Antwerpen Easy Drinkin'
In route to Antwerp from Brussels we detoured to the Trappisten, a roadside tavern across the street from the Westmalle Abbey. Beneath a cloudless sky on the patio we sipped from chaliced Westmalle glasses: one golden, the other brown. The brown was a mixture of the Triple and Dubbel (called a Trip-Trap), resulting in something between a Tripel, Dubbel, and Quadrupel. Midday sun cut the Spring with Summertime. The buds on leafless branches carried persistent remains of morning condensation. They reflected tiny bulbs rising in columns toward the red-bricked wall surrounding Westmalle Abbey.
When poured, the visual density of the head aloft a Westmalle Tripel suggests tension capable of supporting a marble. When raised, champagne powder tempts the big mountain skier into the glass. When sipped, the firmness dissipates, leaving a light, cool sensation tingling on your lips. It could be tasteless and remain enjoyable.
A prominent lace marked progress down the glass as the bubbly drink continued to bead strongly. Dry white wine with hints of sourdough composed the nose. Subtle biscuit notes followed by sweetness began the palate, quickly overtaken by white wine and orange tanginess. The finish humbled me, a varsity alcoholic, with floral dryness normally reserved for perfume. With eyes at glass’s rim I saluted civilization’s genius. These were my thoughts during the first half of the first glass. By the second, things changed: ‘I’m tired…where’s the bathroom…does this even count as beer…why am I dizzy…’
We moved on to the outskirts of Antwerp. An iconic pub named Cafe de Pelgrim served up some fine glasses of De Koninck Antwerpen Pale Ale and allegedly sold shots of the yeast. Unfortunately things have changed since Michael Jackson (the beer and whisky connoisseur) published his “Best Beers of Belgium” back in the 90s. Duuvel-Moorgaat bought the brand and stopped distributing the yeast.
The bar - brown, tiled floors; drooping, yellow glass; incandescent light; branded mirrors with logos fogged by time; brass foot rail around the wood paneled bar - slipped lethargically into the 21st Century. And then, almost as if ripped open, a modern, clean patio took over the space beyond the bar. A large pallet of De Koninck plastic cases were stacked in a corner creating a red column. Pop music scratched cacophony on the golden light streaming into the old bar. I quickly realized that this pub and De Koninck as a brand weren’t quite the same since purchased by Duuvel-Moorgaat. We sat just at the back edge of the bar where it now opened up to the patio: almost outdoors but still within the threshold of the old space. Looking into the bar, a flood of natural sunlight cast a halcyon scene from “Somewhere in Time.” The nostalgic interior, vintage with a perceivable dust floating and refracting the sunlight, benefited from the now opened wall. An effulgence radiated and brought the best features to the surface and encouraged a retro track or two of Jacques Brel to play in your head, drowning the Calvin Harris outside. We ordered two Bolleke’s (glasses that De Koninck is served in) of De Koninck.
That evening in the Grote Markt of downtown Antwerp, the amber-blonde De Koninck - beneath a fluffy, fine-beaded head, almost foamy with richness - delivered deliciously. Toasted malt and toffee on the nose; toffee and slight mineral in the palate; and a subtly sweet finish with a faint, balancing dryness, left my mouth feeling crisp. It was certainly an all-day, flavorful, drinking beer. We asked the bartender if they served shots of the unique yeast. “Not since Duuvel bought them. Since then they brew elsewhere, so we can’t walk across the street and pick up the yeast.” Somewhat let down that old traditions were dying, we settled for one more Bolleke apiece and took stock of our environment. Classic and modern R&B mingled in a playlist. Wooden tables harbored tiles arranged in argyle mosaics. Chairs splayed out legs carved in floral, baroque patterns. The waning light projected a constant state of the Golden Hour. Smells emanating from the kitchen made my stomach growl, but I drowned it out like a bum with another sip of De Koninck. On the way out I noticed the ceiling coffered with white plaster inlays framed by darkly stained wood. I thought of a chess board and wondered if I was winning.