After a horrendous day trying to get from the south of France to Brussels with the entire French rail system threatening to strike, I gladly excepted when my friend Katharina offered me a beer upon our arrival. The first beer in Belgium was to be the Trappist brewed Westmalle Tripel (tawny yellow-colored blond ale with a rich, complex flavor, known by beer aficionados as the beer that sets the standard for all other beers of this style). This was a good sign. Finally a civilized country!
Unfortunately we were to find that the state of the fermented curd in Belgium was not nearly in the same league as the beer. One could write an interesting anthropological study on why the art of beer brewing found its apex in Flanders while cheese making remained firmly second rate compared to what was to be found an hour away in France. Upon observing cheese vendors we visited in the city markets of Ghent, Brussels, Leuven and Bruges, we deduced that Belgians clearly love cheese, but it just doesn’t matter if it’s Belgian. We even stumbled upon some very fine cheese shops (Kaas Mekka in Ghent and Kaas Elmbach in Leuven), which had French, Dutch, Italian and English cheese of every description but only one or two Belgian cheeses. As the knowledgeable cheesemonger who assisted us at Kaas Elmbach explained, there just isn’t a lot of fine cheese being made in Belgium.
Resigned to this fact, we wisely focused on the beer, of which there were more than enough fine examples of, thank you very much! Oftentimes the biggest “problem” when it came to choosing a beer was picking just one or two from a staggeringly large list of options. At the “specialist” beer bars we visited it was not uncommon to have a list of beery selections 400 strong! Here are some generalizations I observed on our whistle-stop tour of Beer-Land:
Belgians categorize beer into three simple groups based upon color: Blond, Brown and Amber. Simple right? Except that these categories tell us virtually nothing about what the beer will taste like! Due to the esoteric nature of Belgian brewing, trying to pin Belgian beers into styles can be tricky at best. Better to sample and decide for yourself what you enjoy.
Unlike in America where often the best beer is found on draft, Belgians specialize in bottled beer. Good bars and restaurants will always have a solid list of excellent bottled selections but more often than not have a lackluster selection of draft beers. Bright exceptions to this rule are out there of course, like the simply amazing glass of Rodenbach 2008 Vintage on draft we drank at the highly recommend bar ‘t Poatersgat in Bruges.
Trappist beer is available almost everywhere in the country and is a good “safe” option if you are unsure what to order. One exciting discovery was that many places had vintage bottles of particularly age worthy Trappist beers such as Chimay Blue or Rochefort 12 dating back to the early ‘90s.
Interestingly enough, many of the small Belgian microbrews we are used to seeing in New York were not widely available in their home country. Brasserie de la Senne, for example, an excellent Brussels microbrewery that is almost always in stock at Wholefoods on the Bowery in Manhattan, was a rare find even in Brussels. Sadly, the industrial beers of Inbev enjoy a much wider distribution than the small breweries even in their home country.
Happily, many of the bottled beers that I did often enjoy in the States tasted even better in Belgium. A bottle of Duchesse de Bourgogne we sampled in Bruges was decidedly fresher with a vibrancy it often lacks in the States. Was it just the euphoria of being there or was there an actually difference in quality? Hard to say definitively, but I suspect that beers held in high regard in their home territory are simply consumed more quickly and hence are simply fresher.
Sadly without a car, getting to the smaller towns and villages famous for beer in Belgium is difficult. Train stations in bigger cities often seem to be located very far from the interesting areas of cities making even a day trip by train to smaller towns a arduous process. If you are planning a trip to Belgium and will visiting the three most popular cities of Brussels, Ghent and Bruges, however here are a few suggestions:
Biermania (174-176 Chausse de Wavre, Brussels) As the name implies, Amir the proprietor of Biermania has a composed yet extremely fanatical love of beer. Biermania is a bottle shop with a tremendous selection spanning all of Belgium, including many vintage bottles. The best feature of the shop however is that you can drink any bottle in stock in the small café set up in the back of the shop! Belgian Frites are available upon request and Amir even brews his own beer, a wonderful and unusual blond ale called Mea Culpa.
Cantillon Brewery (56 rue Gheude, Brussels) atmosphere, tradition and cobwebs are the three words that spring to mind upon touring the Cantillon brewery which is tucked into a quiet street west of the center of the city. This easily accessible gem of brewing history is the best place to sample the most classic style of beer made in Belgium, Gueze. A trip to Cantillon involves a self-lead tour of the brewery, in which one wanders through what could be described a functioning museum of beer making. Two complimentary samples at the end of the tour included.
De Garre (De Garre 1, Bruges) I walked past the sliver of an alleyway in which this Bruges institution hides twice before slipping past the touristy bramble of lace and candy shops that overflow onto the main street and up the stairs to De Garre. Sitting at the old wooden tables and listening to the classical music feels like you have stepped into a noble mans drinking hall from the 19th century. There is a great selection of local beers in bottle as well as a small, simple selection of snacks. The house beer however is a must, a dangerously drinkable triple poured into the coolest custom beer glass in Belgium, and comes with a complimentary bowl of the rubbery stuff that passes for cheese here in Belgium.
‘t Poatersgat (Vlamingstraat 82, Bruges) This was easily the best bar we visited while in Bruges, but guessing from other reviews that the atmosphere was loud and smoky we got there at just the right time, around 6pm on a weekday. There was barely a soul there and we could enjoy a beer or three in peace and quiet. The best aspect about their impressive beer list is that they actually describe each beer, making the decision a bit less mysterious than it often can be…
Melanie’s World (Corduwaniersstraat 7, Ghent) Wandering through the narrow streets of Patershol district in Ghent, seek out this wonderful little shop packed to the gills with a bewildering selection of international groceries, wine and beer. If you were wondering where to buy channa dal, oxacan mole paste, glutinous rice flour and hard to find Belgian microbrews in one go than you have come to the right place. Melanie the proprietor is a kind, welcoming women and an expert on Belgian beer.
Waterhuis an der Bierkant (Groetenmarkt 9, Ghent) This old beer house is hard to miss, located on the edge of the main square. Very loud and smoky downstairs, but we managed to find peace and quiet (and sneak in some imported cheese!) on the second floor. Fantastic selection of local beers.