Het Anker: Touring one of the oldest breweries in Belgium

Het Anker (“The Anchor”) Brewery in Mechelen, Belgium, makes the highly-rated Gouden Carolus beers along with several other varieties. David and I had been to their café before and knew we liked their beers, but hadn’t had the chance to tour the brewery. So, when we called on a recent Sunday and heard there were two open spots for the 1pm tour–and none others for the rest of the day–, we dropped everything and headed to the train station and the 10-minute ride from Antwerpen-Berchem to Mechelen. A quick walk, and we arrived just in time for the €8pp tour.

The brewery sits on the edge of the historic center of Mechelen and actually occupies part of the red brick complex that formerly housed religious ladies known as beguines or begijns in Dutch. Like other beguinages/begijnhofs in Belgium, the Mechelen beguinage has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage. [Mechelen is a beautiful little town and free of the tourist hordes that plague other popular Belgian cities. You can read my raves about Mechelen here.]

The tour begins

Our tour (in both English and Dutch) took us through the main “tower” building which, although newer than the beguinhof, is a historical site itself. We went straight upstairs to the malt silos where a bar with barley malt, corriander, cumin, licorice and other items were on display and passed around to give an idea of the flavors that go into the various Het Anker beers. Our guide a rather opinionated and no-nonsense man, scolded a woman in the back for talking while he was talking, not realizing, I think, that she was translating. I understand both of their situations, but it made for an uncomfortable moment.

From there, we viewed gorgeous old copper tuns and a display of old bottles under a lineup of past and present Het Anker owners. Our guide was very critical of the previous owner (who wished to promote pils-style beers) and praised the current owner who wrested control of the business away from his relative to focus on craft-type beers of stronger and more unique flavors and character. I have to admit my own beer tastes side with the current owner (who lives in a red brick house in front of the brewery and next door to the café and tasting room).

Copper tuns
A timeline of changing owners, beers and bottles

Our tour took us past an old copper “radiator” for cooling beer, a device no longer permitted under European Union regulations since it exposes the beer to the open air. According to our guide, only the lambic brewers who rely on wild ambient yeast are exempted from this rule.

A beer “radiator”

Bottling methods were also on display via sample machinery and video.

A final stop brought us to a large open-air coolship (unused due to those pesky EU rules) perched on the roof of the tower and offering a view of the town.

Rooftop coolship, no longer in use
Rooftop view of old Mechelen and St. Rumbold’s Cathedral bell tower

Descending back to ground level, our guide led us to the tasting room located upstairs in the café building. There, at a long table, we were given two 15cl beers: the Gouden Carolus Tripel and the Gouden Carolus Classic, a Belgian dark beer. David and I have enjoyed Gouden Carolus beers on many occasions. I’ll quote the brewery on these two beers as I have no disputes with their descriptions.

Het Anker offers the following about its Gouden Carolus Tripel: “Despite the technological advances, this beer is brewed according to ancient tradition and unites, as before, the best raw materials from our soil as ripe barley and fine hops, to preserve a maximum of pure flavor. This beer was originally brewed for the Knights of the Golden Fleece in 1491.

Full graceful tenderness, with a clean and neat taste, this beer will enchant you: matured in the bottle, exclusively obtained from pale malt, highly fermented and 100% natural. With a full-bodied flavor that still works thirst quenching, thanks to a balanced hopping. For ideal savouring, gently pour out in one fluent movement, at a temperature of 5-7° C (41-45°F). This pleasant golden blond beer is preferred by all who loves heavier, somewhat seasoned and refreshing beer.

This tripel is world-class.
Already in 2002 this beer won the Gold Award at the biennial World Beer Cup in the category ‘Tripel’. In 2010 this beer won gold at the European Beer Star in the category ‘Belgian Style Tripel’. In 2012, again followed the gold award for best Tripel beer in the world (“World’s Best Belgian-Style Tripel”).”

Het Anker describes the Gouden Carolus Classic as: “Dark, very balanced dosed caramel and aromatic malts provide, in combination with a traditional high fermentation, a unique beer that unites the warmth of wine and the freshness of beer. This makes it very suitable in combination with culinary specialties such as stews, wild, pates and even sabayon.

Following earlier prestigious awards, this beer was selected “Worlds’ Best Dark Ale” (WBA, 2012).”

Tasting time

Our fellow beer fans were from many countries: Turkey, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, U.S. and many more. We enjoyed chatting over our excellent beers, then David and I walked the few steps to snag a table at the café for a much-needed late lunch. Although we’d enjoyed a previous dinner at the café (of traditional Belgian beef-and-beer stew and a fish plate), I’m sorry to report that we found our lunchtime hamburgers truly awful. The bun was good and the side salad was fine, but the meat was an odd and unidentifiable tan mix fried in oil. Never again. (This wasn’t the first Belgian hamburger we’ve found to be off-putting. Maybe it’s just a case of “different strokes for different folks.”) Oh well, the beers we chose to accompany the food were excellent, so all was not lost.

Sadly, this burger looks much better than it was.

Practical Stuff: Start to finish, our tour and tasting took about an hour and a half or a little more. Individual tours of the Het Anker Brewery are offered Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 11.00 am, and Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 11.00 am and 1.00 pm. The cost is € 8 per person, € 2 for children under 12 years old. Two 15 cl beers or one soft drink are included with the tour price.  Advance booking is strongly advised. There’s a form (in Dutch) online to request a reservation. (The brewery will respond to confirm or not.) or call 0032 15 28 71 41. Group tours are available daily with reservation.

