Belgium is a mecca of sorts for beer enthusiasts, and rightfully so. The countryside of this small European nation is dotted with breweries whose traditions go back hundreds of years. They're producing styles of beers such as wild and funky lambics, seasonal farmhouse saison beers, and strong ales made in monasteries. And it's only getting more diverse. "I think often people feel like Belgian beer has stood still for the last thousand years, but it is constantly evolving," says Greg Engert, beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group in Washington, D.C.
So how is a beer enthusiast supposed to decide where to go when exploring the beer traditions of Belgium? Well, first and foremost, Engert recommends you pick up a copy of the Good Beer Guide to Belgium by Tim Webb and Joe Stange. (Engert wrote an introduction to the book's seventh edition.) "It is the most amazing compendium of opinions of what's great about Belgium," Engert says. And he also recommends looking for travel advice on the ground. "If you're interested in beer, people in Belgium are so awesome," he says. "They love to discuss it and tell you their favorite little local places. Engage the people."
But Engert himself is a frequent traveler of Belgium, most recently undertaking an admittedly "super ambitious" itinerary of 12 breweries and 25 restaurants, bars, and cafes—all in just five days. This was a research trip for The Sovereign, the Belgian bar and bistro that Engert's restaurant group opened just last week in Georgetown. Between its 50 draft beers and 350 bottles, The Sovereign showcases the journey that Engert and chef Peter Smith took last year from the lambic countryside of Brussels to the strong ales of West Flanders.
Here now, Engert shares his tips from that trip for those interested in exploring all the breweries, bars, and beer-stocked restaurants of Belgium:
How to Arrange Your Itinerary
You can only do so much in one trip; so decide what you want to really concentrate on. I like to base myself out of a particular area. On my most recent trip, we stayed just outside of Brussels and drove—sometimes short distances, sometimes longer—always returning to the same place at night.
If you want to do a Brussels-specific itinerary, you're definitely going to experience lambic: gueuze and kriek and all those wonderfully funky, spontaneously fermented oak-aged beers. In fact, the most famous lambic maker, Cantillon, is right in downtown Brussels.
We were aggressive, visiting a couple breweries a day, but if I were traveling as a non-beer professional, I would do one brewery per day at most. And it's best to check those out in the morning. Then you can go get lunch and do something in the afternoon that's not necessarily beer-related.
Where to Stay
Belgium is small. One thing to consider is staying in the Brussels area but not downtown. That's what we did on our trip—it meant we wouldn't have to go through city traffic when we wanted to drive out to a brewery in the morning, which was really helpful. Or when we went out at night, we could find public transportation to take us downtown to eat and drink.
If you don't want to drive the whole trip, I'd recommend staying in downtown Brussels and renting a car for certain days and specific excursions. But if you're visiting breweries during the day and looking for great beer bars and restaurants at night, you're going to want to return to a city where you don't have to drive after dinner. That's key.
How to Get Around
If you're really keen on visiting the breweries themselves, you have to come to terms with driving. Having a car for at least for a portion of the trip is important because a lot of the destinations are a little bit off the beaten path.
If you want to drink a good amount, you can hire a driver, which, fortunately, is not as expensive as it sounds. Or opt for public transportation, which isn't terrible, but it can be time-consuming.
The Geography of Belgian Beer
Unlike wine, beer is less tied to terroir of region. But all that said, the Payottenland surrounding Brussels is very much associated with the lambic style, so that's where you'll find brewers and blenders like 3 Fonteinen and De Cam. Or travel further south to Wallonia, to stop in Tilquin.
If you're looking for a classic farmhouse ale, head down to the Hainaut province, Wallonia and the French-speaking south, where you can find breweries like Blaugies and Dupont.
West Flanders near Bruges features Belgian strong ales and old abbey-inspired beers—the brew that the monks make. You'll find them in the Westvleteren monastery, a small Trappist monastery where the monks still do all of the brewing.
It's also the hardest beer to get outside of Belgium. Westvleteren makes a standard range of monastic beers, a dry hoppy blonde ale, a strongish brown ale, and a huge Belgian grand cru, all varieties that have been called the best beer in the world. Unless you can find it on the black market, you have to go to the monastery itself to buy this beer. (There's a little cafe across the street where you can drink the beers on premise as well.)
Nearby is a brewery called St. Bernardus, which actually brewed the beers for Westvleteren for almost 50 years until the monks decided to brew again in 1992. Their beers are similar to the ones of Westvleteren, and they have several strong ales as well. And then there's also a great brewery called Struise. They make huge Belgian imperial stouts, and they do a lot of barrel-aging.
The other brewery I like in West Flanders is called De Dolle. It's an old 19th-century brewhouse that hasn't changed much since the 19th century. Kris Herteleer has been running it since 1983 and didn't change a thing, so it's really rustic brewing.
Where to Drink in Brussels
When you arrive in Brussels, the first thing you should do is go to Cantillon. There's no place like it in the world. Grab one of the brewery's world-famous beers, then take a self-guided tour: literally walking among the barrels, the coolship, all of the things that make this spontaneously fermented beer possible while the producers and the brewers and the cellarmen are working around you. It's unbelievable.
So that is the first stop and should probably be the last stop, too—hit it up more than once. And be sure to go during the late fall/early winter and into early spring because that's when they do their brewing.
As far as beer bars in Brussels go, Moeder Lambic is the best. There are two locations, and both are amazing. The newer one is closer to the Grand Place, but the original one is in the St. Gilles neighborhood, which is a little bit further afield.
One thing I highly recommend is barhopping Brussels. In the center of town, you've got places like Monk and Bar Des Amis and Le Coq right near each other, so you can do that on one night. Then on another evening you can hang out near Place Fontainas, which is where the newer Moeder Lambic is. There you have bars where surrealist painters Magritte and Dali used to hang out like La Porte Noire and Le Soleil and the La Fleur en Papier Dore.