ANDRE P. LEBLANC
At the beginning of the last century, Belgium had more than 3,000 breweries and well over 200,000 cafés, which means that there was one café for every five households. Beer consumption at home may have fallen in recent years, but it remains Belgium’s favourite drink. Every Belgian knows somebody in his entourage (family or friend) who works or has worked for a brewery. Some people say that every beer made in Belgium represents a different beer style by itself. From Wit beers to Abbey Doubles, Belgian beer styles have a seemingly endless variety of ingredients, brewing processes, aromas, colours, textures, tastes, methods of fermentation, yeasts used and of course the knowledge and tradition that goes into brewing them.
In November 2016, UNESCO added Belgian Beer Culture a tag of Intangible World Heritage that aims to ensure better protection of important intangible cultural heritages worldwide and the awareness of their significance; a privilege sought by many but attributed to few.
Belgium is composed of three linguistic communities: Flanders (Flemish / Dutch – speaking), Wallonia and Brussels (French-speaking) and the ‘Three Borders’ area nestled between Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany (German-speaking). Historically speaking, each had their own beer styles, but nowadays, innovative craft breweries have surfaced all over with a ‘Made in Belgium’ stamp. You can get around most of the time with English. If you have any problems, don’t forget that beer is a universal language! It will flatten the cultural differences in no time.
DAY 1 – BRUSSELS
Brussels has a very good public transport system so I recommend using it to the maximum. They have very affordable unlimited day passes well worth your while. But a walking visit is also very enjoyable and will help you get a better feel of the city.
One of the unique pecularities of this tiny country’s beer industry is that of the Lambics and Gueuzes. This particular type of beer can only be produced in an area around Brussels comprising the Senne river valley (in a radius of about 15 km around Brussels). As most of you know, beers are classified by their specific yeasts. Lagers use bottom-fermenting yeasts and ales use top-fermenting ones. But there is a third type of beer which we call as spontaneous fermentation. This is due to the special fauna and flora in the area which are very region specific. The wild yeasts necessary to produce the lambic beers of which the most common are Brettanomyces Brussellensis and Lambicus are indigenous to the Brussels’ area. It is nonetheless a cocktail of several dozen yeast strands that make this small miracle. Lambics are therefore the beers produced from this very particular brewing process where the fresh batch of wort is left overnight in a koelship (a shallow oversized open tank) so that the wild yeasts in the ambient air to inoculate it and start fermentation. These are then stored in oak barrels for up to three years. It should be noted that these wild yeast strands are very slow in fermentation time. These Lambics are then bottled as such or are used to produce Gueuzes or particular fruit beers by macerating cherries (Kriek), rasberries (Framboos), prunes (Quetch) or others in a particular chosen batch with a particular specific ‘personality’. Gueuzes are a blend of various Lambics of various ages from one to three years and bottle refermented. In other words, a traditional Gueuze (Oude Gueuze) will require 4 years before being available on the market. In the Lambic world, there are two types of brewing companies: the breweries and the blenders. Blenders are companies that specialise in buying Lambic barrels from breweries and they do the blendings, creating their own unique products. Today, with modern technology, ‘Brett’ yeast can be purchased off the shelf and used to produce beers. But the subtleties of the Brussels’ Oude Gueuze are missing.
(Rue Gheude 56, 1070 Anderlecht, Brussels)
Cantillon is a typical lambic / Gueuze brewery and blender in the heart of Brussels (the only one in town). It has a worldwide reputation for its’ excellent craft beers. About 10 others Lambic breweries and blenders are scattered in the south west area adjoining the city called Pajottenland.
If Lambics and Sour beers aren’t your thing, you have 4 other breweries in Europe’s capital:
- Brussels Beer Project – downtown close to Brussel’s Canal 3
- En Stoemelings – downtown close to Brussels’ Central Train station
- No Science (Brussel’s newest) – in Laeken (North eastern part of Brussels)
- Brasserie de la Senne – in Molenbeek (close to Koekelberg Basilica)
Your next two days in Antwerp & Brugge can be planned as day trips. Antwerp and Brugge are only about 30 minutes train ride from Brussels with regular connections several times per hour. Orval is about three hours by public transport (train and bus). One must nonetheless be careful not to miss the last train back since Belgian trains usually stop going earlier than expected in the evening. Please check train schedules. This being said, all your visits can be using Brussels as a base, therefore enabling you to take full advantage of its’ nightlife.
DAY 2 – ANTWERP
Antwerp, being Belgium’s second city is nonetheless very different in its’ beer culture. One can get around Antwerp very easily on foot and with public transport. It may not have the subtle charms of Brugge, but Antwerp is a very lively city with many beer related places and activities to offer. Antwerp is more known for its’ seaport (2nd biggest in Europe) and its’ trade (diamonds and designer fashion) than beer, but this ancient city is working very hard on its’ beer culture as well through specialised beer cafés and hosting international beer festivals and contests.
