Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The most wonderful time of the year.

I got fed up of Christmas long ago. False bonhomie, too much food, boring TV, pubs packed with strangers, public transport suspended. In contrast, my favourite weekend of the year is the one before Christmas. I set off tomorrow.

Essen (not be confused with the German town of the same name) is the norhernmost station on the Belgian rail network. Just one kilometre from the Dutch border it is a perfectly nice but boring commuter town. No doubt very pretty in summer, it feels bleak in midwinter as a savage easterly breeze cuts across the Kempen. There a plenty of bars but nothing to attract the beer tourist. What it does have is one of the best beer festivals to be found anywhere in the world. This is a labour of love organised by the local volunteers of O.B.E.R. which stands for the Objective Beer-tasters of the Essen Region. O.B.E.R. is one of more than 20 local clubs of the Belgian confederation of beer-tasters known as Zythos which is the Belgian equivalent of CAMRA.

Each year the local Heuvelhal is the venue where O.B.E.R aim to showcase every Christmas beer brewed that year. The number rises every year and will be pushing 150 beers this time. While gaining in popularity, it still has an initmate atmosphere that other festivals lost long ago. The beer list can be found HERE and includes some of the finest beers brewed in this finest of brewing nations. I can't wait to try classics such as barrel aged De Dolle's Stille Nacht Reserva and Bush Prestige. You can even catch me working behind the bar from time to time.

Yes, you can see Rochefort in 75cl. bottles
Essen has only about a dozen hotel rooms, so other than the odd camper van or foolhardy types sleeping in the back of cars in sub-zero conditions most people choose to seek accomodation in Antwerp which is a half hour journey by train or Brussels or Bruges. These cities are recommended even without the beer festival as Belgian cities know how to 'do' Christmas with their ice rinks and market stalls and more subtly attractive lights than the Blackpool Illuminations style found in Britain. Of course every Belgian bar worth its salt carries a range of Kerst biers at this time of year.

Last year's renewal was made even more memorable by the once-in-a lifetime snowstorm that paralysed much of Northern Europe and allowed me an extra night in Brussels with hotel courtesy of Eurostar.

If it is too late for this year to resolve to visit this festival at least once. You won't be disappointed.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, this is on my list of "to do" Belgian festivals. Hoopefully there will ba few of these beers still knocking around at the Brugest festival in February. I see they have De La Senne's superb Zinnebier Xmas - one of the best Belgian Christmas beers I have had for a very long time.