Belgium's Great Beers
Your guide to enjoying the country and its beers
Belgian beers have become fashionable, yet the pleasures they offer have been truly explored by only a discerning minority of drinkers. The rule, never ask for "a beer" applies especially in Belgium. Such a request will bring forth a perfectly acceptable lager of a type, but one that could just as easily be found in many other countries. The great beers of Belgium are not its lagers. Its native brews are in other styles, and they offer an extraordinary variety, some so different from more conventional brews that at the initial encounter they are scarcely recognisable as beers. Yet they represent some of the oldest traditions of brewing in the Western world.
No other country (even those with far more breweries) has among its native styles of beer such diversity, individuality, idiosyncrasy and colour. Nor does any other country present beers so beautifully. Belgian brewers often use wired and corked Champagne bottles, and serve each beer in its own shape of glass, ranging from flutes to snifters and chalices. It is something of a Belgian speciality to bottle beers with a sediment of live yeast, so that they can be laid down to mature. This technique is usually indicated on the label by the phrase "re-fermented in the bottle" (Refermentée en bouteille / Hergist in de fles ).
Classic styles of beer
Winey-tasting Lambics, some with whole fruit added; "White" wheat beers in the vein of the popular Hoegaarden, typically spiced; sour-ish red and brown beers; strong ales from Trappist monasteries; powerful golden brews like the famous Duvel; plus endless local and seasonal specialities.
Examples of each major style (though not always the best) are available in almost any café, including Art Nouveau landmarks like Falstaff (Rue Henri Maus, alongside the Bourse in Brussels) and some bars specialise in large ranges, often with rare, dated, vintages. Several restaurants specialise in cooking with beer, and there are even hotels that feature large selections.
Famous specialty beer bars
In Brussels, Bier Circus, 98 Rue de l'Ensiegnement, in the Parliament district (closed on Sundays) tel 02-218-0034; in Bruges, 't Brugs Beertje, 5 Kemel Straat, in an alley near Simon Stevin Plein (opens at 4pm, closes on Wednesdays) tel 050-339616; in Ghent, De Hopduvel, 10 Rokerelsstraat (opens at 11am, closed Mondays) tel 09-225-3729; in Antwerp, Kulminator, 32 Vleminckveld (opens at 5pm on Sat, closed Sun, 8.15pm Mon, 12am-12pm rest of week) tel 03-232-4538.
Famous beer restaurants
(all moderately priced; reservations advised)
In 't Spinnekopke, 1 Bloemenhof Plaats (Place au Jardin aux Fleurs), St Catherine's, Brussels, tel 02-511-8695; the Lambic restaurant Drie Fonteinen (which blends, and is beginning to brew), 3 Herman Teirlinck Plein (closed Tuesday and Wednesday), in historic Beersel, near Brussels, tel 02-331-0652; and 't Hommelhof ("The Hop Garden"), on Hugo Claus Plein, the main square of Watou, a small town near Poperinge and Ieper (Ypres). The latter, tel 057-388024, fax 388590, is in the heart of hop country. It has beers from the local St Bernardus, Bie, Van Eecke and Westvleteren (Trappist) breweries.
Famous beer hotels
(also moderately priced)
The Palace Hotel, 34 Ieper Straat, Poperinge, tel 057-333093, fax 057-333535; Hotel Marion, 19 Louisastraat, Ostend, tel/fax 059-502856; and the Erasmus, 35 Wollestraat, Bruges, tel 050-335781, fax 050-334727.
Famous beer shops
In Brussels, Biertempel, 6 Rue du Marché aux Herbes (central) tel/fax 02-502-1906; 400 Bières Artisanales, 174 Chaussée de Wavre (central), Ixelles (closed Sun); Drink Market Delépine, 13 Rue Eugène Cattoir, Elsene/Ixelles (Closed Sundays, Mondays 1pm-6pm, Tue-Sat. 10am-6pm). In Antwerp, Belgium Beers, 2 Reynder Straat (closed Tuesday).
Many, but the best is the Objective Beer Tasters' "24 Hours," in Antwerp's Stadsfeestzaal, October 16-17, 1999, and October 14-15, 2000. (Contact De Objectieve Bierproevers, tel 03-232-4538; fax 03-226-8532; e-mail email@example.com; website: http://www.dma.be/p/obp/
Many breweries have tours or open days, and some will welcome casual callers who seem genuinely interested. The smaller ones, often with traditional open vessels, offer the best insight into how beer is made - and into Belgium's very specific brewing tradition and culture. Many sell beer on the premises, often in gift-packs with appropriate glasses. Check the yellow pages, or local tourist office, or one of the detailed guides mentioned below.
The Great Beers of Belgium, by Michael Jackson (published by Prion of London and Running Press of Philadelphia) discusses the styles and the brewers, with colour photographs, and tells you where you can continue to find Belgian beers when you get home. The Good Beer Guide to Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, by Tim Webb (Campaign for Real Ale) is packed with practical detail. The Beers of Wallonia, by John Woods and Keith Rigley (The Artisan Press) is invaluable in the French-speaking part of Belgium.
A beer tour might be centred in obvious cities like Brussels, Antwerp or Bruges, but Ostend is also a good base (for the hop country around Ieper and Poperinge. An Ardennes tour should include the La Chouffe and Fant™me breweries (see Local Specialities and Saisons).
In Brussels, the beautiful guild-house Maison des Brasseurs (10 Grand-Place) has a small museum and bookshop that is a useful introduction (daily, 10am-5pm). There are many other museums, including one in Poperinge devoted to hops. (National Hop Museum, 71 Gasthuis Straat. Afternoons only. Sundays, May to September. Weekdays July-Aug) tel 057- 334081, fax 057-335703, website: http://www.poperinge.be.