In a certain translation of the Holy Bible, a verse goes “The end and culmination of all things is near. Therefore, be sound-minded and self-controlled…” If there was one genetic link that binds all lovers of travel, it is that we are motivated by an inner voice always telling us ‘Life is short and there is a helluva lot to see.’ While the world around us is quickly losing its mind and self-control, the travelers of the world have more fear to dismiss or push to the back of the mind. But this is nothing new. As far back as traveling from one place to another became a concept, the entire process was wrought with horrific dangers. Plague, exposure, famine, murder, war, local disputes, thievery, natural dangers, lack of territorial unification, and language barriers made traveling much more dangerous in times past such as the middle ages. During that time, accumulating 40 miles in a single day would have been a great accomplishment. So while the thought of which airport, event, or city street might be the next target is not a pleasant one, we can ponder that civilization survived the middle ages and people didn’t stop traveling. Thankfully there were certain institutions which gave travelers some safe haven. One of these was “The Inn.” In the Inn, a traveler could miraculously survive another night by the skin of their teeth AND enjoy the local brew. Today, the inn, tavern or pub serves less as a haven from ruthless brigands and more as one from wives, cranky kids, and the unfinished bathroom. Well, maybe for those pitiful souls, but for the traveler, the pub is a pilgrim site to experience the local drink culture and meet new friends.
On the nondescript and deceptively difficult-to-find Vleminckveld street in Antwerpen sits one pub that has the reputation as a pilgrim site above all others – several times rated best beer bar and currently ranked #5 by RateBeer.com. There are very few travel dangers for me to make this pilgrimage as the gates to this particular piece of heaven lie but 300m from my doorstep. However, for visitors, finding the place can be confusing given the streets in this neighborhood have no particular pattern. It also doesn’t help that the text on the yellow sign is not easily deciphered from a distance and even when it is detected, one will not be sure that the pub is even open until practically pressing one’s face against the cluttered window displays looking for a view of the inside.
Everyone has an image in their minds of what the inside of a pub looks like. I can assure you that the Kulminator will no more match your image than the man or woman with the nice voice helping you out on the phone with your internet billing problem. Prior to entering the pub, the words “geen groepen” or “no groups” greets you, and the reason is not the displeasure with congregations of pilgrims but simply a logistical one. The first time entering the Kulminator will probably give you a moment of “Am I in the right place?” As the eyes focus, stacks of empty beer crates will appear along with possibly a bowl of giveaway cracked beer glasses, piles of dusty books, newspapers, and board games, a bar with barely enough room for one bar stool, coasters, metal beer signs, an old antique cabinet with beer glasses, and chalkboard signs with the names of beers on tap. What there are not piles of are tables. Arriving in the early evening by 7pm is the best bet. And if you do, it is likely you will notice an Albert Einstein-looking character reading a newspaper. He will most likely not greet you, but if he does raise his eyes in your direction, you may suddenly feel like a traveler in an old Hammer film stopping in a village inn, which just happens to be around the corner from Dracula’s castle, only to be greeted with silent, suspicious creased and grizzled faces who would no sooner see you thrown back out in the street than serve you a bowl of soup. That is Dirk.
Then out of nowhere will appear the complete antithesis. The sweet smile and rosy cheeked Leen who could just as easily be one the Carmelite nuns from the convent just around the corner. This husband and wife team have been running the place since 1974 and they have divided up the duties quite distinctly. Leen scribbles your order on a coaster and Dirk wanders off somewhere to get it. I can tell you that Leen enjoys her part of the bargain much more than Dirk. Since 1974, Leen and Dirk have been collecting beer. Their claim to fame is having beers aging away in their cellars like wine. The problem for Dirk is that they are not all stored in the pub. So while visiting the Kulminator, I like to play a game and pick out the beers that elicit a frustrated scowl from Dirk (and a knowing sparkle in the eye from Leen), which means he has to walk down the street to another house to find the beer. The downside of a victory in that game is sometimes waiting 20-30 minutes for your beer as the not-so-spright Dirk fulfils his marital duty. When I see Leen, I cannot help but be reminded that in the middle ages, beer was predominantly brewed by women. It would not surprise me that somewhere in Leen’s long past, a Leen-ancestor could be found tending to a boiling pot of barley and malt, while the husband was off serving the customers like she does today.
In any review of the Kulminator found online, you will read about the black Bible of beers listing every beer that they have stored away, some 30 years old, including age and alcohol content. Do not be surprised in the least when a bottle shows up with a layer of dead skin cells, a rusty cap, and sediment floating around in the glass. If you do, you are about to experience why pilgrims from all around the world come to this pub to begin with. Who cares about a 2015 Chimay when you can have one from 1985? Of course with age comes value and in general the older beers can be pricey. But it is not impossible to find beers from the 80’s and 90’s for 5-7 euros. But it is getting harder and harder to get these beers while they are still available. To a Kulminator pilgrim, the most dreaded sight is the small pencil slash on the beer bible indicating your selection is extinct.
A small group of colleagues and I are so dedicated to this amazing pub that we have get-togethers called “Kulminator nights” and our own Kulminator Whatsapp group. If you visit Antwerpen and make your own pilgrimage, it is not unlikely that after poking your head thru the front door and thinking “Am I in the right place”, that you will see us sitting at a table playing a game of dominoes – a game, in fact, which we were inspired to play by a fellow American couple that we had the fortune to meet when we only went to Kulminator to drink beer. Now our Kulminator Nights have expanded to dominoes and even other obscure games that members of the group bring along.
So while the culmination of all things is near, rather than cower and hide in fear of the next regrettable news event, culminate your Antwerpen pilgrimage at the Kulminator.
For more on the history of The Kulminator, visit this article on the Beer Advocate website.
Trivia: The name of the pub comes from the beer EKU 28 (you can see it on the sign from the above image) which is actually a German beer brewed by Kulmbacher and has the nickname “Kulminator”.