The Great Belgian Beer Caper
“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” — Ernest Hemingway.
“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” — Ernest Hemingway.
I walked into the Copper Still on 7th Avenue in Chelsea, my preferred spot to enjoy a properly poured pint of Guinness or dram of the brown stuff, when I saw the poster. It had followed me everywhere and now it had followed me into my favorite bar.
As I took a seat near the corner by the window, Mitch, the manager, poured a pint without asking what I wanted, and left it to settle before finishing. He took that time to say hello.
“John. How are we today?”
“Good, you?” I answered and then nodded to the new poster being set up for a promo. The Copper Still didn’t usually have posters. It wasn’t that type of bar.
“New product?” I asked.
“Yeah. A launch party for Half Moon Trappist Dark here in the city. The distributor set it up.”
“Have you tried it?” I asked.
“Yeah, not bad. You?”
“Oh, a bit,” I said. “Yeah, it’s good.”
Brendan, one of the owners, was on his way over to say hello. I hadn’t been in for a while and he always made sure to say hello. I liked Brendan. I liked them all. That’s why I came here. But isn’t that why you go anywhere?
Joey came in through the front door at the same time.
“Hey stranger,” Joey said at the exact moment Brendan walked up.
“John,” Brendan said, holding out his hand which I shook before Joey’s.
“Hey guys. Long time,” I said.
Joey looked at the poster and then asked Brendan, “Function?”
“Launch party for them in the States. Know them?”
“Not really,” Joey said.
“A bit,” I answered.
Joey looked at the poster and then at me and then back at the poster and then back at me.
“It’s a bit of a story. Both of you better get a beer.”
I could see Danny in the other room speaking to an officer. I didn’t know where Mike was. I didn’t know much of anything except that my head hurt. Badly.
“So why don’t you tell me what happened,” the officer in front of me said. He leaned a bit forward and reminded me of Columbo in the way that European plain clothes officers generally dress. A suit that is just a bit disheveled, a loosened tie around an unbuttoned collared shirt, smoking a cigarette.
“It’s all a bit foggy,” I replied.
“Well, why don’t you start from the beginning. Maybe it will come back to you by the time you get to the end.”
“If I tell you, can I get some aspirin and black coffee?”
The officer nodded. “Marie, kun je wat koffie halen voor deze Amerikaanse idioot? En wat aspirine,” he yelled into the outer room. The sound bounced within my skull like marbles on glass.
“All right,” I began, even though I understood the word idiot and was a bit offended. It was a valid description, but I was still offended. “It started slightly after the three of us had arrived in Bruges.
It was probably the end of the fourth day here. Danny burst into the apartment, eyes wide, full of excitement.
“Beer,” he said.
“Yes, Dan, Belgium is full of beer, or did you forget last night?” Mike asked.
“No! I know how we can get free beer.”
“I don’t think we can get Mike to wear a wig and fishnets, Dan,” I said.
“Fucking idiot, no, not that.” Dan plopped down on the sofa between Mike and myself. The two of us had spent the afternoon watching football while Dan had been out somehow finding out about free beer.
“Look, with the cost of beer here, we’ll be broke well before our three months are over.”
He had a point. We had only arrived less than a week before and my wallet was already quite a bit lighter than expected.
The three of us had decided to take a gap year, well three months, before going on to other parts of our lives. Dan had just quit his job and Mike and I had mustered out of the Army at the same time. It was only logical that we take some time to figure what to do next. At first it was going to be Amsterdam but out of our combined love of beer, and our general lack of experience with pot, we chose Belgium. I don’t remember why we chose Bruges over Brussels, but here we were. The three of us in a rented apartment in the old section of town that we secured through one of those online brokerages before booking our flights.
“Okay Dan, if we’re going to hear your scheme to get free beer, I’m going to need one. And I want some fries. Let’s hit a bar.”
“Yeah, this match is trash anyway,” Mike said. “And they’re called frites.”
“Same thing. And the match is rubbish. If you say trash, everyone is going to look at you like you’re an American idiot.”
“But he IS an American idiot,“ Dan said, which for Dan was actually quite clever.
