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    Belgium   

Last Updated : 02/05/06

   Belgium Ė a scooperís guide.

approach this article with some trepidation, as the quality of the huge volumes of prose written about Belgian beer (and Belgium itself) far outweigh whatever I may strive to wring from my trusty keyboard.  However, I console myself that these articles werenít written with scoopers in mind so I am at least fulfilling my "public service broadcast" role for us beer scoopers.  Nonetheless, here goes Ė after 10 visits to Belgium, which have included numerous bars and rather more beers, here is my distilled beer scooperís guide to Belgium as I see it.  Iíve not visited some of the bars Iíve been told about, so I happily admit my shortcomings if Iíve not visited a particular location.  I will, however, put an unvisited bar in if people I know rave about it!

 

A Quick synopsis of Belgium.

Forget everything youíve heard about Belgium being "boring" and full of Eurocrats who like to tell us to eat straight bananas and not to use illogical ancient methods of weighing things.  My experience of the country can be surmised, rather easily, as "Belgium is strange".  This may seem a rather simplistic distillation of 10 visits to the country, but thatís the way it is.

Many British people think that somehow we have the monopoly on eccentricity and doing strange things; I can tell you categorically that Iíve seen more eccentricity in Belgium than I have in the UK.  From the mobile hop and 20-foot high roadworthy sphinx of Poperinge via the rotating toilet seats of Gent to the camels happily grazing near Zottegem, it must be said Ė Belgium is a strange place.  Ever heard of a smoking competition where the object is to keep your pipe alight longer than anyone else with the prescribed amount of tobacco? Me neither, but the Belgians have.  Explore Belgium and I reckon most people with eyes and ears that function will come to the same conclusion as I did.

Belgium is a relatively new country, created by a conference in London during 1831 after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and is quite small in landmass size.  The original inhabitants of the area were a tribe called the Belgae who were conquered by the Romans, hence the name.  Being relatively new it combines very old regions into its new boundaries Ė the northern half (originally part of the Netherlands) is known as the Flemish region and they speak a dialect of Dutch, usually called "Vlaamse".  The southern part (Wallonia) was French and there they speak a dialect of French.  The far eastern bit was taken from Germany as reparations after WW1 and (youíve guessed it) they speak German there.  There is a fair bit of tension between the different communities due to cultural misunderstandings and plain old-fashioned ignorance, but they all get on to a basic degree and speak each otherís languages even though they wonít always admit it.  When in the Flemish part speaking English is preferable to French as the British are liked and the French arenít, whilst in the south speaking English will usually lead to a general lack of positive action towards you.  Learn a bit of French, it helps immeasurably in Wallonia; getting served in the now-closed brewpub in Namur was well nigh impossible without speaking some French!

Most of Belgium is as flat as a waffle with the exception of the Ardennes, a heavily wooded and rather pretty area in the Walloon southeast of the country.  The east has a lot of fens, or fagnes, and there are a few hills around Charleroi and Mons but most of the land is scenically uninspiring, although Iíve no idea where the massive hill at Beersel fits into the equation! The countryside is sparsely populated in relation to the UK with most houses keeping chickens, sheep and occasionally llamas for an unknown purpose.  The towns and cities can be quite large, but are often architecturally far more attractive than those in the UK - Brugge is the obvious one but Gent is equally as impressive.  (Just for information, Brugge is in the Flemish province and therefore is known by itís FLEMISH name, meaning bridges. Calling it "Bruges" displays a pathetic lack of insight into Belgium and just basic ignorance of geography).

Getting around is fairly easy with a reasonably comprehensive rail system that is steadily becoming worse as it is prepared for privatisation; will politicians never learn? The bus companies are divided on regional lines with Tec running buses in the Wallonian south and De Lijn doing the same in the Flemish north (Brussels has it's own municipal system) and, in addition, Antwerp, Brussels, Gent, Charleroi and the Oostende coast still have tram networks.  Day tickets are usually available; the Brussels one is particularly good value at Ä3.80, Gent's is Ä3.  With the countryside being mostly flat, cycling is popular with a lot of railway stations hiring bikes for a nominal fee.  Walking is also easy with fewer cars around than in the UK; just watch out at pedestrian crossings as, even with a green man, cars can turn across it for some obscure reason.  It makes crossing the road a lot more fun, especially after a few beers!

Belgium is a member of the Eurozone and prices are roughly on a par with the UK, although some things can be more expensive Ė especially in Brussels.  Mobile phones work well all over the country, even in the sparsely populated Ardennes.  Power is standard European 2-pin 220v.  No visa is required for UK citizens for visits up to a month - only a passport is required.

