Feb 23, 2014

Antwerp: City of Fashion, Diamonds, Chocolate, Beer and Jenever...

I’ve visited quite a lot of different cities in my lifetime and also had the privilege to live in a few of the most beautiful ones, but I never had a similar relationship to what I have with Antwerp with another city. I never lived there but because of my job I visited Antwerp at least two times every year for the last eight years. After some time I stopped feeling like a tourist, but also never could feel like a local. Something in between—hard to find the words for it. You start to think about it when the bartender in your favorite bar makes jokes about your favorite soccer team the moment you step into the bar, or when the owner of the local whisky shop sends you an email about a rare bottling you might be interested in. I think you start to feel accepted and it’s a good feeling… It takes time but in the end Antwerp accepts you. It is the second biggest city in Belgium and the capital of Flanders after all, but you never feel like you’re in a big city. It is a historic, picturesque, stylish, artistic and hip city. And needless to say, after so many years, I have a few suggestions you might want to note down for your next visit to Antwerp.

a typical breakfast at Witzli Poetzli
I’m going to start with WitzliPoetzli. Witzli Poetzli is a small café on Blauwmoezelstraat situated with dozens of others around the city’s symbolic building, the “Cathedral of our Lady”.  It’s easy to miss the first time you walk by due to its simplicity.  It opens early and stays open late at night.  Tables outside have the best spot to chill and watch the sun go down behind the cathedral on late summer afternoons while sipping your beer.  It has a small but tremendously well-selected whisky collection with rare editions, single casks and independent bottlings and a decent rum line-up. Everything is fairly priced, coffee is good and pastries are yummy.  It is a place where local musicians, poets, artists and intellectuals come together to hang out everyday. The crowd thickens towards evening and the joint stays busy throughout the night.  I had a few random winter nights there when it was freezing cold out on the street but steaming hot inside, windows all covered with mist and everybody cramped around musicians singing their hearts out.  Fun times…  It is a perfect joint any time of the day.

I think Kulminator is one of the best beer bars in Belgium with De Fiere Margriet in Leuven and Chez Moeder Lambic in Brussels. It is located on Vleminckveld, a little far away from the city center. Also, because they don’t have a website it is hard to track down when they’re open and when they’re closed. Sometimes you find the place shut down with a handwritten note taped on the door just because the owners decided to go on vacation. But believe me, it’s definitely worth the trouble. The place has been operated by the same old couple for decades and I don’t think they’ve changed anything in the bar since they opened it.  If you are looking for good service, to be taken care of, or any other kind of comfort you should bring your business somewhere else. This place is for beer geeks and beer geeks only! Try not to piss off the owners by ordering mainstream corporate beers that are not on the menu and also avoid asking long and boring questions about every single beer on the blackboard. Just pick one and try it. There aren’t any choices from a local brewery or monastery you can go wrong with anyways. Oh, one more thing: don’t show up late! The owners like to close before midnight and they will kick you out.

De Vagant
The third bar I will mention is DeVagant. This place is the World Institute of Jenever. Since it’s opening in the 80’s on Reyndersstraat, De Vagant has been dedicated to promoting the local spirit of Flanders and teaching it to younger generations and foreigners. They carry more than 200 different jenevers from almost 40 different distilleries.  The collection covers varieties from single grains to cask-aged editions, from fruit-flavored ones to creamy expressions. It is served in shot glasses filled till they overflow. The staff is very knowledgeable and ready to help you find the one you like. Bring your book on a sunny afternoon, order a malty beer and start with the jenever of the day. I wouldn’t leave without tasting at least a few. I’ve been going there for almost seven years, every time I visit Antwerp, and I am not even close to finish the list. They also have a small shop across the street where you can buy a bottle if you find the one you want to bring home after tasting it at the bar.

The last place I will talk about is a whisky shop not a bar. It’s called Anverness and owned by the one and only Peter De Decker. I met Peter almost four years ago. I simply walked into his shop on Grote Steenweg, introduced myself, shook hands and in ten minutes we were geeking out about whisky, distilleries, and Scotland like two old mates. We’ve kept contact since then. Every time when I arrive at my hotel straight from the airport, I put my luggage in my room and head directly to Anverness. Because to be honest what I can spend in the city during my stay strictly depends on what I will spend in Anverness. The moment you walk in the shop you can see how passionate Peter is about whisky.  The whole place looks like some whisky geek’s home rather than a whisky shop. He also has a gorgeous back room with a huge table and a bar where he hosts tastings from time to time.  I like to refer to that room as “my favorite room in Flanders”. Peter is also interested in rum and sherry and carries a good selection. Next time when you are in Antwerp make sure that you spare a couple hours and stop by Anverness. Meet Peter and enjoy being the kid in the candy shop.

Anverness a.k.a. candy shop

[edited by Teresa Hartmann]

*Originally written for and posted at The Alcohol Professor on February 18th, 2014.