From my perspective, it was a pretty standard Brussels Saturday morning. I squinted at the alarm clock in disgust, cursed the hastily drawn curtains in angst for their radiating personality and lamented the wisdom found in ordering just one more Duvel at last call. Thank God the Sultans of Kebap operates a sensible late-night catering operation.
It was 9:45-ish and I had committed to meeting some friends for beers at Brasserie Cantillon “around” 10 a.m. I was hoping they would share my affinity for being nearly on time. I don’t believe in watches, and when it comes to drinking with friends, there are two things that I believe in wholeheartedly. First and foremost, no one is ever late as long as he shows up. Second, when being led like the proverbial horse to water (OK, beer) there is only one option: Drink up! (See Friday night and one last Duvel.)
Drinking with all manner of friends has instilled in me these simple beliefs—life is an approximation, and therefore when traveling (especially abroad) we should all expect less timely precision and embrace ambiguous opportunity. These beliefs are the result of many a morning spent patiently waiting for a drinking partner to show up. In support of a harrowed morning like that Saturday, I have come to also understand there may be no better way to get back on that horse than to drink a beer that smells like one.
I had arrived solo into Brussels on Wednesday and found the brewing community was buzzing more than usual. Tons of American distributors, sales reps and consumers were in town for the Festival of Belgian Beers, held each September in the Grand Place, the central square of Brussels. I, too, was there to see the festival up close and personal.
Though I was traveling alone, I knew there would be a cadre of familiar faces to bump into near and around the Grand Place. Less than an hour into my meandering, I ran into a stateside crew including my friend Terry Cekola, who runs Elite Brands, our Denver-based Colorado distributor. Moving from cheery beer tent to cheery beer tent in the September shadows of the Grand Place, we hatched a plan to spend Saturday doing the only thing that brewers and distributors are really good at—planting our collective asses at breweries and drinking.
I relayed to her that my personal goal for Saturday was to have no plan save starting the day at Brasserie Cantillon. I’ve wet my whistle enough in Brussels to know that letting the oceans of Belgian beer carry me whichever direction the winds of drinking blow is often the damn finest Saturday plan.
I was scheduled to meet them “around” 10 a.m. Apparently, they were a more punctual Breakfast Club than I, leaving me to play the role of the roguish Judd Nelson in my tardiness. I arrived at Cantillon to find that Terry and friends had secured a table and with numerous empties littering the table. Things were progressing well.
I collected a bottle of Saint Lamvinus and approached their table, then sat and chatted about the beer, knowing fully well their day was about to become much more dark and stormy. Suddenly, it started raining. And no, I’m not talking about the 3 degrees Celsius rain Brussels is famous for. Jean Van Roy, the brewer, had noted my arrival and began showering our table with untold treasures and bounty from the depths of the brewery. First to hit the table was the yet unreleased batch of Fou’ Foune (Cantillon’s lambic with apricots added).
Hours passed and beers not available to the patrons around us kept landing on our table as “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” played over and over in my head. My newfound drinking compatriots could not believe the generosity on display from our host.
Cell phone cameras captured each new arrival at the table as each snapshot and Instagram teased social media channels, taunting our friends back at home. With each passing shower (new bottle), jealousy with a chance of pure envy accompanied our hashtags and photos sent to the Internet. And that, my friends, is one of the best parts of being a brewer.
With nearly 20 years of personal brewery visits and impromptu arrivals at our brewery, I have been the recipient as well as giver of overreaching hospitality hundreds of times. It’s part of the brewers’ code that we treat each other with the highest hospitality and accord. With every new bottle of Cantillon to hit our table, my Breakfast Club friends agreed, being held hostage by a gracious host was a great plan. And somewhere after bottle No. 8 arrived, my drinking buddies knew this was not going to be an average Saturday in Brussels.
We strolled from Cantillon to our next agreed-upon destination. We would spend some time at a local watering hole known simply as Moeder Lambic, relaxing and drinking other fantastic beers made in Brussels (namely those of Brasserie de la Senne).
