no need for liquor here, four to five beers will have you swooning and forgetting your way home.
On the weekend nights, and even on week days, squares and public spaces in Brussels are filled with people drinking. Flagey Square, near where I live, is one place where mostly young people congregate. A wide open concrete square with benches off to the sides, it is a hideous square, one that masks an underground parking lot. But at night, it will do for an impromptu gathering, fuelled by beer bought from the nearby markets and downed in the chilly Belgian air clouded by cigarette smoke.
Similarly, the steps of the old stock exchange in the Brussels city centre bear an inordinate number of people on the weekends. It is an iconic space, the place where people rushed to after the terrorist attacks earlier this year. And every weekend, it is thronged with people, singing, talking, playing music and, most importantly, drinking beer. It is difficult not to take comfort in the boozy camaraderie of the similarly drunk. Beer, unlike hard liquor, is conducive to friendship.
The weather is no friend in Brussels. It is constantly capricious, alternatively cloudy and sunny. Then, for with no warning, it will rain. That doesn’t seem to deter Belgians from their beer. And true to form, I have not let the chill get in the way of a cold La Chouffe. And although I seem to have caught a cold that will not let me go, I continue to revel in a frothy mug of beer, straight from the tap or poured from a bottle. From the first sting of the tongue to the last dewy drops, let none stand in the way of me and my Leffe.
It seems so long ago that one night, four friends and I decided to sample all of the Belgian beers available in Kathmandu. I tasted that Duvel and that Chimay, that Leffe and that Hoegaarden. But my tongue had already been dulled by the cruel scythe of a Gorkha, flat and poor.
And so, though I drank it down, I did not taste it. It did not linger in the mouth like the aftertaste of a woman’s first kiss, nothing to lick off of the lips, nothing to savour in the recesses of the mouth.
It was only here in Brussels, two hours after I had landed, I tasted my first Chimay, straight from the tap and lo, it was good. By god, it was good. It was then, like the static touch of another long lusted after, that the liquid coursed through my body like water through a sieve, smoothly and effortlessly percolating. And since then, it has been months of exploring unchartered territory as each week brings new beers to taste, new flavours to savour. They never seem to run out, beer after new beer, it is a race against time to taste every beer in Belgium before I have to leave this wondrous country and its pale lagers, its amber lambics and its Flemish red.
And lest I forget, the delight that is the Trappist beer tradition. Made in monasteries by monks for their own upkeep, these beers are among the most flavourful I have tasted, rich and full, with an aroma you can breathe in. Oh, drown me in a vat of that Orval, that Chimay, that Rochefort, that Westmalle and I will die happy. I do not know how these monks have learned to brew this beer but I do know that it is an art that they seem to have perfected over the centuries. One drop on the tongue is all it takes, like LSD, to take a hold of you.
Hopes can flee, promises can shatter, lives turn upside down, friends can abandon and pets can die, but beer will always taste good. If this is spoken like an alcoholic then so be it. I wear my vices on my sleeve. My loves are many and they are diabolical. Beer is one and another is a woman far away. But that is a tangent. Let’s come back to beer. Punish your liver if you must, I’ve always said. After all, you have just one life to waste.
If there be any drink of the gods, any ambrosia, amrit or nectar, may it be the amber magic potion that is beer and may it be Belgian. If there is any intoxicant I will welcome readily into my already frail and aging body every day, it will be beer. Not wine, not whiskey, not coffee. I have had neither on a regular basis since I set foot on the European continent, except for beer, and I wish to keep it that way. For a weak body like mine and a delusional mind like mine, beer is the only cure after a long day of trudging across the city of Brussels. A beer is my constant friend, cold, refreshing and empowering.
There are no sips here, so excuse me while I take a draught.