Stranded In Charleroi

It was late, one of those wet fall evenings where dusk had disappeared into a premature night. As often, our meeting had overrun and by then we were the only ones to go back to central Charleroi. A colleague kindly gave us a lift to the city. But not knowing the street name I had given him let alone the location of our hotel, he dropped us somewhere convenient. And ironically enough it so happened, he left us off right next to Waterloo Underground Station, on the busy eponymous avenue. Coincidence or Belgian sense of humor? Surely my colleague knew I’m French, surely he knows what Waterloo is. A Belgian city? Well… yes.
So there we were clueless, helpless, shrouded in darkness, with a mere few rays of hope emanating from a handful of shady bars’ neon signs. Theo pulled out his Blackberry in the hope of pinning down our location and that of our hotel but the fruity mobile failed us. I had to resort to pulling out my conspicuous laptop, sniff around for a wifi point, and go to Google Maps…And Larry Page saved our poor wandering souls.
The actual hotel wasn’t actually that far off – a mere couple of blocks down. The thing is direction: you always end up going down the wrong direction lest you have a map with you (and even so, I know some folks who’d read the map the wrong way around).
So it was with much relief that we entered our hotel lobby and settled down in the adjoining restaurant to enjoy a well-deserved meal.
And being in the land where beer flows as freely as age-old camembert in France, we resorted to trying a local ‘cereal-based’ drink (does that make it part of your five-a-day?). Asking the waitress what they had, she replied the usual Grimbergen, Heineken suspects and also mentioned a scotch. Now, the conversion is carried out in French, scotch doesn’t immediately sound as if referring to those hairy folks on the other side of Hadrian’s wall. A Frenchman would probably first think of sticky tape (sellotape on either side of Hadrian’s Wall). And I thought no less. When the waitress came back with an S curve-shaped large glass containing an amber-dark beer, I read the label and immediately thought ‘Darn, I picked a Scottish ale’. But again I was wrong. The labeling certainly felt from up North with a tartan-patterned St Andrew’s cross as if the beer were begging for a shortcake. But the taste, the flavor, and the fizziness were altogether sweet, rich, and very continental. Nothing of the radically different insular ales we find from Plymouth to Inverness. And the head was a staggering 8-10 cm tall barely adequate for the English pub drinker (see CAMRA’s take on this).
During the later part of my meeting the following day, I started googling a bit to figure out who was behind this nifty not so Scottish (or is it?) beverage.
It turns out it’s brewed in Belgium by Alken-Maes (Belgian folks) which is owned by Scottish & Newcastle (across the North Sea). The brand Watneys (or Watney’s – I found both spellings) refers to an old, now deceased, brand of beer for which most Internet users have unkind words that I shan’t repeat here.
The Belgians, in their whimsical way about life, are probably the only ones who would disguise one of their own beers as being from Scotland, brewed locally by a local brand yet now in the hands of a UK brewing magnate.
And to top off this dizzy post (on account of the staggering 8% alc. content), here is a picture of Watney’s ale and its head alongside CAMRA’s campaign for full pints.