We travel and ride with the rhyme of time, in search of both new and familiar scenes, with few guesses about what comes next unless it is another glass of beer. Writing these words in a Schaerbeek coffee shop that also sells beer (a glass of dry-hopped Hommelbier if you must know), once again I am on my travels, and in Brussels for the third time since July.
Then the heat was furnace-like in its intensity and a day spent cycling around the brewing and malting heritage of Aalst sapped; the second saw the rain falling down like the tears of the lost as the hole in my shoe (actually boot) got bigger and bigger. Now, the sky is light grey and any pretension that the day had towards luminosity is washed out, as I walk through a black and white urban landscape with the tones of colour faded as if they’ve been through a particularly strenuous wash cycle.
The day seems somnambulant, tired and surprisingly silent off the main roads and these roads through which I walk have few shops and hardly any bars, and the mood seems to spread and seep into my bones.
However, there is energy and excitement in anticipation of the familiar, which comes with a visit to Brasserie De La Senne and a long chat with its articulate and ebullient founder Yvan de Baets, in my mind one of the most accomplished brewers on the European mainland.
I was last at the brewery late in 2019, when the new-build site only had the brewing equipment installed. Now there is a glorious taproom with all its materials having come from recycled sources, he proudly told me, but it is the brewery that brooded within. As I looked around I saw and imagined and collided with a vast barrier reef of stainless steel, a great wall of the paraphernalia of brewing, pipes and wires and hoses and vessels and overhead gantries, a perfectly assembled jigsaw that created beer; the ticking, pulsing, cards-being-flipped sound of a processor; kegs, crates, conical fermenting vessels; an organised wilderness of tanks, that reminded me of the landscape gardening styles of the 18th century, when nature was tamed with the appearance of wildness thrown in for effect.
I have been in love with the beers of De La Senne for a long time. They are faithful to de Baets’ vision of a clarity of flavour and the return of bitterness to the centre of Belgian beers. If you get a chance then make your way there as it is a magnificent space. The beers have an equality of magnificence as well, especially the brewery’s flag-bearer and early statement of intent, Zinnebier, spartan and fortified in its bitterness and engaged in a holistic effect on a palate.
Another familiar face of beer for which I have developed a real crush is the bar Monk, near the former Bourse, where I once judged beer a few years ago. Let us go there now where wooden tables on the tiled floor and the accompanying chairs make a scraping noise as they are moved, school classroom tables and chairs, or refugees from a cafeteria, while voices rise to the ceiling like smoke from a smouldering bonfire.
There is a functionality about Monk, but there is also a sensuality about the place as if adventures could happen — late night parties, retro-active rock stars, the memory of a past love and even though this does not have the patina of age of a bar rooted in its place since the 1700s it still has a sense of permanence and venerability.
A crackle of laughter, the discordant peal of dropped cutlery, the sound of gravel thrown onto a tin roof mimicking the sound of conversation, the urgency of a language unknown or unfamiliar. The surgery of language, the surplice and surplus of language, the cough mixture, the cigarette smoke of language, the who-am-I of language and the smoked-out-of-the-burrow of language. This is the effect that favourite pubs and breweries can have on you when travel is taken, so let us go.