Beer post: Lier rhymes with beer!

Just 10-15 minutes by train from Antwerp, Lier is not only a picture-perfect Belgian town, but is also known for its beer. With a reputation like that, how could David and I resist going? Short answer: We couldn’t.

We chose a sunny Saturday for our day trip so we could check out the Saturday market in Lier’s main square and take a boat tour on the River Nete in addition to scouting out the local brews. [Check out my previous post for a travelogue of our day in Lier.] At casual market-side café ‘t Gomerke, I chose a Caves (pronounced, more or less, like “cah fess”) for my first beer of the day and David opted for a Sint Gummarus Tripel.

Lier beers with a market day lunch

Caves (5.8% alc) is a high-fermentation beer brewed without artificial coloring or preservatives and without adding sugar. It was the most widely sold beer in Lier in the 1700’s. According to the Visit Lier website, beer has been brewed in the town since the 14th century and although there have been numerous breweries in the town over the years, the last one closed in 1967. This ended the production of Caves until 1976 when a guild called De Heren van Lier (“The Gentlemen of Lier”) arranged to have Caves brewed again using the original recipe.

My Caves poured a dark copper color with a white head that laced thickly and persistently. The smell was green apples and molasses with a hint of funk. My first sip was predominantly caramel and a sweet and sour cherry tartness that reminded me of a Rodenbach Grand Cru. I was surprised there was no added sugar because my initial impression was of too much sweetness. Drinking more, I got caramel and brown sugar, Granny Smith apples, dark bread and sour cherries. Medium body, soft carbonation. I really was afraid Caves was going to be too sweet for me, but the sweetness stopped just short of being a problem and I found myself enjoying this beer. Of course, it didn’t hurt that it was served nicely cold on a gorgeous October day overlooking the Saturday market in Lier’s historic Grote Markt (main square).

St. Gummarus is the patron saint of Lier and two beers–a dubbel and a tripel–bear his name. The Sint Gummarus tripel (8.3% alc) is a golden color with a long-lasting 1/4″ white head. The barnyard nose carries through to the flavor along with caramel, bread, a crisp-to-the-point-of-sharp spiciness, peach and coriander. David noted a slight bitter/metallic trace as well. All in all an enjoyable tripel and distinctive, if not the best we’ve had.

Check out that head on the Kempisch Vuur tripel!

Later in the afternoon at Den Moment yet another outdoor café on the main square (now emptied of the market stalls), I ordered a De liter van Pallieter or simply “Pallieter”, a local tripel. Since we found no Bierke Plezierke beers on offer (Lier beers we’ve sadly yet to try), David decided to venture a bit further afield and ordered a Kempisch Vuur tripel from the nearby town of Pirlot.

The Pallieter (8%) was my favorite beer of the day, a classic Belgian tripel with all the barny “banana” goodness that implies in both the nose and taste. The flavor also has a floral/herbal quality. The beer is a not-quite-clear gold with a white head and lacing that dissipates. Pallieter has a smooth, velvety mouthfeel that buffers the alcohol. This beer is a pleasure to drink.

The Kempisch Vuur tripel (7.5%) had, like David’s earlier Sint Gummarus tripel, a spicy sharpness. An opaque golden hue, it poured a large and sustained meringue-like head. (see photo above) The nose was barny and spicy, the taste coriander and spicy clove. It had a thin, effervescent mouthfeel.

Sint Gummarus dubbel and the Zimmertoren

Our final drink opportunity came with a light dinner at Café Refuge where we sat outside just in front of the icon astronomical clock in Lier’s Zimmer Tower. Once again thwarted in our search for Bierke Plezierke beers, I ordered the Sint Gummarus dubbel. This beer poured a cola brown with a 3/4″ head that quickly receded. Classic prunes and dark bread nose. The taste was also prunes, dark bread, figs, caramel, and smooth spice. Medium body. A tasty dubbel.

In sum, we enjoyed all the Lier beers we tried even if they didn’t make our All-Time Favorites list. I’ve seen some mixed reviews online of some of these beers. The most negative seem so off as to make we wonder at the portability of these beers. Some criticisms were so far removed from what we tasted–and even described very different colors than what we saw–that I have to think these reviews simply got a bad and/or poorly stored bottle of beer. We’d definitely visit Lier again, both for its absolutely stunning architecture and setting and for its beer. Besides, we still need to track down Den Strooien Hoed and Den Blèèèter (yes, I got all those è’s right) from Bierke Plezierke.

Picturesque Lier, Belgium

A Koninklijke Moedige Bootvissers tour boat on the River Nete in Lier

Pretty Lier, Belgium, is only a 10-minute train ride from our local Antwerpen-Berchem station and it was top on my day trip wish list for our current cat- and house-sitting stay in Antwerp. (The trip is another 5 minutes or so if you leave from Antwerpen-Centraal, the architectural gem that is the only other train station in Antwerp.) With our sights on weekend-only boat tours of Lier, we took advantage of our first gorgeous October Saturday to make the short trip. Our Belgian Rail weekend fare tickets cost €4.40 apiece, round trip. (Choose the “weekend ticket internet” option when given a choice for the half-price weekend fare. Print your ticket and show it to the agent on board the train when asked.)

It’s about a 10-minute walk from the train station to Lier’s lovely Grote Markt (main square) dominated by the stadhuis (city hall) and it’s attached UNESCO-designated belfry dating to 1369. On this sunny Saturday, the square was filled with market stalls selling everything from clothing to cheese, produce, meats and more.

