Drinking Beer in Belgium
Belgium is heaven for beer explorers. Beer is Belgium’s claim to fame (in beer lovers’ eyes), much as wine is to France. With more than 100 breweries (and almost ten times that a few generations ago) in a country of 10 million, you can see why. And the brewers produce more than 50 definitive styles, in more than ten times as many brands, including more famous specialty beers than any other nation.
Belgian gastronomy, unlike its history or sociology, is legendary among European countries, perhaps ranking a close second behind French haute cuisine. Featuring dishes made with beer or matched to beers, cuisine à la bière is a Belgian specialty not to be missed. Definitely seek it out.
Belgian secular brews
Like the beers they produce, many Belgian breweries are antiquated. The century-old brewhouses are like working museums. Some brewers even refuse to brush away the cobwebs, claiming that they don’t want to disturb the spiders and the very essence of the brewery.
Having much in common with French wine regions, Belgium has its own beer regions. What you’re likely to find locally depends greatly on where in Belgium you happen to be. If you’re big on sour Red Ales, head west into Flanders; if Oud Bruin is your thing, aim for Oudenaarde. Lambic beers can be found southwest of Brussels, and fans of Witbier should experience it at its source in Hoegaarden (east of Brussels).
Trappist beers and Abbeys
Six legitimate Trappist breweries — meaning that the beer is actually brewed in a brewery within a Trappist monastery and/or brewed by Trappist monks — exist in Belgium. Only beers brewed at one of these six locations can be legally marketed as Trappist beer. (There is a seventh Trappist brewery in Europe — Konigshoeven — but it’s located across Belgium’s border in The Netherlands.)
However, several secular breweries brew beers that are similar to Trappist beers, or they brew beers under license of monasteries that have no brewing facilities. These beers are limited to marketing their brews as Abby, Abbey, Abbaye, Abdij, or similar spellings. Don’t be fooled by names like St. Feullien (note that the pronunciation of the first syllable is fool).
Belgian beer shrines, festivals, and museums
Belgians are acutely aware that beer is a huge part of their national heritage, and they don’t miss many opportunities to celebrate that fact. Hence, the beer trekker can always find something to visit or experience in Belgium.
Beer shrines in Belgium
Though the Belgians are much more nonchalant about their incredible beer experiences, beer geeks consider tours of certain Belgian breweries, cities, or regions nothing less than pilgrimages to beer shrines. Here’s a glance at some possibilities:
Abbey Road: Trappist Ale fans should prearrange a visit to some of the six beer-producing Trappist abbeys in Belgium.
Lambic Lane: Lovers of Lambic beer will want to take a spin on the Bruegel route, south and west of Brussels.
Cafes: All the larger cities (and many of the quainter towns) have at least one outstanding beer bar or cafe (cafes in Belgium are as widespread as pubs in England).
Belgian beer festivals
Just like other countries with dynamic brewing industries, Belgium makes a point of celebrating beer in big and sometimes ostentatious ways.
Poperinge Hopfeesten (Poperinge), every third September: This festival features a folkloric procession of townspeople, a hop-picking contest, and a lot of beer drinking.
Zythos Bier Fest (Leuven), April: This festival, which moved to its new location of Leuven in 2011, is the closest thing to a national beer festival that Belgium has.
Adriaan Brouwer Bierfeesten (Oudenaarde), June: This beer festival is an annual commemorative festival held yearly in honor of the famous painter (Adriaan Brouwer) born there in 1605.
Belgian beer museums
Belgium also has its share of museums that are dedicated to beer and brewing.
Het Brouwershuis or La Maison des Brasseurs (Brussels): Though not a brewery, this palatial museum (headquarters of the Knights of the Mashing Fork and translated as Brewer’s Guildhouse and Confederation of Belgian Brewers Museum) is one of the biggest beer shrines in all of Europe.
De Geuzen Van Oud Beersel (Beersel): Brewing artifacts in this small museum form an extension of the brewery tour.
Brugse Brouwerij Mouterijmuseum (Bruges): This site shows the history of brewing in the city of Bruges. The museum is located in a basement brewery, De Halve Maan.
Musée Bruxelloise de la Gueuze (Brussels): This living museum-brewery of the Cantillon brewery, with displays of brewing history, holds public brewing sessions twice yearly.