Sunday, April 28, 2013

Ten Tips for Drinking Belgium

Flower carpet in Brussels
Summer 2012

While many a beer geek dreams of drinking Belgium, the obstacles were daunting at times.  Here's a few tips to improve any Belgian beer experience, roughly in order of importance:

1. Plan brewery stops carefully. Except for places like De Halve MaanCantillon, and In De Vrende (Westvleteren) that have tourist friendly schedules, many breweries are only open a day a week or less. For example, Brewery Boon has a 25 person minimum to book a tour except every Wednesday at 3 pm in July and August. Showing up without a plan will mean very few actual brewery tours and tastings.

2. Consider a beer tour. Because many brewery tours in Belgium are for groups of 15 or more, a solo beer traveler can find it difficult if on-site tours are desired.  Breweries with individual tours like Cantillon are the exception to the rule.  To my surprise, I am seriously considering signing up for a planned beer tour in the future to take care of entrance and transportation next time, plus add the obviously social element of the like-minded.  Or, give up on the idea of brewery tours and just drink the country through fabulous bars like In de Vrende for Westveletern, The Kulminator in Antwerp,  Het Waterhuis in Ghent, Staminee de Garre in Brugge, or Delirium Cafe, Moeder Lambic, and Al a Mort Subite in Brussels.

3. Send emails and ask to join a tour group. Most said no or ignored me, but Brouwerij Bosteels said yes.  In spite of the tour being in Dutch, it was one of the best experiences of the trip and I met my new beer friends Elke and Sven and their family.

4. Visit the Lambic Discovery Center.  Bezoekerscentrum "De Lambiek" is the local Flemish name.  Not as convenient to the train as one would hope from Brussels, this slightly out of the way beer trip is a must for any lambic lover.  A local bus gets closer, but will take more time.  In my case, I signed up for a tour of Oud Beersel that included a stop at the center.  Because there weren't enough people for the planned bus, Werner of Oud Beersel picked me up in Brussels and dropped me off at the train station.  An excellent day that I recount in my brewery's post.  The ten lambic brewers and blenders are small and difficult to tour, so the center is really the best place to taste a range of them.  Plus, Werner and I chatted off and on all day as he worked and I drank lambic to my heart's content.  In Brussels, on Werner's recommendation, I visited A La Becasse for authentic lambic just off the Grote Markt, an experience I loved and may not have done without guidance.

5. Carry cash.  And research where your ATM logo will work. The Rick Steves advice of carry little and get it as you need it doesn't work well at the moment because a US credit card can be hit or miss anywhere from hotels to bars to the train station. In fact, my hostel was unable to process my card, so I had to spend nearly all of my initial beer money for lodging. Much of the EU uses a chip/pin card and not everyplace can process a chip less credit card.  Friends going to Barcelona bought a recently updated tour book (by Rick Steves) that had a recom for a US based chip/pin card, which may be a good idea for the next trip.  Not a major problem, but it added a level of anxiety to every financial transaction.

6. Ride the train. And then the bus. Brouwerij Het Anker is only open for individual tours on weekends and the train to Mechelen was fast and efficient even on my Sunday tour.  The only confusing part is that  Flemish/French dual language issue; the Mechelen stop was listed as Malines.  Keeping the navigation of the Belgian cultural divide in mind, the distances are short and the trains efficient.  Driving in Belgium is tough and an GPS is a must. Road markings are impossible to find or read and they switch between Dutch and French (or both in Brussels), parking can be expensive and difficult to find, and it complicates the driving immeasurably if you want to park in the heart of a city so you can walk and us public transportation later.  We rented a car to Brussels to go to the farther reaches like Poperinge, but I would only use the train next time.  In Poperinge, the Belbus was invaluable to drink Westvleteren at In de Vrende and it could be used more extensively with some research, including to the Lambic Discovery Center.  
Night time reflection of canal in Brugge.  Photo by Gloria
7. Drink small. Glass sizes are 25 or 33 centiliters,which allows one to taste a greater range of beers compared to ordering pints in the US. Stick with the small beers and expand beery horizons. Pints are expensive, unnecessary and seem out of place, especially when the smaller glass is often the brewery's designed glass when in Belgium.  It makes sense to me to drink a beer as intended by the brewery whenever possible.

Climbing the clocktower in Brugge.
Photo by Gloria.
8. Money for water. Rare to find a water fountain in Europe. Buy water, drink and then fill from a faucet.  I found it hard to hydrate, especially when many seemed confused when asked for tap water (France was better than Belgium in this respect). We simply resorted to bringing the water bottles we had used for our touristing for the day with us into the bar to sip: took the idea from locals use a similar tactic.

9. Research Belgian breweries. Lists can be daunting at times, especially when at one of the pubs of the Delirium Cafe.  In spite of more than a decade of beer hunting and a lack of time to read one or two more specific Belgian beer books, I repeatedly found myself at a loss as to what to order.  While stumbling upon that rare find can be exciting, vacation time and locations are expensive and fleeting, so I prefer to have the knowledge in my head or organized well enough to increase my odds of drinking well.

10. Drink on the street. Evidently, it's perfectly fine to buy a beer and walk around Brussels. Any length of visit will show this to be true, but I asked to double check. Something liberating about drinking a beer while window shopping.

Please follow up all advice with your own research.  This was my experience and I don't pretend to be an expert on Belgium. Plus, information can change fast.  In writing up this post about ten months after the trip, I've noticed several changes in websites.  Have fun and be safe.

4 comments:

  1. Based on my experience there last year, I agree with the tip on joining a beer tour if you want to see the actual breweries. Our priority was drinking the beer, which I was easily able to do at several of the bars you listed :)

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  2. +1 for mentioning De Garre !! Hard to find place, but well worth it, especially after climbing the tower steps.

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  3. All good points! If you plan in advance, most credit cards companies offer chip/pin cards. I got my normal card converted over just to be on the safe side because I'd heard stories about issues with American cards.

    I would add a section to your water recommendation: buy bottles of soda water or tonic at the bars. The bubbles will scrub your palate and help revive your tongue after a long drinking bout of heavy Belgian beers. It perked up my palate many times on my trip and let me keep tasting all the wonderful offerings. It won't solve over imbibing, but it will help with some expected palate fatigue.

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