“Fuck off!” Mike said. “Where should we go?”
“I don’t know… let’s find someplace new.”
“Yeah, we’ve hit the Boar a bit hard.”
“But at least we can find our way home,” Dan said.
“Let’s walk until we find someplace. But Dan, no talking about free beer until I have one of those pink elephant things.”
“Delirium Tremens,“ Dan said.
I grabbed my jacket and the keys and with that, the three of us hit the streets to look for a new beer adventure. And frites.
“I don’t know the name of the street we live on. I only know how to get there by the landmarks. You go to the far end of the main plaza. I think it’s called the market, but not spelled that way. What a strange language by the way, you leave out letters in obvious places and add extra where not needed. So you go to the opposite side from the church and take a right by the other building with a tower. Go down that street and make a left, then a right, and we’re the third house on the right. Second floor.”
“That would be Keersstraat,” the officer said.
“Yeah, that’s it!”
“Anyway, the three of us left the apartment and headed out across the plaza, market, sorry. We didn’t want to go to any of the the tourist restaurants. We wanted someplace funky — quirky — a place where locals go.”
Just then there was a knock on the the window and another officer opened the door and ushered in a man dressed in a brown suit. A suit that was tailored and fit much better than the officer’s. The officer said something in Flemish, I couldn’t tell what he was saying, but then the other officer got up from his seat, gave a sort of grunt, and headed towards the door. The new guy said something the officer at the door who nodded.
“Don’t say anything,” the new guy said to me.
I waited a few moments trying to find witty things to say in my head. All I could hear was the the thump thump thump of my heartbeat. And if I listened very carefully I could barely just make out the sound of my dehydrated brain slowly dying. Where was that coffee?
The door opened and the officer who had nodded let Dan into the room and then closed the door. The sound of the metal bolt scraped on the back side of my eyes. Dan had a confused face as he took one of the empty chairs and sat down. I could tell that the sound of the chair on the concrete floor bothered him as much as myself.
“Gentlemen, and I use that term loosely, my name is Dave Williams. I am one of the counselors here at the U.S. Embassy. Or at the embassy in Brussels to be exact, but that is of no matter. Except that the drive takes a friggen’ hour.” He took a small recorder out of his pocket and placed it on the table, turning it on in the process, but not yet pressing record. “It’s Saturday. And I don’t like being made to work on a Saturday.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “ I’m not sure why the police called you to get you involved. I would have let you have the day off.” He chuckled at that. Why, I didn’t know.
“The police didn’t call me. Your buddy Mike got me out of bed this morning to rescue you two.”
I didn’t know Mike had these kinds of resources. The look on my face must have matched Danny’s because Dave Williams, Counselor, US Embassy, continued.
“I know Mike from the Hague. He did some security work for us when he was in the Army.”
So that answered where Mike was, I thought. At least he was out of this mess.
“How much detail did you two tell the officers?”
“I just told them that Dan here had a plan for free beer.”
“It was a good plan,” said Dan.
“Obviously,” I replied.
“Regardless,” Dave interrupted, “you fellows might be in a bit of a situation. I’ll see if I can help, but to do that, I’ll need to hear the entire story. But don’t bullshit me.” He looked at Dan directly. “I just might be able to keep you from getting kicked out of the country — at least out of jail.”
He looked directly at me.
“You didn’t tell them anything about the plan?”
“I didn’t get that far.”
“Okay. Why don’t we start where you left off with the officers.”
“First off,” I started, “I’m not an idiot. I take offense at that. That’s the second time today I’ve been called one. I’m not an idiot.”
“Maybe. From what Mike told me, the two of you, well, let me just say that I’ll make my decision after hearing your accounts of last night.”
“Can I get some water? Or the coffee that was promised? It’s going to be a long story.”
So we had walked about ten minutes away from our apartment, across the markt and then across the canal and we found this little place called Yesterday’s World. We were looking for funky and boy did we find it. Part antique store, part bar, with an amazing beer list. We grabbed a table near the back courtyard. We would have grabbed the table in the courtyard, but Dan didn’t want to be that exposed.
The beer list was huge. Must have been at least four hundred beers on there.