Getting there is easier than it used to be (although more difficult than a few years ago!) with numerous modes of travel available:

Planes. With the advent of no-frills airlines, getting to Europe has been opened up to the masses.  Flying into Brussels Zavantem is not as easy as it used to be, with only BMIbaby flying from East Midlands from £50 return; the cheapest airlines have been priced out of the market by excessive landing charges leaving only the rip-off flag carriers.  Ryanair fly to Charleroi from Glasgow which deposits you only an hour from Brussels by train and there are some good deals to be had.  Their Oostende route has, sadly, been discontinued although they still fly to Eindhoven just over the border in the Netherlands from Stansted.  The business airline VLM fly to Brussels from Manchester, London City and Liverpool although be prepared to pay!  They also fly to Antwerp - using hellfire Fokker 50's - which, if the prices were a bit cheaper (say by about £150), might be a feasible option for a long weekend! (The cheapest I can find is £93 from London City to Antwerp).

You could always fly to Rotterdam with Basiqair from Stansted or Amsterdamís Schipol airport with various carriers and do a train south; it will probably work out cheaper than flying into Brussels with BA or Sabena.  Or, making a long weekend of it, how about flying to KŲln with easyJet from East Midlands (or HLX from Manchester or Germanwings from Stansted / Birmingham) and having a day in both KŲln (drinking KŲlsch) and Dϋsseldorf (supping Alt) before taking a train the short hop over the border to Liege? Go on, you know you want to.

Trains. Direct Eurostar from Waterloo or Ashford to Brussels South. Eurostar is a lot cheaper nowadays with returns from £60 based on the no-frills airline website principle; book early and midweek to get good rates.  A ticket to Brussels is currently valid to anywhere else in Belgium at no extra cost.  Other Eurocity trains link Paris, Luxembourg, Amsterdam and many other cities to Brussels with an ease that should make our railways cringe with embarrassment.

Automobiles. Of course, you could always drive across and therefore bring home a boot load of beer at vastly reduced prices.  Iíve never driven abroad so canít comment, but one day Iíll do it!

Boats. The standard cross-channel ferries deposit you in Calais, a long way from Belgium and with poor transport links to get out (and you will want to!).  The best option was the fast ferry from Dover hoverport to Oostende that docked next to the station Ė unfortunately, Hoverspeed have discontinued this service now providing a bus from Calais...  There is a freight and car service from Ramsgate to Oostende with frequent departures, operated by Trans-Europa ferries, but as yet foot passengers are not carried although they may be in the future.

Buses. National Express (via Eurolines) runs a regular service to Brussels Nord Station from London Victoria for a reasonable price, although the time taken is a bit of a drag.  This must be the cheapest way of getting to Belgium if not the most enjoyable.

 

Belgian beer Ė a (very) brief synopsis.

Bloody hell, where do I start? If youíve never been to Belgium or drunk anything more interesting than Chimay or Duvel in Britain then thereís a lot to learn! Comparing the UK beer scene with the Belgian one is likeÖ. Well, just imagine youíre going camping.  You arrive at a campsite with about 10 pitches, all pretty similar with slight variations in height.  Thatís the UK beer scene.  Now, picture yourself arriving at a site with more than 50 pitches, some in trees, some in a river, some on a mountain.  Thatís the Belgian beer scene.

What Iím trying dismally to portray is the sheer variety of Belgian beer available and the different styles that simply donít exist in the UK anymore (if they ever did).  For example, how about Mackesons? Itís hanging on for dear life in little cans in Tescos, but who buys it is anyoneís guess.  If I were to tell you that during WW1 British troops around Ieper influenced the local brewers into making a copy of their favourite sweet stout from Blightly and itís still available now from a number of breweries, then that should give you some idea of how interesting the Belgian beer scene is.  Or, how about beer brewed by real monks (yes, they wear robes and all that monky stuff) and reaching over 10%? Or consider "beer" (and Lambic does stretch the definition a bit) made with malt, wheat and 5-year-old hops, then fermented by naturally occurring wild yeasts over a number of years in wooden barrels before being blended and filled into champagne bottles for a few more years maturing? Do you get the idea now?

A few Belgian beer styles and a good example and a UK equivalent are listed below.

Belgian Style

Good Belgian example

UK equivalent brew

Lambic Gueuze

Girardin Oude Gueuze

None

Lambic Kriek

Cantillon Kriek 100%

Melbourneís Cherry*

Sweet Stout

Wilsonís stout

Mackesons

Trappist Strong

Westvleteren Abt

None

Abbey Tripel

St Bernardus Tripel

Cambrinus

Saison

Vapeur Saison de Pipaix

None

Strong Golden (noble beer)

Van Steenberge Piraat Amber

Oakham Attila

Flemish Red

Rodenbach Classic

None

Oudenaarde Oude Bruin

Verhaege Vichtenaar

None

* Melbourneís beers are a sort-of UK Lambic beer; they use the same grist and aged hops and actually use De Troch yeast that is now resident in the buildingís fabric. However, they are too weak, sweet and pasteurised to be considered a true Lambic copy but theyíre a good introduction to the style as youíre likely to get in the UK!