Statue of Brabo, heroic figure of Antwerp’s mythical beginnings (www.wikipedia.com)
DE KONINCK BREWERY
For many years, Antwerp has been known to have one sole brewery, De Koninck, and if you asked for a ‘Bolleke’, you would be served a wonderfully fresh amber beer from that same brewery.
The brewery lies a bit outside of the city centre, but not without reason. In 1833 there was a tax on drinking beer inside the city centre and so, it was cheaper for people to drink beer at De Koninck. Over time, De Koninck became renowned and it became the typical Antwerp beer. In 2010, the brewery became part of the Duvel Group and many parts of the brewery transferred over to the Duvel brewery.
But Brouwerij De Koninck isn’t quite the only game in town – Antwerp has a few other ace breweries up its sleeve, so to speak. One discovery in the best tradition of microbreweries is‘t Waagstuk, a pub tucked into the leafy square of the Stadswaag.
DAY 3 – BRUGES
Bruges belongs to the select club of
these small towns which are open-air museums. Dubrovnik, Venice and other Mont-St-Michel where in the peak season, there are more camera tourists in hand than local residents. There are obviously pros and cons to such a situation, but it is always the case that for the amateur whose passion for beer is not shared so intensely by his traveling companions, Bruges is an easy destination. Easy to get there, easy to convince our fellows that we do not go there exclusively for beer (try to do the same with the Trappist monasteries) and easy to find related activities of interest.
‘T BRUGS BEERTJE
‘T Brugs Beertje (Kemelstraat 5) Undoubtedly Bruges’ flagship pub for amateurs, the Bruges bear has the most beautiful card and authentic service worthy of the brown coffees in the Belgian countryside. More than three hundred labels are offered in this Belgian beer center. This is obviously the best address to catch a rare bottle. The landlord, Daisy, is legendary for her contagious smile and sense of distribution. It is worth the detour on its own.
STAMINEE DE GARRE
Located at the end of an alley of an improbable narrowness, Staminee de Garre attracts many tourists, but has everything from the pub of initiates where one easily imagines the stormy exchanges between philosophers and student which were to take place there formerly. The place is surprisingly small, but full of character. A steep staircase leads us to a second floor more than necessary. Although the menu offers a hundred bottles, people come here to try the homemade beer brewed by Van Steenberge: a sort of Tripel better balanced than the overly warm Piraat of the house. On the contrary, the house beer is a veritable cloud that lines the palate with its silky texture. It is tightened in its own glass with a few cubes of cheese.
Brasserie Cambrinus (Philipstockstraat 19) A few steps to the north-east of the main square, Brasserie Cambrinus was particularly popular with English tourists who came to see a football match between their team and Bruges. The huge bar that separates the large main room into two is very attractive and efficient to maximize seating. The popularity of the place does not however prevent some drinkers from parking squarely in front of the door with their beer. On the menu side, the place has the advantage of offering Belgian cuisine worthy of the name, which is accompanied by an excellent map of beers with several hundred bottles. If the depth of the map is not that of the ‘t Brugs’ beertje, the quantity is certainly comparable.
DE HALVE MAAN
The only brewery in Bruges produces Straffe Hendrik beers that have long been on the shelves of Quebec retailers. The site, in the south of the old town, is pleasant, with a restaurant whose terrace enjoys the shade of the great fermenter seen from the street. If you dreamed of drinking in the shade of a fermenter, then this is the place. There is a kind of ‘Belgianization’ of the beer world today, adding a Belgian-inspired twist to various styles. These particular adaptations produce some of the world’s most complex bouquets in aromas and flavours. Long live the Belgians and their Beer!
Antwerp is best known and recognized by enthusiasts for the flagship address Kulminator. Several cafes in Antwerp are of good quality, but even we who appreciate a very diversified life are forced to make this simple observation: if you only have two days to spend in Antwerp, spend both at the Kulminator.
Indeed, the card of the beers of the Kulminator has no equal. While many places offer more bottles, nowhere else can we find such a wide variety of aged beers. The grimoire that serves as a menu tells the story of Belgian beer over the last three decades. There are many beers that are no longer in production. Strong beers and Lambics are obviously overrepresented. Classics such as Chimay Bleue will be available on almost every vintage since the 1980s and prices are frankly not outrageous. The youngest ones should even be able to enjoy a beer going back to their year of birth; and thus feel rather old, for although the beers are evidently kept under ideal conditions at the Kulminator, they nevertheless develop an oxidative aromatic profile that does not appeal to everyone. However, this is an experience to live to perfect his education. As a bonus, the places are very pleasant, the decoration, typical of Belgian coffee, music, classical and friendly, encyclopaedic and benches, comfortable: in short, a friendly place that invites you to the most respectful tasting.