What is Belgian beer without a café in which to enjoy it? For as long as anyone can recall the two have been inseparable. Throughout Belgium you will find cafés in every size, shape and colour and catering for every taste - just like the beers you’ll find inside.
There will always be a café that feels like home to you, a place where you can enjoy having a pint or two. Our ‘stamcafé’, or local, is a second home where we can shoot the breeze at the bar while the beer flows.
Any self-respecting village will have a pub, café or ‘staminee’ overlooked by the church tower. Trendy dance cafés, with high decibel music blasting out appeal to a younger public.
But there are also the tiny, almost-forgotten drinking holes dotted around little town squares or found on the corners of bland-looking streets. Here, loyalty brings together a handful of elderly customers who have almost become part of the furniture.
The café owner knows them all by name; they play their favourite card game or pot their balls, pint always close at hand. In a brown café it doesn’t matter in the least who you are, what you think or what you are wearing. You might see a few pictures of rock and jazz icons in a bar where the tables and chairs will be pushed to the side so a band can play.
The local brass band come here to wet their whistles, neighbourhood clubs will get together, barroom politicians will spar, everyone at the bar will be regaled with personal anecdotes and the world will be put to rights over a good glass of beer.
If you wander around in Brussels for any length of time then sooner or later you will find yourself in an elegant brasserie or ‘drinking palace’. You will be served by a waiter wearing an immaculate white shirt and a typical waiters’ waistcoat with brass buttons and black epaulettes.
A city café such as this will transport you back to 1900. Nod at the elegant art nouveau curls and admire the handsome marble floor tiles laid next to oak parquetting, these interiors ooze class from every pore.
The taps are shiny, the glass shelves behind the bar display row after row of sparkling beer glasses and show off large bottles of the noble barley fruit. The mirrors are gold-framed reminders of advertising from an earlier age.
Leave the cities and you will find things are far more down to earth. Each village used to have its pigeon fanciers, cyclists or fishermen’s café.
Somewhere to play a game of cards after attending mass or to flush away the efforts of a local cycle race, a place where the tensions would rise during the wait for the blue-scalloped racing pigeon.
Before or after the movies, just on a weeknight, in-between errands, before or after the sports match... there’s always a reason to pop into the café. The atmosphere is great and everyone is welcome while the interior shows the traces of sometimes turbulent times.
The walls are panelled in dark wood, you sit on sturdy chairs or on a wooden bench where thousands of bottoms have made a dent. The floor will be timbered or covered in splendid tiles.
Often, the 'Leuvense stoof', an antique coal heater, will be the centre piece of the café, providing a warmth to draw you in when it’s cold outside. The walls are covered in ancient pictures, beer adverts, maps, match results, the obligatory poster warning against ‘beteugeling van openbaar dronkenschap’ or public drunkenness. In the past this exact wording had to be displayed everywhere alcohol was served.
'Coureurs', as we call our professional cyclists in Belgium, have always been our heroes, even if they only won a 'kermiskoers' - a little local race around the church. Famous victories will be chewed over at the bar time and time again. Every village used to have its own fair with the inevitable kermiskoers as the ultimate highlight.
This is where many a cycling god started off his career. An old racing bike is fixed above the café door. Hanging everywhere are cycling jerseys in all colours of the rainbow with the sponsors’ logos clearly visible.
Naturally the medals and cycling trophies are displayed not far away. The walls are covered in posters and photographs of historic contests and newspaper cuttings reporting classic races from times long past.
The café is a second home for generations of students. This is where hard-to-keep-to oaths are sworn, friendships are cemented, love affairs start or come to a sad end, academic worries are washed away with litres of beer and parties don’t break up until the early hours.
The student café is where you can spout your unadulterated opinions, where new political ideas are born and where you re-invent the world.
Heated discussions take place here and student nights never end. The benches are outside, not far from the door and you can park your bike nearby. Tables and chairs are sturdy enough to support dancing if needs be. The walls display flags, vanes and other paraphernalia from students’ unions. There’s a blackboard where you can read a student poem or the words of a protest or drinking song.
Farmers never have it easy: up at the crack of dawn, having to go out at night in the pouring rain. Luckily they can often escape to the café for a good party with plenty to drink. That was the old way, when many farms were a long way from being professionally run businesses.
The café was where farmers let their hair down. The ‘best room’ at home was never used, the real living room, or ‘salon’, was the café where they all congregated on a Sunday.
As the number of pints increased, so did the volume. The farmer’s cafe will proudly display pictures of the grandparents, ‘bomma’ and ‘bompa’.
Suspended from the ceiling are drying hams and an oil lamp flickers next to the iron kettles. A poster announces a public sale that, to this day, is often held in the café. You’ll also spot pictures of farmers and their prize-winning cattle.
A triangle with a menacing eye warns that “God is ever-seeing, don’t swear here”. Plenty of farming equipment is dotted around the café. The farmer’s café is a temporary escape from a world ruled by a busy work schedule.