Lier’s Saturday market with the 1369 UNESCO-designated belfry and stathuis in the background

As always, high on our list of to-dos in a new Belgium town is to try the local beer. Lier, which rhymes with “beer,” is known for beer and has 6 such brews. We ordered two with our light lunch at ‘t Goemerke, a market-side café on the main square with a simple menu. I opted for the unique Caves (pronounced more or less like “cah fess”) and found it to be an enjoyable if somewhat sweet sour along the lines of a Rodenbach Grand Cru. David chose the Sint Gummarus Tripel, a crisp version of the Belgian classic. We’ll do a separate write-up on Lier beers in an upcoming post, so I won’t go into more detail here.

With an hour between the end of lunch at the boat tour, we figured we had time to take in the Breugelland exhibit at the modestly-sized Stedelijk Museum Wuyts-Van Campen en Baron. These paintings are on loan from the long-closed-for-rennovations Koninklijk Museum Voor Schone Kunsten (Fine Arts Museum) in Antwerp so we were glad for the chance to see them. This is apparently the seventh and last such collaboration between the two museums (although the Antwerp Fine Arts Museum is not set to reopen until 2019).

We finished up the art museum with just enough time to walk to the riverside starting point for the boat tours put on by Koninklijke Moedige Bootvissers (Royal Brave Boat Fishermen). We spent 45 minutes gliding through Lier in a converted eel-fishing boat (with a non-stop Dutch commentary that our companions–all Dutch-speaking–found very amusing). While we would have liked to have learned more/anything from our guide, we really enjoyed the boat ride and the perspective of Lier from the River Nete. Boat tours are offered Saturdays, Sundays and holidays April 1 – October 31, 2-6 p.m. Prices are €3.50 for adults, €2 for children.

View of Lier from a tour boat
Old lock house, end of the river for the tour boats

After our boat ride, we wandered charming cobbled streets of the adjacent begijnhof (“beguinage” in French). There are begijnhofs in many Belgian towns and I think all of them are UNESCO-listed. I like to describe beguines as “almost-nuns.” They were religious ladies who lived in these communities and took vows, but these vows did not include forsaking marriage or vows of poverty. The Lier begijnhof is particularly picturesque and the begijnhof church is really spectacular (and a far cry from the tiny chapel in the Antwerp begijnhof). We had the church to ourselves save for an older man playing magical music on the organ. Lovely!

A cobbled begijnhof street. The arch at the end of the lane leads to the tree-shaded riverside walk and park that circles the city.
Begijnhof church in Lier

We exited the beginjof onto the tree-shaded riverside walk and park that circles the city. We shared the path with other walkers, families and couples, bicycles and baby carriages. This area was part of a walk through town laid out by the nice man in the tourist office in the stadhuis. The downstairs of the stadhuis is open to the public and is worth a look just for the elegant architecture and painted walls and ceilings:

Curved staircase in the stadhuis foyer
Lier Tourist Office in the stadhuis. Maps and lots of brochures (mostly in Dutch) are available along with friendly English-speaking help at the desk.

Back in town, we headed to Sint-Gummaruskerk, Lier’s main church. As we approached, the bells began ringing madly, an at-first-charming call to vespers that continued for 30 minutes, including our quick exploration of the church and our escape to the nearby Sint-Pieterskapel, an unremarkable old chapel save for its painted ceiling. Back outside the chapel, the clanging of the bells of Sint-Gummarus continued to echo off the surrounding buildings and the otherwise-quiet and immaculate residential neighborhoods, a racket that must get old if you live nearby. Enough already!

The bell tower of Sint-Gummaruskerk in the background
Interior of Sint-Gummaruskerk
Painted ceiling of Sint-Pieterskapel

After wandering a further stretch of the riverside park circling the town, we strolled back to the Grote Markt, now empty of the market and glowing in the afternoon sun. Clearly, this was prime time for a couple more local beers at café het Moment. I opted for the Pallieter tripel (a true Lier beer) while David had the Kempisch Vuur (an abbey tripel from Brewery Pirlot in nearby Zandhoven). Again, we found both to be really good, and better than their Rate Beer reviews, especially mine. More details on the beers in a later post.

Afternoon beers on the Grote Markt

Somewhat full from the beer and accompanying snacks, we opted for a light dinner on Zimmersplein, a narrow plaza lined with restaurants and bracketed on one end by the town’s iconic astronomical clock tower, the Zimmertoren, and on the other by the “Prisoner’s Gate” an old jail and part of the long-gone medieval city wall.

Zimmersplein

We snagged another prime outdoor seat, this time just in front of the complicated clock tower in a restaurant aptly-named Café Refuge. We ordered a couple of beers and quiche and salad, not expecting anything remarkable from the food. Happily, both the quiches (one pumpkin and chevre, and one broccoli and nuts) and salads (made with mixed greens, herbs, raisins, grapes, apple, strawberries, cucumbers and tomatoes) were atypical and excellent. A just-right end to a delightful, low-key day!

Zimmertoren  astronomical clock
Quiche and salad at Café Refuge by the Zimmertoren astronomical clock

Find out more about Lier (in English, Dutch, French and German) at the Visit Lier website.

Pärnu, Estonia: spas, beach…and snow!