To understand the Belgian beer scene is a lifetimeís work and youíd still probably not know half of it.  Various people know quite a lot, such as Tim Webb and Michael Jackson, so make sure you read books by these people first.  I may not agree with a lot of what Mr Jackson says about UK beer but it was he who got me into drinking Lambic (and other European beers) 14 years ago.  Tim Webb writes in a gloriously acerbic way and his guide to Belgium and Holland is the essential CAMRA guide to own bar none.  My advice is to read Timís guide, read Michael Jacksonís Belgian output, then go and explore for yourself and make your own mind up.  What follows here is my basic interpretation of the best beer and beer culture in the world, whether you agree with it or not!

There are a few beer styles that you should try, and some you have to try when visiting Belgium.  The list above is a pretty good place to start, but to select just a few Iíd recommend trying the following beers Ė

Westvleteren Abt 10.3% Trappist Strong - the best beer in the world?  Maybe...

Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus 5% Raspberry Lambic Ė sour as hell and would strip wallpaper but the most refreshing beer anywhere.

St Bernardus Tripel 8% Abbey Tripel Ė not made by monks but better than most that are.

Girardin Oude Gueuze 5% Oude Gueuze Ė the finest lambic beer on the planet Ė maybe?

Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze 5% Oude Gueuze - Öor is it this one ?

Ellezelloise Hercule 8% Strong stout Ė drink this and see what Guinness should taste like.

Van Steenberge Piraat Amber 10.5% Amber Ė rich, full, complex and very drinkable.

 

Brussels

Brussels has a rather unfortunate image as a dull place full of Eurocrats eating straight bananas.  How wrong this is.  Brussels is a lively, interesting place with some cracking architecture and more trams routes than you can shake a gueuze at, which is one of my major yardsticks of a good city.  It also has some excellent beer cafes although these are spread around fairly widely and a crawl usually involves more travelling than drinking.  I list here some of the bars I have visited along with some info about them.

There is a brewpub called Les Brasseurs just off the famous Grande Place (which, if you catch it quiet, really is one of Europeís most beautiful squares) but this is sadly aimed at tourists and the beer, on my last visit, was bland and thin with little character.  The best bar in the city for my money is the Bier Circus, which is near Albert metro at 57 Rue de l'Enseignement.  This excellent little place has recently moved to a much larger building and now opens all week including weekend evenings and has the second best range of beers in the city with loads of rare Wallonian stuff and a great range of Lambic brews.  The owner is very sociable and will happily rummage in his cellar for rare bottles that he may have left from previous stocks.  The food very good value, excellent quality, and is well recommended especially the spaghetti Bolognese cooked with Chimay! (See, there is a use for it).

There is a new bar called Delerium at Impasse de Fidelitť in the IlŰt Sacrť restaurant area which has over 2,000 beers on it's list but seemed to have misunderstood the ratio of barstaff to customer in order to be served in under 15 minutes.  Still worth a visit, but I didn't like it that much!

Morte Subite, at 7 rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagers, is a cracking turn of the century bar a two-minute walk from the cathedralís west door and it's here you can pretent you're back in the 19th century.  The bottled Oude Gueuze is real, as is the draught Faro.

Of course, the main draw in Brussels must be Cantillon brewery, the self-styled "Museť de Gueuze", on Rue Gheude near Brussels Zuid station.  Walking from Zuid station it looks increasingly unlikely that youíll stumble across a world classic brewery, but itís definitely there and itís output is, in my view at least, among the best of any Iíve ever tasted.  The superbly rustic and cobwebby brewing plant can be examined on payment of a Ä3.50 entrance fee and you even get a free drink of lambic of your choice from whatís available thrown in.  The beers (and other stuff like jam and pouring baskets) can be bought there for ridiculously cheap prices and can be taken away or drunk in the small drinking area with gloriously ancient wood stoves providing the heat.  Jean-Pierre (who, somewhat disconcertingly, resembles Victor Meldrew) and his wife are very friendly although their son Jean, who now runs the brewery, seems to take matters more seriously.  Take a wander round the mash tun, copper, cooling tray and rows and rows of wooden casks slowly hissing and bubbling away and vow not to let lambic beer die Ėa visit here is a very spiritual experience Ė then sit and drink some of the classic acidic brew and see just how good it can be.  The essential visit!

 

The Flemish North.

