Nunnery to Brewery
Crossing a bridge over the Meuse, a sign read “Bienvenue a Wallonia.” The French valediction represents the complexity of Belgian cultural and political geography given a history of fluid borders. Dutch traders in the North with an occasional Spanish or English master; the Frankish savior of Western Europe, Charlemagne at the eastern border in Aachen (Aix la Chappelle for the Francophiles); French Crusaders perched along the Meuse and L’ Ourthe, occasionally tromping off to Jerusalem to snatch up a bit of Jesus Christ’s blood for display in Bruges; Flemish painters immortalizing upon canvas a pastoral sunset over a field empty for a rick, horse, and haze of forest; and a European Union diplomat extinguishing continuous political fires in Brussels amongst forced friends in a city speaking French, English, Dutch, and some others. In Wallonia (the French speaking southern half of Belgium) stepping from our car in Liege, the buildings and language became very French.
In a booth at a famous beer bar, Vaudree 2, I sprung myself lightly upon the pillowed pleather seat. The linoleum, gilded in a scrap metal around the perimeter, shone fluorescent lighting uncomfortably into my eyes. An equally refined sound system rattled off a hazy playlist transitioning haphazardly from Van Halen to Elton John to “Video Killed the Radio Star.” With all that being said, redemption arrived with the beer list, which was thick as the menu in a Jersey diner. Not having tried the infamous Oude Geuze, we ordered one from Boon called Geuze Mariage Parfait, Vintage 2013. Walking into the glassed in, temperature controlled, beer closet, the waiter grabbed a half liter bottle capped with a champagne cork and set it on the table. The expiration notice on the bottom read “Best by 12-12-2036.” The liquid poured golden with a tight bead and firm frothy head. The bouquet rose from the glass carrying hay, leather, and a tangy dryness. The palate washed a similarly complex spread across my tongue: beginning tart and metallic, the flavor developed with notes of farmhouse and apple cider vinegar and finished oaky, funky, and dry - with the dryness diminishing as the liquid warmed. Ideal serving temperature was 12 to 15 degrees Celsius. Our first Oude Geuze proved memorable and started an obsession. Geuze is a uniquely Belgian - and even then only to a small region near Brussels - product and one that has no comparison. Bubbly like champagne, dry like a white wine, but funky and tart like nothing else. Geuze is essentially a blend of lambic that gets some extra gas in the bottle with a pinch of yeast. Given that it’s bottle conditioned, Geuze only gets more interesting and complex with age.
Our second stop, Brasserie C, brought us south for the day in the first place. At the base of the Montagne de Bueren, next to the stairs running up towards the old citadel, we saw a sign to the left and up a narrow alley for the brewpub. All the buildings looked and felt very old in this section of town, aptly referred to as Old Town. We eventually found the entrance after circumnavigating the building and breached a doorway requiring a slight duck to avoid a bruise and headache. We walked indoors to a dark, empty bar and met with Kerian, their Public Relations & Beer Tour representative. The building, a nunnery in 1611 and an architectural museum in the 1960’s, began with solid ecclesiastical bones and consolidated much of Liege’s iconic furniture, paneling, doors, and fireplaces under one roof.
The brewery began in 2012 and moved into the current site in 2014 after growing with the popularity of their flagship beer, Curtius. Kerian led us through the hallway, past an intricately designed baroque looking fireplace mantle, and up a shoulder-width, wooden staircase, with carved handrails guiding up the curved, spiraling path. Rounding yet another corner in the endless maze of the building, we walked outside to a giant rooftop built into the side of the hill. A pond, just thawed from the winter, housed a group of hardy, swimming goldfish. “I don’t know how there’s fish in there. It just thawed from winter,” Kerian mentioned, somewhat stunned. Huge Romanesque and Classical columns and slate tablets the size of a person dotted the grass and leaned against the scarred granite of the hillside. I looked around at the surrounding structures nested alongside the hillside: blackened wood laid in brick in quadrangular and triangular patterns looking Bavarian or idyllically Alpine; sharp, frequent angles created abundant corners and edges making everything seem miniature; it very briefly reminded me of Disney World’s, “It’s a Small World,” sans puppets.
Our host, brought out a selection of cheeses to complement the beers and diversify our caloric intake. All three cheeses were good. One a standard hard cheese, probably a Gouda; another a goat cheese; and the third, a funky cow’s cheese called Herve. It induced elevated eyebrows, flared nostrils, and puckered lips: the smell ranged from hay to freshly turned manure and the taste hung in the barnyard with a salty, stinging finish. The strangeness encouraged another bite, hoping to purchase sensory detail with more intimacy. Like the Oude Geuze I found myself slowly falling for the strangeness and almost detestable qualities: when carried by the tart and oaky Geuze they carry a spring ripeness; in the cheese, the creamy saltiness shortens the duration of funk and cuts it out before it overstays its welcome on the taste buds. The smell recalled a memory of Stinky Tofu in Taiwan nearly ten years ago. I wondered then how someone could punish themselves with such pungent food; I reflect now with manure breath, closer to the conclusion.