For beer lovers, Belgium is undeniably the world’s beer paradise. No other place has such a diversity of beer styles, aromas, flavors and colors. In a country with such an impressive beer culture as Belgium, you can always find a beer for any taste: to enjoy with or without a meal, as an ingredient in preparing delicious dishes, to enjoy as a dessert drink, or simply to drink and enjoy with friends. For those that don’t particularly love beer, you will be missing out on a great treat; but Belgium as a country provides something for almost any taste.
From architecture, both ancient and modern, to religion and churches, to art, to nature including countryside, mountains, valleys, rivers and beaches; Belgium has it all. Belgium is also a country of original ideas and concepts. Some modern day pleasures are said to have originated in Belgium such as comic strips, Mardi Gras, playing cards, the saxophone and great beer. (OK, I added the last one.) But the shopping mall did originate here and is still very active in Brussels.
Belgium is not a big country. Despite its diminutive size, just larger than the state of Maryland, it has a proud tradition of making beer that dates back to the 11th century. Nicknamed the crossroads of Western Europe, it shares its border with Germany, France, the North Sea, the Netherlands and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Almost every capitol of every European country is within 600 miles of Brussels.
While my focus is on beer and brewing in Belgium, please don’t think that is all there is to the country. Belgium is home to a complete diversity of biodiversity with different geographic regions and all 4 weather seasons. Per capita, Belgium probably has more biking (fiets) trails and hiking trails as well as numerous horseback trails. There are beaches, flatlands, mountains, valleys, caves, rivers and almost anything one might think of in an excellent touristic destination.
The largest region of Belgium is known as Wallonia, which covers the southern part of Belgium that borders Germany, Luxembourg and the northern border of France. Within this region are the provinces of Hainaut, Walloon Brabant, Namur, Liege and Luxembourg. The main language spoken in this region is French.
Hainaut is mostly a varied region that for years was the industrial backbone of Belgium and is the region where most of Belgium’s mining, steel making and heavy industry were located. But there are numerous smaller and very picturesque towns in this area as well as numerous breweries including the Trappist monastery and brewery of Chimay.
It is also home to the chateaus of Beloeil and Attre; Belgium’s answer to Versailles and Blenheim. The city of Tournai is famous for the 800-year-old Cathedral of our Lady – a UNESCO World Heritage site. The larger city of Mons was built around a hilltop and has a beautiful Grand Place. Mons is also the provincial capital of the province.
The town of Binche, where some say the roots of modern day Mardi Gras originated, is also the town where the word ‘binge’ supposedly comes from. Every year starting on Shrove Tuesday half the region comes to Binche for the huge celebration that runs from Tuesday through Sunday.
Also in this province is the town of Charleroi, a very large industrial city with a quarter million people that was the center of the old industrial area.
This region is home to breweries Abbaye des Rocs, Authentique, Barbiot, Belgoobeer, Binchoise, Blaugies, Brasse-Temps, Brunehaut, Caulier, Cazeau, Des Monts, Dubuisson, Dupont, Ecaussinnes, Ellezelloise, Frasnoise, Geants, De Ranke, St. Feuillien, Silly, Val de Sambre, Vanuxeem, and Vapeur breweries (in addition to Chimay).
Wallonian Brabant is an area of southern Brussels suburbs and an area of great wealth; but in the monetary sense, not the beer sense. Its main claim to fame is the town of Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated in 1815. It is also home to the town of Louvain-La-Neuve where, in the late 1960’s, the French-speaking portion of the University of Lueven decided to set up campus away from their Flemish-speaking counterparts.
Namur is Belgium’s central southern province known for the River Meuse, which runs down the middle of the province and has some beautiful valleys branching off from the river. This province has some great towns to explore. Namur, the provinces namesake, is located at the point where the rivers Meuse and Sambre meet and is known for the old citadel that sits on a promontory overlooking the city.
Just south on Namur is the small town of Lustin, home of the Musee des Bieres Belges, an individual’s penchant for collecting beers and beer glasses that got way out of hand and is now a great quirky museum dedicated to these collections. Call before you visit because they keep very bizarre hours.