Located on a sheltered bay with broad, beautiful beaches, Pärnu, Estonia, has been a popular spa town since the 1800’s with Estonians as well as visitors from nearby countries. Wanting to get into the spirit of things, I booked us into the seafront Rannahotell, a white nautically-inspired spa hotel dating to 1935-37. A “landmark of Estonian Functionalism,” the Rannahotell is listed as a cultural heritage site.

Rannahotell

Completely remodeled since its early days as a “sanatorium” or place to restore health, our room was decorated with sleek modern furniture, light woods and neutral colors. Big windows looked onto an expansive stretch of beach.

The hotel offers attentive service along with an airy piano bar and truly extensive breakfast buffet in a window-lined room overlooking the beach. David and I both booked spa treatments at the hotel which nowadays offers traditional massage treatments rather than the local mud. We both thoroughly enjoyed our massages, but we were shocked to find that it had begun to snow while we were in the spa. Soon, the beach was blanketed in white!

Snow on the beach in Pärnu

The unseasonably cold spring was a topic of conversation everywhere we went in Parnu. Several people suggested we should come back for the bustle of summer and all the beach-y activities at that time of year, but we kind of liked the laid-back, uncrowded vibe of this chilly spring.

Beautiful Apostolic Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration In Pärnu

Driving the short distance into town, we enjoyed strolling in old Pärnu. As elsewhere, things were slow at this off-season time. Since we weren’t really interested in shopping or specific sight-seeing, we merely wandered.

Tucked into a courtyard just inside the arch at 21 Rüütli Street, we came across this intriguing relic from the past, a granary from the 1600’s
Stylish Rüütli Street
Whimsical statue on Rüütli Street

Of course, David had to try local beer (not that I resisted) and we found a nice venue at Wirre Craft Beer Bar.  Tucked in to a cozy cellar space, Wirre was empty when we got there early on a Tuesday evening and stayed nearly so until we left. This gave us time to visit with the knowledgeable young owner who tended bar. Wirre offers lots of Estonian beers along with many foreign beers. We particularly enjoyed the Óllenaut SimkoEil APA.

Ducking inside Wirre for a little local craft beer
Inside Wirre Craft Beer Bar
On tap at Wirre

Our post-beer dinner was pizza at Ephesus, located at one end of Rüütli. It was OK for a simple meal, but nothing to write about.

Another night, on the other hand, we opted for receptionist-recommended Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik for seafood and enjoyed an excellent dinner. Although unimpressive from the outside, the restaurant is pleasantly stylish inside.

 

In the dining room: another table joined us and our fellow diner before we finished our meal
The bar and café side of Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik

Apparently, Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik is also a seafood market and one of several Kalamajakas restaurants in Estonia, named among the best restaurants in Estonia in 2016. We enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner for €59, which included an appetizer, two entrees, crusty bread, 2 glasses of wine and a dessert .

Scallop and bacon starter
Fresh seafood pasta and a generous salad
David’s entree: local fish and polenta
Kalamajaka Kohvik is proud of their desserts

   

Pärnu Kalamajaka Kohvik is located at Suur-Sepa 18 in Pärnu.

Beer Post: Koht Beer Bar and Põhjala Brewery’s Speakeasy in Tallinn, Estonia

Archway leading to the entrance to Koht

We were in Tallinn for the Tallinn Craft Beer Weekend, but tickets had been sold out for months, so all we could do is borrow a list of breweries and beers that would be represented from the owner of Old Town beer bar Koht and wistfully pour over what we’d be missing. Fortunately, Koht, (which just means “place”) had a lot of great craft beers on offer, so it was easy to drown our disappointment. Koht is a tiny place located through an arch off Lai Street in Lower Old Town. Despite its size, it was the place most recommended to us for regional craft and specialty beers.

Through the arch: The front door of Koht (and our friendly bartender)
Koht bar with doorway leading to the attached beer shop

We visited Koht on a slow weekday afternoon and enjoyed visiting with the knowledgeable owner and bartender and sampling some of their recommendations of draft and bottled beers from Estonia and around the world. A poster for “Large Barn Oven” rye stout from Lehe Brewery caught my eye and we had to try it. A product of a small Estonian brewery, the beer is dark and semi-sweet, tasting of malt and black bread (9% alc., €3.50 for 25cl). Draft selections at Koht were interesting and good, but limited. The bottle collection, on the other hand, is extensive.

Find Koht at 10133, Lai 8, 10133 Tallinn, Estonia; Phone: +372 644 3302. Their hours are flexible. We were told they usually open around 5pm, but we found them open at 3 or 3:30pm.

Things were slow on a weekday afternoon, but we heard Koht gets packed on weekend evening. The interior space is cozy any time but would be great on a cold evening with the fireplace lit.

Because of the Tallinn Craft Beer Weekend, popular Estonian brewery Põhjala opened its Speakeasy bar on the “wrong” side of the tracks near the train station. The friendly young woman tending bar told us the bar opens in the summer and from time to time throughout the year, so it would be worth checking with the brewery or the Speakeasy Facebook page for opening days if, like us, you’re in Tallinn in off-season. The bar is spartan but had a good range of Põhjala beers in bottle and on tap and the neighborhood is not scenic, but it does offer some dirt-cheap Asian restaurants. A restaurant adjacent to the Põhjala bar, Burger Box, would take orders through a small window between their spaces and hand through dinner to be eaten at the bar. Põhjala’s Speakeasy is located at Kopli 4, 10412 Tallinn, Estonia.

