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Drinking before noon at a Belgian brewery
Brewery of the Hand
De Koninck was originally known as "Brewery of the Hand." Back in the 1800s, one had to pay taxes to sell goods in Antwerp, and the hand was the universal symbol for "pay up." There was an actual stone statue which looked like this hand at the border of Antwerp and Berchem.
Though the beer is now called The King (that's what "De Koninck" means), the hand is still used as their logo. I rather like this. Instead of saying "I'm going to go for a beer," I think I'll start saying "I'm going to go pay the king."
My tour guide at the brewery was none other than CEO Dominique Van Den Bogaert, a third generation brewer of De Koninck with a family history of brewing that goes back as far as five or six generations. The Bogaerts, who were brewing in Willebroek, helped reopen De Koninck after World War I.
Basically, Van Den Bogaert was born into beer.
He showed us around the charming brewery and talked some shop, but it was when we got to the bar next door that I started to learn what drinking in Belgium is all about.
In Belgium, the bars never close. My hosts explained that this actually prevents public disorder. "There's no 'drink up' time," said Van Den Bogaert, adding that Belgium has less trouble with teen drinking than the United States, even though their drinking age begins at 16. And here's an interesting, possibly related linguistic fact: Belgians don't say drink a beer, they say taste a beer.
The word Belgians use to toast is Schol! -- which is not a Flemish or French word. It's actually an old Scandinavian word for skull. Viking warriors used to drink from the skulls of their defeated enemies as a (moderately uncivilized) way of celebrating their victories.
The proper thing to drink De Koninck from is not a skull (surprise). It's a bolleke, or small ball; one of those fancy stemmed beer glasses (above right). There's also the prinske (little prince, above left), a smaller-looking glass which was created for women so that they would look more ladylike. It holds the same amount of beer.
After drinking several De Konincks (the blond was my personal favorite -- it's light bodied and vibrant) from our bollekes and prinskes, we also had a traditional snack: meat and cheese from West Flanders. Both were served with mustard.
I think Unnecessary Mustard would be a good band name. (But not a great one.)
You'll actually find a lot of bars without food in Antwerp, because smoking has been banned in establishments which serve food. However, as my host explained: "When in Belgium there is a law, there is always a way to avoid." Bars where you can smoke will often allow you to bring food in -- or even go as far as to serve you food outside and let you bring it in.
I think what I really learned at De Koninck was that Belgians are better at both brewing and drinking beer than most other countries. I have no idea why this is so, but it certainly makes Belgium all the more fun to visit.
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My visit to Antwerp was sponsored by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals, but the opinions expressed in the article are 100% my own.