Belgium and beer go together like…er…Belgium…and…waffles. The two words are so intertwined in my mind that I can’t help but think of one when I hear the other. As I may have mentioned, we perceived Belgium to be somewhat of a beer utopia, and through our visit that perception turned to knowledge.
The pinnacle of my beer-drinking experience, not just in Belgium but probably for my entire life, came on the third day of our trip. I don’t remember how exactly I found it, but somewhere in my research I came across the Zythos Bierfestival, a token-based beer fest in Leuven, a college town just east of Brussels, that just so happened to be taking place during our visit. For €15 each, you got a “start pack” that included a glass and 8 tokens, each good for one 10 cl pour. For an extra €10, you got 10 extra tokens.
To get there, we fairly painlessly caught a train at the Brussels North Station (or Gare du Nord) to the Leuven Station, from (and to) which ZBF was offering a free shuttle, called the Pendelbus, directly to the event. We rode the Pendelbus there with easily 200 other people.
We arrived at ZBF with 13 tokens each at our disposal and just, like, way too many beers from which to choose. Belgium is known for making a million different types of beer, and all of them were available here. While it was hard to go wrong with any one choice, I wanted to use my tokens wisely, to both gravitate towards what sounded good, but also to try some of the more quintessential Belgian beers. You’re supposed to try a gueuze in Belgium, so I had a gueuze. You’re supposed to try a lambic in Belgium, so I had a lambic. And then I had 11 other tokens for oud bruins and quadrupels and tripels and saisons and whatnot.
I had a feeling that when we were in Belgium that we would cross paths with someone else who lived in Denver, and I think we did at ZBF, but I’m not positive. On several different occasions, as well as on the Pendelbus back to town, we crossed paths with a guy who was sporting a Spangalang t-shirt. Kelly kept egging me on to approach him, but there was no point where I was drunk enough to choose to interact with him. I myself was wearing my Ratio hat, a clear sign for anyone who knows Ratio to approach me. And if you’re a Denver local and you know Spangalang, then you also know Ratio. So anyway, I don’t know. We never made eye contact, never recognized one recognizing the other. Maybe he was hesitant like I was, under-inebriated. Or maybe the Spangalang shirt was a gift and he only spoke Dutch. The mystery will forever remain.
When we got back to Leuven station, I wanted to explore the town a bit. But apparently on Sundays the entire city shuts down, and all that’s left is its beautiful architecture and sculptures of dudes pouring “wisdom” over their heads.
Belgium is also a place where you’re supposed to try a kriek. That was the first beer I had in Belgium, at A La Mort Subite, at about 6am Denver time, going on a full day without sleep. It was a weird first Belgian beer bar experience. The waiter called my beer a “cherry beer” seemingly mockingly, cigarette smoke (including that from our waiter) poured into the bar, and a busload of schoolchildren entered, exited, and then entered again, all at the height of my jet lag. The menu was also organized in such a way that I didn’t realize that I was drinking a house-brewed kriek, that A La Mort Subite was apparently also our first Belgian brewery experience. It wasn’t one that I would necessarily call positive, but in retrospect I’m going to chalk that up to the jet lag.
The next brewery we went to was L’Ermitage Nanobrasserie. Actually, the next brewery we went to was Cantillon but that was rather short-lived. Cantillon is also home of the Brussels Gueuze Museum. When we got to Cantillon, there was an incredibly long line of people holding tickets standing outside. Surely, we thought, this was the line for the museum, not the brewery. So, doing our best capital-A American impression, we walked past everyone in line and went inside, were immediately asked for our tickets, and walked right back outside.
Fortunately, serendipitously, on the way to Cantillon, we had walked past L’Ermitage. The day before we had tried L’Ermitage at a beer bar (see below), but otherwise it had not remotely been on our radar. I believe that what we stumbled upon was a satellite party for whatever was going on at Cantillon. I should probably mention that this was all happening on May Day, which is a national holiday in Belgium. €10 got you four tokens, and each token got you one 4 to 8 oz pour. They were pouring their own beer, as well as Cantillon’s and a third brewery, the Vermont-based Hill Farmstead Brewery (???). They were also serving up BBQ and crepes and it was generally just a good time. We used two tokens each, Kelly bought a shirt, and we went on our way.