Põhjala temporary bar

We tried several Põhjala beers including their Pime ÖÖ Imperial Stout (13.6% alc.) and an interesting cassis-flavored porter, ÖÖ Cassis (10.5% alc.). The stout is rich, black and sweet, tasting of espresso and dark chocolate. The porter was interesting; also very rich and dark and coffee-bitter but with a touch of sweet-and-sour from the currants.

Interior of the Põhjala bar
Outdoor patio at Põhjala bar in Tallinn

Riga, Latvia: Highlights, beer, ballet and practical things

View of Riga from St. Peter’s Church tower

Taking the Airport Bus to Old Town: We arrived in Riga via a 1-hour Belavia flight from Minsk, Belarus. There are two terminals at the Riga Airport and if you arrive, as we did, at the one with no Tourist Info office, walk out the main door and turn right to reach the main terminal. Inside this second terminal you’ll find the Tourist Info office. With the main terminal to your back, walk across the parking lot and in the far right corner, you’ll find the bus stop where Bus 22 and Minibus 222 provide cheap, efficient service to Old Town, the Riga Bus Station, covered markets, etc. Tickets are cheaper (€1.15) via a machine at the stand, but a 222 Minibus arrived just as we walked up and we paid the still-cheap €2 fare to the driver and were on our way. The bus was crowded to the point of standing room only and you’re on your own as far as getting your luggage on and off. It’s about a 30 minute ride to Old Town. [If you prefer a taxi, I read but can’t confirm that they are a fixed €14 and require the purchase of a voucher at the airport.] Read more about bus tickets and other public transportation here.

A bit crowded on Airport Minibus 222

Although the driver spoke little English, he tried to help people search for their stops. Our AirBnB host (a quick substitute after our original hostess canceled) had told me to get off at “Griezinieku station,” but little else. With no bus stop signs in sight, I was lucky when a fellow passenger offered that we were at that very stop, which wasn’t any sort of station. Anyway, for anyone wanting to take Bus 22 or Minibus 222 from the airport to Old Town, get off at the first stop just over the river bridge. (The bus turns right after crossing the bridge.) Walk back in the direction of the bridge and you’ll find a pedestrian underpass to Old Town that crosses under the wide, multi-lane boulevard that separates Old Town from the Daugava River. There’s currently construction going on, but it is open. It’s a very short walk (less than 5 minutes) from the bus stop to Old Town. Using Google Maps, we were at our apartment in no time. When it came time to pick up a rent car at the airport, we took the same pedestrian underpass, just popping up in the middle of the boulevard instead of walking all the way back to the riverside stop.

St. Peter’s Church; the €9 fee to climb to the top of the tower was ridiculous…but we paid it.
Old Town Riga

Old Town: Riga has a pretty, but small Old Town. Both a cruise ship port-of-call and a budget airline destination, it’s become very touristy with lots of souvenir shops, cafés, bars and restaurants. It caters to a younger, drinking crowd, too, and it’s common for bars to be open until 4am or even 6am! I pity the locals who live near the noisy, drunken throngs and pounding music. Cigarette butts and trash are frequently scattered across the sidewalks near bars. Choose your lodging location carefully.

The entrance to our AirBnB apartment was next door to such a dive-y bar, but fortunately faced an interior courtyard. With a fan for white noise, we didn’t have a problem sleeping, but certain neighbors must have. On the bright side, two doors down was a cavernous beer bar and restaurant, Folkklubs ALA, that topped David’s list of places to try local beer. We enjoyed a hearty and reasonably-priced meal of local fare there, too.

Prices have risen with the tourist trade, but we found the Latvian War Museum which encompasses the 14th century Powder Tower in the far NW corner of Old Town to be both surprisingly good and surprisingly free.

Old Town Riga square facing the beautiful House of the Blackheads with the somber Museum of the Occupation of Latvia to the right

We had rain on our first day in Riga, so headed to the famous covered market which is housed in four huge, side-by-side hangars (visible in the top photo of this blog post). This turned out to be one of our favorite stops. Products vary from building to building: produce, pickled goods, meat and cheese, fish, clothing and jewelry, etc. We bought honey and propolis, sausage, jerky and dark sausage bread. Vendors were friendly and quick to offer samples.

A line for the sausage lady’s goods. She also sold cheese, dark sausage bread, and kvass a fermented rye bread-based drink popular throughout the Slavic and Baltic countries and Russia

Beer!: The biggest hit at the market with our beer-loving selves was the Labietis craft beer bar set up near a main entrance (the one facing Old Town) to the produce hall. This bar is a small outpost of their much larger bar across town. We enjoyed visiting with the knowledgeable young woman serving beer that day and the other patrons who’d settled into the seating provided behind the bar. The beers were interesting and based on local ingredients. A particularly unusual brew was a “braggot” (a Welsh term for a honey brewed beverage related to mead) which they claim dates back to bronze age brewing techniques and ingredients. It’s a hazy golden drink with a small white head and fine bubbles. Its nose and taste is spicy with honey and meadow flowers. Sweet red berries and slight caramel round out the taste. We liked Labietis so much we made a point of a return visit when we came back to Riga some weeks later.

Lots on tap at the Labietis bar at the Riga Market
Enjoying a Labietis brew

Back in Old Town on another day, we tried local beers at Beer House No. 1, which boasts 70 beers on tap, both local and international. They’ve got a wide selection of Belgian beers, but having just spent 6 weeks in Belgium, we weren’t interested in that. I tried a Mežpils Saules EILS, a deep gold ale with a strong aroma and taste of butterscotch, rich, but with something crisper than expected that cuts through at the end. It was unusual, but I liked it at first. As it warmed, though, it developed a fake butterscotch taste that really put me off. I found myself unable/unwilling to finish it.

