Sampling Beer in Belgium
Belgium is full of contrasts. Tourists purchase vast amounts of chocolate and sample waffles in the multilingual capital of Brussels, which stands between the competitive communities of Wallonia and Flanders. Away from Brussels, beautiful atmospheric medieval towns like Antwerp and Ghent give way to squalid, repugnant industrial cities like Charleroi and Ostend.
I’ve visited Belgium many times and I like it. OK, I don’t really like the dirty, drab industrial cities too much. Liege has old buildings but the majority are gritty and filthy. Walking through that city in a rainstorm, one can have suicidal thoughts. Struggling through the door of the local corner pub, soaked to the skin, the mood instantly changes. For Belgium has the very best local pubs in the world.
A blast of warm air hits your face. Old men nod from the bar, sipping different varieties of gold, brown and white liquid from fancy glasses. A fat grey-haired woman with a hint of a moustache rises from her seat in the corner, almost knocking the complimentary white poodle off of the stool opposite. She owns the pub and welcomes you with open arms. Some beautiful French song you’ve never heard is playing in the background. The night is long, the pub is great and the beer choice is extensive – astonishingly extensive. Many pubs boast over 400 beers on their menu. Delirium Tremens in Brussels has over 2,000!
So Belgium’s incredible contrasts are most notable in its beer selection – over 1,000 variations are produced in this small country. Few places can boast a brewing tradition as rich and varied as Belgium. Standard lager including Stella Artois and Jupiler are produced in huge breweries and are exported heavily, resulting in international recognition. To find the best Belgian beers, however, it’s necessary to try brews from monasteries and microbreweries. There are 178 breweries in total. That’s a lot of beer to sample.
The lager isn’t great – open your mouth in a rainstorm in Liege to catch rainwater descending from the dirty townhouses and you’ll know how Stella Artois tastes. It might be best to begin sampling blonde beers like Duvel (meaning devil) or La Chouffe which are very refreshing and found throughout the country, before moving onto something more interesting.
Abbey beers are produced in monasteries and have a unique, flavoursome taste. Even though many of the monks have disappeared, the beers have lived on under the careful stewardship of larger breweries, thankfully without losing their appeal. Make sure you taste Leffe (which is owned by Stella Artois but thankfully doesn’t taste like it), Grimbergen and St. Feuillien to get the most out of the Abbey beer selection.
Statistics from Germany prove that Bavarian white beer or weissbier is popular throughout the world. Belgium is also famous for its large variety of white beer and it tastes quite different to those well known German brews like Erdinger and Paulaner. Caracole is one of the very best Belgian white beers – various snails adorn its unusual labels. Hoegaarden is another delicious white beer, heavily exported and found in almost every pub but absolutely unmissable on a trip to Belgium. There’s nothing better than a cold Hoegaarden, complete with a slice of lemon floating on its bubbly surface on a warm summer’s day. It makes you feel cooler than a fridge full of polar bears.
The ultimate Belgian beer experience can be found at the Trappist monasteries. You can cycle there to visit the monks and buy their beer. Just be careful when you cycle home – Belgian beers are strong and the Trappist variety are among the strongest, with 8% and 10% alcoholic content the norm. Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren are the current Trappist producers. They are recognised as some of the best beers in the world and Westvleteren has been awarded the title of ‘the world’s best beer’. When I was in Belgium, it proved exceptionally difficult to find it. Only 60,000 cases are produced per year (It has been that way since 1946) and it isn’t sold in supermarkets. The only way to get it is to visit the monks at their monastery. It took a long time to get there but it was worth it. I won’t explain how I got home. Rochefort is also well known and greatly appreciated with a legion of followers. This almost ended in disaster, however. The monks at the Rochefort monastery had a lucky escape in late December 2010, when the building caught fire. Thankfully, both the monks and their precious beer stocks survived intact.
The most unusual experience I’ve had with Belgian beer occurred on a trip to Maastricht in the Netherlands, near the border with Belgium. We found a little pub called ‘Take One’, which seemed fairly innocuous until we got inside. The most unfriendly, yet most fascinating barman in the entire world owns the pub. He treats the customers very rudely and the first thing you hear when you enter is: ‘What do you want, bitch?’ He has a collection of more than 200 Belgian beers. If you choose to be brave and return his insults, he’ll bring your beer in a dog’s bowl and make you drink it off the floor. ‘On the floor, bitch!’
So, delicious beer and interesting people stimulate the mind. I can’t help wondering what’s better: a wine sampling tour in France, a whisky sampling tour in Scotland or a beer sampling tour in Belgium? Of course, I’d have to choose the beer tour. Apart from the drab industrial towns I’ve mentioned, there are plenty of stunning ones – Ghent, Leuven, Bruges and so on.
Also, every single beer has its own special glass and that’s really unique. This is in stark contrast with other countries – statistics show the beer brands most “liked” by college students on Facebook last year in the United States were Corona, Budweiser, Heineken and Miller. Those boring lagers are in the same league as the vile Stella Artois. Young Americans need to visit Belgium and learn about flavoursome variety. Maybe there is hope on the horizon – some small American breweries have learned lessons from Belgium, as can be seen from this New York Times blog. Whether you’re drinking Duvel in a cosy pub in Liege while there’s a rainstorm outside or sipping a Hoegaarden in the sun, you really can’t go wrong with Belgian beer (unless you’re drinking Stella Artois).
Imagenote: © Seamus Murphy