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

 

Gollem, a favorite Antwerp beer pub

Located just off the beautiful Grote Markt in Old Antwerp, Gollem was the first beer bar in Antwerp to pull us in. Gollem (and former bartender and our first “beer sensei,” Sam) launched our love of quality beer, and it’s still our most frequent destination when we’re in town. Although located in a touristy area, Gollem is the real deal when it comes to beer: 30 beers on tap and an extensive menu of bottled beers as well. The service is always friendly, knowledgeable and fluently multi-lingual. The inside is cozy on a cold winter day, cool in the summer and the outdoor seating has some of the best people-watching around (although they don’t get afternoon sun–a plus or a minus depending on the season).

There’s a modest menu of sandwiches, burgers, croquettes and cheeses. Their atypical “croque monsieur,” while nothing like the traditional French staple, makes for a surprisingly satisfying lunch and is my favorite Gollem meal. Ham and cheese is rolled in thin bread and skillet fried in butter, then sliced and served with mayo and ketchup and a side of shredded, slaw-like salad.

Gollem’s version of a croque monsieur

On our most recent visit, we tried a St. Bernardus Abt 12 on tap and a Swedish “New England IPA” from Stigbergets Bryggeri. We’ve had St. Bernardus in bottle, of course, but it was our first opportunity to try it on tap. We detected no big difference between the tap and bottled version and found the beer to be a bit boring and somewhat of a disappointment. Still, it was worth a try. St. Bernardus Abt 12 gets a lot of mileage out of a reputation for being very similar to Westvleteren 12*. For a while after World War II, the monks of St. Sixtus at Westvleteren licensed their recipe to the nearby St. Bernardus brewery so the claim is that now St. Bernardus makes an unofficial version of Westy 12 that is the “same”. Yeah, I don’t think so. St. Bernardus is a reasonably good beer, but it’s too sweet for me and it’s no Westvleteren 12. Not really even close, IMHO, although I know people who will disagree. If I’m going to pick up a Trappist or Trappist-style beer in a (Belgian) grocery store, I’ll take a Chimay Blue or a Rochefort 10 any day over a St. Bernardus Abt 12. To each his or her own, though. There’s a beer out there for everyone. And no question, St. Bernardus is much, much easier to come by than Westvleteren 12. [Writing this led to David and me doing a blind side-by-side taste test of Westvleteren 12 and St. Bernardus Abt 12…and then adding a Rochefort 10. I’ll write that up in another post.]

*If you’re interested in getting the real deal, see my post on scoring two cases of elusive Westvleteren 12

A St. Bernardus Abt 12 on tap (nowhere in the league of Westvleteren 12 despite the claims) and a surprisingly grapefruity-delicious “New England IPA” called Muddle from Sweden’s Stigbergets Bryggeri.

The second beer we had, Muddle, really was exceptional. The grapefruit nose hit us the minute the glass arrived. The head was tall and slowly gave way to a marshmallow-shaped, meringue-like center that lasted on and on. It was so cloudy it looked more like peach or apricot juice than beer. Served very cold, the flavor was crisp, bold and refreshing, full of American hops. This is a beer we’ll gladly have again.

To wrap things up, David ordered a final “maple coconut toast David Strachan Imperial Porter” named Lorelei that tasted more to us like a chocolate stout. It’s the product of a collaboration between Siren from the UK and Omnipollo from Sweden who based this beer on submissions from home brewers, the winner in this case being David Strachan. This oily, black confection was super rich, smooth and chocolatey, almost begging to be eaten with a spoon. The dense head was the darkest tan I’ve seen on a beer. Really a special dessert beer, this is another one we’re likely to get again.

Lorelei, a “maple coconut toast Imperial Stout” based on a home brewer’s recipe. Delicious!

Gollem is located at Suikerrui 28, 2000 Antwerpen, Belgium (on the road just to the left of the Stadhuis/City Hall as you face it that leads from the Grote Markt to the River Schelde). It’s open seven days a week: 11am until 1am, Sunday – Thursday; 11am until 3am, Friday and Saturday.  http://www.gollem.be

+32 (0)3 689 49 89

 

Norvegian Rat Saloon [Dutch Harbor, Alaska]

20160907_144427

Yes, the Norvegian Rat Saloon spells its name with a “v” rather than a “w.” Sometimes. The sign on the low-slung waterfront building uses a “v,” but their menu has both spellings on the cover and we saw an ad with the “w” spelling, so who knows? Sitting just across the road from the Safeway, a local landmark, the Norvegian Rat Saloon offers a casual setting: a walk-up bar, wooden tables for diners, 2 pool tables and shuffle board table, a scruffy outdoor seating area on the water, complete with a WWII bunker, crab pots fire pit and an uninviting little “smoking area” shack.

20160907_144252

20160907_144305 20160907_144439 20160907_144451  The selection of draft beers, while not large, is surprisingly good and we were going to stay the minute David saw the taps. Two cold Arrogant Bastards later ($6 each) and we were happily seated next to a shipmate. We hadn’t planned to eat, but were really impressed with her fish and chips ($13) and the huge Hog Island pulled-pork sandwich ($12.50) of the guy sitting next to us. When we heard a fresh batch of off-menu red king crab was in the works, we put in our order. (I believe the crab was a special targeted at the cruise ship crowd. Lucky us!)

20160907_145404
Fish and chips

In 10 minutes, we had a plate of two large crab legs and a body section, all full of perfectly-cooked, perfectly fresh chunks of meat. The crab was served with nothing but a dipping bowl of small butter and a shell tool. Delicious! Crab: $19.50.

