A world of choice awaits at Brussels’ Delirium Cafe, writes David Whitley.
The barman returns to the table looking rather disappointed. “We’ve not got any of the Angolan mango beer left,” he says, as if the news he has to break dishonours his entire family. “We’re waiting for our importer to deliver another batch.”
It’s OK though. It’s not as if we’re lacking an alternative. The beer menu at the Delirium Cafe in Brussels is a genuine epic, better measured in kilograms than number of beers listed. Even the bar’s owner, Joel Pecheur, admits that he doesn’t quite know how many beers are listed on the 240-page monster.
He estimates that the Delirium sells approximately 2000 beers from Belgium alone, and around 500 from overseas. Not all are in stock at any one time, but most are.
Indeed, the Delirium is recognised by Guinness World Records as having the largest selection of beers in the world – a total 2004 when they measured it. Of course, the mature thing to do in such circumstances would be to seek out the finest tipples and savour them. The immature thing would be to attempt to drink one beer from as many of the 78 countries represented as possible.
That’ll be one Breznak Pils from the Czech Republic and one Cubanero Fuerte from Cuba, please Mr Barman.
Some of the collection is instantly recognisable. You can have a Guinness from Ireland, a Singha from Thailand or an Asahi from Japan. You can also indulge in a truly pointless exercise by ordering a VB.
But it’s all the more exciting when you start plunging into the more obscure tipples. It’s unlikely that many visitors to Delirium have encountered Foraya Portari from the Faroe Islands, Akosombo from Ghana or Hinano from Tahiti before.
Of course, this is all a big gimmick. But it’s an excellent one that has proved exceedingly popular. The original bar opened in 2003, but the extended realm now takes over an entire alley.
There are now seven bars under the Delirium banner, each specialising in something different.
There’s a pirate-themed rum bar, a faux-Aztec tequileria, a vodka-toting “monastery” and an absinthe specialist. Each has hundreds of its chosen poison.
But beer is still the calling card, and the logistics of getting more than 2000 varieties in the same place are eye-popping. We sit down with Joel Pecheur, who is parked at a table in the alleyway, somewhat ironically sipping on a Coke.
He explains that getting the inventory in is a phenomenally difficult task – they’re reliant on several importers to bring in the obscure finds from around the world, and getting the numbers right is tricky.
Order big numbers and you’ve got to find somewhere to store them.
“We’ve got a warehouse on the outskirts of Brussels,” says Pecheur. “But we grew 40 per cent in the last year and need a new one.”
Sell-by and use-by dates are also an issue, but a small stock of one beer can end up wiped out in a session by a group developing a taste for it. Sourcing is also a big task – Delirium has 10 full-time employees devoted to finding beers, many of which come from tiny breweries.
“A new phenomenon is vintage beers – like wine, it’s the beer from a certain brewery in a certain year,” says Pecheur. “It’s very difficult to keep them the right way, but when the brewery stops producing them we try to keep some for the connoisseurs.
“There are also beers from breweries that have since disappeared. More than 50 per cent of the beers on our original list are no longer made.”
We’re given a behind-the-scenes tour. There are shelves and shelves of bottles, all divided by country and put in alphabetical order. The Belgian beers are slotted into categories and there’s a vast collection of specialist glasses.
Most breweries demand that their beers are served in a specific glass, and hundreds of these get “appropriated” as souvenirs each weekend.
The fields of crates and kegs show an almost industrial-scale operation.
Once the round-the-world challenge begins in earnest, we’re met with a few interesting novelties. The Taybeh from Palestine has an extremely distinctive spicy taste, while the Bolivar is a truly multinational effort. It’s made with rice from Thailand, quinoa from Bolivia and cane sugar from Costa Rica, but tastes heartily Belgian.
A few rounds in, the flagship Delirium Cafe gets sweatily, noisily busy, and we elect to head upstairs to Delirium’s latest baby.
The Hoppy Loft focuses on microbrewed keg beers from around the world. You could happily swat a pterodactyl with the catalogue-style menu.
Befuddled both by prior intake and choice, we end up telling the barman to just give us one from each country. The Scots, Americans, Dutch and Danes get their chance to impress, and the table fills with some dark, stormy-looking beverages.
My friend takes one look at the bottle of Rasputin from the Netherlands: “Uh-oh,” he says. “We’re on the 10-per-centers. This is not going to be pretty.”
It isn’t – and the likes of Mutzig from Cameroon and Chinggis from Mongolia are left untouched in favour of a spectacularly ill-advised jaunt through the absinthes, rums and vodkas in the other bars. As the evening goes on though, one thing becomes oddly clear. Delirium should be a paradise for knowledgeable connoisseurs, tasting their way through some of the finest Belgian Lambic and abbey beers.
But the crowd is all wrong. The later it gets, the more the alley looks like a youth club.
The local kids and the party-focused tour bus crowds are in for the famous booze theme park, and the place with the best selection of drink on the planet is filled with the people who are least likely to care what they’re drinking.
Alas, those Togolese tipples and Bolivian brews will have to remain in the backstage beer labyrinth for a little longer.
The writer was a guest of the Belgian Tourist Office.
Thai Airways is offering flights to Brussels from Sydney via Bangkok from $1708. Phone 1300 651 960; see thaiairways老域名.au.
The Delirium empire can be found in Impasse de la Fidelite, an alley off Rue des Bouchers in central Brussels. See deliriumcafe.be.
The Crowne Plaza at 3 Rue Gineste has historic charm and four-star rooms from €190.80 ($272) a night. See crowneplazabrussels.be.
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