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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tips for the Belgian Traveler?

On November 5 I fly to London, where I will begin a two-country odyssey that will take me north to Edinburgh, then to Belgium, and then back home on November 29th. (I hope to keep blogging at each stop, probably briefly but with more multimedia than usual.) I've scheduled stops at around two dozen breweries, including some of the bigs (partial list: Fullers, Greene King, Rodenbach, Dupont, Orval) as well as some of the less-known. I will tour some of the great brewing regions, and am excited to see the museums in Burton and Poperinge (hops). I've even lucked into a guided pub crawl in London (where I'll be joined by a certain American cask ale brewer thanks to amazing, uncoordinated synchronicity).

Even the process of setting up the trip has been hugely illustrative of how different beer regions are. Britain has many more massive breweries and, owing to its huge market, is focused far more on the domestic end (in this way, it's like Oregon). Belgium has dozens of wonderful artisanal breweries, but a small domestic market dominated by pilsner (70%, according to Tim Webb). So they depend enormously on exports.

The British leg of the trip is quite tightly scheduled. In Belgium I've got more freedom to roam. Since I know a great many of you have traveled there before, I thought I'd inquire: have you had transcendent experiences you'd like to share? Must-see pubs or restaurants I'd be fool to miss? Of course, I've been researching this already, and my copy of Good Beer Guide to Belgium is already dog-eared so I'm not going in cold. Still, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. If you end up in Bruges at any point I've recently finished a series of posts on beer cafes and restauarants there after a trip in August:

    I'd also recommend "Around Bruges In 80 Beers".

  2. Your description of a "two-country odyssey" angered up this kilt wearer. You know Scotland's it's own country, right?

    Absolutely, positively go to Cantillon in Brussels. It's easy to get to from the Metro and is a living museum of the process of making gueuze. Also, not beer-related, but I really enjoyed my trip to the Atomium outside of Brussels ( Have fun!

  3. Staminee de Garre in Brugge, and De Dolle in Esen (may already be on your list).

  4. If your going to tour breweries in Belgium. Do it right and blanket the area. Here's a list of Belgian Breweries to tour:

    Bosteels Brewery
    De Dolle Brouwers
    Drie Fonteinen
    la Brasserie Fantome
    La Chouffe
    La Rulles
    Trois Fourquets
    Van Eecke

    Here's some great Pubs:

    't Brugs Beertje
    Delirium Café

  5. Absolutely must go to Drie Fonteinen, though try to go on a Friday so the tasting room and train station are open, unless you have a car, then Saturday works as well.

    If you're heading down south to Orval, I also recommend writing Fantome and stopping in, we had a great time there, very rustic brewery.

    Edinburgh was great as well. You'll really get your cask fix there.

  6. Tip 1: take your time drinking. Waiters will bring you a beer when they think you're ready for another.

    Tip 2: don't go to Restobieres in Brussels.

    Tip 3: Kulminator in Antwerp is bizarre and brilliant.

    Tip 4: Antwerp is less twee than Bruges, and less grotty than Brussels. We liked Antwerp a lot!

  7. De Heeren van Liedekercke not too far west of Brussels is a food and beer must stop. Only place in the world where you can buy Drie Fonteinen J&J Blauw/Roze and Cantillon Crianza Helena.

    Another vote for De Garre and 't Brugs Beertje in Bruges.

  8. Tips for Bruges - which you really should go see. Hotel der Duinen is an awesome hotel. Nice rooms, nice staff, and a great Euro-breakfast with meats, cheeses, breads, and, of course, chocolate (it's important to eat right before drinking all that strong Belgian beer). You do really need to check out the 't Brugs Beertje pub. The people who run that place are awesome. And, if you have time for a non-beer day tour, Quasimodo Tours does an amazing small-bus tour of the Flanders Fields. We're not normally "bus tour" people, but really enjoyed this one - it's very moving. Americans don't hear much in general about WW1, so educational as well.

  9. ElGordo, that is a debate into which I shall not enter (full disclosure: I'm one-quarter McClure), except to note the current political arrangements cast some doubt on your claim. As to a deeper, more profound sense of the word "country"--that is for philosophers, not beer bloggers.

    All others--thanks! I am busy following links and making notes. The internet is so cool. I don't know what people did in the olden days--just show up some place with no idea where to go? Barbaric.

  10. I'd say listen to Harry!

  11. As others have said, Cantillion in Brussels is a great place to stop. Historical, interesting, and very unique.

    Moeder Lambic (now with two locations) is a great low key bar to enjoy a variety of belgian brews.