This is where most of the good beer and bars are to be found.  The Flemish have a great love of life and a laid back attitude which manifests itself in a myriad of beer styles and superb bars in which to drink them.  Styles like Flemish Red and Oudenaardese Oude Bruin are unique world-class sour beers that are also very distinctive and, if you can find them, a shock and education to tired British tastebuds.  We Brits, for some reason, think that if a beer is sour then it is off Ė some of the classic Belgian beers are stored in wooden vats for years just to give them this sourness! This is the kind of paradox that confuses British beer drinkers.  Most towns have at least one bar specialising in "artisanal" beers with a list of around 100, and in almost all other bars you might happen to walk into there will be something worth drinking such as Duvel or a commercial Trappist beer such as Westmalle.

 

East Flanders ĖGent and Antwerp.

OK, so Antwerp isnít really in Flanders, but itíll do for the purposes of this article; Iím not a pedantic person.  Antwerp is a down to earth city with a great vibrancy akin to Manchester or Liverpool with some classic bars to explore including one of my favourites, the Oude Arsenaal.  The tram system is quite extensive and travels underground from the station as far as the centre where it emerges from its tunnel for normal street running.  The large de Koninck brewery is situated in the town producing English style beers that are far better on draught as they are unpasteurised but still lacking a bit of oomph and Belgian-ness, for want of a better word.

There is a brewpub in town situated by the old docks to the southwest of the centre but easily reachable by tram x to itís terminus.  tíPakhuis (the warehouse) brews 3 beers which are quite bland and simple but worth a try just for the journey there and the nice old building.  There are various good bars in town, see Tim Webbís guide for full details, but 2 are worthy of a mention here.  Starting at the main station, which is one of the most impressive railway stations Iíve ever seen (it was built in the style of a cathedral by a church architect) head straight down the main road towards the centre and about half way there turn left towards the Ruebens museum.  Just down this road is a tiny little bar with strange hours (09:00 till 19:30) but an essential visit Ė the Oud Arsenaal.  It looks like the public bar of a tiny Black Country or Manchester Victorian pub, dripping with of wood and mirrors.  Where it differs is the range of beers that only stretches to about 50 (below average for a Belgian speciality beer bar) but includes some rare and interesting examples of Belgian brewing such as Ellezelloise.  More importantly, they seem to have a thing for Lambic on draught and regularly offer (via polypins on the bar) Girardin lambic and the ultra-rare Girardin Kriekenlambic Ė this stuff must be one of the worldís best beers, just try it and feel your salivary glands go into overdrive! It really is one of the classic must-try beers.

The other bar is the Kulminator on Vleminckveld to the south of the centre; itís about a 10-minute walk from Oud Arsenaal as long as you possess some good map reading skills! Itís a difficult bar to describe; I wouldnít call it dirty, more "lived in", and the furniture is eclectic in choice.  The beer list is huge although a lot of it is comprised of aged beer, such as a list of Chimay going back some 30 years (when it was worth drinking, apparently).  New beers also feature, however, and there are even some beers from long-closed breweries for the desperate scoopers (Brussels Marine for example).  I wouldnít put this place in my top 10 bars ever although some people absolutely love it, so my best advice is to visit it and make up your own mind which, after all, is usually the best course of action.

Gent is a totally different place from Antwerp, being far more sedate in pace and beautiful in architecture Ė in my view, Gent is one of Europeís most beautiful cities with gorgeous Flemish townhouses lining the canals and gothic churches lurking behind expansive squares.  Notwithstanding the visual attractions there are also a lot of beery draws to the place and thankfully, considering the distance St Pieters station is from the centre, it has a small tram network as well as 1 remaining trolleybus route from Dampoort station.  Gent is, for me at least, a must-visit on anyoneís tour of Belgium for both the beer and the architecture; you canít drink beer all day, after all, can you? If you still donít see the point of gawping at buildings, just do a pub-crawl of Coventry then come back to me and say I was right.

On arrival at St Pieters station, get tram 1, 10 or 40 and get off at Grasmarkt.  Near here, by a swing bridge and Gravensteen castle with a canal lapping at itís walls, stands the best bar in Gent Ė Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant; this is apparently a Flemish joke that means "the waterhouse on the beerside"! The bar is cosy and the service is jovial and quick with a large range of beer available, including a good draught list of around 10.  Get a table by the window (or outside, depending on the fickle Gent weather) and watch the trams, boats and world go by.  Donít miss the rotating toilet seats; they are truly one of the wonders of the scooping world, especially after a few beers.