“And with all of that you still got the Delirium Tremens, “ Dan said.
“What can I say, I like the pink elephant.”
I remember that we didn’t start talking right away. The match was still on. On a television from the 70’s but still. And the match had actually become interesting in the second half. So the three of us sat and had a few beers watching the end of the match. A bit after the match. After the bar tender or owner or whoever he was, turned off the TV, I looked at Mike and decided to jump in.
“So, Dan, how about you tell us the miracle of free beer.”
He lowered his voice so as others would not hear.
“You know in old town, that brewery.”
“Well, they’ve moved their bottling operations out into the suburbs.” He raised his eyebrows like Mike and I were supposed to get something. We didn’t. “How do you think they get their beer to the bottling plant?”
“I don’t know,” Mike said, “trucks?”
“You would think that, wouldn’t you?” Dan said. “But no. These crazy bastards built a pipeline. Under the streets. A PIPELINE!”
“So?” I said. “I still don’t see what their delivery method has to do with us getting free beer.”
Mikes eyes widened but he didn’t say anything. You could tell that his thoughts were miles away.
“You, my friend, have no vision. No imagination,” Dan said as he gestured to the bartender for another round. I quickly drank the last of beer in my glass, which in retrospect might have been a bad idea.
“We tap into the pipeline,” Mike said coming back to the present moment.
“Exactly,” Dan said, pointing at Mike.
“Wait. What?” I asked.
“We tap into the pipeline, add a hose, and we, my friends, get free beer for the time we’re here. Then when we leave, we sell the information to someone local to cover our cost home. Maybe even make a profit.”
“We can’t just dig up the street, hotshot,” I said. “Oh, excuse me boys, what are you doing with those shovels?”
“Of course not. Don’t be daft,” Dan said. “That’s where I was this morning. Scouting. We go in the storm drain that dumps into the canal. I’m sure that we’ll find access to the pipeline in there somewhere.”
“But you don’t know that. We could spend weeks searching and find nothing.”
“We map it topside and then use our phones to track where we are. There has to be access points somewhere.”
“Fine,” I said, giving in, “say we find the pipe, what then?”
“We tap into it and run a hose back out to the entrance.”
Maybe it was the three or four pink elephants doing my thinking but, if not exactly a good idea, it seemed like a fun adventure in our new town. What I didn’t expect was that Dan would be like a child on Christmas morning. I think it was seven when he banged on our doors to wake us up.
“Six-thirty,” Dan corrected.
“Right, like that’s better.”
Anyway, he was up and ready to go spelunking in the sewers of Bruges. I had other plans. I rolled over and went back to sleep. When I made my way to the living room, about nine, Dan was pouting on the couch staring at the wall.
“I wasn’t pouting.”
“Well, you were grumpy as hell,” I said.
“Oh, come on Dan, stop your moping.”
“We’re wasting time.”
“Dan, there isn’t a universe where I get up at six to hunt for a beer pipeline.”
Mike joined us from the other room.
“Now, this is a proper time,” he said.
“See,” I gestured towards Mike. “Cooler heads.”
I headed into the kitchen. “Let me just get some brekkie and we’ll be off.” I called back over my shoulder, “Mike, do you want anything?”
“No. I’m good. And stop it with the British slang, you sound like an idiot.”
I grabbed the coffee pod and put it in the Italian contraption, pushing the lever down and pressed the red button. The sound of a very small jet aircraft came from the rear of the machine and the dark, rich, liquid filled the cup in front, topping the cup with just the right amount of caramel crema. Coffee was one of the things that the Europeans did better than us, I thought. It was simple, dark, and good. Even the worst was better than the stuff I had back home. I took two packets of sugar and stirred them into the coffee before downing the contents in a single gulp. I rinsed the cup and placed it in the sink and grabbed a Power Bar before joining the other two in the living room.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Let’s rock,” Dan said and then three of us headed out towards the canal.
“Do you know where we are going?” I asked.
“That bridge we crossed last night. I thought I saw a storm drain.”
Standing on the bridge it was obvious that there was no way to get to the storm drain except to swim.
