Home / A&E / A&E Feature / Belgium by Beer
Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009

Belgium by Beer

Google+ Pinterest Print

Don Feinberg & Wendy Littlefield lived in Belgium for several years and have just returned from a month long stay. Here is an overview they penned about touring Belgium from a beery perspective:

“Omnium gallorum optimum cervisiam coqunt Belgae” (Of all Gauls, the best brewers are the Belgians) Julius Caesar

There are many, many beautiful breweries in Belgium. Their personalities, settings and aesthetics are as varied as the beers themselves. Westmalle and Orval are majestic and contemplative. Boon is dank, dark cobwebby and mysterious. Talk about mysterious, Rodenbach (a triumph of industrial architecture) looks like a set from an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Gigantic oak casks stand row upon row like giants. But Dupont, ah Dupont, is pastoral and peaceful, enchanting and small. In addition to the brewery, the family operates a bakery. They make very fine cheese and until recently, raised their own cattle.

They produce the only certified organic beers in Belgium – including Avril and Foret which we sell in the States. Across the street from the farm office (where you can buy eggs in addition to beer) is the small Cafe Dupont. Neighbors come to chat, or play music together. It is a Belgian Brigadoon. We were inspired by Dupont when we built Brewery Ommegang. We also founded a Slow Food Chapter in Cooperstown about ten years ago. Part of our mission was and is to help small scale farming to be more viable, and rural life to be more robust. If we have an Aristotelian ideal of what that life would look, smell and taste like – it exists in Tourpes at the Dupont Brewery. The Belgian Brewers’ Association has a list of member breweries with links to sites and tour info. Hats off to the Belgian Tourist Office who does a great job of compiling information on beer tourism. It is organized into categories like beer events, beer tours brewery visits and links.

We can attest to the fact that one good way to get to know Belgian culture is through its breweries, beers and cafes. Our friend Corby Kummer (the food editor at The Atlantic Monthly) wrote in his March 1998 article “Belgian and Bubbly” that “Beer and pubs play a role in Belgium very much like that played by espresso and caffes in Italy…Men and women from all walks of life meet at all times of day in Brussels pubs – welllighted, if smoky, places, where you can strike up a conversation with people at your communal table, and sit for as long as you like; the drinking speed seems to be one and a half beers an hour. Beer taps are maintained with the loving care given to espresso machines in Italy. Belgium, especially Brussels, is famous for its Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and the styles are by turns sinuously and angularly apparent in chromed spigots.” By the way, Belgian coffee isn’t bad either!

We recommend you let the mood of the cafe and the region you are in help dictate the choice of your beer. Here are a handful of special addresses - organized by city. By all means consult Peter Crombecq’s exhaustive listof cafes. Peter was the founder of Objectif Bierproevers an organization that in its 18 years of existence did much to champion traditional beers in Belgium. CAMRA (Britain’s Campaign for Real Ale) and Stephen D’Arcy put out a fine list which you can order online. Tim Webb’s Good Beer Guide to Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg is also a valuable resource.

We are always talking about Belgium – but don’t forget one of our breweries is over the border in French Flanders which merits a voyage of its own for sure. The French Brewers Association www.brasseurs-de-France.com has 67 member breweries. You’ll find information on taking beer tours – including a tour of Castelain on their site.

There is a new edition of The Great Beers of Belgium by Michael Jackson. It was first published in the States by Vanberg and DeWulf – by the way! A helpful guide for your travels with listings of top stops by town. Available through - us. Call 800-656-1212 to order.

As a guideline, since Belgium has a tied house system of sorts. Your best bet in any town is to look for pubs that are not owned by Inbev (Stella, Leffe etc) as the independent operators are more likely to stock the beers from independent breweries.
That said here are a handful of special spots:

Antwerp

Kulminator - 32 Vleminkveld - Named one of the top ten beer bars in Belgium by Crombecq you’ll find 550 beers here, only 8 on tap. Specialty is aged beers. Chuck Cook’s profile of the owners and the history of this remarkable temple to beer follows here.

Bruges

‘t Bruges Beertje 5 Kemelstraat. A selection of about 250 beers. Light snacks.

Beersel (outside Brussels) Lambic Trail Region

Cafe 3 Fonteinen. A lambic bastion and restaurant in the Senne River Valley (where lambic comes from)

Brussels

Bier Circus 89 Onderrichtstraat – Best selection in Brussels. We also like A la Becasse, Cafe Mort Subite, De Ultieme Hallucinatie, ‘t Spinnekopke, La Fleur en Papier Dore (beautiful space), Chez Moeder Lambic (in St Gilles) and Hotel Metropole a chandeliered Belle Epoque grand hotel cafe. Not on many best beer lists, we think you might like “Brasserie De l’Union”, 55 Parvis De Saint-Gilles - Sint-Gillisvoorplein. This is a place with a true “atmosphere”, wooden chairs and tables, big old wooden bar, a crowd that reflects the diversity of Saint-Gilles. Everybody is welcome and come as you are. This is a bar that just oozes human warmth and a comfortable ambiance. When the sunny days are coming, the terrace is one of the best in Saint-Gilles.

Ghent

De Dulle Griet – Vridagmarkt 50 About 250 beers on their list. Hopduvel 10 Rokerstraatspecial cafe with many cheeses to match their fine beer list

Oudenaarde

Cafe de Mouterij best bar in this charming brown beer town

Tourpes

Cave Dupont the cafe across from Brasserie Dupont

Zwalm (near Zottegem)

De Blaffend Konijn (aka Barking Rabbit) Cozy little ten room hotel with restaurant in the Flemish Ardennes. The site was formerly a brewery.

Zottegem

Bier Tempel “De Muze” - Biesloven 4. About 225 beers on hand

Are You Going to Belgium?

If beer is your main reason for visiting the land of Gambrinus... we recommend the site of the Confederation of Belgian Brewers. The Union of Belgian Brewers is one of the oldest professional associations in the world and all Belgian breweries belong to it. It contains an alphabetial listing of all breweries in Belgium with links to their sites. Vanberg & DeWulf founders, Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield were the first Americans ever inducted into the 500 year old guild.

For specialty beer tours you might consider having a look at Belgian Beer Mehttp://www.belgianbeerme.com/. The Best Damn Farmhouse Ale Tour of Belgium & France is scheduled for the fall of 2009 “Venture into the elusive and obscure world of saisons and biere de gardes, whose roots can be traced to rustic ales once brewed on farms in this wide area once known as the Kingdom of Flanders. We’ll visit some small independent breweries still located on working farms and some large, modern ones; all situated in scenic countryside locations, where we’ll experience these satisfying ales. Think Dupont, Fantome, Kerkom, Thiriez, Jenlain, Chi‘ti, Trois Monts & St. Amand.”

See the travel and links sections of the www.belgianexperts.com website for more handy resources.