A short drive from here is the fantastic Les Jardins d’Annevoie or Annevoie Gardens. The gardens were built between 1758 and 1776 and use gravity and varying sizes of pipes to create water pressure for the numerous fountains located throughout the gardens. A short drive from here is the Abbey of Maredsous, a wonderful place of tranquility. It is one of the most beautiful Abbey’s in Belgium. Founded in 1872 by the Benedictine order in a Neo-Gothic style, the abbey is architecturally unique. It’s possible to have a guided visit of the abbey and of the pottery workshops. Guided visits for individuals in English . Three visits a day during July and August. They also have a nice cafe offering cheese and bread made by the monastery along with the Maredsous range of beers to wash them down with.
The town of Dinant, also known for its citadel as well as other attractions, draws throngs of visitors from Brussels and has been well developed as a strong tourist center. The town is actually one of the prettiest sites in Belgium positioned along the banks of the River Meuse. Some of the more well-known sites in Dinant include the very large Church of Notre Dame with its onion shaped dome, the Abbey of Leffe and is also well-known as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, creator of the saxophone. Incidentally, the drive across the Meuse and up the road to Falmignoul, where the Caracole brewery is located is a beautiful drive with numerous scenic overviews of the surrounding countryside.
Rochefort, home to the Trappist Abbaye Notre Dame de St. Remy and the brewers of Rochefort beer is also in this province and is a great place to spend a day wandering the streets. Be aware that the brewery at Rochefort and the monastery do not allow visitors and appreciate that visitors do not attempt to disrupt the tranquility of the monastery.. They did opened a visitor center and conducted tours in 2006, but due to abuses by certain tourists, they discontinued this practice.
Liege is a large province in the far east of Belgium with a diversity of lands and also is known for many cities including Liege (the fifth largest city in Belgium) and Spa, the town that historically had the first resort courting to the wealthy and their health and where the name was coined.
The northern part of this province has what might be considered ‘urban sprawl’ from the unbridled growth of Liege. To the west is the plain of Brabant and the southern parts of the province are the northern portions of the Ardennes and the woodlands of the Ourthe valley. East of Liege is an area that is almost entirely German speaking as it was ceded to Belgium after the Treaty of Versailles. If you like large industrial cities with numerous great restaurants and pubs, you might like Liege. I prefer the area to the south, but I like the ‘great outdoors’ rather than large cities.
Luxembourg lies in the southeastern corner of Belgium and is home to the Ardennes mountain range and the beautiful valleys bordering these mountains. This province also contains the beautiful Trappist monastery of Orval. This is one of my favorite areas of Belgium for its diversity of landscape and small quaint towns and some of the friendliest people in the country. (Not that one encounters unfriendly people ANYWHERE in Belgium!)
In Bouillon, a history buffs Mecca; one finds the remains of an 11th century crusader’s castle which had rooms hewn right out of the rock cliff facing the armaments remaining from WWII. It is not uncommon to drive into a small village and encounter a rusting tank on a town square or an artillery piece up on a hilltop. The downside is that this is one of the hardest areas of Belgium to get around in, as there is really no public transportation to speak of, so if you really want to see this region, you’ll need to rent a vehicle.
Besides the historical aspect, this region is known for its gastronomy and it is not rare to stop into a restaurant and find menu items made with fresh game and almost all feature fare from the local region.
Some of the better know towns in the regions are Arlon, a small market town that traces it’s history back to the Roman times and Achouffe, the town with the brewery of the same name – need I say more? Bastogne is a well-known battle town well known by most military history buffs. Durbuy is a great little medieval town that although a bit too touristy, is still worth a visit, and less than 5 miles away is the small hamlet of Erezee, home of Fantome Brewery.
The Trappist monastery Abbaye De Notre Dame d’Orval is also located in the far southern area of this province. Since it is mentioned in numerous other places in the site, I will not go into deep detail; but if a visitor is anywhere near this abbaye and does not stop in toe visit the ruins daring from the 12th century…you are really missing something.
This province is home to small microbreweries like Ferme au Chene Brasserie and their Marckloff Brewery in Durbuy and Les 3 Fourquets (a small microbrewery partially owned by Kris Bauweraerts of Achouffe fame). Also in this region one will find the breweries of Bouillon, Ebly, Rulles, Sainte Helene, Saint Monon, and Millevertus .
The northern region of Belgium is called Flanders and Flemish is the main language spoken, which is a Dutch dialect.
West Flanders is a low-lying area that borders the North Sea and parts of the Netherlands in the North and France in the South. It is also the westernmost part of Belgium. At one time much of this area of Belgium was under water or very marshy. Dikes and canals were built and the water was controlled and a large area of land was reclaimed.
West Flanders also has a large concentration of small breweries that produce many distinctive beer styles unlike anything else in the world. West Flanders is well known for their brewing diversity with styles like Flemish Red ales as well as Oud Bruins and the Trappist monastery of Sint Sixtus brewers of world-famous Westvleteren is also located here. Very near to St. Sixtus is the home base for De Struise brewery. Located at Kasteelstraat 50 in Oostvleteren, Struise brews incredible beers and normally has a large number in the Top 50 on Beer Advocate and Rate Beer. This location is the home of their pilot brewery, school and beer shop. Check their web site for opening times. They also offer a beer school with appointments.
A visitor to this region has what I consider to be an entire country of great small towns to be explored. The most famous town in this region is the beautiful medieval town of Bruges/Brugge. Brugge is a wonderful town that escaped much of the destruction of the many wars that have been fought in Belgium. They ‘escaped’ destruction due to a ‘problem’ that also caused it to lose the designation as being the center of trade for all of Europe. For over 400 years Brugge was this center but during the 16th century, the River Zwin silted up and Brugge‘s access to the sea was cut off, as was their trade route, which shifted to Antwerp. Prior to this, all of the worlds trading ships would sail into the area of Brugge and offload onto flat bottom vessels which would take the products to the center of town for distribution to various parts of Europe and beyond. Brugge’s trade loss was our gain, as today Brugge is remarkably intact with buildings dating to the 1200’s. Also, in 2006 Brugge was voted ‘Most Romantic City’ in the world, pushing Paris to second place. Besides some of the greatest restaurants in Belgium including 2 of the three star Michelen starred restaurants in Belgium; Brugge also has some of the greatest pubs including Brugs Beertje, Staminee de Garre, Curiosa, Cambrinus , Cafe Le Trappiste and De Bierboom. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Cafe Vlissinghe, which is the oldest pub in Bruges and one of the oldest in Belgium, having opened in 1515 and has been continually open since that time. Also Brewery De Halve Mann is in Brugge and they convinced the city to allow them to dig up the ancient streets to lay a pipeline to the outskirts of town to their bottling plant, so they would not have to tear up those roads by constant tanker trucks traveling from the brewery to their plant. This brewery gives an excellent tour of their brewery ending with a sampling for their range of beers including Bruges Zot (light and dark) and the range of Straffe Hendrik beers. Besides a full bar, they also have a great restaurant serving local specialties. More recently Bourgogne Des Flanders has opened a small craft brewery in the center of town where they also give guided tours and they also have a pub and restaurant.
A short 13 miles away is Ostend and the beaches of the North Sea where all of Europe’s royalty used to come to relax in the summer months. From the northern city of Knokke-Heist, near the Netherlands border to the town of Kokside, near the French town of Dunkirk, one can enjoy the entire coast.
About 15 miles from Ostend is the small town of Esen, home to De Dolle Brewers, on of my favorite breweries anywhere. A bit further down the same road, one comes to Roeselare home of world famous Rodenbach brewery. Right across the freeway from Roeselare is Emelgem/Izegem, home of Kroegske a bar that only allows ‘quiet’ children and great beer – no Pils allowed here. Another few miles and you’ll be in Ingelmunster, home of Van Honsebrouck brewery and the Kasteel and St. Louis range of beers. Just a short drive away, after passing by Kortrijk (which, by the way is a great city) is the small town of Vichte, home of Verhaeghe brewers, brewers of some wonderful beers including Duchess de Bourgogne, Vichtenaare and others. Unfortunately, Verhaege does not allow tours under any circustance. It is also near the Brewery De Brabandere, producers of excellent beers including Bavik, Wittekerk and the range of Petrus beers. To the south is the small town of Poperinge, known for its hop production and its quaint town square full of great little pubs and restaurants. For anyone interested in the making of beer, specifically the hops, the Hopmuseum near the center of town gives an exhaustive overview of hops growing and production, from the early days to present. Poperinge is also a great base camp for those wishing to see the countryside via car, bicycle or walking and is also 10 minutes away from In De Vrede, the tasting room for St. Sixtus beers and a few minutes further is Struise’s brewery. (Only open on Saturday’s.)
Just a few short miles away is the town of Watou, home of Van Eecke brewery and Hommelhof, one of the world’s greatest beer restaurants. Just outside of Watou is the Bernardus Brewery, brewers of the range of St. Bernardus beers as well as Brouwershuis, an excellent B7B run by that brewery.
In the same region is Ieper, also known as Ypres, a town that was obliterated during World War I but faithfully restored and in many cases using the same stones from the original buildings. Every even numbered year, Ieper has Kattestoet or the Cat Throwing Festival. In ancient times villagers would climb to the top of the cloth hall in the center of town and throw live cats from the top. Of course, now the festival is held using stuffed cats.
I also want to mention some of the other breweries in the region including Alvinne, Bavik, de Bie, Bockor, Browkot, Deca, De Leite, De Ranke, Deca, t’ Gaverhopke, , Lupiline, Zythos, Het Sas, and Stubbe are also in this region.
East Flanders has some beautiful rolling countryside as well as flat rich pastureland and contains the city of Ghent, which is the third largest city in Belgium. Ghent is well known for its medieval town center. Ghent is well known for the Cathedral of St. Bavo, which houses the original Van Eyck painting, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, as well as numerous other great art works. A few blocks away one will find Gravensteen castle, also known as the Castle of the Counts, a great example of a castle dating from 1180, which seems to focus on the many types of torture used in medieval times. Ghent also has some great beer pubs such as Galgenhuis, one of the smallest bars in Belgium where condemned men used to go for a final beer before heading to the gallows just out front. It is also home to HopDuvel, Dulle Griet, Trappistenhuis and Waterhuis aan de Bierkant. While I have yet to stay overnight in Ghent, many of my friends tell me that this is a ‘must do’ when visiting Belgium. It is a great city with enough to keep one’s interest for a few days.
A very short drive from Ghent is the town of Melle, home of Huyghe Brewery; brewers of the Delirium range of beers as well as about 45 other beers. Huyghe is an incredible brewery of 300,000 hectoliter production as well as an incredible brewing museum and they offer an excellent tour followed by a great tasting of beers.
East Flanders is also home to many other towns that are worth mentioning.
Deinze is a great town that reminds me of many smaller U.S. cities. It has an easy lay out and numerous stores and infrastructure that might alleviate some of the U.S. homesickness blues. It is also home to Pien’s Music Planet; the largest music store in Europe.
St. Niklaas is a great little town that is said to have the largest Grand Place in all of Belgium and has quite a large university population.. A short hop down the road is Hamme, home to Bierland, one of the larger beer shops in Belgium and central to many great breweries within a 50 kilometer range.
East Flanders is rich with breweries, but many great breweries have disappeared in recent years due to the actions of the multi-national giants.
Some breweries in this region include Huyghe and Van Steenberge (two of my personal favorites), Anders, Boelens, Bosteels, Cnudde, Contreras, De Ryck, Glazen Toren, Malheur, Muskateers/Troubadour, De Warende, Proef, Roman, Slaapmutske, Slagmuylder, Smisje, Sterkens, and Van den Bossche
The province of Antwerp contains the city of Antwerp (second largest city in Belgium) and is known as the diamond capitol of Europe. Antwerp is also known for the Cathedral of our Lady, one of the largest cathedrals in the world. A visit to Antwerp is not complete without a visit to the Cathedral. It contains some of the best-known works of art by Peter Paul Rubens including Raising of the Cross, Descent from the Cross and Resurrection and many other wonderful paintings and sculptures.
Antwerp is also home to the Kulminator, the number one beer bar in the world. (See more under favorite bars.) A trip to Belgium by any beer lover without an afternoon or evening at the Kulminator would be like visiting the Lourve and not seeing the Mona Lisa. (Actually, not visiting the Kulminator would be worse, since the Mona Lisa is not much to look at.) Antwerp is also home to the National Zoo, Rubens House, home of the famous painter, Port of Antwerp and many other great sights. A visitor to Antwerp will also find DeKoninck brewery and Pakhuis microbrewery close to the city center.
Great cafes in Antwerp include Pater’s Vaetje, Oud Arsenaal, Waagstuck, Elfde Gebod (11th Commandment), Groote Witte Arend, and Engel, which many say is one of the oldest continually operating pubs in Belgium. Also right off the square in front of Our Lady is the Appelmans Absinthe Bar, a modern, techno bar catering to the ‘Green Fairy’.
This province is also home to Westmalle Trappist monastery and brewery. Westmalle is out in the country and has a mystic feel to it. It is very hard to obtain permission to visit the brewery and this privilege is usually reserved for members of the press and visiting commercial brewers. But, do not fear, all the great beers are available directly across the street at the Trappisten Café.
Very near Westmalle is the town of Turnhout. Turnhout covers a very large area considering the fact that they do not have a large population, but all the fun is around the center of town. There are numerous places to stay around the town square, which will put one near the great Spytighen Duvel (Spiteful Devil) pub. This is a great pub dating from 1740 and usually has over 300 different beers available.
About 7 miles north of Turnhout is the small village of Baarle-Hertog. I like this village because you actually leave Belgium and enter Holland and after about a mile or so, you re-enter Belgium and the village of Baarle-Hertog. Only half the village is in Belgium and the other half is in Holland and the border cuts through the center of town, so if you happen to be in a pub on one side of the street and want to call the grocery store on the other side of the street, it might be an international long-distance call. On the south side of the village is the Brouwerhuis, a very nice beer shops that also has a restaurant and pub attached. One can expect to find upwards of 700 beers here, but many are non-Belgian beers.
Limburg is an area that for many years was ignored by most tourists but is now seeing a strong interest in its region. From the northern area known as the Kempen, a mixture of fen and moorland and the southern portion known as the Haspengouw which is a nice area of rolling hills and stands of woods Limburg offers many diverse environments for the visitor. While this area is largely undiscovered, it does offer some great beers and breweries. Limburg is the home to Achelse Kluis, known as Achel Trappist monastery and brewery. This is a great visit and one can view the small brewery, have lunch in the café and visit the great grocery and beer shop.
Flemish Brabant is the area surrounding Brussels and is home to the University of Belgium at Leuven and the town of Hoegaarden, home of the of the great Belgian Witbier. The style originated in this area in the middle ages but died out after World War 2 and appeared to be a dead style. Then in 1980 Pierre Celis re-created the style using what he remembered while helping a village brewer as a young boy. Today, this is style is loved by people throughout the world. Unfortunately, the brewery Hoegaarden was bought by brewing giant InBev and several years ago they closed the original brewery and visitor center and moved brewing production to another InBev brewing facility. Soon thereafter they re-opened the original brewery and visitor center and are in production again.
There are numerous great towns in this province and some of my favorite beer shops are in this province. If you are going to be in Brussels for an event and have access to transportation, let me know and I can give you some information about different shops and pubs as there are too many to mention in this space.
Also in this region just to the west and south of Brussels lies an area of Belgium known as Payottenland, which is the home of Gueuze and Lambic beers. (This is not an official province, rather a region where this great beer style originated and continues.) This valley surrounding the River Senne allows for excellent spontaneous fermentation for this unique beer style that is sought after by beer lovers from all corners of the world. A trip to Belgium is not complete without visiting a few of these great breweries and blenders. Some of the lambic breweries and blenders of this style include Belle Vue, Boon, De Block, De Cam, De Keersmaeker, Drie Fonteinen, Girardin, Lindemans, Timmermans and the most recent blender – Tilquin.