Back behind the Vleeshall (the fantastic castellated long building on the canal which used to be the meat market) is a real cutie of a bar, the Galgenhuis.  This tiny place can probably admit about 30 people yet has a respectable range of beer to go with itís historic interior including the impressive Verhaege range.  On the large square called Vrijdagmarkt (Friday market) is a bar named Dulle Griet that can be a tad touristy but still has a decent beer list of around 150 Ė but watch the prices of some of them, and service can also be a bit sloppy at times and the bottles are not usually forthcoming.  If youíre here at the right time there is another bar towards the huge St Baarts cathedral called De Trollkelder that is wonderfully atmospheric inside and has a reasonably good beer list which included the rare Morte Subite Fond Gueuze.  Further out in the same direction is, apparently, the Trappisteshuis at 164 Brabantdam that sells a huge selection of Trappiste beers, maybe all of them? Iíve not been in town when itís been open yet so have no info on it apart from other people saying itís good.  For other Gent bars, see Tim Webbís guide.

Brugge is both a beautiful unspoiled mediaeval city and a pastiche-like theme park all in one.  Itís one of the most visited places in Europe and rightly so, the architecture is gorgeously Flemish and mesmerisingly scenic.  The only problem is that 10,000 other tourists think the same thing every day and cram themselves into the place like sardines in a very pretty can.  Itís a lot like Prague when I think about it; both are stunningly beautiful places but ruined by sightseers.  If you can catch either of them quiet, however, the visit can be memorable.  Visiting in winter or early spring is a good time as the tourists are down to their low water mark and you may even get some fairy-tale snow on the Flemish gables (or the castle in Prague!) and a much better experience.  Thereís nothing that spoils a visit to a city more than having to fight through thousands of slow-moving tourists gawping at a house just to get into a bar or see something.

Bruggeís only serious problem, apart from the tourist hordes, is that staying there is nigh impossible in summer as the hotels are booked solid for months on end making it easier to stay in, say, Gent and train it in.  The other minor problem is that the train station is a 15 minute walk from the centre, but as you have to walk through glorious mediaeval streets to get there itís not that much of a problem, just get a map first! There are some classic bars in Brugge and a visit there is an evening well spent in appreciation of fine beer.  There is also some classic hand-made chocolate to be had too, conveniently close to one of the best bars!

Unusually, Brugge has no brewpubs.  There was one until 2003 but it closed (not surprisingly, having tasted the beers) but it will probably re-open shortly; it was at the canal end of Nieuwstraat.  The bar that almost everyone raves about is tíBrugs Beertje, situated on Kemelstraat.  Iíll stick my head above the parapet here and say I think the place is over-rated.  There, Iíve said it Ė all the top beer criticsíll shun me now but itís just my opinion, sorry! Donít get me wrong, itís a nice cafť with atmosphere, but to me the beer list is a bit unadventurous despite stretching to over 200 and the customers are mainly non-Belgian beer geeks which kind of ruins the authenticity for me.

A better choice for my money is the Erasmus on Wollestraat, although I feel it lacks homely character and itís like drinking in a waiting room.  It is, however, usually the only place you can get Liefmanís kriek in its natural unsweetened form along with 100+ other beers at reasonable prices.  Handily, a cracking chocolate shop called Pralinette (there are lots along the road) is a few doors away and produces gorgeous truffles that really do melt in the mouth.  If youíve never tried real Belgian chocolate, give this stuff a go Ė it makes British chocolate taste like the sweet, oily crap it is.  Mind you, I wonít even mention my Polish chocolate experience; Iím trying to blank the memory outÖ

When I said there were no brewpubs, I could almost hear people screaming "What? How about Straffe Hendrik/Haalve man then?" This place is an old townhouse brewery situated in one of the little squares heading towards the station.  In my view it probably didnít brew until 2005 when, apparently, it restarted.  You can go on "brewery" tours and drink the house brewed beers in the warehouse-like tasting bar but it smacks of the tourist conveyor belt rather than a brewery offering visits to its plant although beer lovers from Brugge say it is definitely now brewing again. 

Thatís the major places covered, but obviously some of the best places can be found in the most unlikely of locations.  Here Iíll list some places with exceptionally good bars that are worth travelling a few miles to experience.

Oostende has loads of crap lager bars catering for (mainly English) weekend trippers but has one of the best bars anywhere in the whole country; the Botteltje bar of the Hotel Marion on Louisastraat near the seafront.  The Hotel itself is basic but comfortable and quite cheap and ideal for a quick weekend visiting Brugge (15 mins) or Gent (45 mins) and, of course, the bar downstairs.  The beer list runs to over 200 and has good examples of almost every style of beer in Belgium, especially lambic, and the food is cheap and filling.  Highly recommended.  Just over the road to the right is the Oostens Bierhuis that is run by an Englishman, but not aiming at the lageríníchips crowd.  Tim has over 150 beers on his menu but no food.  The "Oldham" frites shop just round the corner on Langestraat never seems to close and does good stoofvlees to go with the frites.  Beer lovers should make every effort to verify the existence of (but not enter) "Ronís pub" just down the road from the Marion.  Here they serve English breakfasts, lager in pints and, if youíre very lucky, some bloke on a keyboard will regale you with the best of Chas ní Dave.  Honest, Iím not joking Ė itís very surreal yet scary at the same time.

