Avenue Pub in Belgium: For the love of Cantillon (Field Trip)

As part of our “Field Trip” series, we’re following Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts and her staff as they get up close and personal with some of the best beer in Belgium. Next up: a much-anticipated tour of one of the best breweries in the world.

BRUSSELS — No one got locked in a bathroom, and everyone ended their day with their wallets, passports and luggage.

We arrive bleary eyed and a bit hun gover at Cantillon at what we thought would be an achievable time for us. In fact I was pleasantly surprised that Jean set us up for a 10 a.m. tour. Owner Jean Van Roy clearly understands his visiting customer base much better than we understand ourselves; if he’d asked us to be there any earlier, we would have to come in while still up (and drunk) from the night before. Now, we would have made it, because it is Cantillon, but it wouldn’t have been pretty.

Cantillon is normally a self-guided tour. I’ve been to the brewery twice before and the crowds have increased substantially. Guiding us through the hordes (and I mean hordes), of beer tourists I question Jean on how his crew could possibly get any work done. He flashed a half smile and then gave the answer that I should have expected. As always with Jean, his motivation links back to his past and his desire to connect Cantillon to everyone — not just rich people, not just beer geeks, not just “in the know” folks. Everyone.

It was the Le Musee Bruxellois de la Gueuze that sustained and saved the brewery during the very slim 1970s and ’80s. When other breweries were adding sugar to their beers to survive, Jean’s father hung onto the family business by offering the public a view into the traditional and almost bygone art of lambic brewing. For those of you who haven’t been, the museum IS the brewery. There is no separate space for museum visitors. The museum is the brewery in action. Imagine for a minute trying to get a very physical and taxing job done while hosting 50,000 visitors a year. Yeah, that sounds like Mardi Gras every day to me. Jean and his family feel a strong sense of commitment to the concept that kept his family business alive during those starving decades. To refuse or limit those visitors now that Cantillon is a success would be a betrayal of that service.

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Avenue Pub in Belgium: A day trip to Bruges (Field Trip)

Avenue Pub Belgium Bruges

As part of our “Field Trip” series, we’re following Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts and her staff as they get up close and personal with some of the best beer in Belgium. Here staffer Angela Grittman shares a day trip to Bruges.

BRUGES — The highlight of the day was climbing the bell tower, which meant 366 very tiny windy stairs to a breathtaking 360-degree view at the top, 83 meters up. We followed that up with a visit to the Salvador Dali museum. I think we all agreed the “Alice in Wonderland” series was a favorite.

We found a great spot for a late lunch at the best time. Mussels and frites, Flemish beef stew, meat plates, salmon, and rabbit. The day was lovely and warm and as we ate we watched the rain come down.

An endless amount of wandering and exploring through cobblestones streets, which of course we were tripping over constantly … it has become obvious in New Orleans we watch where we walk but today our heads were high in the sky soaking up the beauty of the buildings. It was a shame to find a lovey building from 1525 house converted into a McDonald’s.

While we didn’t do the de Halve Mann brewery tour, as we were standing there we realized there was a beer tour right in front of us, and we got to hear a bit about the brewery and their beer pipeline — which was developed to protect the ancient city from the truck traffic that the breweries success has created.

Avenue Pub in Belgium: Bathroom break in photos (Field Trip)

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As part of our “Field Trip” series, we’re following Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts and her staff as they get up close and personal with some of the best beer in Belgium. Here she takes a brief bathroom break.

BRUSSELS — The last few times I’ve been to Europe, I’ve regretted not taking pics of the bathrooms. This trip I decided I was going to follow though.

The European approach towards bathrooms is vastly different that American. No worries or debates about transgender this or that. In Belgium, you are lucky to get a stall door, and the men and women’s rooms are rarely completely separate, and if you think the stairs ar the Pub are bad … . Don’t get get drunk in a Bruxelles bar and expect to make it to the bathroom safely.

Yet life goes on. Swimmingly, it seems. 🙂

Avenue Pub in Belgium: Trey Reinhardt gets behind the keyboard (Field Trip)

13321773_10210030554587153_4137291078480321095_nAs part of our “Field Trip” series where New Orleanians chronicle their travels outside the city, we’re following Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts and her staff as they get up close and personal with some of the best beer in Belgium. In this installment, she’s turning the keyboard over to one of her collaborators, Trey Reinhardt (director portfolio development for Crescent Crown Distributing), for his early impressions on the trip so far.

BRUSSELS — I’d love to start out by telling the history of the St. Catherine area and its place in Europe, but most of the websites are written in some romance language that aren’t easily translated, so I won’t start there. But, I will tell you that it is a rich cultural neighborhood located in the middle of an unpredictable city with fascinating contradictions (OK, I stole that from a local hotel website).