20160907_150331

Norvegian Rat Saloon
1906 Airport Bech Rd.
(907) 581-4455
M-Sat. 11am-2am
Sun. 12pm-10pm

Beer Post: Belgrade

Beer Post #3 is Miners Pub in Belgrade…where I’m sad to say we sipped the worst beer either of us have ever tasted! Imagine green olive juice poured into your beer and you’ll get an idea of the absolute wretchedness that was Tron. When we refuse to finish a beer, you know it’s bad!

Happily, Miners Pub itself was a neat place with lots of other good craft beers both on tap and in bottles. Miners is decorated–y0u guessed it–with a mining theme and is located in a cellar below street level. It’s bigger than it initially appears, too, with several rooms set up for darts and foosball as well as beer drinking. Miners Pub is located at: Rige od Fere 16, Beograd 11158, Serbia. Their phone is:+381 11 4068290.

20160405_172237

20160405_171115

Beer Post: Ljubljana

While we thoroughly enjoyed Slovenian wines, David is not going to let a new city pass without at least trying to find a good beer pub to sample the local beer. In Ljubljana, David’s research led us to try to local beer institutions: Sir William’s Pub on Tavčarjeva ulica 8a, and Patrick’s Irish Pub on Prečna ulica 6. Both obviously sporting non-Slovenian names, but both also carrying a good selection of local craft beers as well as foreign beers.

Of the two, Sir William’s has the more upscale ambiance with gleaming dark wood and comfortable banquettes. In good weather, seating is available outside on the sidewalk as well. The tap selection is modest, but there is a large variety of bottled beers. We ended up sampling foreign brews: a rich, boozy Schneider Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock from Germany (12.5% alcohol) and a Thornbridge Jaipur IPA from England (5.9% alcohol). Very different beers, but both delicious and with top scores from some of our favorite beer sites, BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. http://sirwilliamspub-eng.webs.com/

20160331_170307
Sir William’s Pub bar
20160331_170315
Sir William’s Pub interior

Patrick’s Irish Pub is a more casual location, located below street level in several rooms of an old cellar. Unlike Sir William’s, Patrick’s offers hot food beyond just snacks. Although, we only split a large bowl of excellent french fries since we had dinner plans later. Once again, we found ourselves opting for English beers instead of local. But, the beers we chose had sky-high ratings and were hard to come by at home, so we had no complaints. David chose Fuller’s ESB bitters (“extra special/strong”; 5.9% ABV) and loved it. I went with Greene King’s Strong Suffolk Dark Ale (6% ABV) and enjoyed as well.

20160402_181829
Afternoon beer snack at Patrick’s Irish Pub

Beer post #1: Venice

Venice for most of us means wine, not beer. But, for my awesome husband, everywhere now means beer. Craft beer, to be specific. So, I can’t leave Venice without a quick nod to Il Santo Bevitore, the fun little beer pub we found (after much wandering and inquiring of strangers).

DSCF0444
Il Santo Bevitore

To explain David’s and my fascination with good beer, you need to understand that in the last couple of years, we have spent a couple of months a year–in 1-month stretches–in Antwerp, Belgium. We cat- and house-sit there for a couple who have become friends and to whose cats and home city we’re always happy to return. We’ve developed a real love affair with tiny Belgium and along with that a real love for fine beer. David, in particular, has become very knowledgeable about all things beer and we’ve been privileged to make some world-class “beer pilgrimages:” We’ve made multiple trips to the monastery at Westvleteren, Belgium, scoring cases of rare “Westy 12,” the Holy Grail for many beer enthusiasts; we’ve visited the Cantillon beer brewery and museum, to taste unique samples of that legendary sour beer; we’re regulars at renowned beer bar/reliquary/dive “Kulminator” in Antwerp.

My older son gave David the “Beer Bible” as a Christmas gift and I was soon joking that I’d married a man who read the “Bible” every night. David quipped back that he is a “beer evangelist,” and he has accrued scattered “acolytes” with whom he swaps pictures of beer. [The Beer Bible is available on Amazon in paper and Kindle formats.] As you can see, as people who formerly drank wine almost exclusively, we’ve gone a little beer nuts (not that we’ll ever give up wine!). Anyway, the point of all this is that, no matter where we go, David seeks out local craft beers and beer pubs and I plan to give these finds their own posts and category.

So, background aside, Beer Post #1 is Venice where we spent a happy afternoon celebrating David’s birthday. We found a large selection of craft beers on tap from several countries in the tiny little pub. The Italian beers David was most intrigued by were available only in bottles, but we had fun sampling them and buying one to take back to our apartment. Cicchetti, or small bar snacks made of toasted bread with a variety of toppings, were tasty and provided a light lunch in anticipation of the evening’s big meal…and a little buffer for the alcohol.

20160328_144208
Cicchetti and beer!

 

DSCF0442
Il Santo Bevitore’s line up of taps

As with a restaurant our first night in Venice, we had trouble finding Pub Venezia because Google Maps put the address in the wrong physical location. This is a common problem in Venice as Google Maps seems to struggle with the Byzantine maze of narrow streets and canals and addresses (like that of Il Santo Bevitore) are often just a general neighborhood and a number. If you look up Il Santo Bevitore, the address you get is “Cannaregio 2393/A – 30121 Venezia.” Not helpful. Luckily, you have us: Il Santo Bevitore is located on Fondamenta Diedo, just beside the bridge that crosses Rio di Santa Fosca from Campo Santa Fosca, a small paved plaza with the statue of Paolo Sarpi at its center. Fondamenta Diedo shows up on Google Maps as a short stretch of canal-side street, so you should have no trouble finding the pub. Below is a photo of the outside of the pub as viewed from the bridge:

20160328_160139IlSantoBevitoreCrop
Il Santo Bevitore pub viewed from the bridge, with Campo Santa Fosca behind the photographer