It was Thursday, our second day in Bruges. I remember because we’d spent the night before wandering around looking for the Brugs Beertje, a highly rated beer cafe. If we ever did find it, it wouldn’t have mattered, they were closed on Wednesdays. We ended up in spending the evening drinking Trappist beers in an empty bar with Michael Jackson playing in time with the garishly colored disco lights.
Before decamping for Brussels, we decided to find a more authentic Belgian beer experience. It was still early. I remember we were looking for a quick brunch, but couldn’t find anything good or vegetarian on the way. We were headed for De Halve Maan, the only brewery in Bruges. We found the front gate with its smiling moonman and signed up for a tour.
It was the first time we’d ever toured a brewery. De Halve Maan is half working brewery and half museum.
After seeing the modern microbrewery on the first floor, we went upstairs to see the old brewery with it’s coelship, it’s pitted old fermenters. It could’ve been done in twenty minutes, but the guide repeated his spiel in four languages as we poked old barrels and looked through a collection of old glassware.
The tour ended, as all tours do, in the tavern for a glass of their pale ale. We supped the unremarkable brew and exited through the gift shop, stopping to pick up a souvenir bottle of Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel, the strong dark ale – note, this is not that bottle.
If I’m honest, I didn’t really care for the brewery. The tour was great, but the beer didn’t strike me at the time. We were in Belgium, a land of hundreds of great beers, and De Halve Maan seemed only okay. The brewery was quickly overshadowed when we got to Brussels and saw Cantillon.
Yet, I still have a soft spot for De Halve Maan. With time our hard hearts are softened, and even mediocre experiences are seen through the soft focus of nostalgia. It didn’t hurt that the single bottle I took home turned out really good. It wasn’t only me. Sarah also remembers De Halve Maan fondly. For my birthday she found a vintage bottle of Straffe Hendrik Heritage, an oak aged version of the Quadrupel.
Straffe Hendrik is dark, even for a Quadrupel. There’s a hint of roast you won’t find in most interpretations. Aging in oak wine barrels gives the dark liquor a bright acidity. Whether from incidental bacteria or from left over wine, it’s hard to say, though I’d lean toward the latter. It’s a soft tartness, not overtly sour – raspberries not lemons. There’s an underlying note of coconut? Cola? Weird, but I like it. It’s very dry and dangerously drinkable for eleven percent alcohol.
But the best part is it reminds me of that time in my life, bumping through Belgium on government subsidized gasoline and drinking new beers every day.