A Weekend of City-walking and Beery Explorations
When I think Antwerp, I think diamonds but since I don’t really care about diamonds I was glad to experience engaging architecture and a vibrant beer culture. The annual event called Bierpassie Weekend (Dutch for Beer Passion Weekend) beckoned and I fell for it. I also had a line on some breweries and beer cafes to visit and it all made it a perfect destination for a weekend of beer tasting and exploration.
Antwerp’s stunning architecture is a sight to behold and the best way to do that is on foot. The city is home to some of the most beautiful Gothic and Baroque buildings in Europe. The many choices of walking tours with themes like art, architecture, history, diamonds, and yes … beer culture. An example is the Antwerp Beer Walk which takes participants to breweries and beer cafes in the city while also providing insight into its history. I chose to go the DIY route and wander my way around using a long list of suggestions I had gathered from beer-loving friends.
My time was mostly spent in a square mile area around the city’s ancient center. Arriving by train gave me my first taste of interesting architecture that became a feature of every walk I would take. One of the world’s great train stations, the Antwerp Central Station is sometimes called, the “spoorwegkathedraal” (railroad cathedral) for its stunning design. It felt like stepping off of a train into the set for a Wes Anderson movie. I walked everywhere from this point and encountered one interesting building after another winding through the maze of the old town streets and alleys, through intimate small squares, and walking broad boulevards that emanate from the center. I didn’t know it, but Antwerp is a port city connected to the North Sea by a broad stretch of the River Scheldt. It is Europe’s second-largest port after Rotterdam.
Cafe (Pub) Life in Antwerp
Antwerp’s beer culture is deeply rooted in history. As a transportation center, the city was a hub for beer production and trade since the early Middle Ages. There used to be hundreds of breweries in Antwerp but now there are just a few. Many of the breweries were in an area of the city known as the ‘Seefhoek’, named after an ancient local buckwheat brew called Seef that was the go-to beer for much of Antwerp’s beer history. Today, Antwerp is a place that celebrates both modern craft beers and Belgium’s traditional range of beer styles, including Belgian pale ale, lambic, and Trappist beers.
Cafe life and pubs are an essential part of Antwerp’s beer culture. The city is home to many traditional beer cafes, each with its own unique atmosphere. Many that came to my attention are marked on the Google map for this article, but there are way many more to discover as you stroll the city. Billie’s Beer Kafétaria, a non-descript pub in the center was recommended by many and didn’t disappoint. It is a cozy spot, with friendly, knowledgeable beertenders and a huge offering of beers.
Mathew Missien, a fellow beer hiking enthusiast who publishes an excellent blog called itsabrewtifulworld met me for an afternoon at the festival and when the time came for dinner he introduced me to Elfde Gebod. Elfde Gebod is a charming street cafe and pub nudged right up against the walls of the 1300’s Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp. The pub picks up on the religious theme – inside, you are surrounded by angel & saint statues, pulpits, and some heavenly sacrilegious visual jokes as well. It ain’t Memphis, but I enjoyed an excellent rack of ribs and a house-label beer. It was cool to meet Matthew in person and hear his perspectives on Belgian beer culture firsthand. itsabrewtifulworld features stories about Matthew’s beer hiking and biking experiences in Belgium and elsewhere.
While wandering, I stumbled across The Highlander Cafe, a neighborhood pub in a cozy square near the University called Staadswag. This was a laid-back, comfortable place with a nice selection of beers. A seat on the square was a shady, comfortable place for a strong blonde and people-watching.
My brewery visits in Antwerp ended up being at the north and south extremes of my walks around the city center. They are also very different places in terms of size and age. The Antwerp City Brewery is the oldest brewery in Belgium and features a range of brands and traditional Belgian beers. The parent company of the brewery, Duvel Moortgat is home to the De Koninck, Duvel, Vedett, Liefmans, and d’Achouffe brands. Interestingly, they also own Brewery Ommegang in New York, Boulevard Brewing in St. Louis, and Firestone Walker in California. There is a slick, self-guided tour in the historic building with a self-service Duvel stop and plenty of cool interactive exhibits and features. Particularly clever are the digital portraits of brewers from different eras that come to life and have a conversation with each other. The tour winds up in a pleasant taproom offering the a range of Duvel Moortgat beers. I used my token on a De Koninck Bolleke, the flagship pale ale from the old Antwerp brewery.
Up north is Antwerpse Brouw Compagnie, a relatively young brewery whose taproom and brewing facility is in a repurposed industrial/railway building in the port area of the city. The founders put a lot of effort into understanding Antwerp’s historic beer scene and figuring out how to brew a modern version of Antwerp’s historic beer of choice called “Seefbier.” The brewery surrounds the taproom and there seemed to be a healthy trade in tour groups while I was there. The beers were just fine and the graphic design theme in the branding is totally cool if you ask me — a Strong Blonde” anyone?
Bierpassie Weekend – A Celebration of Beer in Antwerp
Bierpasse Weekend is an annual event that celebrates beer culture. The event takes place in Groenplaats, a central square in the old center that is ringed with cafes. Live music blared, there were a variety food stalls, but the star attraction was definitely the beers. This is a tasting festival rather than a beer festival (the Germans seem to have the corner on those). Thirty-something breweries were serving up hundreds of different beers both by tap and from bottles. This turned out to be a fine introduction to the diversity of Belgian beer styles and I netted a few interesting contacts that would serve me well in the coming weeks.
Serving a barrel aged, smoky beer: