The search for the perfect beer in Belgium
There’s revolution in the air. Everywhere, pubs where formerly you could only find Fosters and Kronenberg are blossoming with real ales, imported IPAs, and kriek lambics from obscure little breweries. The menu has exploded and now ranks of bearded, bespectacled Cicerones and home brewers at chic Shoreditch parties may threaten your credibility if you don’t know what to order or how much head to expect. So where do you go to find the perfect beer? Well, to Belgium of course.
Your beer holiday begins in Mechelen, a sleepy little town on the outskirts of Brussels and home to the Het Anker Brouwerij. Makers of Gouden (Golden) Carolus, the brewers at Het Anker have been doing it for more than five hundred years and they’re happy to show you where the magic happens, including a tasting. The guide is affable, the history fascinating, and the grounds are extensive – a delightful hour’s ramblings. With a recently renovated Brasserie and a newly opened hotel built from disused brewery storerooms, Het Anker knows how to cater to beer enthusiasts. Have a glass of Tripel with their Flemish stew, a hearty, beer-based recipe (of course). The thick, light-coloured beer clocking in at 9% ABV has a heavy, sweet taste that lingers in the mouth and warms as it goes down.
After the tour, it’s worth climbing the bell-tower of Saint Rumbold’s where, in 1687, the townspeople of Mechelen rushed with buckets of water to put out a fire that turned out to be nothing more than the moon, earning them the nickname Maneblussers or Moon Extinguishers. Five hundred steps up you will find a spectacular view of the Belgian countryside and on a clear day, Brussels. Five hundred steps back down and you’ve earned a lunch in the lovely square along Grote Markt – then hit the road for Bruges.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the fairytale town of Bruges was a holiday secret until Martin McDonagh put it on the map with the film In Bruges. Home to innumerable canals, scores of chocolate shops, and the Wall of Beer, Bruges is also the location of De Halve Maan Brouwerij, the only brewery still active within the city centre. There you can be treated to a fantastic English tour given by Magaly, a dryly humorous, extremely knowledgeable guide who is able to stride the line between ‘beer-for-novices’ and ‘advanced-brewery-history’ well. The emphasis at the Half Moon is definitely on hops, and the guide jokingly alludes to the relationship between hops and cannabis. The folks at Half Moon Homebrewing are responsible for Bruges Zot, a 6% blonde beer that is mellow and easy to drink.
Next, in the countries capital, Brussels, is Cantillon. Inside this anonymous hole-in-the-wall is a brewery still practicing spontaneous fermentation to create the tangy, bitter Lambics. This brewery offers a self guided tour – after paying 6€ you are given a small leaflet and some background info from a friendly attendant and then sent on your way into the heart of the brewery, where you can admire the tools of the trade and spend time surrounded by ancient aging be-webbed barrels.
The tasting that followed was double-barrelled. The Rose de Gambrion was a sour 5% framboise, in which the fruit is unmistakable but with no sweetness. The pure 5% Organic Lambic is uncarbonated and ultra sour, with a dry bite reminiscent of the tannic quality of very dry red wines. A fairly specialized taste, Cantillon lambics are not for everyone.
In all, a week’s tour of the Belgian countryside can yield a lot more than a fabulous array of barley wines, fruit beers, and triple-hopped treasures, but the beer will be a big part of any holiday there. For British drinkers used to the 4.5% ABV average there is a definite learning curve: these beers are for sippin’. With so much variety offered within a single country, there’s a perfect beer for everyone.