Originally Told: July 1 2017
For anyone “into” beer, Belgium is a bucket-list trip. How could it not be. Some of the best beer in the world originated in and is still made there. Lambics, saisons, trappists, gueze. The list goes on. If you’re drinking any of these in the United States, you’re drinking a Belgian-inspired beer.
So let’s get this out of the way. When starting this epic trip 2 years ago, sours and tart tasting beers weren’t really my thing, yet. I knew of Cantillon, 3 Fountain, Dupont. But, for the most part my beer experiences had been more planned, deliberate. Which is to say I knew of beers I wanted to try and made efforts to acquire those either through trading, visiting the brewery, or at a local bottle shop. I tried unknowns from time to time: a mixed 6 pack my brother would grab for us, something new tasted at a bottle share, or a random beer selected at a local shop. The idea of allowing myself to sample without knowing prior whether a beer was “supposed to be good” or not wasn't a totally new experience. But, it wasn't my mo either.
“My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.”
- Jack Kerouac
Over the course of this 2 week journey in Belgium and the Netherlands, my palette matured. I tried new styles. I tried multiple beers within those new styles. It reinvigorated my sense of adventure in trying new beers versus just highly sought after beers. I came back to the States a more open-minded, more balanced, and more passionate beer drinker.
We board the flight, excited for the multi-city trip we have in front of us. As we take off, I review the itinerary we have planned: Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, Amsterdam. I look over the beer and travel research I’ve done: the recommendations from friends, beer sites, and what I could gather from Instagram. There are a few “must-sees,” but mostly just a list of great places across various cities and neighborhoods that serve as options.
After we land in Amsterdam, we make our way to the train station, conveniently located right in the airport. We purchase our tickets for the next train to Brussels, then make our way to the concession area to grab coffee and breakfast. 90 minutes later we board our train, settle into our seats, and set off for Brussels.
After a 3 hour train ride, we arrive at the Brussels train station. We hop in a cab for the 15 minute ride to our hotel, Hotel des Galeries.
Centrally located near historic world monument, the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, Hotel des Galeries is an easy walk to famous landmarks such as the Grand-Place and Manneken-Pis. The decor is simple and contemporary, yet cozy and comfortable. We head up to our room to drop our bags before heading out to explore. A standard queen room, comfortable bed. But, the best part is the bathroom: an amazing tub and green tile floor to ceiling.
We set out to wander the city, shake off the jet lag. But, our first goal is a Belgian waffle. We step out of our hotel and make our way to the first stand we see. We order one plain and one with chocolate. Granted, a waffle from a generic stand probably isn't the most authentic. Maybe it’s the exhaustion of flying overnight, or the fact that I am eating a Belgian waffle in Belgium. Or the fact that it’s covered in chocolate. But, it’s divine. This is probably the first of 10 I have during our stay.
Our afternoon agenda is simple: stroll, take in the architecture and history. We make our way down side streets looking at street art, including images of Tintin, a comic book character by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi (he is everywhere in Brussels). We walk through the Grand-Place, Brussel’s central square, and end up near the Manneken-Pis.
Translating to “Little Man Pee,” the Mannaken-Pis a very small statue of a little boy peeing. Kind of that simple. Not much to look at, although you would think it was the David when witnessing the hoards of tourists taking photographs of it from every angle. But, from time to time, the statue is dressed up in a costume, everything from Dracula to the Maoist costume it was outfitted in on our trip. From time to time, the statue is even hooked up to a keg of beer. Cups filled with beer from the statue’s eh, tap, are then handed out to people passing by. Not necessarily worth seeking out on its own, but it is close to both a bar and bottle shop I would absolutely recommend.
Belgian Beer Tradition (no website available) is a local bottle shop located within view of the Mannaken-Pis. As we enter the shop, I see crate upon crate of Westvleteren 12. I had looked into doing a trip, but due to the distance and difficulty of acquiring the famous trappist quad, I opted instead to tour the city and experience beer through local bars and restaurants. So imagine my surprise when I see the sheer volume available at this local bottle shop. I ask the owner how they procured such a large quantity and he said the brewery had recently distributed a large amount throughout Belgium. Score! I grab a few bottles, 1 or 2 for me, and then a few to share with friends when I return. Maybeth looks over at me like “how are these fitting in our bags.” I smile and add some beers to try back at the hotel and throughout our trip to the order. They have an amazing selection, both of beer and glassware. And the gentleman assisting us could not have been more helpful.