Beer House No. 1 in Old Town Riga
An odd butterscotch-y ale

Beyond Old Town: A short walk from Old Town Riga took us to the golden-domed Nativity of Christ Cathedral, a local icon. Just behind it across a small park sits the Latvian National Museum of Art. Walking from the cathedral past the museum a couple of blocks, we arrived at the famous Art Nouveau district of Riga. It’s a pleasant place to stroll, but it didn’t hold our attention for too long. For those more interested, the Riga Art Nouveau Museum is a long block further on.

Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral
Art Nouveau buildings in Riga

Beautiful Ballet in a gorgeous Opera House: Some months before our arrival in Riga, I’d bought two of the few remaining tickets online to “On the Blue Danube,” a ballet I’d never heard of based on Johann Strauss music. The ballet turned out to be the true highlight of our stay in Riga. The Latvian National Opera House is a gorgeous gem of a venue and the ballet was spectacular. Mikhail Baryshnikov began dancing in his hometown of Riga and the tradition of fine ballet lives on with the Latvian National Ballet. In addition, the costuming was beautiful, mixing ballgowns and a formal menswear on waltzing, supporting dancers with classic ballet costumes on the ballet dancers in their midst…and all of this to Strauss music. Wonderful!

The Latvian National Opera House
Inside the Latvian National Opera House
Post-performance

At €10 each, our box seats were a steal even though they were not front row.  (See view from our seats above.) By the time we got to Riga, the performance was sold out for the coming 4 months, so book early if you’re interested. A pretty café offers drinks, hors d’oeuvres and desserts.

Café in the Latvian National Opera House

 

Kaunas, Lithuania: Ninth Fort and Old Town

 

The enormous Ninth Fort memorial to the more than 30,000 Nazi victims killed there. David is standing substantially in front of it, so the scale is not immediately obvious.

Now that we’re back from our Baltic ramble, I’ll be catching up on Wanderwiles. We were just too busy and too much on the move for me to want to spend much time live-blogging. – Tamara

__________________

Our second day trip out of Vilnius was to Kaunas, the second largest town in Lithuania. It’s an easy 1h 15m drive on the E85, a well-maintained highway between the two cities. The main attraction for me was the Ninth Fort, one of a chain of a Lithuanian defensive forts that had been commandeered by both Soviets and Nazis over the years. The Nazis used it as a prison and deportation camp as well as a site of execution. There’s an enormous memorial there (see above) to the more than 30,000 victims of fascism who died there as well as a museum. At least 10,000 Jews were taken from Kaunas by the Nazis and executed there in what became known as the Kaunas Massacre.

Approaching Kaunas on the E85 from Vilnius

The weather wasn’t looking too good, but we decided to go for it anyway. Despite some rain on the drive over, our luck was good and we got sunshine when we most needed it at our outdoor explore of the Ninth Fort.

Ninth Fort

The mammoth memorial is visible from the highway. Be advised that Google Maps directed us directly to the memorial (rather than the museum) and the road in that direction spans a pretty intense, but short, stretch of serious potholes. There is a small parking lot at the end of that road which is located perfectly for visiting the memorial and walking directly to the fort. Tickets are required for access to the fort’s interior, though, and those need to be purchased at the museum . [€3 for adults; €1.5 for students and seniors; children under 6 are free. There are also guided tours available for an additional fee.] Access to the memorial and the exterior portions of the fort and its extensive grounds is free.

Exploring the exterior of the Ninth Fort

Interior courtyard of the Ninth Fort
Tribute to a group of prisoners who escaped the Ninth Fort and were able to bear witness to Nazi atrocities there
Ninth Fort grounds. If you’ll look closely at the memorial in the background you’ll see a young man standing atop it. (One of a group of young Spaniards we met, not displaying the best of judgment.) Anyway, he gives an idea of the scale of the monument.

After the Ninth Fort, we headed to Kaunas’ Old Town for lunch and a little explore. The weather quickly changed on us and we waited out a sudden snow/hail flurry in a parking space before walking to Avilys, a restaurant and brewery on the main street of Old Town that we’d read about. Avilys boasts vaulted brick ceiling and walls, copper beer tuns and a varied menu. It’s a cosy restaurant and we enjoyed excellent food and good beer brewed on site. Arriving late on a weekday, we had the place to ourselves for lunch until another party arrived mid-way through. Brewery tours are available. Avilys is located at Vilniaus g. 34, Kaunas 44287, and is open 7 days a week from noon. +370 655 02626

Interior of Avilys gastropub in Old Town Kaunas

By the time we finished lunch, the sun was out again. We wandered down the main street, stopping to visit the Kaunas Cathedral Basilica before heading to the main square.

After lunch, the sun was back out in Kaunas Old Town
Interior of the Kaunas Cathedral Basilica
Main square in Kaunas Old Town with the Kaunas City Museum in the white former town hall

Old Town Kaunas is charmingly restored with many shops, cafés and restaurants. It’s definitely worth the stop and offers a restorative break after the grimness of the Ninth Fort which is only a 15 minute drive away. Pay for street parking permits at meters scattered around Old Town.

 

Chimay Blue 2017 vs. Westvleteren 12: a surprise

Maybe it was the little plastic glasses??

