While visiting Antwerp this weekend, Paula and I visited 2 great bars, the Kulminator and Oud Arsenal. I had been waiting for this trip for some time. Ever since I was a little boy...ok, not that long but it has been awhile.
After checking into our B&B in the middle of the old section of Antwerp, we found our way through the winding streets to the Kulminator, which many regard as the best beer bar in the world. The front of the bar is pretty unassuming and even the big sign on the top is hard to see from down the street as it is not lit up. When we entered the bar we were instantly greeted with the feel of a real old fashioned Belgian beer cafe. When you walk in you are greeted by a small bar to the left. There is about 5 or 6 bar stools and some room to stand at the bar as well. there are 3 or 4 decent sized tables in the front area next to the bar. As you progress to the back of the cafe and toward the bathrooms, you go up a we steps and there is another area with a few more tables but is pretty tight. As you walk back to the bathrooms there is a large window that gives you a view into a beer lovers toy store. There are hundreds of bottles on display in this storeage area, some are rare and special while others are everyday beers.
Paula and I found 2 bar stools at the left end of the bar, near the window and near the 2 house cats that live there. More on them later. It is pretty intimidating to sit down and have to make a decision on what beer to get first, knowing that you will probably have a limited time to drink. Luckily they have about 10 or more drafts so we each chose a draft (a Kasteel Rouge for the lady and a Gouden Carolous Christmas for me). I then got a hold of the beer book which is about an inch thick and very very interesting to read. Although it is a little hard to read due to it being in Flemish, you still can make out the names of 99% of the beers. The prices and sizes are also easy to get through. I found that for the most part the prices were pretty reasonable as well. They had most of the current Belgian beers you would expect to see but the real draw to the Kulminator is the rare and vintage beers they stock. Although there are way too many to mention here, a few that caught my eye were vintages of Chimay blue back to 1981 or so, vintages of Thomas Hardy's(not Belgian, I know) back 25 or more years, and many vintage lambic beers that were really tempting. During the 5 hours or so that we were there, I had a Chimay D'Oree from 2004 which as I understand is the monks special beer they consume. I also had a Rochefort 6 from 1998, a Rodenbach Grand Cru from 2000.
After some reading and talking between Paula and I, we started to chat with a buy sitting next to us and a couple at the other end of the bar. It turns out that the guy sitting next to me was on his way to the same beer festival the next day and to top that, it turns out that he was from Scranton, PA where I grew up! It is a very small world to run into someone in Belgium that lives and works near where you grew up. The couple sitting next to him was from Minnessota and also heading to the beer fest. After while a British fellow showed up and started to talk to the guy next to me. We all started to chat about beer and travel and the fact that everyone was going to the fest. After we all determined that we loved lambic beers, our new British friend ordered a 750 ml bottle of De Troch Gueuze from 1999 that was very tastey and suprisingly fresh for its age. We also sampled a 25 year old bottle of Thomas Hardy's which still had good life left in it as well.
Aside from the beer, one of the main attractions to the Kulminator is the husband and wife that run the place. They do everything themselves including pouring and serving all the beers, most of them in proper glassware. They also cut up meats and cheeses and serve to their patrons. The area they walk behind the bar is rather small and cozy. They have stacks of boxes with beer glasses and as they wash glasses that were used that day, they put then back in the proper boxes or the cases above the bar. The walls behind the bar are lined with shelves of various different beers, all served at room temperature and including current beers and several vintage beers. From where we were sitting we could see several different label variations to Chimay blue and others. There is also an impressive list of gift beers that were given to Dirk the owner by guests. In the 5 hours we were there I spotted a bottom of Alaskan Smoked Porter from 2004, some Brooklyn Monster, Some Sierra Nevada, Anchor OSA, Alesmith Decadence, Captain Lawrence Smoke from the Oak.
After sitting in the same spot staring at the same walls and cats and breweriana, we had to move on to the next bar, Oud Arsenal. Although I left with the regret of not purchasing a few special beers to take away including a 1979 Cantillon frambozen and the Duvel Tripel Hop, we had a great time at the Kulminator and we know that we would be back soon.
How on to the Oud Arsenal
Pictures of Kulminator and Oud Aresenal in Antwerp