We grab our bottles and head across the street to Poechenellekelder (don’t ask me how to pronounce that). As you climb the stairs to the upper floor, you aren’t quite sure if this is a bar, toy shop or museum. The decor ranges from tin beer signs (expected) to framed photos of famous generals (ok, still with you). But, then there are old Venetian masks (getting weirder) and puppet figures hanging from the walls (wait, what). It’s eclectic to say the least, but also comfortable and welcoming. We grab a table and look through the beer menu. I don't know half of the beers on the list, it’s exciting and intimidating all at the same time. We pick two draft pours, passing over beers I would now die to try were my beer taste in the place it is now. Still, we're having a great time. People of all ages, nationalities, and tastes enjoying beer. That’s what it’s all about.
It’s 5:30pm. We head back to the hotel to relax for an hour or so, unpack and then head out to dinner.
Delirium Cafe is walking distance from our hotel. Claiming to offer more than 2,000 beers, the selection runs the gambit of styles from Saison Dupont to 3 Fountain, Cantillon to the Delirium line-up. It’s the kind of place that makes you wish you had months to drink through and sample beers you’ve never heard of and others you’ve always wanted to try. Contrary to Poechenellekelder, Delirium Cafe is hopping. It’s definitely not a quiet Belgian bar, but more of a destination for the local young crowd seeking music and a space to hang with large groups of friends. However, it’s not the beer guzzling college scene you experience in the States either. If you’re a beer geek, it’s a must visit, the energy only adding to the experience.
The bar sits in a touristy stretch of restaurants, mostly serving a famous Belgian staple perfect for pairing with beer: mussels. Despite their touristy feel, in theory any of these restaurants probably serves delicious mussels. It’s like having pizza in Italy, can any of it really be bad? The answer is yes of course, but I feel confident in our choice of Chez Leon. Maybe it was lure and hum of the neon-colored, fluorescent signs. Maybe it was the fact that the wait wasn't long. Either way, the mussels were great.
After dinner, we head back to the hotel. Tired from our travels, I want to rest up for tomorrow. We’re headed to Cantillon.
Hotel des Galeries offers breakfast (included with your stay) to its guests through the onsite restaurant, Le Comptoir des Galeries. A blend of breads, jams, eggs, meats and cheeses, the buffet is perfect if you’re looking to grab something quickly before heading out for the day, or take in a leisurely breakfast. We load up on caffeine, catch up on emails and social media, and I probably eat more nutella than I thought humanly possible. We order an uber and begin our pilgrimage to one of the best breweries in the world.
Friends that don't drink a lot of beer, or don't visit breweries often ask, “well where are these places you go to?” My answer is pretty standard, “if you're visiting a brewery, you’re likely in a scenic location such as a farm or the mountains… or you’re in an industrial park. Not much is different in Belgium.
Brasserie Cantillon sits within Brussels, but on the edges. Except for the “Brasserie Cantillon” sign above the door, the entrance is inconspicuous. As we approach the door, I am barely even sure it’s open or that I am allowed to be walking through it. You enter though, and it’s everything you’ve read about. Museum. Brewery. Gateway to Belgian beer tradition.
Brasserie Cantillon is a family brewery started by Paul Cantillon and owned today by fourth generation brewer, Jean-Pierre van Roy. Cantillon brews lambics, gueze, faro and kriek, spontaneously fermented in open vats that haven’t changed since the brewery opened in1900. In fact, nothing has changed in the original process except the recent switch to organic ingredients.
