OF BELGIAN BEER AND MYSTIQUE

Ardent Belgo-phile Joe Stange muses on the magic and fantasy that runs through Belgian beer

As a longtime atheist — sceptic, realist, whatever you prefer — the only ‘magic’ I know lies in those parts of the mind we have yet to understand. These can be uncomfortable areas to explore. They occasionally manifest in the real world, often through the creations of the right-brained or the intoxicated — or, in the case of the Belgians, both.

I’ve walked into hundreds of different Belgian cafés. They lean more eccentric than most pubs, to put it lightly, so we could fairly describe many as odd but charming. Beyond those, things can get really weird. A select few are more like sweaty obsessions than cafés. Upon entering you get a palpable sense that you’ve walked into a dark corner of someone else’s brain; you obviously don’t belong there and must immediately choose whether to turn around and walk out before committing to the experience any further.

The Velootje in Ghent is one of those, a thick, dusty hoard of junk and memories, with just a bit of space cleared for a few people to sit. It’s a work of art, in its way, a mishmash of cobwebbed antique bicycles, candelabras and Jesus busts in party hats. Authorities have closed it four times for sanitary reasons, though it serves no food whatsoever. The owner Lieven De Vos keeps several different beers in his fridge, but the only brand you get is whatever he chooses to serve you. The whole experience is as unsettling as it is entertaining. To say I recommend it would be an exaggeration. It’s not for everyone.

Another of these obsessions, less well known, is the Bezemsteeltje in Antwerp. This is on the Varkensmarkt, about 10 minutes walk northwest of the Cathedral. The café’s whole interior is layered in witches — mannequins, toys, masks, statuettes. They gaze into crystal balls and seem to cackle from the rafters. It is not a destination beer bar, though they tend to stock a few witch-themed ales. It’s worth the detour if you collect that sort of experience.

Belgium excels at fantasy. They know better than us that life is too short for the mundane, just as it’s too short for boring glassware, dull-looking beer, or a Sunday without a visit to the café. Thus fantasy finds its way into all sorts of beers and associated marketing. There are witches and elves and trolls and things all over the artwork — the labels, the breweriana, and in the brand names.

Many of these legends spring from local folklore, like the witches of Ellezelles, in the hill country of north Hainaut. The Quintine brewery there has long embraced the witch theme (I once visited to find an ad out front for a used broom — ‘only 600 flight hours’). The Quintine ales got their name from a 17th-century woman burnt at the stake for ‘witchcraft’ along with four other women; the real evil, of course, was superstition and those who used it to manipulate fools. Inevitably there is a medieval, horror-themed knees-up every year in Ellezelles to commemorate this grisly event. Meanwhile the town’s answer to Brussels’ Manneken Pis is a charming fountain named Eul Pichoûre. She is a squatting witch who relieves herself at a shocking velocity.

Mind you, Ellezelles is the same town (pop. 5,000) that decided — entirely on its own, since Agatha Christie never specified — that it was the birthplace of Hercule Poirot. To state the obvious, we are referring to a fictional character. Yet the local authorities can produce a birth certificate. It says he was born on April 1.

That’s the sort of nonsense that keeps me toiling happily in the mines here, in the decidedly un-lucrative field of Belgo-philia — part drunkard, part foreign ethnographer and cultural appropriator. I share this self-awareness to prepare you for what comes next: some dubious notions about Belgian art.

My impression is that the Belgians would be more into magical realism, but it’s just too realistic for them. Fantasy is their thing, and by fantasy I don’t mean wizards and dragons (although they like that stuff too).

I mean they are into the fantastic — anything goes, as long as it’s out there and detaches from the mundane. In Brussels there is even a Museum of Fantastic Art — full of weird and surreal objects — right next to the Horta Museum, a temple of Art Nouveau. Speaking of which, the very best of Art Nouveau architecture — born in Brussels, mind you — tends to look rather elvish. One of the best places to admire the style is the swooping interior of the brasserie Porteuse d’Eau (perhaps with a bottle of Lindemans Oude Gueuze, its own label drawn in Art Nouveau style). The fact that the place is an imitation only reinforces the theme. It doesn’t have to be real; it’s better if it isn’t.

Why be real, after all, when you can be surreal? Many of the surrealists, incidentally, subscribed to a method called automatism. The idea is to lose conscious control of what you are creating, and submit to the creations of your subconscious mind. Altered states of consciousness fascinated them. How often, do you reckon, were they sober?

The Belgian painter René Magritte didn’t embrace that method. His deliberate creations were more like visual poems, meant to create mystery. He said he did not intend them to ‘mean’ anything; they were supposed to be unknowable.

In Brussels, Magritte drank sometimes with other surrealists in the Fleur en Papier Doré, perhaps 10 minutes’ walk from the art museum that now bears his name. You can enjoy a tumbler of draught Oud Beersel lambic there and admire all sorts of odd things on the walls. My favourite is this scrawled bit of wisdom: Nul ne m’est étranger comme moi-même. No one is as foreign to me as I am to myself.

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Along with Tim Webb, Joe is the co-author of the latest (and 8th) edition of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide Belgium which is now available, £14.99. We think it’s rather essential if you’re catching the Eurostar to Midi.