Wednesday, 29 February 2012

They Do Things Differently There

The Bruges Beer Festival is a fantastic event held in a wonderfully historic building, the Zalon van de Halletore, bang in the middle of Bruges. It attracts beer drinkers from near and far and from Greater Manchester. Now as a regular organiser of beer festivals, I of course ran my professional eye over it, just to see what was done well and what wasn't. Firstly, one major difference is that it is free to get in. Yep. Cost of admission is nil. It seems the venue is donated by the city authorities who rather like the event being there and is to the credit of the organisers that they pass this benefit on to the customers. One of the locals told me that it is the city that dictates the date of the festival, by the availability of the premises. Fair enough really. 

The other very big difference is that the beer stands are all run and staffed by the brewers themselves, serving a mix of bottled and draught beer. Yet another difference is that you pay a single price for the beer and use a standard glass, which I think you buy and which is not refundable. I say "I think" because as we were guests of the organisers at our GBBF BSF AGM, we were given our glasses, though not unfortunately the beer, which is bought with little red plastic tokens at €1.25 a pop. There is one other aspect that is very different. The place was scarily rammed. To a dangerous level in my opinion as a Beer Festival Health and Safety Officer. You literally had to push your way through the busiest parts of the venue and any trip to find a beer, was a tiresome trial of endurance. It was easier to go outside and round the building than to attempt to go from one end of the very large rooms to the other. God knows what would have happened if a fire had broken out, though oddly, as the day progressed, that slight nagging concern became less and less prominent.

Now of course the wise and the tickers had got in early and nabbed the seats that were available. This is indeed a tickers festival and well known adherents of the faith were dotted around, marking off "required" beers and then vanishing for ages in pursuit of them, due to the crush. Lesser mortals such as me just randomly grabbed beers from the nearest stall, though of course there was some discernment and advice heeding. I was after lambics and gueuzes and in the main, these were handily gathered together in a downstairs section of the fest. This did involve rather a long journey to get there, but was well worth it to sample some really delightful beers. It was a pleasure to be able to drink Boon, 3 Fonteinen, Hanssens and Cantillon side by side - well one after the other - only one glass remember. Back upstairs I made sure of a visit to De Cam for the spectacularly good beers there. Nor did I forget a couple of Lindemans Cuvee Rene.

Later as some of the early attendees staggered off, we got a seat at a table and enjoyed friendly chats with some locals - local to Bruges that is and some more familiar faces from our neck of the woods. I won't list other beers tried - I can't remember anyway - but I liked most of them, noted that hops were very evident in quite a few and that strong golden ales are far too easy to drink. My other top tips are that older pourers of beer are far more generous than younger ones and that if you want good, solid advice on Belgian beers, sit near John Clarke.

As the title says, they do do things differently there, but apart from there being far too many people in, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and didn't have a single beer that I thought was poor.  Belgium is great.

Another top tip from JC was to visit Café Rose Red, which given that we'd had a few, we found surprisingly easily - just round the corner.


Bailey said...

"Belgium is great" -- can't argue with that. Got cold sweats at the sound of these crowds, though.

Birkonian said...

This was the first Bruges Beer Festival I've missed. I had two trips to Belgium including one to Bruges in December, with two more to come in April so finance, annual leave and possible divorce considerations came in to play.
Belgian festivals typically offer free entrance with tokens the means of beer purchase. You could have received a refund on your glass but as most festivals date theirs in some way the majority are kept by punters. If yoour glass is of the same design as last year it will have a number of red lines designating the 5th year.
I'm interested to hear about the crush. The previous festival in September 2010 was the busiest and hottest that I've ever been to. I thought that the move to a less touristy time of year would reduce the crowds slghtly but obviously not.
BTW my favourite Bruges bar is De Garre, less than fifty yards away.

John Clarke said...

Too kinds, Tanders old bean. The Rose Red was a new one for me, too. It's good now but talking to the owners they clearly have ambitions take it even further. Very much one to watch and a fixture on the "must visit" list (especially now that the Erasmus has fallen off a cliff beer-wise)

Tyson said...

Downside is that, JC told me, the buses from Bruges to Stockport are a bit of a drag.

John Clarke said...

But the train is great.

Cooking Lager said...

I go to the trouble of getting a beard, buying sandals and attaching a pewter tankard to my belt.

When did colourful scarves become part of the beer geek uniform?

Really, tand, you have to keep your readers informed about these things.

Andrew said...

I must admit that the crowds this have put us off going next year, February again, especially as everyone had big coats and rucksacks taking up twice as much space as normal

The last one was good in August but too many tourists in the outdoor seating, we thought that the Sptember ones were the best

RedNev said...

I can remember when British beer festivals were sometimes as packed as you describe, but it simply wouldn't be permitted now, for all the right reasons.