Down a very narrow alley off Breidelstraat, the street that connects the Burg square with the iconic Markt in Bruges, Belgium, sits a small bar serving the best tripel I’ve ever had in my life. De Garre is a cozy and warm little space ensconced in the corner off a larger building, in the small hollow of its alley. When you find the door you feel like you’ve earned entrance to a secret society. The stone walls, winding staircase to the second floor, open windows (weather permitting), and railed balcony to the downstairs make the bar feel like something from a fantasy novel. In a country full of phenomenal beer, including a plethora of delightful Trappist and abbey tripels, the house tripel at De Garre takes the cake. Brewed outside town and only available at De Garre (and only on draft, an anomaly in Belgium), Tripel van de Garre is seductively smooth, and dangerously hides its 11.5% ABV behind subtle layers of rich flavor. I’ve had aged Westvleteren 12, I’ve had a three-decade-old bottle of J.W. Lees, I’ve had Cantillon straight out of a dusty cellar in Belgium, but nothing I’ve ever had compares to this tripel.
And in a few months, my wife and I are heading back for more.
In Autumn 2014, Melinda and I flew to Germany, grabbed a train to Bruges, and walked to the eccentric home of our Airbnb hosts on no sleep after about 60 hours awake. We’re going to do it again this fall, though hopefully with a bit more sleep.
After we dropped our bags off at our room, we immediately headed out to sample the legendary Belgian brews, though we kept it an early night in deference to our mounting fatigue. A short stroll brought us to De Kelk, a dark little bar that is far enough off the beaten path to attract more locals than tourists. We had a few readily available Trappist beers and headed home, with plans to return another night. The next day we explored the city and ended up that evening at ‘t Brugs Beertje (“The Little Bruges Bear”), a legendary beer bar proudly displaying pictures of their regular visits from beer god Michael Jackson. The accolades they received from Jackson were and are deserved–they have one of the best beer lists featuring exclusively Belgian beers you can imagine, with tasty small dishes and snack boards and attentive staff. Most bars in Belgium don’t serve food (we made good use of the street vendors selling baskets of frites), so the snack trays here were well-appreciated.
The next night was our baptism at De Garre, a place we would return to at the end of our stay. Our fourth night we walked north from Markt and wandered into Cafe Rose Red, a small and charming bar in a hotel. We sipped aged gueuzes and chatted with the very friendly barkeeps until well after midnight, and stumbled home (after a few wrong turns) in the middle of the night. Our second to last night we returned to De Garre. We couldn’t leave Belgium without more of their house tripel. Toward the end of the night, we moved to the window seat and looked over the ancient roofs, sipping beers that never quite taste the same anywhere else. The first night we’d been at De Garre, I had overheard some Canadians downstairs trying to remember the name of a Belgian beer. I shouted the answer down to them and one ended up coming upstairs to talk about the local bars. The place lends itself to this type of easy conversation, but on the second trip, we kept to ourselves. De Garre has an unofficial three drink limit on the house tripel, but it’s more a suggestion than a rule. We had more than that.
On our final night in Bruges, we took the short walk to De Kelk, had a couple common (but still excellent) beers, and then sidled up to a corner of the bar and ordered a 2 1/2-year-old bottle of Westvleteren 12. It was otherworldly, instantly evoking dark wood, a warm leather booth, tobacco smoke, and old books. I can’t wait to have it again.
My wife and I are heading back to Belgium this fall. We’re planning to stop at Cantillon in Brussels this time and also check out some bars in Bruges we missed on the first trip, but we’ll definitely be hitting up the ones we went to last time. I can’t wait.