Old Man Beer is Not Just for Old Men

Eddy Merckx - The Cannibal

Take me back to Kortrijk (core-trike), Belgium. On a bleak and rainy late winter day, like the black and white 1960s, when Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx battered and bettered his rivals over God-forsaken cobbles. Back in a time long before we had to get to the airport needless hours early… a time and a place where there was only one train leaving in the afternoon and you had to be early.

So I was early, on this dingy day in this greying downtown where the streets smelled of mud and diesel and wet litter and possibly more.

But this was just fine. Like much of Europe, the presence of the train station meant the presence of a bar. And in this particular part of Europe, post-industrial Flanders sitting on the doorstep of the Pas de Calais, there would be a simple, smoky bar within a mad dash of the spoor (track). A plain place really, with just enough visible through the windows to reveal itself a bar.

Is that Hope and Crosby?

I entered. The few twenty-somethings that lingered in one smoke-filled end of the lounge took notice, then quickly resumed their philandering pranks with a young woman. I saw a small tin sign behind the bar with an image that I’d seen in my research of uncommon Belgian beers. It was an old time sort of cartoon of two cherry-faced men in straw hats. It reminded me of Hope and Crosby for some reason. More importantly it helped me remember that not far from here, in the village of Bellegem, Bockor brewed a brownish-red beer called Bellegems Bruin. This wasn’t any brown beer, it was partly brown lager, partly lambic wheat beer. Beer like this might be called Flanders brown ale or oud bruin (literally: old brown).

I remembered back to long before I’d ever had one, back when I was chastised for mispronouncing the term. “Oat-brrrain” cried John Maré, an elder statesman in our homebrew club. Then again, he was only half Belgian – the rest was Scottish. Obviously.

Just then, standing at the bar I decided I wouldn’t ask for the oat-brrrain. It seemed safer to try to pronounce Bellegems Bruin. The young bartender said “You don’t want that. We have a really good pils, made just down the road.” (Bavik Pils, I suspected). I didn’t want the pils. Not on a gloomy and typical Hell of the North kind of day. Then, in one last gesture to get me onto the pils he said, “You don’t want that, that is what the old men drink.” Whew, did that backfire. Guess I’m an old man, too, at heart.

What followed was so much more than a sour brown beer. Well, it is sour, slightly sour, not lockjaw sour like a straight lambic. It is also malty and coffeeish. It plays with my mind, first sweetish, the sour, maybe sweet again, wait – there’s a little bitterness, then lightly acid at the end. Divine. I passed the old man test.

More coming on oud bruins… TPJ

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