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AUG/SEP 2006 | REGIONAL | INTERNATIONAL

Antwerp's First Brewpub
By Tomm Carroll

In a world-class beer city like Antwerp, Belgium, home of the historic De Koninck Brewery and such great pubs as Paters Vaetje and ’t Oud Arsenaal — not to mention what justifiably has been called the best beer bar in the world, the Kulminator — you wouldn’t expect to find a brewpub. And certainly not one that has been in operation for a decade. But Belgium is full of the unexpected, and the Huisbrouwerij ’t Pakhuis is one tasty surprise.

Located in Antwerp’s port area near the southern city limits, the “House Brewery” ’t Pakhuis occupies a building dating back to 1850 that used to be a warehouse; hence its name: “pakhuis” in Flemish translates to “warehouse.” The district had been uninhabited and largely abandoned when the port closed in the middle of last century, but it became a cultural center in the 1980s and ’90s after several upscale restaurants, art galleries and museums, including the city’s Museums of Modern Art and Photography, settled into renovated cargo warehouses. In 1996, André Van Ackerbroek further added to the neighborhood’s panache by opening ’t Pakhuis, Antwerp’s first (and only) brewpub.

A large, bright, airy, industrial-chic two-story space with bare brick walls and appurtenances of wood, rope, brass, copper and brewery paraphernalia, the brewpub couldn’t be more different from the traditional old “brown bars” that populate the city. The brewery is on-site and visible from the restaurant through glass walls, with the copper brew-kettles on the ceramic tiled floors lit nicely, adding to the hip industrial vibe.

Van Ackerbroek turns out about 1,200 hectolitres a year, chiefly ’t Pakhuis’s three house beers: Antwerps Blond, a citrusy, unfiltered but undistinguished thirst-quenching session beer (5.1% abv); Antwerps Bruin, a dubbel-ish, deep mahogany-colored brew with roasty, caramel malt flavor and some hoppy and yeasty notes (5.5%); and the best of the lot, Nen Bangelijke (Amazing), an amber-hued filtered tripel that is hoppy, spicy, sweet and strong (9.5%) — not necessarily in that order. All the beers are available in their unique glasses or by the pitcher.

Belgium is full of the unexpected, and the Huisbrouwerij ’t Pakhuis is one tasty surprise.

The brewery also produces an occasional seasonal or special beer, such as the Antwerps Kerst, a dark, powerful winter beer with spicy dried fruit notes (7.8%). But the Kerst was unfortunately not available when my sweetheart, Danise, and I visited last spring.

While the beers are all Belgian styles and obviously Belgian-made, they all tend to have that “microbrew” or even “homebrew” aspect to them — as if they could have been created by an adventurous American brewpub or brew club. Like other Belgian brasseries, however, the Pakhuis does maintain the renowned tradition of cuisine à la bière.

Boasting an extensive menu, and all of it quite good, the restaurant expertly incorporates the beer into the creation and preparation of the food. Whether you’re just having an order of homemade bread (baked with brewer’s yeast) and (beer-refined) cheese with some (blond beer) soup, or going whole-hog on a dish of rabbit (cooked in the bruin) or salmon (marinated in the tripel), you are never in doubt about a brew to pair with your meal. Even the sweets do not escape the beer treatment. A popular finale is the vanilla ice cream and fresh fruit on a bed of cold sabayon sauce made with the Nen Bangelijke; it’s a dessert and a digestif all in one!

The Pakhuis staff is extremely helpful, friendly and usually fluent in English. Our waiter, Tom, took the time to explain (and translate) the menu to us, gave us the history of the brewpub, made recommendations for sightseeing in the area, and even called us a cab once we decided to order a nightcap. Drinking and dining here after a day of exploring the city proved to be one of our best nights in Antwerp — notwithstanding our transcendent evening at the Kulminator!

Off the beaten path as it is, ’t Pakhuis is nonetheless a worthwhile excursion outside Antwerp’s city centre, even if you’re not visiting the museums. The brewery also offers tours and tastings, by appointment. Best of all, you can take some of the Pakhuis home with you; the beers are available in one-litre swing-top bottles to take away. As it is unpasteurized, the brew should hold up for at least four weeks if kept cold, Tom counseled.

I took a chance and dragged an unrefrigerated bottle of tripel around Brussels and London for four days before returning home and fridging it. It was still amazing.

Photos by Tomm Carroll. Tomm Carroll drinks globally and locally in Culver City, Calif., and writes about beer.

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