    Most important, enjoy getting lost. It's bound to happen. Whether you are accustomed to the city block grid layout of US cities or can't figure out if Savoiestraat and rue de Savoie are the same thing, don't go crazy if you have no idea where you are. Belgium is full of dimly lit streets and inviting rocky pathways. The experience you have ducking into a quaint little café or bar to relax after walking up and down the same street for hours looking for "that one place" will be just as enjoyable and memorable as the place that your hours of online research considered a "must do."

    Relax and have fun. Eat some mussels, chocolate, waffles, and frites. Taste some good brews.

    Then come back and blog about it!

  12. This was my experience in west flanders again:

  13. Brugge is completely overrun by tourists (maybe less so in November), but it is a marvel. My wife didn't care for it; I rather enjoyed it. If you go there, Cambrinus is a gastropub that nails it. 't Brugs Beertje is a fabulous pub, and de Garre is certainly worth a visit if you can find it.

    Spent very little time in Brussels, but the Fontainas location of Moeder Lambic was awesome, and I'd be surprised if anyplace in town could top it.

    Finally, please read this post by Aschwin about a guidebook to Lambic country. His blog is also a great source of information about wild ales.

  14. Ghent was maybe my favorite city there. If you go there--not exactly a beer bar, although they have some good bottles, you should check out the Cafe Damberd. Great place, good music & atmosphere.

  15. Re: Scotland's it's own country
    I'd say listen to ElGordo!

  16. One more Belgium tip - look for the stands (food carts) with olibollen and get some to eat right then while they are warm. They are Dutch dumpling type treats that are available only near the holidays, and we saw them in Bruges in November a couple years ago.

  17. I just got back from Brussels and I have to say that De Heeren van Liedekercke is, IMO, the biggest can't-miss destination for the beer traveler. Their vintage list is both awe inspiring in its completeness as well as being generally affordable. (Cantillon Crianza Helena 375mLs are 15 Euro which I thought was decent) But it's the food that really drives home the recommendation. I did not have a better meal in Europe. (Went to Italy and France as well.)

    Drie Fonteinen and Cantillon were also brilliant. Don't really recommend Moeder Lambic as they only had 5 lambics out of 40 rather boring taps and their bottle prices are nuts. (Armand Gueuzes, which retail for 24 Euro at 3F, are 100 Euro.)

    Also would recommend Poechenellekelder if you want to relax and people-watch the people staring at Mannekin Pis, and Monk was a good place for some Trappist beers. Both are in Brussels.

  18. Folks, again, thanks so much. This info is incredibly rich. I'd thank you all individually but it would get tedious. Thanks thanks thanks.

  19. On your way to Sint Bernardus, check out the town square of Watou. There's a great cafe there (I think it's in the CAMRA book.) Nearby, Ypres is a beautiful town with a ton of WWI history and good restaurants. Have fun!

  20. In Ghent?

    Not my review but it was my experience.

    Visited 10/2008

    I only had one place left on my list and it was definitely chosen due to atmosphere over beer selection. It is called 't Velootje and is run by an eccentric barkeep named Lieven. It is famous for having dozens upon dozens of bicycles suspended from the ceiling. But that doesn't tell the whole story.

    We arrived to an empty bar except for Lieven. Perhaps empty is the wrong word...we had to step over various pieces if junk to get into the place. Lieven helped us out, cleared off a spot at a bench and table. The lighting was virtually non-existent a couple of hanging lights and the glow fo the CRT from the owner's computer but our table was quite dark. There were candles but Lieven didn't have any matches handy and asked if we had some. We did not with neither of us being smokers so he went to finds some matches.

    He returned, lit our candles, grabbed two beers (Slapmulke Blonde and Brune) popped the tops, handed them to us and hurried away. Mind you, we had not ordered these beers, nor had he asked us what beers we wanted or offered us a menu. Nor did we have any glasses to drink from, an oddity in Belgium. OK...

    We sat at the candlelit wooden tables, seated on benches and took in the scene. A waist-high stack of cases full of Rochefort 8 and McChouffe. Bicycles of various sizes and shapes hanging feom the ceiling just more than a foot above our heads. A jar of mystery liquid, a hazy yellow, on our table. Gas lamps strung together but non working. Stacks of newspapers everywhere. Great music playing over the speakers, the best of the whole trip. The words don't do the clutter justice; the most bizarre pub atmosphere I've ever witnessed. Dave paid for the beers, a whopping 5 Euro a bottle and we moved on.

    Yes, it was odd, cluttered, unprofessional and overpriced....but it's one of the best places to have a beer I've ever been to. Unmissable in my opinion, especially if you have a sense of humor. It was a stellar experience.

    Reviewed on: 05-27-2010 13:20:42

  21. Went in 2009 and loved de Garre in Brugge and Moeder Lambic in Brussels. Also there was a fantastic beer bar in Amsterdam, Arendsnest.