“I am not swimming in the canal, Dan.” I looked up and down the canal. “Did you even get to the storm drain?”
“I thought you had this figured.”
“No, I said I had it scouted.”
“Not very well,” Mike said. I think they were the first words he had said since leaving the apartment. I laughed.
“Mike, you always cut to the quick.”
“It’s what I’m here for.”
“Screw this,” I said. “We don’t even know where the pipeline runs through the town. This is just a snipe hunt.”
Mike started walking. “You guys going to follow, or what?” He pulled out his phone and opened his map.
“We’re going this way,” he said and pointed towards the center of town.
“You’re going to blow out your budget on data alone,” I said.
“Dude. I bought a pre-paid sim card once we got to town.”
I suddenly felt very stupid.
So with the two of us in tow, Mike crossed the bridge and headed into town, across the Markt we had crossed before, and through the streets to the doors of the brewery.
“This is where the pipeline starts. Maybe we can find a weakness or learn something,” He said and pointed to sign.
“Good,” I said, “but first let’s see if we even like the beer.”
The three of us entered the brewery. Behind the door, there was a courtyard with about twenty tables and a few people drinking beer. We turned left and entered the actual brewery which looked part museum, part working brewery.
“Should we take the tour?”
Dan and Mike nodded.
“Why not? We get a tasting at the end,” Dan said. “And I like free beer.”
“It’s not really free, Dan,” I said. “It’s part of the cost of the tour.”
There were two tours, one for twelve Euros and one for twenty one.
“Should we just take the cheaper tour? We’d have to wait until 12:30,” I said.
“We can grab a seat in the courtyard and have a beer to wait,” Mike suggested.
“But that’s not free,” Dan said.
“It never is Dan, it never is.” Mike responded as we grabbed a table.
“By the time the tour came we had already consumed three pints each,” I said to the Counselor. “And it was good beer. Really good. Maybe it was the beer, or maybe it was just boredom, but we didn’t pay as much attention as we should have or we might have found out a very important piece of information that would have saved us a lot of hurt. But this was where we found out where we could tap into the line.”
“That’s how you found the bridge?” the Counselor asked.
“Yeah. We went over there after the tour ended to scout what we would need. The next day we took a local bus to the suburbs and one of those Home Depot type stores.”
“We couldn’t believe how exposed the pipeline was,” Dan said. “They just ran it under the bridge.”
“They probably never thought anyone would be stupid enough to try what the two of you tried,” the diplomat said.
“Three,” Dan interrupted. “The three of us.”
“Well, there are only two sitting in front of me, so let’s keep it at that.” The counselor made a note in the book before him.
“Okay, now tell me about this morning and how you ended up here.”
The knock, again, came too early. I looked at the clock. Jesus Dan, I thought. Well, at least its not six-thirty like last time. I rolled over and put the pillow over my head. I was awakened my more banging thirty minutes later.
“I’ll be out in a bit,” I yelled.
I got dressed and then joined the others, bypassing them without saying anything and headed straight for the coffee machine in the kitchen. I made a double shot of dark and tossed it back without sugar before returning to the living room.
“Everything charged?” I asked.
“Yup. Fully charged and packed,” Dan said.
“And what are we planning on storing the beer in?”
Dan pointed to a plastic keg in the corner.
“No,” I said.
“You do get that it might be a bit noticeable for three guys to be walking through town with a plastic keg.”
“I don’t think it matters.”
“And,” I paused, “it’s going to be heavier than fuck once filled.”
“Why don’t we do a test with a couple of liter bottles a piece,” Mike said. “Kind of a proof of concept. Besides, the brewery won’t notice a few missing liters.”
“We can grab some bottles of water on the way,” I said. “Let’s go.”
We headed out with the bag and headed across town to the point on the map where we had determined there was a weakness. We walked by the brewery, still getting ready for opening and followed the road along the river to the bridge that headed out of town. There were a few people walking and traffic was light so we waited for the right moment and then climbed under the bridge.
There was a ledge and then a very steep slope to the water below. Dan placed the bag containing the supplies and hoses on the ledge as we held on the underside of the bridge to keep from falling.
