The beer in Belgium definitely made up about half of our trip. In fact, consuming food and drink in Belgium was something we (myself and my partner-in-crime, Iola) were quite keen on doing a lot of whilst in Belgium. The two hangovers I had and the inability to finish my free beer on our last day in Belgium because I couldn’t handle the taste of beer any more says it all. But hey, when in Rome…
All of this ‘research’ means I feel quietly confident in my abilities to teach you some basics of what you need to know on your next Belgian trip. Specifically, Brussels and Bruges!
The History of Beer in Belgium
Why is beer a Belgian thing? Well… You wouldn’t think beer production had any kind of history in religion, but in fact its origins are deeply religious.
It all started in the French village of La Trappe, in which there was a Monastery. The three pillars of Trappist Monks are a life of prayer, a life in community and life of work. Trappist Monks do not depend on donations or money from taxes. They work for their living and do this by brewing and selling beer.
During the French Revolution in the late 18th Century, the Monks fled France in search of a new place to live. They finally settled on Belgium. The very first Trappist beer in Belgium was brewed in Westmalle in Antwerp. For beer to qualify as Trappist, it must be brewed within the walls of a Monastery. The profits of the beer must in some way benefit the Monastery or other good causes. So, you can tooootally feel great about drinking the beer!
On our beer tour in Brussels, I tried a Westmalle but the other Trappist beer on offer was Chimay which was a dark beer to Westmalle’s Double beer.
A little something about a special kind of Trappist beer before I move on. Wesvletern (a word I legit love to say, it’s much easier than spelling it) is the only Trappist beer left in existence where all the brewing is done purely by Monks. The most interesting thing about this beer is that it is only available at two specific locations with the label ‘Do Not Resell’. So this beer bought anywhere else is Black Market. Beer enthusiasts around the world know of Westvletern and have been known to pay staggering amounts for it. Those who have drunk it have always claimed it one of the best. Bucket List item right there.
The other type of beer associated with Belgium is Abbey beers. Originally, Trappist beers were called Abbey beers. But now, due to commercialisation and whatnot, the two have very different meanings. An Abbey beer (like Leffe which you can buy at basically any supermarket) might only be associated with an Abbey. Or, it might even be branded the name of an Abbey that doesn’t or never existed. The one associated with Leffe, for example, no longer exists. Leffe is now owned by Stella Artois. I think given the option we’d all rather have the Trappist beer.
Germany is of course also famous for it’s beer (wheat beer in particular) but Germany has a purity law. Which means all of its beers can only have 4 ingredients. Both a good thing and a bad thing if you ask me. Belgium has no such law which means Belgian breweries can add in any spices and flavourings as they please which means a greater variety. Which leads me to…
Go on a Beer tour whilst in Brussels
On our last night in Brussels, we went on a Beer Tour with Sandemans New Europe which I HIGHLY recommend. It’s a fantastic way to meet new people, and to learn about beer from an expert and friendly tour guide. So much is included and the tour ends in the most famous bar in Brussels, a bar called Delirium.
Delirium is a bar very close to the main Market centre of Brussels that currently holds the Guinness World Record for the number of beers available to taste. That’s nearly 2,500 different beers! Honestly, you should see their beer list, it’s like a telephone directory. There’s a main Delirium bar, but there’s also a few franchises/spin-offs around the city. We were chatting to the Bartender at Hard Rock Cafe and he said that they specialise in offering a variety of different spirits depending on the bar; we’re pretty sure after we had our meal we wandered into the Whisky one.
Delirium also makes it’s own beer, ‘Delirium Tremens’ which is very distinguishable by the white, creamy bottle if it weren’t already distinguishable by the pink elephant logo.
How to pour a beer
On the beer tour, we were also given the chance to pour the beer into the glass ourselves. We’ve also been assured that pouring your beer into a glass, rather than drinking out of the bottle, means you’re less likely to have a hangover. But me and Iola can assure you that if it does make any difference, it sure as heck isn’t by much. There should be sediment at the bottom of your bottle if it’s a Trappist beer. Pouring this will make your beer cloudy so there is dispute about whether or not you should pour this in, but it’s complete personal preference. What isn’t personal preference is that you need to pour the beer in such a way that you get a lot of head with a nice dome on the top.
Me being a good little former bartender (ie. I poured out cans of Red Stripe and flicked a Calsberg tap), I was taught to pour beer with 95% liquid and 5% head. This is not the case in Belgium and you’ll be thankful that I told you now before you go complaining about the lack of beer in your glass! Look at it this way, it’s likely to be stronger and better than the beer you drink at your local anyway.
Fun Fact: Uncarbonated beer is not fun
I can’t remember how they make it. I can’t remember why. But I tried a sample of uncarbonated beer and it tasted half swimming pool and half rotten apple. Goodness knows how, but everyone else managed to finish it and I was sat there with half a sample left. Due to peer pressure, I ended up trying to ‘down’ the remainder of it. Iola started singing the familiar fresher’s chant “We like to drink with Becca…” and half of the beer ended up on my Fleetwood Mac tee shirt. Sorry Mick. The whole thing was a disaster.
De Halve Maan Brewery
In Bruges, we opted for a more civilised approach to appreciating Belgium’s greatest export. We booked a beer tour to De Halve Maan (‘Half Moon’) Brewery. It’s the only remaining Brewery in a city that had around 50 Breweries within the city walls in it’s heyday. The Brewery is, and always has, owned by the Maes family. Another fun fact, Bruges is full of canals which were used as transportation around Bruges and the beer barrels would just buoy along. De Halve Maan was the only Brewery to offer a home delivery service, which genuinely could be the reason behind its longevity!
The tour took us all around the brewery, with most of the old beer making methods still intact for us to have a look at (though more efficient modern methods have been brought in that we could also witness). I’d definitely recommend it on a trip to Bruges, it’s a massive part of the city’s history and it’s such a quaint, cute little spot.
De Garre Bar
This ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ bar was down a side street of the same name and was a really tiny spot I read about in a guide book. It was an excellent mix of both tourists and locals (perhaps more tourists, but not all British) so we didn’t feel out of place. It definitely a really nice low-key Bruges vibe. They of course made their own beer, every bar seemed to have their own beer on offer, with it’s own unique glass.
Finally, I must leave you with what I have been told about the beer glasses in Belgium. For every beer there has been a specific glass that has been produced specifically for that beer. Never a ‘pint’ glass, always a smooth and shapely chalice. Something about the way the air gets to the beer and how the brewer wants you to taste it… is of course complete crap and is used to sell more beers.
It will not surprise you that Kwak (Iola’s favourite on the trip!) is one of the best selling Belgian beers because it comes in a weird conical tube sort of glass with a wooden handle. And don’t get me started on La Corne… However, I did get sucked into the branding and I myself am the proud owner of a Delirium Tremens glass like the one in the picture above and I’m not even sorry. And a Delirium bottle opener. Oops.
So there you have it! Everything you need to know about beer in Belgium for your next trip. Including the history, the must-sees and how to avoid any glass or head related faux-pas!
Do you have any other Belgian related beer Trivia that I might have missed on my trip?