De Torre at De Haan aan Zee is fast becoming an institution amongst Belgian beer lovers.  It is right next to the tram station (itís the big pastel building with a tower on it!) about 20 minutes north out of Oostende on a Blankenberge/Knokke tram and stocks over 100 beers with a special list of rarities usually making an appearance.  It doesnít look or feel like a traditional beer bar with its pastel walls and open space but the owner is very keen and sociable especially with visitors.  Iíve had Westmalle blonde here (which was on the special list), which shows the type of beers they aim to sell.  No obvious food but thereís a great frites shop 5 minutes round the corner

There is a small place called Olen on the railway line between Antwerp and Neerpelt in the far North of the country.  The town itself is nothing of interest but the station buffet (the Stationekke, or little station) is.  With restrictive opening hours, youíd think that no beers would be on sale but they had around 100 at the last count with a fair selection of the commoner brands.  To say the place is eccentric is understating things a bit; most of the building is a "museum" although of what exactly is not certain (maybe old bottles?).  The landlord owns a huge stretch limo that is usually parked outside.  Visit on Sundays when half the local population gather to drink and sing bawdy old Flemish folk songs.  There is also a model train that runs along the wall on a shelf! We were given free genever and beer when we visited, and on a separate visit Mr Jones was asked to buy a horse for one of the regulars.  Very surreal, yes, but an essential experience to understand the Belgian psyche.

One of the finest bars in Belgium is located in the countryside between Gent and Brussels near Dendermonde.  Named Heeren van Liedekercke, it seems to do everything well with a fantastic beerlist containing a huge lambic selection and, so everyone says, great food although I didnít sample it on my visit.  I drank Vanderlinden vieux foudre framboise followed by de Graal Blonde, which gives some impression of the beers they stock.  A good 20-minute walk from Liedekerke station, but only about 10 mins from the smaller Iddergem on lijn 90.  Well worth the effort to get there to see how things should be done.

 

The Walloon south.

For a reason unknown to me the Walloonians donít seem to have the same drinking culture as the Flemish.  Yes, they have lots of bars, but a lot of these are very French in style and major more on coffee than beer.  Itís quite rare to find a bar with more than 50 brews on itís list and the further south you go the harder it gets.  The number of breweries is on the increase however and there are some good places to visit although a lot of the big towns are woefully short of a decent bar crawl in the style of Gent or Brugge.

The capital of Wallonia, Namur, used to have a great little brewpub and a superb cafe.  Both have now gone leaving little in the way of beery delights, although there are a few places showing some promise in the new Tim Webb guide.  Likewise, Charleroi has very few bars with a decent choice of beer which is surprising given itís industrial pedigree.

My favourite bar in Wallonia, if not the whole of Belgium, is the totally unique (even though there are now 4 of them!) Vaudreť at Liege.  I prefer the one out in the eastern suburb of Angleur handily located for the station.  As Tim Webb says, itís hard to think of a more unlikely setting for a world-class beer cafe but in my opinion it definitely is (or not, depending on your impression of the place!).  The badly designed and poorly informed beerlist stretches to over 1,000 beers Ė yes, a thousand, with around 20 of these on draught.  As can be imagined with such a huge list some of the beers have been around for a bit and vary in quality accordingly, but you pays your money as the saying goes.  Unfortunately, the rarer beers seem to have vanished from the lists so the draw is not as strong as it used to be.

The staff are delightfully Walloon and pretend not to understand English, so pack your phrasebook when visiting.  Recently they seem to have got a lot better at knowing what stock they have and where it is (due to a computerised till) meaning less 20-minute waits only to be told they donít have any Weldebroec brune.  The list only contains the beer name so it can be very difficult to decipher what the beers actually are and who brews them, but there are some rare and discontinued whoppers lurking in there Ė if you can find them! There are also a lot of rebadges and dodgy label beers, so watch out.  My usual move is to bag a table near the window, order the first rare thing I find, and then peruse the list at leisure writing down possible scoops on a beermat as I go along with their numbers Ė the staff are likely to get the right beers if you give them the number! If they like you, you will get cheese with the beer!