Our next brewery visit was not without its embarrassments. I had planned it all out. We would get off the Hop On Hop Off bus (see Pt. 3: Brussels Card) at Tour & Taxis, walk to En Stoemelings, then make it to MIMA before they closed. Pretty much none of this went as planned. It should have been sign enough that the Hop On Hop Off bus skipped the Tour & Taxis stop and instead dropped us off a half-mile further from En Stoemelings. But it wasn’t. I knew basically nothing about En Stoemelings, other than that they brewed a few beers. But I was determined to get there. All I had to get us there was an offline version of Google maps and my marking of where En Stoemelings vaguely appeared to be on my Hop On Hop Off map. We walked (read: marched) 1.5 miles of unredeeming road, got to where my maps indicated a brewery should be, and found…a school. We walked a bit in a few different directions and then I, feeling completely defeated, prepared for the mile and a half walk back to anything of interest. On the way back, we paid a little closer attention to this place we had walked by, called Greenbizz, that had appeared to be a giant storage facility but in reality is more of a business incubator. Its tenants were listed outside and, sure enough, En Stoemelings was one of the tenants.
We made our way back to their warehouse and quickly came to the realization that this was not what you think of when you think of a brewery. It’s a brewery insofar as they manufacture beer, but not a brewery that you would walk a mile and a half to get a beer at. There was no taproom, or waitstaff, or cash register. It was strictly a place where they brewed beer. The owner, clearly busy doing other things, asked us in Dutch and then to our confused faces in English, “May I help you?” We said something to the extent of, “We would like a beer, please?” As though it weren’t obvious to us already, he explained to us that they weren’t, as of yet anyway, that kind of brewery, but added that since we’d walked to the middle of nowhere to find them that we deserved a beer. He told us about the three kinds of beers they brewed, and we each chose a different one. This being a new, or at the very least uncommon, experience for him, we could tell he didn’t know what to charge us and landed on €5, basically saying it as a question. Kelly paid him, he went back to what he was doing, and we drank, a little too quickly and awkwardly to fully appreciate it, what Kelly referred to as “pity beer.” Afterwards we walked back to civilization and made it back to MIMA in time, only to discover that they were, and had for some days been, closed while installing a new exhibition.
My favorite brewery experience was at Brussels Beer Project, a crowdfunded brewery in the Dansaert neighborhood that specializes in collaboratively created experimental beers. After discovering that MIMA was closed, we walked on to BBP. And that had actually been the plan – En Stoemelings, then MIMA, then BBP. Despite ourselves, the last part actually went according to plan. And because of this, BBP doesn’t really come with much of an anecdote. We just kicked back, tried a few beers, took a few photos. I got my Belgium beer souvenir in the form of a BBP hat. We went back the next day for some more. So, uhhhh, yeah. If there’s one brewery you try while you’re in Brussels (or Paris, or Tokyo), make it Brussels Beer Project. Those guys know what they’re doing.
Our default place to get a drink in Brussels was at the Delirium Village, an admittedly touristy campus of interconnected bars that serves just about everything Brouwerij Huyghe has to offer as well as an overwhelming number of guest taps. The Village has eight different bars, but we stuck to two of them: Delirium Café and Delirium Monasterium. The café had your standard Delirium selection, as well as a somewhat dauntingly named one called La Guillotine and a good number of guest taps. It was decorated with old beer signs, with all of the signs for the same brand next to each other so you could see how the signs evolved over time. It was very dark in there and I guess we didn’t get any good shots of this, but here are some photos we did take:
The Monasterium, as the name suggests, served primarily trappist beers. It was decorated, perhaps not surprisingly, like a monastery.
The Village also dead-ends into the Jeanneke Pis, the sister statue of the infamous pissing boy. So all-in-all it is a very weird place with very exceptional beer. And that’s why we went there three different days.
Now, gather ’round as I relate to you a Brussels beer bar mystery.
