Returning to Find a City Changed for the Better
Warily and cautiously, Billie the French bulldog approaches, but then if you’ve given your name to one of Antwerp’s most engaging beer cafés—Billie’s Bier Kafétaria (Kammenstraat 12)—maybe you’ve got every right to scrutinize a stranger when he passes through the door. Having only opened in 2013, this compact street corner “brown bar” has quickly become one of Antwerp’s top beer destinations.
On the evening I visited, a babble of languages from around the world filled the air. The 100-beer list (both draft and bottle) combined established favorites such as St. Bernardus Abt 12 and Rodenbach Grand Cru alongside newer offerings from Troubadour (Tripled Spiked Brett anyone?) and De La Senne. The international brigade featured beers from Naparbier (Spain), Beavertown and Weird Beard (both U.K.). A robust Flemish stew was among a selection of dishes to keep hunger at bay.
Billie’s is just one excellent example of how Antwerp, a beer city that seemed to have lost its way in the past 15 years, is now back and better than ever. The last time I visited the city was in 1997 for the 24 Hour Festival. This extremely popular event stopped in 2002, and Antwerp fell off my beer radar screen as Brussels, Ghent and Bruges took over. However, I made up for this desertion in November 2015 by visiting the city twice (once as a judge with the Brussels Beer Challenge) and rediscovering how revitalized its beer scene is.
On my first visit, I grabbed a drink with Hans Bombeke to get the lowdown. He has been one of the leading beer personalities in Antwerp for some years now. He used to own the exceptional beer café ’t Waagstuk (Stadswaag 20), but still lives above it and keeps a trove of aging beers in the cellar; he is also chairman of the Antwerp Beer College.
“After the end of the 24 Hours Festival, except for Kulminator, ‘t Waagstuk and Oud Arsenaal, nothing much was going on in the city,” he told me as we shared a bottle of a 1996 Cantillon Vigneronne (muted grapefruit, raisins, smooth sourness) at ’t Waagstuk.
“So in 2005 some Antwerp beer lovers founded the College. Seven years ago, the local hotel school started a course called ‘Bierkenner’ (beer knowledge). Then in 2010, after Modeste Van Den Bogaert, the old head brewer of De Koninck, died, the college decided to commemorate him yearly by organizing a Modeste Beer Festival on the site of the brewery, inviting modest (little) brewers. In October this year we had over 4,000 visitors. The last five years has also seen different new pubs opening including ‘t Antwaerps Bierhuyske, Gollem, Billie’s, Bier Central and Mombasa. There’s more to come! Yes, beer’s alive in Antwerp!”
If Billie’s is one of the new spots on the beer block, then Oud Arsenaal (Maria Pijpelincxstraat 4) is a venerable veteran, having opened in the 1980s. A brief stroll from the Rubens House, this window-fronted café is a comfortable, one-room bar whose walls are decorated with enamel signs for long-gone beers and breweries. The opening hours can be somewhat cursory (doors open at 7:30 a.m. on Saturdays when the market is held opposite), but it’s a genuinely special place. There is a beer list of roughly 60, and on my visit I dove into a bottle of Troubadour’s 9.2% Westkust, a potent Black IPA.
As Bombeke notes, Kulminator (Vleminckveld 32) is one of the original beer stars of Antwerp and always worth a visit, even if it is somewhat cramped. This is a beer connoisseurs’ place with plenty of nooks and crannies where one can study a bottle picked from an exceptional menu of several hundred. It also specializes in aged beers, though this can be somewhat hit-and-miss, as some beers age better than others. If you’re of a cautious disposition, then it’s best to opt for something like an Orval, as I did. The other thing about Kulminator is that the hours are rather limited. The café doesn’t have a website. Check opening and closing times on tripadvisor.com.
Returning to the newcomers, Gollem (Suikerrui 28) has 100 bottled beers (and 30 draft lines), including Troubadour, De La Senne and gypsy brewery Brussels Beer Project, as well as rarities from the likes of De Dolle, Pannepot and Hof ten Dormaal. There’s a generous sense of space in the bar with a wooden gallery at the end if you fancy looking down on drinkers. Here, I spent some time in the company of Straffe Hendrik Wild and the fascinating oud bruin Goudenbrand.
Food and beer? Plenty of restaurants maintain this fine Flemish tradition in Antwerp. At Dock’s Café (Jordaenskaai 7), a place whose décor is somewhat reminiscent of a steampunk-meets-nautical mash-up, I had Drie Fonteinen Oude Geuze with potted rabbit, followed by an Orval with roasted skate and capons.
On the following day, it was the turn of Grand Café De Rooden Hoed (Oude Koornmarkt 25), where Oud Beersel Oude Geuze was a fantastic match with a plate of shrimp croquettes. The place is halfway between a plush restaurant and brown bar and exceptionally civilized. Special mention must also go to Bier Central (De Keyserlei 25) near the railway station, where a beef stew was a fine companion to a glass of Timmermans Oude Gueuze.
Of course, when we think of beer in Antwerp, it’s De Koninck Brewery (Mechelsesteenweg 291) with its amber ale served in a bolleke glass that dominates thoughts. Now owned by Duvel Moortgat, the beer is still brewed at its original home (though much is brewed at the Moortgat mothership now). The brewery also houses a fascinating visitor center. In the bar at the tour’s end, not only can De Koninck be tasted at the source but also a variety of one-off test brews. I was enthralled by a Russian-style imperial stout, which was a massive expression of dark malts. Let us not forget also the brewpub ‘t Pakhuis (Vlaamsekaai 76), whose tripel Den Bangelijke is a gorgeous honey-blond beer.
Finally, visitors to Antwerp will note a beer called Seef on sale in many bars and promoted as a traditional Antwerp beer. For the moment this is brewed elsewhere. But I found it delightfully fruity, bitter and refreshing (writing in my notebook, “like Leffe used to be 25 years ago”). One place to try it is Het Elfde Gebod aka The Eleventh Commandment (Torfbrug 10), where shelves and shelves of plaster saints of all shapes and sizes look down on the drinkers. The beer list is moderate, but it’s worth a visit for a glass of Seef amid these saintly sights and a reminder of how blessed Antwerp is these days.
Other Places to Visit
(Melkmarkt 14) Take a break from sightseeing at this small brown bar with a lovely neighborhood local feel.
(Reyndersstraat 25) Take a break from beer with this cosy jenever gin bar.
(Blauwmoezelstraat 1) Compact bar opposite the cathedral with a 100-bottle list.