The final region of Belgium is Brussels-Capital region, which includes the city of Brussels, capitol of the European Union. Brussels is a large metropolitan city that one could spend weeks exploring. Brussels‘ main square, the Grand Place, has been home to the Belgian Brewers Guild (an important regulatory organization founded in the 13th century) since it bought the building in the late 1500s. It is also considered by many to be the most beautiful square in the worldhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Place.
Brussels has over 60 numerous museums including the Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts, which houses hundreds of works of arts that once sat in the cellar of the Lourve until Napoleon had this museum built to house the overflow from the Lourve. So, in a word, this is one of the best museums in the world.
I could write volumes just about all the great sites in Brussels. But one can find interesting sites to suit any desire. From some of the best restaurants in the world, including one where Karl Marx met Friedrich Engels and the creation of the communist manifesto started. Brussels was also home to 3 of 5 World’s Fairs held in Belgium; second only to the United States and France. Many of the exhibits are still there for our enjoyment, including the Atomium, a 10 story tall structure meant to resemble the molecular structure of an atom.
There are dozens of excellent beer bars and a myriad of different experiences to enjoy in Brussels. While Brussels has some of great beer bars in Belgium, it has only 1 brewery, Cantillion. Where Brussels lacks in quantity or breweries, it makes up for with the brewery of Cantillion. This is a working lambic museum and is a must see for any traveler to Brussels.
Some of the best beer bars in Brussels include the fantastic Delirium Village; a small street off the Rue De Bouchers (a street filled with touristy restaurants) featuring the original Delirium Cafe (home to over 2000 different beers) and has grown to include 7 additional bars including Delirium Taphouse, Little Delirium Cafe, Delirium Cafe Hoppy Leaf, Delirium Monasterium, Floris Bar, Floris Garden and Floris Tequila. Also Bier Circus, Mort Subite, Metropole, Falstaff, and one of my favorites, La Becasse. In addition to these, there are several other ‘historic’ pubs near the Grand Place worth mentioning including Au Bon Vieux Temps, which has been here for over 300 years; Poechenellekelder, a nice pub across the way from the world-famous Manneken Pis statue, A l’Imaige Nostre-Dame, and Estaminent Toone, a place featuring puppets that could give some nightmares..but has been here since 1830. Not to be left out, is the fantastic Moeder Lambic Fontainas, a fantastic pub specializing in lambics, gueuzes and other incredible beers, both on tap and in bottles. Ask to see their vintage list! This location is several blocks away from the Grand Place and they have another location on Rue de Savoie, a few metro stations south of this location.
While walking around the area, one will notice that there are several beers shops on each block; but the original and the one with the largest selection is one street over from the Grand Place – Beer Mania. Yes, they are a bit expensive, but the rent is high for the location and the owner Nasser has been a beer fanatic since 1980.
Since Brussels has so much culture and so many great sites to visit, if you are planning a trip there, drop me an e-mail and I will try to give you some good info as to the different sites that are conducive to your likes.
In Brussels, as in most every other city or town in Belgium, there is really much much more than just beer. Each location has their own version of culture which includes shopping, arts, historical buildings and areas and some of the best restaurants on the planet. If unsure where to dine, ask a local. They will usually not mislead you.
Many, if not all, of our present day brewers owe a debt of gratitude to Belgium and the Trappist monks in particular. Monks have been brewing beer in this part of the world for hundreds of years. In the Middle Ages, abbeys and monasteries made their own beer and often granted lodging including their beer and small meals of homemade bread and cheese to tired, hungry travelers. There are still six Trappist abbeys producing beer in Belgium. (These are the only ones allowed to use the designation “Trappist” on their labels.) There are also 2 in the Netherlands, one each in Austria, Italy and the U.S. These strict religious orders have stringent brewing standards and are still using variations of recipes that are centuries old. Those of us who occasionally drink a draught or two might consider a toast to St. Arnoldus the Strong, of Oudenaarde, the patron saint of beer. It is said that this infamous monk successfully invoked God to create more beer after the 11th century collapse of an abbey brewery in Flanders.
I consider Belgium to be one of the greatest countries in the world and a great place to visit. I encourage anyone that has an interest in beer or Belgium to make this trip.
Op uw gezonheid!