I’m a lover of all good beers, but especially those Belgian. I’ve traveled extensively in Europe to Germany, the Czech Republic and throughout the Netherlands and Belgium on work-related trips before my retirement several years ago.
One of my great loves is De Koninck beer made in Antwerp, Belgium. Expertly poured, this amber ale forms a creamy head, has a slight fruit/spice yeasty flavor with fine balance of malt and hops followed by beautiful Belgian lace cascading down the sides of the glass. It’s ubiquitous in the city, and one can easily drink several in a sitting since it’s not high in alcohol and is relatively inexpensive as well. De Koninck is a delight and in my opinion one of the best beers in the world when fresh on tap. It’s traditionally served in a bowl-shaped goblet: When requesting a bolleke, everyone in Antwerp knows this signifies a De Koninck beer.
A number of years ago, during some time off from one of my work trips in Europe, I was lucky enough to arrange a personal tour of the De Koninck brewery. It was very informative, and my guide, Dennis, was very friendly and helpful. At the end of the tour, one of the office workers came by in a rush and excitedly told us there had been an accident in the United States. From the little I could understand by the description given in Flemish and only partly translated into English, people had been killed when a plane crashed into a building in New York City. I imagined it was a small plane whose occupants had perished, which was certainly distressing to hear.
A little later, I walked across the street to the Het Stoopke pub to enjoy a couple of beers with several of the brewery workers who frequented the bar at the end of their shifts. A special treat at Stoopke was the optional shot of De Koninck yeast that could either be drunk straight or added to your glass of beer. Very tasty!
After about an hour had passed, I was informed that the owner of the brewery and a Belgian brewing icon, Modeste Van den Bogaert, requested to meet me at the pub. I was flattered and told I should feel honored by this special occasion. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Mr. Van den Bogaert wanted to express his condolences to the U.S. citizen who he heard was visiting at his brewery. I spoke with him briefly, although it was difficult to communicate since he spoke little English and I spoke no Flemish. It was only after I went back to my hotel room later that evening that I finally discovered while watching television the true magnitude of the terrorist attack that took place at the World Trade Center Twin Towers on that day of Sept. 11, 2001.
I’ve told my family and friends this story many times, and of the kindness shown to me by strangers during a time of great tragedy. I now had a personal connection to a brewery I had long admired, and it only increased my desire to return. In April 2013 my wife and I had that chance.
Although I was aware that Mr. Van den Bogaert had passed away a couple of years ago and the brewery had subsequently been sold to Duvel Moortgat, I was hoping to revisit and say hello to some of the people I had met there in 2001. I sent several emails to the brewery and waited for a reply. Although I didn’t hear back, I decided to stop by while we were visiting in Antwerp.
We arrived at the brewery around closing time, and I knocked on the door of a small administrative office near the entry gate. I spoke with the employee who answered and briefly explained the reason for my visit. To my great surprise, the person speaking with me was Dennis, the same man who gave me the tour back in 2001! My wife joined us as I shared some of my old pictures. We talked for a long time about the brewery, Belgian beer in general and the best bars in Antwerp. I now have pictures of Dennis and me drinking De Koninck beer at their brewery back in 2001 and now in 2013.
We both have a little more gray in our hair, but we’ve cemented our friendship brought about by a tragedy in the United States, my love of travel and De Koninck beer.
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Michael Benda is a homebrewer and connoisseur of great beers, having sampled many during his international travels. In retirement, he volunteers time as beer consultant to Tappers Pub in West St. Paul, MN.