Sunday, January 20, 2013

Brouwerij Het Anker (Mechelen, Belgium)

het Anker brewhouse

Coolship from days of brewing yore
Took the short train ride from Brussels to Mechelen to tour Brouwerij Het Anker, which is only about 20 minutes from Brussels. I'm amazed by how simple and fast it is to get around Belgium, at least the larger cities that are a straight train ride from Brussels.  Next trip I will rely on trains and cover more ground with confidence.  In the Central Station, there's what looks an iPhone for a giant that will search trains and routes to locations. Very helpful when not easily connected to online sources.  While there are automated ticket stations, lack of a EU styled chipped credit card meant that this didn't work for me.

View of Mechelen from top of Het Anker
So, between not having a chip and not generally knowing what ticket to buy, I would always left a little extra time to purchase a ticket from an agent.  A paid ticket entitles you to ride to a region and doesn't say what train to take or list transfers.  The large board will do this, so I would search my route and use my iPad camera to take a picture of the information.  Also, one of the ticket booths (don't remember the marking but it was all the way to the right) will print off an itinerary as well.  Many of the windows have limited functions to provide express service, so not every window will print a schedule.  This morning the only confusion was that my information said to go to Malines, but the stop is also named Mechelen.  I assume Malines is French for Mechelen.  Because of the split Walloon-Flanders nature of the country, these French-Flemish language issues happen fairly often.

At the Mechelen/Malines stop, a nice security guard gave me very detailed directions for how to walk through downtown.  It's was a pretty stroll on a sunny Sunday morning that was about half an hour, and I took a meandering path past the Grote Markt (Grand Place) and a huge cathedral in the center of town. I didn't turn before hitting the river, so had to backtrack a little and walk through the Het Anker parking lot.  Mechelen is an extremely quaint city that is a tourist destination without the beer, as I found out with the myriad of people crowding the town as I went home after lunch.

7.20 Euro for the tour; buy the ticket in the gift shop desk by the restaurant entrance. Again, I arrived early (only 90 minutes this time), so had a seat in the outdoor cafe to catch up on my writing from recent days.  The tour meets in the yard by the cafe chairs, so relax and wait for it to begin.

Het Anker is a combination of working brewery and preserved historical site, layers of untouched dust intact.  Het Anker is simply--the anchor, Mechelen being a long time shipping port via the waterways that ring the old city.  Seems obvious, but I find it hard to think of a seemingly landlocked town as a port city.  The tour is  the normal "beer is made of four ingredients lecture," plus a museum tour and a running narrative of local Beguine history.  A unique tour in many ways that's worth the effort, blending God, beer, and politics into an interesting story.
Draft of Lucifer in het Anker restaurant and tasting room
Antique wort cooler.  The beer ran over the tubes
in an enclosed, heated room

At the beginning of the tour, the guide asks for preferred languages  and then proceeded to do the tour in each language in the group, English and Dutch today.  Very helpful.  In the first room of the brewery, which had historic pictures and looked liked an old tap room, our guide told of the original Beguine hospital on the site in 1625--a date on a building near the cafe that is a rebuilt building due to a fire in the earlier structure.  Beguines were a lay Christian community, similar to nuns but composed of rich young daughters that served God rather than submit their purity to marriage, according to our guide.  They lacked formal religious vows; however, connections to wealthy family members made the Beguines a powerful political force that shaped Mechelen--and Belgium as a whole.  The Beguines hospital went back to the 1200s and Charles the Bald gave them permission to start brewing in 1471.  I'll leave the reader to find out the rest of the history on tour.

Chatting with the guide, I found out that the bottling was done below in the cellars that were not on the tour.  However, Het Anker is moving all bottling to a plant that they own nearby.  They contract bottle for a lot of breweries because the bottling plant can easily change the size of bottle being filled, flexibility being a hallmark trait of the company business strategy.  There are also plans to use the on site bottling space for additional tourism by building a hotel.

Touring the old brewery was fun because of the stream of museum pieces seemed endless, including the old heat exchanger that ran the wort over the coils in a glass enclosed, oven-heated room originally.  The heat was to regulate the rate of temperature decline and keep out infection.  Moving to the old malt house, it was musty like an old grain elevator, creaky floor boards included gratis.  We ended on the lower level with whiskey aging in stacks of barrels, finishing the tour with the exquisite smell of the Angel's Share that wet our taste buds for some free samples.

Two samples with the tour, which I had the Gouden Carolus Classic and Tripel.  Both were fine and I moved on to a draft of Lucifer, a hazy gold ale with a giant, stark white head, muted spice in the nose and a sweet and spicy but light body. Good but not something I'd order again.  I hoped to end with the strongest beer with which I was familiar and ordered a draft Hopsinjour.  However, I was disappointed in it as well. Good but my memories of the bottle are better.  Drafts here are not an improvement, unfortunately.  I'm not sure if it's because the Het Anker beers are simply better on yeast in the bottle or if there was a serving issue in the bar draft system.

Whiskey aging room and the smell from
the Angel's Share was amazing!
Another person on the tour seemed to be a solo traveler, so I invited him to join me.  He was Pedro Esteban from Brazil and we talked while having samples. A real road warrior beer geek, he was heading to La Trappe and several other breweries yet today.  He found the driving in Belgium relatively simple compared to the roads of home, so he ended with his free samples to have time for trappist ales in Tilburg.  First time I met a South American beer geek and the discussion was illuminating.

Pedro moved on, so for my solo lunch I had the overpriced vegetarian pasta since I couldn't, for some unfathomable reason, just order frites although frites came with other meals.  Mediocre at best, I should have listened to my instincts to eat elsewhere.  A minor detraction of a fine day.  I felt better with a full stomach in the early afternoon, taking a leisurely picturesque walk along the river as the tourists came out on a Sunday afternoon on my way back to the train to have dinner at A la Becasse for traditional lambic on Werner's recommendation.


  1. It's a great one to do for the history, but also because they cater to tourists more than others, especially doing the tour in English. Many more posts to go from Belgium yet, including Westvleteren.