“There she is,” said Dan pointing to the pipe. “Gentlemen, there is the holy grail.”
“Which one,” I asked pointing out that there were two pipes.
“The bigger one, obviously.” Dan pointed to the one closest to the edge of the bridge.
“How do you know?” asked Mike.
“Weren’t you paying attention back on the tour?” Dan asked. “The pipeline has four pipes inside. Two each for the blond and the dark. Do you think you can fit four pipes in the smaller conduit?”
“Hand me the saw,” Dan said.
I reached into the bag and pulled out the saw, attached the battery pack, and handed it to Dan.
“Hold onto my legs so I don’t fall,” he said and started cutting a square out of the pipe.
“Here,” he said handing me the saw. “Now, give me the drill.”
I took the battery off of the saw and attached it to the bottom of the drill.
“You might want to get the plug and hose ready for when you break through,” Mike said. He had found a place to sit where he could lean against a tree. He looked quite comfortable.
“You want to help and hold his legs?” I asked.
“Nope. All good.”
I handed the drill to Dan and then grabbed the hose and tape. Dan had already started drilling and I wrapped my arms around his legs again.
There was a pop and I saw the drill fall into the water.
“Shit,” Dan said as dark beer sprayed in his face. “Give me the hose.”
I gave him the hose and the tape which he tried to put into the hole.
“Hand me the saw,” he said.
“Won’t do any good,” said Mike, “the battery is in the water with the drill.”
“Here, I’ll hold in the hose, Mike, you fill the bottles,” Dan said.
Mike started filling one of the bottles and then took a swig.
“This tastes like shit.”
“What?” I asked.
“It’s flat. And warm.”
It hit me then, what they had said on the tour. That the beer finished fermenting in the bottle, which would, of course, be at the bottling plant.
“They finish it at the bottling plant,” I said. “This has all been a waste.”
“What do we do now?” Dan asked.
“Try to replug the hole,” Mike said. “I’m going to the deli and get something to drink. I’ll be back in a bit.”
“Plugging the hole was not successful, by the way,” the counselor said.
“It was then that it all went sideways,” I said. “The hose popped out of the pipe and Dan stated getting drenched in brown ale. He started to lose his grip and grabbed another pipe. I heard another loud pop. And that’s the last thing I remember until the police had us on the bank.”
“That was when genius here grabbed a ground wire that was chocked full of static electricity,” The counselor said nodding towards Dan. “A woman found you both in the water below as she walked her dog. The police were called, and you ended up here.”
“Where did Mike go? Why didn’t he help?” Dan asked.
“The police were there when he got back. He then called me and got out of there.”
“So, what happens now,” I asked.
“Depends on what kind of magic I can work. The brewery is pissed. The cops are pissed.” He got up and knocked on the door. “Now that I know the story, let me get to work.”
“Do we get bail,” Dan asked.
“Doesn’t work that way over here. You can be held for twenty four hours. The investigating judge will review your case today and could enter an arrest warrant which is good for five days.”
There was a knock on the outside and the door opened. The disheveled officer from earlier spoke to the counselor, who nodded.
“Well. It looks like you caught a break,” the counselor said. “The judge was in a good mood and thought your antics were a hoot.”
“So we’re free?”
“No. Not by a long shot,” he said. “But you get to wear a digital tracking device until he decides to issue an arrest warrant or not. Stand up and stick out your right hand.”
The detective came over and secured and activated a monitoring bracelet on both of our wrists.
“There. You’re out of here,” the counselor said. “Let me get to work and see if I can fix this mess. I’ll call Mike once I know anything.” He then gestured to the open door. “Gentlemen.”
We left the police station into the afternoon sun, our wristbands slowly blinking red. “I wonder if we can still get a beer with these on,” Dan said as we headed across the Markt.
“Don’t you think we should just go back to the apartment and see if Mike is there?”
Dan pulled out his cell phone and dialed.
“Mike, it’s Dan. Yeah, we’re out. We’re fine. Meet us at our usual bar.” Dan put the phone back in his pocket. “He’ll meet us there.”
“Good. I’m hungry actually. I could use something to eat.”
“Who knows, it might be our last meal on the outside.”
