OSTEND - Good news for beer lovers on the Belgian coast, the first Beer Tourism Café now offers them a warm welcome in Ostend. No, this is not the first in a long chain of cloned establishments to be found in every Belgian city. The Beer Tourism Café is none other than the familiar Café Manuscript in the Langestraat. So what, exactly, has been changed?
We went to investigate and our many questions were answered at the bar, as they should be in a café. The Manuscript is a typical ‘bruine kroeg’, or brown café, where everyone instantly feels at home.
That is the great achievement of the very convivial owners Glenn Rotsaert and his lovely partner Vanessa Demeij.
Every single day they put their best foot forward and their regular customers have become friends. You could almost call them one great big family.
You are as likely to meet the handyman or the chef, enjoying his break with a pint, as you are to come across lawyers or the night owls on their way to or from a party at one of the nearby dance cafés. “At 5 o’clock in the morning we will switch off the music, but then it will take at least an hour for the last customers to leave the premises,” Glenn laughs. “And if we ever put up a notice that we are closed ‘due to circumstances’, I will get lots of stick the day after.
Apparently, people love ‘their’ café so much that we are taken to account if, by rare exception, they arrive to find the door shut,” After 20 years, the Manuscript has grown into an institution, a place you can rely on, and that merits respect.
If you make far-reaching changes to such a business you run the risk of losing all your customers. But why would you change a café that is doing so well? And what would you change?
Vanessa is my guide. She shows me the new room on the first floor, adjoined by a kitchen, all freshly decorated. “This is where we will be organising tastings,” she tells me. “It’s ideal for groups who want to try out cheese and beer pairing or learn how to taste beer properly.”
Below, opposite the bar I notice a large blackboard where dozens of beer names are chalked up, grouped by their style: Belgian dark beer, Belgian tripel, wheat beer, IPA… “We used to have a range of around 20 specialty beers, now we offer 75. Every important Belgian beer style is represented.
If you ever want to make a new discovery, this is the place to come.” Glenn serves a freshly-poured Poppolou in a Beer Tourism tasting glass. “We commissioned this beer to be brewed exclusively for our café,” he explains.
“You will find it nowhere else.” Customer feedback on this ‘fils du bord de mer’ is unanimously positive. It is a thirst quencher with a slightly salty touch. On the first day it went on sale, one barrel was empty by closing time – you might even think that the sea air makes Ostenders thirsty. The Beer Tourism tasting glasses are also a hit.
“Our customers now often ask for this tasting glass,” Vanessa tells us. “It comes in very handy for our tastings as it marks out various volumes (12,5cl - 25 cl - 33cl). It also means we don’t have to stock quite as many glasses.
If your beer menu includes 75 varieties and you have to provide a special glass with each one, you’ll soon be running out of space. Although this doesn’t mean that we would not serve a Duvel in a Duvel glass or a Cuvée de Château in a Cuvée glass. Belgian beer culture is clear on how this should be done and you have to respect that.”
Dusk is falling. Outside, by the awning over the terrace, the new Beer Tourism neon sign lights up the Langestraat. A shiny new beacon. “People notice it. We have had a lot of positive responses,” Vanessa tells us.
“People who don’t know us say it makes it easier to find us and the BeerTourism Café makes an ideal starting and finishing point for possible beer tours in the city.”
So, there have been many changes, but the Manuscript has retained its character and remains a soulful pub with plenty of atmosphere.
Etta James, Nina Simone, Doctor John and Howling Wolf burst out of the musical wallpaper. You almost expect them to take to the stage in a minute. “We regularly stage live performances.”
“The bigger and better known artists also like to perform in small cafés to enjoy the intimate atmosphere, now we also have a wide range of Belgian beers to help lure them in..." Glenn laughs.
"Sometimes we play host to acts that normally play at much bigger venues and festivals as the De Zwerver, Dranouter folk festival and Leffinge Leuren.” Glenn keeps up his contacts in the music world. In a former life, he spent over a year on tour with Marky Ramone and the Speed Kings as their base guitarist.
Tonight is the official launch of the BeerTourism Café. The guests of honour include Sven Gatz, Director of the Belgische Brouwersfederatie (the Federation of Belgian brewers), member of parliament and vice-mayor of Ostend Bart Tommelein, VP of the Belgian Beer Club, delegates of the beer lovers’ association Zythos, guests from the café and restaurant trade, journalists and... representatives of the Van Honsebrouck and Duvel-Moortgat breweries as well as Bart Durlet brewmaster and co-owner at Anders Brouwen!.
The Red River Dixie Band launches into its first New Orleans standard, Glenn’s Dad plucks the banjo strings and the tuba appears to have two legs as the player disappears behind his instrument. There isn’t room to swing a cat. Snacks are tucked into with gusto and the beer flows freely. It’s a true party atmosphere.
The room on the first floor has been approved and ‘christened’ at the same time. Outside, the crowds are holding their own on the terrace, sheltered by the awning, whilst the grill glows and the smoke blows in all directions.
“Expect nothing else when it’s blowy on the coast,” the local experts advise us with a grin. These visitors are not likely to forget that Ostend now has its own Beer Tourism Café. And when the last of the guests finally heads home, the regulars will be quick to take up their own familiar spaces at the bar. No, the Manuscript is far from a blank page.
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