In Belgium, beer is without a doubt a culture. Brewing dates back to the 12th century, when the Catholic Church started brewing in their abbeys and sold it as a funding method. Beer started to get in to people’s daily life when they saw it as a perfect alternative to the dirty Medieval water they had to drink and that made them sick. It’s really hard to comprehend how many types of different Belgian beers there are on the market now – but estimates vary from 800 to 1800. So if you are a true beer lover, isn’t it time to travel to the country where it is a religion itself?
The best place to try original Belgian beer is of course in the country itself. Now you could just take a plane or train to Brussels and randomly pick out a pub or bar to have a drink – but there are so many more interesting ways to discover new Trappist or Abbey beers. On top of the list is the award winning pub crawl in Brussels by Brussels Walking Tours. With a five out of five rating on TripAdvisor you can’t really go wrong with this one – and no, this isn’t a tourist trap. The tour is about 2 km long, but it is less walking and more drinking: you will be able to taste 8 different Belgian Beers in 4 hours, combined with a food pairing experience. What is so great about this, is that the experienced beer connoisseur will take you to pubs far, far away from the touristy and often overrated bars around the Grand Place in Brussels. You will experience pubs tucked away in small alleys that have cherished their Medieval history and serve authentic Abbey beers that you probably haven’t tried yet, like Orval or Augustijn.
A weekend full of authentic beers
A deserved second place goes to the Belgian Beer Weekend – the somewhat little, but more sophisticated sister of German Oktoberfest, always takes place the first weekend of September. The Knighthood of the Brewers’ Mash staff and the Belgian Brewers organize a weekend to let you discover new Belgian beers, less known ones and give free tasting demonstrations. Traditionally, the weekend is being opened by the Catholic Church on Saturday and a parade of beer wagons takes place on Sunday. You can have a talk with key figures out of the industry in one of the multiple tents set up on the Grand Place in Brussels. Overall this is just a great opportunity for someone who already has quite good knowledge about Belgian beers and wants to try new things, with music in the background, in the setting of beautiful Brussels.
Of course, they don’t just serve beer in Brussels. Belgium counts around 160 breweries – some of them still sighted in beautiful old monasteries and abbeys that are worth a visit. It is very rare that the monks invite you into their sacred work place and visiting Orval, Chimay or Westvleteren will only get you in to the church, not the brewery part. That’s only possible on open days that take place once every few years. The monks want to protect their privacy and the magical idea of them brewing beers at all times. You can visit lots of other breweries though, the most standard the AvInBev ones that produce Hoegaarden, Jupiler and Stella Artois. Those are interesting if you want to understand the process of brewing and don’t mind something a bit commercial, but of course these aren’t Belgium’s most special brews. A smaller brewery which is open for tours, located in the green sites of the Ardennes, is where they brew La Chouffe, the little gnomes’ beer. The Achouffe brewery is part of Duvel Moortgat (that other famous Belgian beer) and is worth a visit because of the detailed tour and tasting variety you’ll get. The tour ends in their restaurant, serving Ardennes dishes that go perfectly with the warm, light brown colored beer.
If a beer tasting tour, connoisseur weekend or visiting a brewery sounds all a tad bit boring to you, you can always take part in a casino and beer tasting experience, or hire a beer bike. Although I’m not sure if cycling while being very drunk is really experiencing Belgian beer culture. Another ‘creative’ beer tasting activity, organized in the city of Leuven (20 minutes from Brussels) is Beer Golf. There isn’t much more to it than playing golf and having a pint of local Leuven brews after each turn. Not sure if you will hit a hole in one there, but you will definitely discover more new beers, like Leuven’s famous Geuze Boon, accompanied by a certified beer tour guide and golf instructor.
by Alexia Simons
As a Belgian writer working and living in London, I like to write articles about typical Belgian culture, with a focus on beer and food traditions, to get people more familiar with the country that is often referred to as a bit quirky. I have a weakness for perfectly baked fries accompanied by my favourite blonde, Westmalle Tripel.