By Dave Hoerlein
Though only the size of Maryland, Belgium boasts more than 100 separate breweries producing several hundred brands. Belgium's small but growing export market is hampered by three factors: many beers are made in small quantities, some Belgian beers don't travel well, and the huge local thirst. Each Belgian consumes an average of 29 gallons of suds a year. By comparison, the average Yank sips a mere 21 gallons, while Czechs show their pride in inventing Pilsner by guzzling over 40 gallons a year, tops per capita in the world. That's even more than Germany — but if one wants to get technical, the first prize goes to those beer-crazy Bavarians, who guzzle over 50 gallons per year!
Belgians are fiercely loyal to their local brews and take their beers as seriously as the French take their wines. You'll find beers corked and wired like a bottle of Champagne, and some beers will mature in the bottle up to 6 years. Just like wine, certain beers are paired with certain dishes to create the ideal food pairings. Each beer has its own distinctive glass, and colorful cardboard coasters, which make nice (and free) souvenirs! Beers are served cold, cool or at room temperature to bring out their respective subtleties of flavor.
Belgium, with a population of 11 million, can be roughly divided into the Flemish-speaking region in the north and west, and the French-speaking Walloon region in the south. Bilingual Brussels, the capital and largest city, sits in the center of the country on the border between the rival regions.
The traveler faces a wonderful dilemma when perusing a Belgian beer menu. Even small cafes offer six or eight varieties. Note that most Belgian beers are conditioned in the bottle not in the keg, so you won't see the rows of taps that characterize most American brewpubs. To get a draft beer in Flemish Belgium, ask for een pintje (a pint, pronounced "ayn pinch-ya"). In French-speaking Belgium, ask for une bière (pronounced "oon bee-yair"). In Flemish Belgium, a stamcafe is where the locals hang out. A stamtafel is a table reserved for regulars. Cheers is proost or gezondheid in Flemish and santé in French.
I've always believed that beer should be enjoyed rather than talked about too much. There is a bewildering amount of info out there categorizing the many beers of Belgium. Below you'll find a summary to provide you with a few key words to increase your Belgian beer literacy:
Pilsners are gold in color and clean tasting, served cool, but often not as cold as our Yankee palate is accustomed to. Stella Artois is your basic Pilsner. Jupiler is the most popular Pilsner in Belgium. Cristal Alken is another popular Flemish brew worth trying. But good Pilsner beers can be found anywhere in the world, so don't stop there...
The double fermentation (think Champagne) and blending of Lambic-style beers gives them a unique flavor. The second fermentation continues in the bottle and the beer takes on a Champagne-like sparkle and a flavor sometimes described as "winey" or "cidery." One type of lambic is gueuze, a blend of aged and young ale. Some brand names include Cantillon, Lindemans, and Mort-Subite ("sudden death"!)
A second fermentation is caused by adding fruit produces some unique beers. Detractors claim that they taste like a perfectly decent beer mixed with cough syrup, but you be the judge. Kriek is a refreshing cherry-flavored beer that tastes much better than it sounds. Frambozenbier/Framboise is similar to Kriek but flavored with raspberries. Try it after a long summer afternoon stroll around Bruges. Peche is made from peaches and casis from black currants.
For centuries, between their vespers and matins, Trappist monks have been brewing unique heavily fermented beers. Three typical Trappist beers (from the Westmalle monastery) are Trippel, with a blonde color and served cold in the traditional chalice-shaped glass with a creamy frothy head; and Dubbel, which is dark, sweet and served cool. Single is made especially by the monks for the monks and considered a fair trade for a life of celibacy. Other Trappist monasteries include Rochefort, Chimay, Westvleteren and Orval. The monks of Orval also make wonderful bread and cheese. Many of these monasteries welcome visitors looking to quench their thirst and satisfy their appetites in their on-site or nearby restaurants.
In my younger days, my Belgian friends took a perverse pleasure in a little game called "How many different strong beers can the American drink?" Duvel, meaning "devil," is high-octane stuff, camouflaged by a pale color and foamy head. Verboden Vrucht, or "forbidden fruit," is delicious but dangerous. Look for Adam and Eve on its label! Judas, Satan and Lucifer are three more make-the-devil-gasp local beers. Gouden Carolus, not for the faint-hearted, is considered the strongest beer in Belgium. Delerium Tremens speaks for itself. Get your designated driver lined up now!
Another family of beers are known for their distinctive colors: amber ales, similar to a British bitter, are found all over Belgium but especially in the Antwerp area where De Koninck truly is king. Kwak, an amber ale named for a 19th innkeeper, has a unique hourglass-shaped glass that is reason enough to try this one. Red or "sour" beers include Rodenbach, which picks up a maroon color after two years in its huge oak cask. Witbiers (white beers) are similar to a German hefeweizen but are usually flavored with spices like orange peel or coriander — Hoegaarden is the name to look for. Brown ales like Oudenaarde are more malty than hoppy and find their way into the famous beef stew carbonade flamande.
Here are a few favorite pubs to help you begin your Belgian beer odyssey: In Bruges, check out the touristy but fun Het Brugs Beertje, the home of more than 300 beers or Oud Vlissinghe, an establishment that dates back to the 1500s. The Straffe Hendrik brewery offers an interesting tour and tasting of its namesake potent brew. A peek down the tiny alley between the Markt and the Burg will reveal a pub called De Garre, one of my favorites. In Brussels a pub crawl should include La Mort Subite, Le Falstaff, and Le Ultieme Hallucinatie (famous for its Art Nouveau train car interior). For sheer selection visit Gent's De Dulle Griet, a tavern that boasts more than 400 beers. Not enough? Antwerp's Kulminator pub lists more than 500! Looking for more pubs in Antwerp? Try Het Elfde Gebod ("The 11th Commandment") where the tacky interior full of church icons and statues is a religious experience.
For More Information
Thirsty for more details? Michael Jackson's book Great Beers of Belgium will give you a more scholarly introduction to Belgian beer. They don't call him the "Beer Hunter" for nothing! Tim Webb's Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland is a great source of info on over 500 pubs.
In addition to museums of fine arts, musical instruments, and comic books, Brussels boasts the Brewery Museum on the famous Grand Place, housed in a 16th century brewer's guild hall (at #10, just to the left of City Hall). Another beer museum is at the Cantillon Brewery (Musée Bruxellois de la Gueuze) at Rue Gheude 56, near the Midi train station. As part of the visit you'll visit an actual brewery and get a chance to taste the unique brew.
Much as some may try, tourists can't live on beer alone. Don't forget to sample Belgian cuisine, often called one of the finest in Europe. Belgium has more top-rated restaurants per cobbled square foot than any country in the world but you need not rub elbows with high-falutin' gourmets to get a good meal. You'll enjoy meals of French quality and German quantity at reasonable Belgian prices. Try specialties like mussels, the world's best fries, wild hare, hop sprouts, leeks, smoked ham from the Ardennes region, soups, eels, a variety of tarts and of course waffles, though the Belgian version is unlike anything you've had at IHOP. Chocoholics also know that Belgium has few equals. After some "research" you'll soon agree that Belgian cuisine is so much more than waffles!
Dave Hoerlein is a veteran ETBD guidebook cartographer, tour guide, and travel consultant.