David decided it was time to do our side-by-side tasting of Chimay Blue 2017 and one of the Westvleteren 12’s we picked up a few weeks ago at the abbey. While we’d had absolutely no trouble distinguishing a St. Bernardus Abt 12 (in either bottle or tap) from the Westy, we were stunned to find the Chimay Blue 2017 to be startlingly similar to the Westvleteren 12. We went into this side-by-side expecting to taste two extraordinary beers, but not expecting them to be nearly indistinguishable when first opened and served cold. Wow. We were so startled by the similarities that we fetched two new glasses and did a blind side-by-side. (We’d started with four plastic Leffe tasting chalices, knowing we were being slightly sacrilegious, but liking the idea of four identical small glasses.) The differences became more apparent as the beers warmed, but still. The Chimay Blue 2017 is really an exceptional beer…and so much easier to come by than the Westvleteren 12. Thankfully we’ve got 3+ cases of Westy 12 to work our way through (and will do our best to score two more when we’re back in Belgium in the fall), but we know that’s a rare privilege, so it’s good to know the Chimay Blue 2017 is out there.

I’ve already blogged my tasting notes on the Westvleteren 12, so I’ll focus on the Chimay Blue 2017. The color is a warm red brown with a dense light tan head. (The Chimay beer is ever so slightly darker than the Westvleteren 12 but the head is slightly lighter.) I get predominantly rootbeer on the nose with raisin. The taste is full with more of that rootbeer and raisin. It’s a tad sweeter than the Westy, bitter on the back end (in a good way) and with a bit less of the barny-ness that I love in the Westvleteren beers, but still rich, delicious and undeniably Belgian Trappist. The Chimay is effervescent on the tongue and a real pleasure to drink. I’ll say it again: Wow!

I feel kind of hesitant to put this post up. I’ve never seen these two beers described as particularly similar. It’s always the myth of the St. B Abt 12 and Westy 12 being the “same.” Maybe it’s just the 2017 Chimay Blue and this year’s Westvleteren 12. I don’t know, but I know what we experienced. I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s tried this.

Side-by-side blind taste test: St. Bernardus Abt 12 vs. Westvleteren 12 (and a Rochefort 10)

After the reveal: St. Bernardus Abt 12 and Westvleteren 12

So after making my somewhat disparaging comments about St. Bernardus Abt 12 in my review of brewpub Gollem, I decided we should do a side-by-side taste test with Westvleteren 12, just to be sure I wasn’t being a delusional, obnoxious beer snob. (And to learn that about myself if I was.) David was all for the idea and set up a “blind” taste test for me before I returned the favor for him. I’m writing this as we finish off the open bottles. [By way of background, if you’re unfamiliar with these beers and/or missed my earlier post, St. Bernardus brewery was at one time licensed to brew beer using the Westvleteren abbey recipe and some people claim St. Bernardus Abt 12 is the “same” as the renowned and hard-to-come-by Westvleteren 12 Trappist beer.]

Our “blind” test was not blindfolded, just two beers poured in non-representative glasses, side-by-side, so we did evaluate appearance, although that wasn’t the decisive difference. Westvleteren 12 and St. Bernardus Abt 12 are very similar in color although the St. B is cloudier. (We bought our Westvleteren 12 last week at the abbey. We bought the St. Bernardus Abt 12 yesterday at our local Antwerp grocery store.)

Cloudier St. Bernardus Abt 12 on the left and the Westy 12 on the right

All it took for both of us was a sniff of each beer to know which was which. There really is no comparison. Unlike David, I find the St. Bernardus to be downright off-putting. There’s something reminiscent of green olives in the nose that I actively dislike. I don’t really get olive on the taste, however. Thank God. There’s a little rootbeer in the nose of the St. B, too, that does show up in the taste, kind of a salty rootbeer, that’s also too sweet for me. There’s a little Belgium barniness on the back end, but overall the St. B just doesn’t work for me. David thinks the St. B is average for a Trappist quad and says he wouldn’t order it out, given other options.

I’ve already reviewed Westvleteren 12 in my post on our most recent trip to the abbey at Westvleteren to pick up a couple of cases of W12 and our visit to In De Vrede café. Suffice it to say I love the beer, and you can read my previous post if you want actual tasting notes. David says Westvelteren 12 is his favorite Trappist beer, “hands down.”

As far as a blind side-by-side test, David and I both had to acknowledge simple familiarity played some role for us. We drink a lot of Westvleteren 12, so we know it. There’s no mistaking it for the St. Bernardus Abt 12 or any other beer for us. We’ve admittedly developed a taste for it, so that has to be a factor in our side-by-side comparison.

Since we had the Westy 12 and St. B Abt 12 open, we decided to open a Rochefort 10 (a stellar Trappist beer) as well since we’d never tried one in direct comparison to either of the others. The R10 is darker than the other two and completely different in taste. Its rich, molasses-y nose is echoed in the taste which also features prune and Belgium barn-y yeast. Delicious. I’d still go for the Westvleteren 12, given the choice, but a Rochefort 10 is undoubtedly a lovely beer.

Rochefort 10, St. Bernardus Abt 12, Westvleteren 12

After all’s said and done, though, “favorite” is an entirely personal thing. If you love St. Bernardus Abt 12, “Cheers!” Drink what you want, eat what you like, spend your time on the planet as you see fit. There are actually people who prefer white chocolate to dark. <shaking head> To each their own. Just give me my Westy 12 and my dark chocolate.

David now says we should have opened a Chimay Blue to compare. Too much beer for an impromptu afternoon tasting today. Soon, though. We have a new mission!