“Not funny, Dan.”
When we arrived at the Boar, Mike had already grabbed a table outside and was enjoying a pint. “I’d offer you one, but I think you got your fill this morning,” Mike said. “You guys look like crap.”
“Thanks,” I said.
A couple at the table next to use looked at the bracelets and started chatting very quickly in hushed tones.
“You don’t have to be so loud, Mike,” Dan said. “Where the hell were you?”
“Well, by the time I got back there was a police van and the two of you were on the bank. I figured the best thing I could do would be to call Steve.”
“Thanks for that,” I said.
“What happened?” Mike asked.
“I was trying to plug the pipe but the hose fell out,” Dan said. “Beer started spraying in my face and I guess I grabbed a grounding wire and got a bit of a shock. According to that diplomat guy.”
“Steve,” corrected Mike.
“The last thing I remember was hearing a loud pop,” I added.
“Well, if anyone can you get you out of this, it’s Steve.”
Mike’s cell phone rang. “Speak of the devil.” Mike answered, “Hello. No, we’re out. We’re at the Boar just off of the market square. You got it. I’ll keep them here.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Steve’s on his way here. Said not to let the two of you leave. So, I guess it’s more beer.”
It was two more beers before Steve arrived. The three of us were talking about what we were going to do once we left Bruges. We didn’t know at that time that all of that would be erased in the next twenty minutes.
I saw Steve approaching but he wasn’t alone. He had a police officer and a smartly dressed woman with him.
“Um, guys,” I said. “Something’s happening.”
Dan and Mike looked up to see the trio and adjusted in their seats. Like sitting tall and smoothing their shirts would sober them from the three Belgian beers.
Steve saw the three of us and said something to the police officer which made him cross the street and stand against the opposite wall. Steve and the woman then approached our table and, pulling chairs from a nearby table, sat down.
“Gentlemen,” Steve said.
“Counselor,” I said. Mike and Dan nodded. We all looked to the woman.
“Lise Janssens,” she said. “Director of Marketing, Half Moon Brewery.”
“What’s with the cop?” Mike asked.
“Hopefully, you’ll see,” Steve said. “Can we get a couple of beers? Preferably Half Moon…”
“On it,” Mike said and went inside.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I think I’ve got solution,” Steve said. Dan sat silent staring into his beer.
“Continue,” I said.
He continued and laid out the plan that he and Lise had come up with between the time we left the police station and she and he had arrived at the Boar. Mike thought he was scott free. But he wasn’t. Dan and I were being threatened with expulsion from Belgium with no return. Ever. Unless. There is always an unless, isn’t there?
The brewery would drop all charges and repayment of damages to their pipeline if the three of us would agree to being a part of a global ad campaign. Our smiling faces, plastered across the entirety of media, holding up a tulip of ale, with the tagline “Half Moon Trappist Dark Ale, special enough to risk an international incident.”
The officer stood across the street until we had signed the appropriate paperwork. Once done, he crossed and removed the digital tracking bracelets from Dan and me. And with that, we were free to go.
Just as I finished the story Mitch placed a tulip of Half Moon Trappist Dark Ale in front of me and smiled. He always did have a sardonic sense of humor.
“On the house,” He said.
“Oh, you think?” I asked taking a sip and hiding the wince. With every fiber of my being I hated this beer.
John Harbour is a United States Air Force veteran where he was a hostage rescue sniper with the Emergency Services Team (EST) and the leader of an airborne quick response team (AFT). He was last stationed outside of Las Vegas in the middle of the Nevada desert. He also served as diplomatic protection at the United Nations headquarters in New York, is a classically trained actor, has tended bar, worked in advertising and technology and enjoys nothing more than traveling the world searching for stories.
John lives in New York City with his wife and is the author of articles, short fiction, and the novel Nighthawks. He is an incurable wanderlust and is currently working on the novel The Heart. His first non-fiction book, Diary of a Hippie: A Real-Life Journal of What to Expect During a Total Hip Replacement chronicles his journey from diagnosis through the operation and recovery.
Connect with him at www.johnharbour.com/contact for all social media channels and email.