As you walk in, a simple group of counters lies straight ahead, the wall behind it decorated with computer printouts of bottle prices along with family photos. T-shirts, coasters, and glasses available for purchase are laid out, all bearing the famous Cantillon logo. Stapled to the front of the counter are coasters denoting various Cantillon beers. The edges a little worn, it’s the only pictures advertising the artwork unique to each beer. To the left is a counter made from barrels, a beer menu written in chalk hangs behind it from the wall. Samples of the base lambic are included as part of the self-guided tour, but you can also purchase bottles for onsite consumption. The bottle list changes regularly, and vintage bottles are often on the menu. Beyond is a small seating area. Barrels serve as tables, and a group of 2 to 3 chairs are gathered around each one.
We approach the counter and decide to go on the self-guided, 45 minute tour for 7€. We’re given our “guide book” which outlines each step in the brewing process. Along the tour, numbers written on the walls map to each step in the book so visitors can follow along. This early in the day the brewery is quiet, so we essentially have the place to ourselves.
The space is a stark contrast to newer breweries. And by newer, I mean not over a hundred years old. The lighting is dark versus glowing with artificial lighting. There is moisture in the air. The floors and stairs are creaky. Dust covers the bottles, barrels and floors. It’s not the hyper-clean, “please don't let our beer get infected,” steel fermenter, sanitary environment of today. In fact, the Cantillon brewers believe this environment and the air in the brewery help make the beer what it is.
Then there’s the spiderwebs. As we meander through the staircases, attic and various walkways, spider webs pepper the ceilings, corners, and every nook of the brewery. Signs throughout ask you not to disturb them. Turns out the spiders are critical to keeping bugs away that are drawn to the sugar in the beers.
As the tour ends and you make your way back to the front, you pass a section of bottles stacked front to back. Signs hang letting you know which beer and which vintage are stored in that section. We pass a Fou Foune collection with 2015 dates, and an Iris one with 2014 and 2015 dates. We head over to grab our samples and sit down.
Around us people have bought bottles, and are quietly sitting and enjoying them. Despite being one of the best breweries in the world and highly sought after beer, there isn't the intensity you see at breweries of similar stature in the States on bottle release days. Things are quiet, low key. People are chatting and discussing the beer, but not fawning over it. For many visiting that day, it’s likely their first time visiting and you can tell they’re excited to be there. But the vibe is one of appreciation for the history of the brewery, a sense of humble gratitude for the opportunity to try the beer. It’s not a scene of high-fiving victory in adding it to a beer bucket list, or bragging via social media “I’m at Cantillon.” There are breweries in the US that have the same vibe. I am starting to realize those are my favorites.
My only regret (and looking back, one I probably have for the entire trip) is that we didn't buy a bottle and share it with the people around us. Knowing “sours weren’t my thing,” I feared opening the bottle and not liking the beer, or not being able to finish it. I wish I had taken more risks throughout the entire trip. Next time, I will.
The rest of the day we explore other neighborhoods of Brussels, wander into a few churches and shops, stroll through gardens. Like many cities in Europe, Brussels is a mix of old and new. There are modern buildings of concrete, and then churches with stained glass and statues dating back hundreds of years. People bustling too and from work in suits, and then a brewery started in 1900 that still uses the same techniques to brew.
Old or new though, beer is part of the culture. In the States, beer has traditionally been a working man’s beverage. Wine and cocktails are fancy, beer plebeian. That’s changing, but in large part because of the introduction of the styles of beer that originated in or were inspired by Belgium. Old, young. Rich, working class. Men, women. Beer is a part of every day life, something providing a common sense of national pride. I wonder though, if the majority of Belgians understand the influence their beer is beginning to have abroad.
Tired from walking, we eat dinner at a restaurant that had been recommended to us, Lola. A much more modern feel than Chez Leon or the bars we had been visiting, the food provided another vantage point into Brussels and the mix of old and new.
The week I wrote this session, I had some friends over to share a few bottles. This particular friend is a huge fan of Belgian beers so we cracked a saison, and some tasty sours. One of those was a Cantillon Fou Foune.
As I removed the cork, I noticed the year: 2015.
Maybe I had gotten to try one of the bottles at Cantillon there that day after all.
Grassroots Brewing, Arctic Saison (a beer I may not have tried were it not for this trip)