Down the rabbit hole: from occasional beer drinker to full-blown geek (part 1)

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

As I handed to the gentleman my 'business' card containing blog, e-mail and social media details, Stu (Neilson, head brewer of North Riding Brewery) commented, "Ah, Mark S-M. Professional alcoholic." How had it come to this? My transformation was on a one-way trajectory to full-blown beer geekdom. Sitting comfortably? Once upon a time ...

... like the mods and rockers of the 1960 and the Jets vs Sharks of 'West Side Story' fiction, as a kid of the 1970s influenced by male family members who all drank real ale and eulogised about CAMRA with reverential abandon, I joined one side of the beer debate during my formative teenage years. The right side. Me for real ale, those that didn't for macro swill. Such was the labelling and polarisation.

For a couple of decades my beery existence coasted by unperturbed. With the odd CAMRA beer festival here (oh, the magnificent 'Great North Western'!) and a trip to an historic old pub there, nothing majorly spectacular happened apart from trying Hopback 'Summer Lightning' for the first time - a beer that sent out shockwaves. There was little in the way of take-outs and drink at home fare. Most of the time I supped on-site, draught, cask. Browse the 'Good Beer Guide', choose a nearby pub I'd not previously visited that had a decent rating and off I'd go. I drank beer as a passive consumer, tried new things when possible though the breadth and depth of newness was pretty slim, knew a bit about it though not much. Such is the issue with rabbit holes - you have no idea how deep they go.

That all changed in 2010 when my wife, Steph, was enjoying a day off work and decided to relax by watching a DVD. She came across my copy of 'In Bruges' and gave it a go. For years she'd harboured a wish to visit the city. Maybe the film would give her insights and confirm it was worth the trip? Well ... it did. By the end of the week, she'd booked us a long weekend away that December so we could see what all the fuss was about.

"The architecture looked beautiful. And there are walks by canals. And the central square is wow. It was all in the film."

Taken aback, I threw myself into finding out more about where we were going and what we could do. After all, what did tourists to the city do? I know, naive! Green as they come. Even I'm rolling my own eyes.

After briefly rifling through a few online articles, it became abundantly clear that visitors hankered for frites, chocolate and BEER. But, hang on, it wasn't going to be real ale, so I'd have to reorient my brain and views on what was beer. Hmm. Was there really a beer life beyond real ale? To find out, back then I was lucky to live in Scarborough near a bar serving one of the best selections of Belgian beer in the UK (only the 'Post Office Vaults' in Birmingham has bettered it). Yes, 'The Valley Bar' in good old Scarbados! It boasted a Belgian beer menu of breadth and depth that numbered up to 110 different beers packed with quality.

About 3 weeks before our trip we ventured there one night and asked the landlady which Belgian beers she'd recommend a complete beginner. We didn't have a clue and needed one quickly. Which beers represented the best they had in stock? Having been to Belgium a couple of times, what other advice could she give? From memory, we tried Westmalle Dubbel, Karmaliet Tripel, Rochefort 10 and a couple of others. Armed with this scant tasting experience and some basic pointers, we ventured onward to a city where one bar stocked over 600 beers ('Cambrinus') and a bottle shop on the same street held around 750 different beers ('Bier Temple', since closed). Yes, as you sit there nodding with that broad whimsical smile, we were completely unprepared for what was to follow. Less lost down a rabbit hole, more like rabbits caught in headlights.

Some travellers love to explore a new location without prior knowledge. You know, wing it. Choose spontaneously to go left or right. Like the psychiatrist in Luke Reinhardt's most famous novel, roll dice all weekend to decide how best to spend your time. Had there been a dartboard displaying the beer options within any of the bars we visited, we could have selected our drinks by throwing darts. After all, neither of us has a true arm so the outcome would have been random anyway!

Our guesswork resulted in sampling beers meandering wildly between genuine quality and mainstream blandness. The bars we frequented were similarly hit and miss. The range on offer everywhere was totally outrageous - without any prep, it's all just pot luck. The number of bars seemed endless. It induced dizziness. The 'Cambrinus' beer menu required 10 minutes to skim through the reams of pages detailing its stock and it helped to possess decent forearm strength to wield the damn thing, it being backed by two sizeable slabs of wood. The array of branded glasses everywhere? Crazy. Beer signage? Universal. And bottle shops? On virtually every street. Belgians don't just drink beer, they love it, they revere it.

And finally the beers styles. How many? Some were SOUR? Others contained FRUIT? It was a chastening eye-opener. The beer world was suddenly cast into a sharp relief. Its extensive boundaries hidden way beyond the view I had at the time. The taste experiences yet to be had were far beyond my comprehension. On our journey home I realised real ale was a beautiful thing yet the cask beer world was a small one. There was a much larger beer world to be discovered and our first trip to Belgium gave us the tiniest of sneak peeks of what else we could expect.


Drink these!

  • Karmaliet Tripel - still very good though Bosteels Brewery sold to AB Inbev in late 2017, for those that would prefer to avoid macro made/sold beer.

  • Westmalle Tripel - the original tripel, a classic of the style, a benchmark beer and in a blind taste test conducted by brewers, beer sommeliers, beer judges, etc. on a US website a few years ago, this came out as #2 out the 40 they tried.

  • Rodenbach - Flanderen Reds, and 'sour' beers, are a major taste sensation and this took me completely by surprise. It took me a while to fully enjoy them and their balsamic vinegar tones. Rodenbach is the basic beer from this brewery and the most accessible to someone new to the style. It remains one of the best.

  • Chimay Tripel - my favourite from this trip, clearly a trip around the tripels. Quality Trappist fair from the top to bottom of the glass.

  • Bush Noel - a hulking, boozy, scrumptious 12% barley wine. Just what you need to drink with the clock ticking down and you soon need to return to the hotel, collect your bags and make a dash for the train!

Visit these!

  • @ The Pub - we found it on our first night and returned every other night on this trip. Inclusive, fun, used to be able to self-serve from the fridge though waited on tables on our last visit. Decent beer list, excellent central location.

  • Cambrinus - the #1 place most tourists visit. Huge beer list which can be daunting and take time to read through. Waiting staff must deal with all kinds of customers, behaviours, beer knowledge and you sense an underlying frustration and annoyance at times. Returned again during other trips and found it better during the quieter early afternoon hours when it's less hectic.

  • De Garre - discovered this magical place with only an hour before catching our train. It's one of the city's top 5, a must visit venue. You have to be seated to be served, no standing at the bar, and you will be waited on. Settle the bill at the end. Great beer options, superb setting. This is why you came to Brugge, to experience places like this!