The place is open 24 hours a day and Iíve never seen it closed; having been in there at 03:00 several times on wet winter nights it was invariably heaving.  Food is served 24 hours too and is very good.  Iíd say this is the essential Walloon beer experience although some people donít like the place Ė visit it and decide for yourself! To reach this Mecca of beer drinking take a train to Liege Angleur station (Luxembourg trains and other local ones stop here) and leave by the back exit signed "Rue Val Benoit".  Turn right and follow the road alongside the railway embankment for about 300-400 metres until just past the signal and the Vaudreť will appear on the left at a road junction.  The original Vaudreť is just down the road (now called petit Vaudreť) and another is near the centre of Liege although on my only visit I didnít really take to the place.  Maybe I need a re-visitÖ

Leuven-la-Neuve is a Newtown set up in the 1960ís when the Leuven University split along regional lines.  Itís like some architect (and I use the word in itís most nebulous sense) was let loose with a load of concrete and a setsquare and concocted this hideous place that makes Milton Keynes look like Bourton on the water.  Just down from the station, if you can find your way out through the shopping centre, is a brewpub owned by Dubuisson brewery that produces a few average beers plus the ownerís products too.  Not really worth a visit on itís own, but handily next-door is another of those strange Belgian places I keep going on about.  Creperie Bretonne is proudly a pancake house that just happens to sell lots of beers, but the crepes are not just any old pancakes.  The list stretches for pages and pages and extends from the usual lemon and sugar type to meats cooked in beer, dry-cured Ardennes ham and suchlike.  They complement the beer list very well and are enormous Ė a meal in themselves!  As for the beer, the list reaches 200 and includes a lot of Walloon rarities and some Flemish beers sold under Walloon names! I was very impressed with this place and would recommend it to anyone, especially with the brewpub next door.

Even although Iíve never been there (well, I got as far as the locked door once) the Musee de la Biere at Lustin, which is between Namur and Dinant, is known as an essential visit by every beer enthusiast Iíve spoken to.  Essentially itís a hobby museum run by an elderly couple in their house that is, apparently, stuffed full of bottles from long-gone breweries.  I suspect this wouldnít be a tremendous draw if it werenít for the fact they also sell beer to drink on the premises, and as the list is estimated to reach 600 or so (with lots of extinct and rare stuff) itís well worth a visit.  To find this extraordinary place, leave the small train station at Lustin and walk left up the road, and youíll find the musee on the right up the hill after a short distance.  The problem (as I found) is the opening times, of which I have no idea, although Timís guide may have some reliable ones.

 

Conclusions.

Belgium is my favourite place to drink beer that Iíve been to bar none.  Excuse the unintended pun, but the combination of excellent beers, interesting styles, sociable people and relaxed bars make it a beer loverís dream country.  Of course, there are problems Ė a lot of bars are effectively tied to large breweries who restrict the range to their own products plus a couple of others like Duvel and Westmalle although there arenít many bars where youíll find nothing drinkable.  The bars that specialise in "artisanal" beers are widely spread and vary in quality and number of beers but most are well worth a visit and youíll most likely find some very good beers if not a whole page of scoops.

Having said that, Belgium isnít an easy country to go scooping in and youíll find that once youíve had a few hundred it becomes increasingly difficult to find new beers, although with so many good brews to resample it isnít really a chore.  After a while youíll soon get to know what styles and beers you like and, if your chosen bar has no winners, then you can scan the list (if one exists!) for a beer youíll like.

Belgium holds quite a few beer festivals throughout the year, mostly run by Zythos who are the Belgian equivalent of Camra.  There is an annual festival around March time in St Niklaas and various smaller ones throughout the year; a good one is the winterfest at Essen on the Dutch border.  These are the places to go if you want to score some of the rarer beers that you donít see in cafes that much, although personally I prefer to drink in cafes Ė for me, beer festivals arenít part of the Belgian scene and after trying a few I donít bother with them anymore and stick with the cafes and bars.

A good way to explore is to get a railpass and travel around Belgium for a week staying in different areas each night.  This way you will experience the different regions and their beers and be able to compare them.  Wherever you go in Belgium, the food is excellent and the chips (frites) are the best in the world Ė especially when eaten with Stoovlees (meat stew) or one of the mayonnaise sauces.  I canít think of a more sociable beer holiday than this! Even a weekend in, say, Oostende can be a revelation if you work your way through the lists at Botteltje and the Bierhuis.  Whatever you do, go there and discover the most interesting beer culture in the world, and youíll never look at British beer in the same way again.

Once you get back, youíll probably want to drink Belgian beer here.  The following places all sell a good range of brews including a few places worthy of a serious night out.

Beers of Europe, Garage lane, Stetchley, Kingís Lynn.  Excellent warehouse with around 500 European beers including lots of Cantillon and other good quality brews, reasonable prices too.

Le Trappiste, 40 Greenwood St, Altrincham.  Feels quite Belgian with no vertical drinking allowed and a good list of around 100 beers including some good Lambics and Westvleteren, brought from the Abbey.  The very sociable landlord, Wayne, is keen and knowledgeable about Belgian beer.  One of the best bars in the UK for Benelux brews.

