“In Italy, being a gondolier is a family tradition. In Belgium it’s brewing beer.”
Such is the introduction on the website for Belgian Family Brewers, a non-profit association representing small Belgian beer makers.
If you love beer, you already know you’re destined for a trip to Belgium. The country’s beautifully distinct brews, scented with yeast-driven spice and aromas of clove, pepper, and banana, are a huge source of inspiration for contemporary American craft brewing. Wherever your Belgium travels take you, there will be delicious beer to drink. Flanked by France and the Netherlands, the less-than-12,000-square-mile nation has more than 200 breweries, many of which date back centuries.
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Driven by families, farmers, and Flemish monks during the Middle Ages, Belgium’s brewing culture is rooted in tradition yet still exciting. Here, we highlight a handful of our favorite places to eat, drink, and be Belge in Antwerp, Brussels, and Poperinge. From modern bars like Moeder Lambic to preserved public houses dating to the 1700s, each estaminet (as bars in Brussels are called) you visit is well worth your time.
Look out for language swaps between French (brasserie, bière, fromage) and Dutch (brouwerij, bier, kaas), and a penchant for puppets, statues, and dolls.
In this ancient city, religious customs and beer customs intertwine.
Fall travelers might want to kick off at the Modeste Bier Festival held at Brouwerij De Koninck each year. Currently scheduled for Oct. 6-7, 2018, the festival highlights only small, independently owned Belgian brewers. After De Koninck, you won’t have to go far to hit Antwerp’s best beer spots.
Kathedraal Cafe (Cathedral Cafe)
A bar and restaurant that takes its name — and decor inspiration — from the towering Cathedral of Our Lady, a Roman Catholic church constructed between 1352 and 1521. Along with its astounding floor-to-high-ceiling collection of religious statues, Kathedraal offers a traditional menu of strong Belgian ales and hearty plates spanning spare ribs to spaghetti Bolognese (a Belgian staple, to our delight).
Abby No. 8 Antwerp (Belgian Beers & Brews)
Steps away from the Kathedraal is this charming, curated shop with beer selections, including standbys like Duvel (but this time, it’s brewed a few miles away!) and rare finds like one-offs from Fantome. Don’t be shy about asking the proprietor for advice; he speaks English and can help you find just what you need.
Do not leave Antwerp without going to Kulminator. You will not experience magic like this anywhere else. In this organized mess, an elderly couple has amassed a lifetime of rare, old, and discontinued Belgian beers. While Mister crunches numbers behind a towering pile of papers (using a magnifying glass!), Missus takes your order on a coaster covered in scribbles, and yet, somehow, they’ll still descend into their dusty cellar to procure that 1987 lambic you picked out from a brewery that no longer exists. There aren’t many places on this earth you can drink a beer as old, or older, than you.
The bustling capital is as gritty as it is magical.
Arguably the most adored brewery in the world, and at least the producer of many of the most highly regarded lambic, gueuze, faro, and kriek anywhere, Brasserie Cantillon is a pilgrimage point for beer geeks the world over. The family-owned business is literally a museum to gueuze, where the Van Roy-Cantillon family still uses the same equipment their ancestors have been using since 1900. Take a self-guided tour within its wooden walls, copper equipment (and famous coolship), and rows of sleeping, insect-encrusted barrels.
Yes, there are many places that serve great beer in Brussels, but none are quite like Moeder Lambic. Opened in 2006, Moeder Lambic became a fast favorite among those who are serious about their beer — which, in Belgium, is a lot of people — but still like to party, Brussels-beer-bar-style. That means great local beers, proper glassware, and cheese and meat plates. Rather than pretzels or peanuts, the complimentary bar snacks are little bowls of malted barley. Très Belgique.
Original location: Rue de Savoie (Savoiestraat) 68, 1060 Saint-Gilles; Second location: Place Fontainas 8, 1000 Bruxelles
Fancy yourself a slow-cooked bowl of ramen, crispy gyoza, and streetside views of the historic Brussels city center? You can do that and have your Belgian beer, too, at Umamido. The Japanese ramen shop has multiple locations in Brussels and Antwerp, each with a menu that’s intentionally short and sweet. Shoyu ramen, miso tonkotsu ramen, and even a vegetarian option source products from Japan as well as local Belgian farms.
Yvan De Baets, brewmaster, is famous among beer industry followers for his attention to detail and delicately expressed beers (Zinnebir, a golden blonde ale, is a popular pick; we’re also partial to the even lighter blonde, Taras Boubla).
This brewery is definitely off the beaten path — in fact, you might get some funny looks when you arrive — but don’t let that dissuade you. Servers are sweet, the beers are exciting, and you may even get a taste of something that’s not in regular rotation — something as rare, perhaps, as your presence there.
This wacky yet classy circus-themed bar and restaurant combines a silly theme with a serious beer list. Like peoples’ affinity for clowns, the beers in the cellar here are rare, old, and alluring (10-year-old Orval? Yes, please). Adding to the impressive selection of Trappist, farmhouse, and myriad other Belgian ales (which will each be poured exquisitely in their appropriately branded glassware, mind you) is the food menu. Go Bolognese or go home.