Kulminator, legendary Antwerp beer bar

One of the privileges of our frequent extended stays in Antwerp, Belgium, is the ability to walk to legendary beer bar De Kulminator whenever the mood hits us. Kulminator has been named the best and one of the best beer bars in the world. Of course, “best” is as subjective as it gets, but it is a place true lovers of Belgian beer should try to visit at least once. When it comes to aged beers, it really is difficult to imagine a better beer bar. Hardly swank, Kulminator is a cluttered, cozy little dive on a street that’s not the most picturesque in Antwerp, but its cellars hold a treasure trove of everything from rare old beers to rising stars. This is the place to try vintage Belgian beers. Beers from other countries are also on offer, and Kulminator’s collection spans an 81-page menu. The day’s specials are posted on a board and the offerings on tap are always interesting, but there’s something awe-inspiring about having that special dusty bottle, just fetched from the cellar, set in front of you. And the nose and flavor of a fine, well-aged, decades-old beer is something that needs to be experienced to understand.

Inside Kulminator. We were the first in the door that day, so had the place to ourselves for a short while

Service has been notoriously slow for as long as we’ve been visiting Kulminator. The bar is owned and run by a married couple, Dirk Van Dyck and Leen Boudewijn, who founded Kulminator in 1979. [The bar is named after a favorite beer of his and with the dual intent that the bar reflect a culmination of the beer brewing and drinking experience.] She does her friendly, dogged best to keep up with orders and he fetches bottles from the cellar. The problem is that he’s had some health issues and it can be a long wait before those dusty bottles arrive. We try to get our next order in a little early when we catch her eye to avoid dry spells, and they’re currently encouraging patrons to “pre-order” their next rounds. She speaks a little English and I couldn’t tell you about him; he often stays behind a piled-high table when not retrieving beer.

De Kulminator owner Dirk Van Dyck in a rare moment out in the open

Thankfully, Dutch-speaking friends (of the variety it’s easy to make for an evening in Kulminator) explained to us nearly a year ago that Dirk was having back/knee trouble and that they were even considering selling the bar. (No idea if this last is accurate.) On our most recent visits, there’s been an addition to the voluminous menu explaining that Dirk is post-knee surgery and asking for understanding if service is slow and hours are irregular.

New advisory that Kulminator is working on “half power” while owner Dirk recovers from knee surgery

The menu also explains that some of their stock may be temporarily out-of-reach in their cellar(s)–an Ali Baba’s cave of beer treasures I’d absolutely love to see! To simplify, they’ve bolded certain items on the menu that are definitely accessible.

A page from Kulminator’s thick menu; vertical flights of a given beer (spanning several years) are fun to try. Note the bolded option indicating that it is definitely within reach of the temporarily mobility-restricted owner.

Kulminator is small and sharing a table with strangers is common. Fortunately for us, English is widely-spoken and my French often fills in any gaps so we’ve never had trouble drifting into beer chat with table mates and neighbors. We even met a couple from Philadelphia who’d come to Antwerp and booked a hotel near Kulminator for the sole purpose of checking off a bucket list item of visiting this renowned beer mecca! There is a narrow covered courtyard area in the back, too, that’s especially nice in warmer months. Look for the cat that likes to bask in the sun atop the roof. This is not a restaurant, but you can order plates of Trappist cheese cubes, either young or aged (and small servings of Chimay cheese come gratis with every Chimay beer).

Sediment in the bottom of an aged beer…and sleeping cat on the roof of Kulminator’s courtyard

Kulminator is located at Vleminckveld 32, Antwerp 2000, Belgium. Opening dates and times are currently subject to change due to the owner’s convalescence (They’re advising they might close early if Dirk’s knee is acting up, business is slow, etc.) although we’ve found them to be open as usual. Opening times are officially 4pm-midnight, Tuesdays – Saturdays; 4pm-8pm on Mondays; and, Kulminator is closed on Sundays and holidays. The current note indicates they may close the Rosier street cellar/warehouse an hour earlier and close up shop a half-hour early. They’re also operating on a cash-only basis and note that the nearby bank closes at 11pm for cash withdrawals. Despite the current adjustments, Kulminator was doing a lively business on a visit last week.

Update March 29, 2017

We stopped off at Kulminator yesterday afternoon and found the place bustling with tourists and locals. Although service was slow as usual (but no more so), they were fetching lots of interesting things from the cellar, including bottles not included in their highlighted, easy-to-reach selections. David had a 30-year old Oerbier (a Belgian strong ale) from La Dolle, a highlighted choice on the menu. We’d had a new Oerbier at Beer Lovers Bar last week, so wanted to compare. The aged strong ale had a nose like a barleywine with hints of fig. The taste was also barleywine-ish, reminiscent of a good sherry, slightly tart, fruity and with a hint of something that always reminds me of Christmas trunks in the attic.

A 1987 Oerbier from De Dolle

I had a 2010 unfiltered gueuze from Timmerman that was not nearly sour enough for my tastes (unlike the usual Timmerman offerings I find at Kulminator). A pair of Massachusetts long-time homebrewers and beer afficianados at a nearby table had a 1977 Chimay, a brand new Westvleteren 12, a 2011 Pannepot from De Struise, among others. We were soon sharing beer talk and sips with them and a documentary filmmaker from New York who had an aged Loterbol tripel, a Stillenacht from De Dolle, and a vertical flight of Orvals.

De Kulminator owner Leen Boudewijn pouring David’s 1987 Oerbier