Bar Fringe, Swan St, Manchester.  Now back on form with some rare guest Belgian beers in the fridge; Contreras, de Graal, Westvleteren and Girardin black-label recently spotted.

Borough Arms, 33-35 Earle Street, Crewe. Localís pub with a large range of UK and Belgian beers at good prices and a very large, riotous landlord.

Beer Circus, High St, Croydon.  New bar with an excellent-looking beer list of around 200! Top place which may sadly be closing during 2006.

The Belgian Belly, 514 Wilbraham Road, Chorlton, Manchester.  Off-license selling a limited but quality range of Belgian beer and Belgian style food cooked on the premises for eating in or take-away.  Excellent place, can't recommend it highly enough!

 

Bars mentioned.

BM brasseurs Les Brasseurs, 23 Rue de la Colline, Brussels.  A touristy brewpub just off the Grande Place with mediocre beers, but everyoneís a winner after all!

Delirium cafť, Brussels.  Iíve not visited, but apparently it has a superb beer list.

Moeder Lambic in St Gilles, 68 Rue Savoie, Brussels.  Cute little bar which used to have a good beerlist - not really worth the visit now unless you're bored!

Bier Circus, 57 Rue de l'Enseignement, Brussels.  The best bar in Brussels with over 200 beers, friendly service and excellent food; a great place to while away an evening exploring Belgian beer.  Has recently moved to this larger building.

Delerium, Impasse de Fidelitť in the IlŰt Sacrť - 2,000 beers but only 1 barman.  And lots of pink elephants.

Morte Subite, 7 rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagers, a two-minute walk from the cathedralís west door and it's here you can pretent you're back in the 19th century.  The bottled Oude Gueuze is real, as is the draught Faro.

Brasserie Cantillon, Rue Gheude, Brussels.  Not really a bar, but an unmissable experience in the world of beer.

Oude Arsenaal, 4 Maria Pijpelincxstraat, Antwerp.  Superb little "brown" cafť with a well-chosen beer list and draught lambics.

BM pakhuis tíPakhuis, 76 Vlaams Kaai, Antwerp. Huge warehouse conversion with mediocre brews.

Kulminator, 32 Vleminckveld, Antwerp.  Well known bar with over 500 beers, although many are aged Chimay!

Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, 9 Groetenmarkt, Gent.  Cracking bar with loads of unusual beers on the list, 10 on draught and rotating toilet seats. What more could you want?

Galgenhuis, 5 Groetenmarkt, Gent.  Tiny place with a welcoming atmosphere and some good brews.

Dulle Griet, 50 Vrijdagmarkt, Gent. Large touristy place with sometimes dodgy service.

Trollkelder, 17 Bij st Jacobs, Gent. Friendly if a tad unusual bar with a large beerlist with some rarities.

Trappisteshuis, 164 Brabantdam, Gent.  Iíve not been yet, but apparently pretty good.

tíBrugs Beertje, 5 Kemelstraat, Brugge. Large but mediocre list and full of foreigners, but OK if you catch it right. Great cosy little bar though.

Erasmus, 35 Wollestraat, Brugge.  Strange place to drink; go for the unsweetened Liefmanís kriek!

Straffe Hendrik "brewpub", 26 Walplein, Brugge.  Do it for the tourist experience! Beer is OK too, if not local.

Botteltje, 19 Louisastraat, Oostende.  Fantastic bar under the Hotel Marion, this place has 250 beers on itís superlative list with loads of lambic and the food isnít bad either.

Oostens Bierhuis, 14 Louisastraat, Oostende.  Opposite Botteltje, 150 beers and worth a look.

De Torre, 2 Hans Memlinglaan, de Haan aan Zee.  Opposite tram station, very friendly owner with a seperate "rare" beer list.

Stationekke, Olen station.  Surreal place, well worth a visit.

Vaudreť, 109 Rue Val Benoit, Liege Angleur.  Some love it, some hate it Ė an institution that never closes and sells over 1000 beers.  I love it!

Brasse-Temps, 4 Place de BrabanÁons, Louvain-la-Neuve.  Not that exciting, but worth a look if youíre visiting La Bretonne just over the road.

Creperie Bretonne, 1a Place de BrabanÁons, Louvain-la-Neuve. Loads of strange but delicious pancakes and 150 beers to wash them down with. Another strange, but very good, Belgian experience and one of the best Wallonian bars.

Musee de la Biere, 19 Rue de la Gare, Lustin.  IĎve not been, but it sounds like a top place.

 

© Version 1.31 by Gazza, 02/05/2006 - travel and beer details updated.

 

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