Mondays are a day where seemingly the entire city shuts down. Most museums are closed. Art galleries are closed. Many restaurants are closed. Every park we tried to go to was either closed or taped off. It probably didn’t help that the only Monday we spent in Brussels was sandwiched between Sunday and a national holiday. So, understanding that a lot of things would be closed Monday (not necessarily every park, but still), we set out for an explore day. Brussels is the capital of Europe and headquarters of the European Union, so we walked through the European Quarter where all the EU buildings are located. This area was not immune to incredibly weird art.
If you do visit Belgium, I highly recommend downloading the USE-IT app in advance. It’s geared toward “young travelers” and uses local knowledge to map out things of interest. AND the maps work offline, which is great when your phone is an ocean away from its network. USE-IT also maps out various walks so that you can take sort of self-guided tours throughout various neighborhoods. From the EU we followed one of the walks around for a little bit (or as best we could since we couldn’t walk through the parks) until we got to the Flagey neighborhood in southeast Brussels. Flagey had been on my radar from my research, but once we actually got there, nothing was really calling to us. So we started back north towards more familiar areas and came upon this bar called Contrebande. This is where things start getting strange.
Overall the experience at Contrebande was great. They have a rotating set of two monthly taps from none other than L’Ermitage, as well as a pretty spectacular bottle selection. Our server was an aspiring actor whose mom lives in California and was extremely personable in telling us what other great bars were nearby while also assuring us that we were at the best bar in town.
Here’s the strange part. When we arrived, we were the only customers there, and the place was silent. After surmising that we were American, another guy that worked there used his laptop to find the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack, Awesome Mix, Vol. 1 on YouTube, and started playing it.
I know what you’re thinking. (1) How do you know they did this because you’re American? and (2) What’s so strange about that? Awesome Mix, Vol. 1 is a perfectly enjoyable thing to listen to at a bar. Well, (1) I don’t but I’m pretty sure, and (2) just wait.
After Contrebande, we were heading to some bar or another when we stumbled upon another bar that had piqued my interest in my pre-trip research, La Porte Noire. It was one of those serendipitous, “oh that’s where that place is” types of things. From the street you have to walk downstairs to get inside. It very much has the feel of a cave, but is really a cellar that “once served as a kitchen for the nuns of the Alexien Convent.” And you’ll never guess what was playing when we got there.
That’s right. It was Awesome Mix, Vol. 1.
Now, this felt like more than just coincidence, and I had (and continue to have) a lot of questions. How was it that two completely unrelated bars, in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, were playing the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack 30-45 minutes apart? How successful was Guardians of the Galaxy in Belgium? What about the sequel? Why weren’t they playing Awesome Mix, Vol. 2? It’s on YouTube. Is this just the standard for what Brussels bars play to appease Americans? Was this just a glitch in the matrix? I resolved to spend the rest of our trip finding the answers to these questions, but there was no other point in time where we heard Awesome Mix, Vol. 1. Only at these two consecutive beer bars.
Themed bars are also a thing in Brussels, and we couldn’t not check out a couple of them. One was a puppet-themed bar right beside the Manneken Pis, called Poechnellekelder, and the other was a skeleton/coffin-themed bar in an alley around the corner from the Grand Palace, called Le Cercueil. Both were incredibly fun, but this has been a fairly long post, so I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
The last place we went for a drink had such an unappealing name that I had all but dismissed it. Brewdog. A Scottish-turned-Columbus, Ohio brewery with taprooms all over the world? I’m still not even sure what it technically was. Their taplist was about 2/3 Brewdog beer and 1/3 guest beer. I had their barleywine, we played shuffleboard upstairs, and that was that. The experience was better than the name.
Brussels grocery stores also have a very generous selection of extremely reasonably-priced beer. The one near our hotel sold bombers of Lupulus Blonde for €4. In terms of cost efficiency, grocery beer is definitely the way to go, but the prices at the bars and breweries we went to were typically cheaper than their American equivalents. And did I mention this was all Belgian beer?
Thus concludes my love song to Belgian beer. Tune in next time for part three of my series, where I’ll talk about how we gamed the system by buying Brussels Cards.