Belgium has an age-old tradition in beer breweries, from the Trappist abbeys of the Middle Ages to the modern microbreweries of 21st century. Flemish red, Lambic, Tripel, Pils, Saison, champagne beer, Dubbel, golden ale, brown ale, amber ale, and stout – one would have to spend weeks in Belgium to experience the countless variations of the country’s national beverage. But a few days in Brussels and the surrounding region should give visitors a taste of what Belgian brews have to offer.
There’s only one traditional brewery left in Brussels, with other lambic breweries scattered throughout the Pajottenland region to the west of the city. Lambic, a dry beer that has cider undertones, is one of the area’s most distinct beers, along with its variations, including kriek, a beer made from fermenting lambic with sour cherries.
Many of the best Belgian breweries are located outside of Brussels, and some necessitate a day for a proper visit and appreciation of the local brews. Leuven is a 30-minute train ride from Brussels and hosts the world-famous Stella Artois and Domus breweries, as well as Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, one of the country’s oldest universities. The Brasserie de Brunehaut, one of the oldest breweries in Belgium, is located in a village south of Tournai, approximately 90 minutes southwest of Brussels. The rustic Chimay region, seemingly frozen in time, is less than a two-hour car ride from Brussels, and hosts both the Notre-Dame de Scourmont and Auberge de Poteaupré breweries.
Brussels’ sole remaining traditional beer brewing company, Cantillon Brewery, offers one of the only true brewery tours in the city, with its homespun brewing process and fine selection of craft beers. The tours (5 Euros) show you everything from the bottling machines to aging casks, and of course include a tasting at the end. The brewery’s Web site also allows visitors to download a “beer map” of the city, that allows for a comprehensive, self-guided tour of the city’s significant beer and brewery-related landmarks.
It’s also easy to do a beer “tour” of sorts by sitting in a pub for an evening and partaking in the rather ridiculously wide range of beer offerings. Brussels’ bevy of beer cafés offers libations from throughout the country, and are easy to visit on your own, although it doesn’t hurt to have someone on hand who can guide you through the different tastes and histories.
The Delirium Café claims to offer more than 2,000 different beer options for visitors, and is named for the world famous Delirium Tremens brew. Poechenellekelder is conveniently located directly opposite the Manneken Pis and offers beer enthusiasts and neophytes alike a welcome introduction to (or continuation of) ones brew education, with a list of almost 100 beers. A La Mort Subite includes beers from throughout the region, including several Trappists draughts and the traditional lambic, gueuze and kriek brews, and offers an exquisite long bar in the Art Nouveau style for art and architecture enthusiasts. The grand, stylish bar at the Hotel Métropole is also worth a visit.
There are also options like the more corporate sounding Brussels Beer Tour, which guides tourists throughout the city for an afternoon. These tend to be pricier than simply guiding oneself from bar to bar. Other options for taking in the local brew history include a visit to the Brewery Museum on Grote Markt in the city center or the Schaerbeek Museum of Belgian Beer, directly north of Brussels.
As for beer festivals, the best bet is a visit to the BAB Bierfestival in Bruges, which is held in November each year in this gorgeous, historical city, just under an hour away from Brussels by train.
Photo taken from flickr Creative Commons, by Bernt Rostad.