As our second beers arrived, my friend Jean Hummler, one of the owners of Moeder Lambic, raced to the table, ensuring our visit would be met with the highest level of reciprocity. He had been contacted by Jean Van Roy at Cantillon seemingly on a Belgian Hospitality Bat Phone and had scurried to his location to guarantee we would not leave lacking.
He summoned for a plate of meat and cheeses to make our acquaintance and ostensibly to prepare our bellies for the degustation that was being arranged in his head. What followed next was a dervish whirl of amazing libations landing in repetitive succession like jets hitting their mark on an aircraft carrier deck. It seemed like every 30 seconds another epic beer was presented, corks would fly, and a chorus of “oohs and ahhs” would ring out. Jean was on fire and my friends continued to marvel.
As we noshed on meat and cheese, Jean disappeared then reappeared from the cellar. He was toting two unlabeled cork-finished bottles that clearly held a level of specialness, as our attentive waiter was holding two decanters.
He proceeded to uncork both bottles and place them in separate decanters. He wanted to share two rare vintages of Cantillon with us. Our collective faces reflected the horse being led to water sensibility: “Twist our arms harder. …” Finding the aromatics of neither beer to his liking, he half panicked. Until now, his pace and delivery, while frenetic, showcased his skills serving as part maître d’ and part overly enthusiastic host. Yet horrifically at that moment the next beers weren’t ready and our glasses were emptying.
That’s when I came to learn of something new to me: the Patience Beer. I saw the trepidation and concern in his eye. His hand quivered, knowing his presentation had stalled and he needed to act quickly. He couldn’t serve the beer from the decanters, as they weren’t to his liking. He dared not allow us to sit there with our thirsts unslaked, and so it came to be that a round of Patience Beers was ordered up.
In a flash, he disappeared again. I half-jokingly announced to Terry that he was off to procure a round of “Patience Beers,” though I had never once uttered that term to describe a round of beers before. Thirty seconds later a tray of more Cantillon Gueuze landed on our table. And therefore we would excuse our incredibly gracious host for wanting just a bit more time for the beer in the decanters to open up and meet his standards.
I nearly yelled, “Hummler, you keep bringing rounds of Cantillon to the table and we’ll patiently wait all night for that decanter to speak to you!” (And for the record, yes, I understand how ridiculous it is to have a host serving more Cantillon as our Patience Beers, given it takes at least three years to make that beer as well.)
That Saturday, I acquired some new jargon for my beer-drinking lexicon. While I have never turned down a beer from a gracious host, this was the first time I can recall ever watching a round of beers being delivered by said host with the express purpose in mind of forcing an already captive audience of drinkers to remain engaged, all the while knowing the decanted beers needed just a wee bit more time.
A funny thing happened as we sipped on the Patience Beers. A Macy’s Thanksgiving Day-style balloon parade broke out on the main street right outside Moeder Lambic (I maintain Jean dialed 911 on the Balloon Parade Bat Phone in a “release the hounds” stalling moment of clarity.) As we sat there and sipped our Patience Beers, reveling in a fantastically unplanned Saturday, a fantastically planned thing happened. It stopped raining.
The ceremoniously decanted beers suddenly opened up, and both were deemed ready by our more-than-gracious host. I learned that Saturday that Patience Beers have a magical quality about them. And everyone who practices skilled beer hospitality ought to know when to embrace them. As quickly as it had started, the balloon parade ended, allowing our attention to be diverted back to the beer at hand that Jean had waited to pour for us.
And that, my friends, is how I came to spend a Saturday afternoon doing what brewers do, all the while acquiring a new device in my hospitality repertoire that I look forward to using for many years to come. The Patience Beer is here to stay. I can’t wait to spring it on some of my most favored brewer friends when they visit us. I guess it’s time for our brewery to go ahead and invest in our own decanters. It would be a shame to not present Patience Beers with the proper Belgian decorum they deserve.
Tomme Arthur is director of brewing operations at The Lost Abbey Brewing Co. in San Marcos, CA.