So here goes the story of yesterday …

After dealing with the planes, trains and automobiles saga of international travel, we settled in, albeit luggage-less, mid-afternoon. The excitement of getting out and exploring was building among the group. It would be right to tell you that we freshened up, but we didn’t. Our travel-wearied asses got an unexpected phone call from Yvan de Baets, you may know him as the brewer and owner of a little brand called de La Senne. He delivered four cases of straight from the brewery beer to our house and threw in about a dozen glasses to go along with the care package. If this is the way Belgium is, it looks like my family will be moving here shortly.

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Avenue Pub in Belgium: Planes, trains and automobiles (Field Trip)

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As part of our “Field Trip” series, we’re following Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts and her staff as they get up close and personal with some of the best beer in Belgium. Here’s her first entry.

It’s been one helluva 48 hours. As the owner of the Avenue Pub, I’ll say I have a bit of paranoia now about traveling to Belgium. There is always a lost money or baggage. On this trip, we had three flight changes, and the last one happened today at JFK Airport. The upshot was that Delta lost everyone’s bags today — everyone except bartenders Alfred Flanigan and Ed Overbu, who arrived in Europe and visited Vienna, Munch and Prague over the previous two weeks.

Brussels is, of course, still recovering from the terrible terrorist attack this past March. We personally knew two people who were either in the train station or the airport during the bombings. I expected to find a city and an airport on edge. Anyone who flew after 9/11 remembers the tension in all forms of traveling that was present for months after. In this instance, we found pleasant and helpful Belgian workers who were happy to see us. We had custom officers who gave us beer excursion tips and expressed horror at the idea that Duvel was not on our itinerary. I’m pretty convinced that had I not agreed to go to a grocery while in town and purchase the new Duvel dry hopped mix pack that she wouldn’t have let me into the country! Seriously, she went on about it for five minutes.

Another staff member was asked detailed questions about where we would be traveling while here. When she said Cantillon & de la Senne, he (with great flourish) stamped her passport. I did not get a stamp, perhaps because my customs agent didn’t trust me to buy the Duvel six-pack. Now, there were lots of semi-automatics (firearms). But even the camouflage guys with the big guns shooed us away from the entrance with a smile.

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Polly Watts takes the Avenue Pub staff to Belgium (Field Trip)

Polly Watts Avenue Pub-002

Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts

While the staff of Avenue Pub is hard at work wrapping up the last day of American Craft Beer Week today (May 21), they can be forgiven if their hearts are already in Belgium. As part of our continuing series called “Field Trip,” owner Polly Watts pulls the mother of all Field Trips by taking nine of her staffers to Belgium starting next Friday (May 27) for eight days to sample of the best beers in the world to put more context into the beer they serve on St. Charles Avenue. (Some notable pitstops: Cantillon, Van Eecke, Brasserie au Baron, Brasserie Blaugies, Oud Beersel, Drie Fonteinen, and Sunner (in Cologne, Germany). Watts, whom I met and covered while managing the bar guide at my previous stop — in which she was honored for having the best beer selection as well as the best bourbon selection — is one of the most fascinating figures in New Orleans’ bar scene. She seems equally passionate not only about the bar she inherited after Hurricane Katrina, but also about what she stocks there and especially who she staffs there.

13254086_1096572387072282_2641065221447868844_n“Open 24/7 except when we are in Belgium”

That’s only a slight exaggeration. The pub closes for 36 hours after Mardi Gras for the ‘Great Clean Up,” and we have been known to close for hurricanes when the chief of police calls us out in his evacuation press conference.

But as a general rule we are always here with a pint of good craft beer. Like many big cities, New Orleans is a 24-hour place. Our customer base changes to restaurant and bar employees in the wee hours of the morning and then later to night-shift workers from EMS and local hospitals around 6 to 7 a.m. For a lot of these folks, there aren’t any other options at 6 a.m. for good craft beer, so the Avenue Pub closing for any amount of time means these folks don’t have a place to go with a beer selection like ours.

The upshot is that we take the idea of closing pretty seriously, and announcing that the Pub would be closed during our staff trip to Belgium felt pretty weird. My late dad, the founder of the Pub, would be rolling his eyes right now if he knew. He’d probably be cursing while drinking his Bud Light and calling us hipsters.

Smelling the Professional Roses
Blessed as we are by the success at the Pub, the workload would get to anyone after a while. A few years ago, we caught ourselves spending all our time with the gritty details of bar management and missing the reason we got into the craft-beer business to begin with. Human-resource difficulties and no-show employees aren’t any more fun in a craft-beer bar than they are in any other business. What we do have in the craft-beer world is fabulous professional friends and amazing opportunities to travel. When the grind got to us, we made the conscious decision to start smelling those professional roses. In the past 12 months, the Pub has sent various staff to beers festivals in both the U.S. and Quebec, hosted brewers from around the world, and we have no plans to slow down. Continue reading