Sometimes, when researching a Belgian beer guidebook, one of the best things that can happen is to arrive at the village station, check the timetable, and realize that your train doesn’t depart for another 40 minutes.
There is a mental calculation then, because you could walk eight minutes back to one of Belgium’s finest lambic producers. (Let’s see, 16 minutes there and back leaves 24 minutes to drink a gueuze.) Problem is, you just left there, and the man in charge is overly generous with his time and he loves to talk and you love to ask and to listen, and so it was a difficult thing to extricate yourself and, now that you think about it, that’s exactly why you missed the previous train. You already said goodbye; going back now would be awkward. More to the point, you’ll probably miss another train.
So, you find yourself looking for that vaguely shabby cafe across from the station because usually there is one. In this case, it’s a Jupiler cafe, and most beer geeks wouldn’t bother with it. But you are not like most beer geeks, are you? No. You want to take in some local culture that isn’t really present in those trendy beer bars that are getting increasingly international and expensive and similar to each other from country to country, often offering the same IPA brands again and again like a creepy craft monoculture. But a Belgian train station cafe called Terminus in this suburban Flemish village, at midday on Saturday⏤yes, that’s where you might learn something.
So you walk in and everyone has a good stare at you and then they go back to their chatter and their newspapers and their beers. Outside on the sidewalk, you find an increasingly diverse community⏤a few women in head scarves push strollers and two African boys walk by speaking French. But the patrons here are all older and white and mostly speaking Flemish. There are eight of them and, of those eight, seven are drinking Jupiler, Belgium’s most popular beer. The styles that made Belgian beer famous abroad⏤the abbey ales and lambics and so on⏤are known as “special” beers. But these lagers are decidedly not special. They are just beer, and cheap, and therefore have a more central place in daily life. These are the iconic pintjes, typical 25 cl measures of pils in ribbed tumblers. Here in the Terminus, one costs €1.50, or about $1.67. The Terminus has 10 other beers, too, and they include a few “special” beers, like La Chouffe, Westmalle Tripel, Chimay Blue and Orval. You decide to order one of the latter, and it costs €3.30.
Some of the patrons near the bar have a good chuckle when you order an Orval. You think they’re laughing at you, but then you realize they’re really ribbing one of their friends, a foppish man. Of the eight customers there, he is the only one not drinking pils. Why? Because, like you, he is drinking Orval. It might be that they were already teasing him about his fancy beer, so you share a wink and a santé and raise your glass just a bit, then you retire to your table to scribble all of this down in your notebook before you forget the details. So, you sip your Orval⏤floral and herbal and bitterish and dry⏤and you look for quirks.
There are certain fixtures in the simplest of these cafes: sports trophies of mysterious origin; patterned tile floors that are usually clean but ancient; gambling machines that look like digital pinball; billiards; a dartboard. Behind the bar are several types of branded glassware, a few liquors and those little boxes of powdered instant soup. Natter continues around you, but your Flemish is paltry so you can only guess at what’s being said. Given the open newspapers, current events seem likely. Then someone turns TV on, and it’s the news, and it’s loudly reporting about some bomb scare and also a protest in Brussels. The patron chatter gets louder to compensate for the TV volume.
Your Orval runs dry with 15 minutes to spare, so what next? Head over to the train platform and wait? Nah, you’re comfy. So you order a pintje and happily hand over your €1.50. You see a few smiles from the kangaroo court but hear no discernible comments.
You recall reading an article a few years ago about trendy bars versus “cafes populaires”—not meaning popular in the sense of popularity, but in the sense of “for all the people.” There is a quasi-mythical ideal of democratic cafes where hobos drink next to rich men, tourists next to locals, Walloons next to Flemish, old next to young, and so on. You know some places like that, or at least you like to imagine they are like that, so you don’t find the ideal all that far-fetched. But this article argued⏤at least, you seem to remember it argued⏤that it’s a pretty silly ideal and bars are really a form of self-segregation. We drink where we want to drink so that we can be comfortable with the people we like.
Then you think about that expensive Orval and about all those tourists who pass through Brussels or Bruges or Antwerp or Berlin or London for what they perceive to be the authentic Belgian or German or British experience. Yet they rarely end up in the sorts of village stations with trains that stop at every town and village along the way, and so they seldom end up in station cafes like Terminus.
And you realize that you could have gone back for one more beautiful gueuze or eaten a bakery snack on a park bench, but instead you stepped into the common corner cafe, which number in the tens of thousands in Belgium. And which any self-respecting beer geek would have skipped entirely.