Belgium’s Beer Mecca

 Patrick De Roo

If your idea of a bar involves wall-sized flatscreens, shooter specials, and a dedicated Red Bull mini-fridge, then know that Antwerp’s celebrated Bierhuis Kulminator is not the place for you. Located on a quiet street near the city center, this dark, overstuffed bar vaguely resembles a shrine – fitting for a place that has become a site of pilgrimage for beer fanatics, many of whom call it “the best beer bar in the world.” Arrive right before opening time, and you might witness the acolytes lining up out front. Inside, it’s packed floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall with beer signs, mirrors, bottles, and a collection of specialized glassware that would put a college chemistry lab to shame. Anything that’s not glass and covered in brewery logos is probably wood and definitely brown. Somewhere amid the clutter are Dirk Van Dyck and Leen Boudewijn, the couple that has run the bar since 1974. They’ll direct you to the object of veneration: the beer list.

The list looks like a phone book, is treated like a Bible, and boasts as many as 800 beers at a time, representing a range of breweries, styles, and vintages. Yes, vintages. The light lagers that dominate the U.S. market are best fresh, but it turns out that some high-alcohol beers, like Belgian ales, can benefit from months and even years spent aging in cellars. Kulminator stocks bottles back to the early 1970s. (We’re all familiar with vintage wine and 18-year-old scotch, but when was the last time you drank a beer old enough to order its own beer?) Pick a year and engage in a bit of hops-tinged time travel. If you’re with a group (or your tolerance is heroic), try a flight of several years of one beer, like Chimay Blue. Whatever you order, get comfortable; the trip to the cellars can take a while. When your bottles arrive, cool and still dusty, they have the feel of long-sought relics.

Kulminator impresses with its “young” beers, too, and if you’ve come this far, there’s one you can’t ignore. You’ll mangle the pronunciation, but Dirk knows what you mean: Westvleteren 12. Brewed at the abbey of St. Sixtus in Westvleteren, this Trappist ale has been called by many the world’s best. It’s certainly one of the rarest: The monks brew only enough to keep the abbey running, and sharply limit sales. At Kulminator, €14 (just over $18) will get you one slim, unlabeled bottle, an exterior simplicity that belies the complex flavors within: dark, fruity, spicy, exquisite. “Best bar” and “best beer” will always be matters of opinion, but when beer is this good, the superlatives mean less than the moment. Sip, savor. Maybe the beer fanatics have a new convert? [Bierhuis Kulminator, Vleminckveld 32, Antwerpen, Belgium, +32-3-232-4538]