A popular spot for tourists due to its proximity to Manneken Pis (a famous statue of a peeing boy and a Belgian icon that people crowd to photograph like it’s the Mona Lisa), this quirky destination is worth a visit. Traditional, authentic, and definitely Belgian (they love stuffing bars with weird human figures and kitschy paraphernalia!), you won’t mind the din in this friendly estaminet. The sense of humor pairs nicely with a nightcap (or midday booster), and a selection of Belgian cheeses and meats (and did we mention Bolognese?) will tide you over until your next Belgian waffle.
Looking for a place to plug in? BrewDog has a huge, sleek space steps from Bruxelles Central train station (Gare de Bruxelles-Central, near the Grand Place). Here, you’re as likely to see stylish locals sunken into loveseats on their laptops as you are the after-work crowd pounding a few pints on the deck looking out over the city. With 40 taps featuring BrewDog beers along with local favorites, and bar snacks like, yes, more cheese, it’s an easy place to unwind and figure out your next move.
Best enjoyed in a delirious state, this hot spot should definitely be on your bucket list, but doesn’t necessitate a long stay — unless you’re with a rowdy crew. While not necessarily psychosis-inducing, the bustling mix of Belgian and foreign crowds fighting their way to the bar can be dizzying. But the sheer experience of earning that next pint, your body wedged within the collage of friends, breweriana, and Delirium’s signature pink elephants — not to mention thousands of beers (at last count: 3,162) — makes it interesting. There are several Delirium Village locations, but this one’s spot on a cramped cobblestone passage makes it extra inviting.
Adventurous travelers should consider a day trip to Beersel, where beer geek favorite, 3 Fonteinen (affectionately called “drie”) sits in a quiet suburb and makes some of the best gueuze in the world. Recently rebuilt, the brewery offers a tasting room, shop, and tours every day except Wednesday. Reserve in advance.
For the real experience, though, go to the restaurant. Preciously unpretentious (on a typical afternoon, your dining companions will be well into their 70s, and we dare you to keep up with their drinking), you’ll pair a glistening pork chop or plump salmon steak with the waiter’s recommended gueuze, and you’ll never forget it.
Poperinge is the capital of hops in Belgium.
It’s home to the country’s hop fields, annual hop parade, and Saint Sixtus Abbey, maker of the world-renowned Westvleteren beers. In Watou, a village on the border of the Flemish-French countryside, head to Saint Bernardus, whose monk-adorned brews you’ve likely seen if you’ve set foot in any Belgian-themed bar stateside. From there, a stroll into town is worth the magnificent views, cow sightings, stunning sunsets, and silence like you’ve never felt (save for the occasional potato truck). Bars in the town square seem stuck in time, but you’ll be fed with the friendly, albeit standoffish hospitality of an old Dutch gasthaus.
An entire museum devoted to hops! If you’re one to geek out over these flavor flowers, visit this historical building where Belgian hops were born. Audio tours explore hops’ history in the region and how Poperinge’s fertile soil and hop-loving monks shaped the city and Belgian culture as a whole. Look up — you’ll meet the Hop Devil himself, in wicker form, devilish male organs included. Downstairs, you can see and sniff hops in dizzying varieties.
The juxtaposition of this badass brewery’s skull-adorned brand and schoolhouse locale is unique, to say the least. So, too, are its brutal brews, which span the famous Pannepot, a strong ale sought for its many vintages, plus stouts so strong they’re technically illegal in the U.S. De Struise beers — and its brewery, once voted the best in the world — aren’t easy to find, so head here for the novelty and stay for the quirky personality of its founder, Carlo Grootaert, who might be the one tugging the taps.
Abbey de St. Sixtus / In de Vrede Cafe
Beer pilgrims flock here to get their hands on Westvleteren 12, considered by many critics the best beer in the world. Don’t expect to bring any home with you, though, unless you’ve made an appointment well in advance (find the phone number and a detailed explanation here) and have a car prepped ahead of time. Brewery tours aren’t an option, either. Still, you can wrap your lips around the good stuff in de vrede (“in peace”) in the public cafe, located in the abbey’s modern courtyard situated beside a stunning cornfield stretching off to the horizon.
Westvleteren seekers might consider skipping St. Sixtus for a more immersive experience at St. Bernardus, the nearby, non-Trappist brewery that brewed Westvleteren for St. Sixtus for 30 years until the contract ended, for Trappist reasons, in 1992. (And basically still makes the same beer.) It’s not a Trappist brewery, so any monks you see on beers here are pure marketing.
Legendary in its own right, St. Bernardus is open to the public with tours and tastings. It also houses B&B Brouwershuis, a beautifully romantic and welcoming bed and breakfast (“brewers house”) in a remote landscape that is difficult to describe. Creepy dolls in the room? You bet.