By Ted Bauer
Photography by Nanna Dis
Originally appeared in July 2015 issue of Virtuoso Life; browse the whole issue here.
If you did a word association for Belgium (because anything might happen at a rollicking cocktail party), where would your brain go first? “Chocolate,” possibly. But it could just as easily conjure up “beer.” Known for both (and delectable waffles and frites too), this country roughly the size of Maryland turns out more than 800 different
kinds of beer, with a focus on individuality in the brewing process – two technically identical Belgian beers might ultimately taste very different. The approach has inspired brewers all over the world, including many in the American craft beer industry.
Belgian beer drinkers regard their beverage of choice with the same religious devotion as French wine drinkers. It makes sense when you realize that beer is essentially responsible for the country’s existence. True story: Until the late sixteenth century, present-day Belgium and the Netherlands, along with Luxembourg and parts of northern France, formed one area (the Low Countries), ruled by the devoutly Catholic Spanish King Philip II. A Dutch revolt was inevitable. How did they fund it? With excise taxes from beer consumption in Holland. The Dutch Revolt – brought to you by beer – led to the 1648 Treaty of Münster, which helped carve out modern-day Belgium.
Here now: a quick but intrepid guide to some must-stops on a Brussels beer tour.
Taverne Manneken Pis
Manneken-Pis, a statue near Brussels’ center of a small child, er, midstream, has become a symbol of Belgium. Directly across the street, Taverne Manneken Pis pours some of the world’s best sour beers. At any given time, one bartender estimated, citizens of a dozen countries are passing through. So grab a seat, warm up by the cozy fireplace, and talk about Brussels, beer, chocolate, and soccer with new friends. A note on pricing: At Manneken Pis you’ll pay just over $3 for a bottle of top-flight global beer (a Miller Lite in some large American cities can run twice that). Rue des Grands Carmes 31-33; 32-2/502-71-45.
On January 9, 2004, Delirium set a Guinness World Record by stocking the most varieties of commercially available beer – 2,004, to be exact. Today, patrons choose from 3,162 varieties (give or take) from about 75 countries. It still holds the record – and the café (named for Delirium Tremens beer, whose pink elephant logo adorns the entrance) has expanded to Rio, Tokyo, São Paulo, Amsterdam, and more in recent years. The Brussels locale is the true original, though, just a few blocks from the city’s central Grand Place. Bonus: Spanish shoe brand Camper has a boutique nearby; many couples have reported an egalitarian split of interests in this sector of Brussels. Impasse de la Fidélité 4; 32-2/514-44-34.
As the name implies, Moeder focuses on lambics, with nearly 30 on offer – plus small plates and charcuterie for accompaniments. While it has one of Brussels’ strongest happy-hour scenes, this kid-friendly bar maintains a low-key vibe throughout the evening hours. Children run around as their parents keep semiwatchful eyes on them while sampling the varietals. A five-minute walk from Grand Place, Moeder is right around the corner from Tonton Chami, a friterie and halal spot that can help soak up even a high-alcohol-content lambic. 8 place Fontainas 1000; 32-2/503-60-68.
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On Brussels Hotels:
The Rocco Forte Hotel Amigo
is located steps from Brussels’ Grand Place. World leaders have slept here (the 2014 G7 summit took place in Brussels), as has Beyoncé. Ristorante Bocconi, off the main lobby, serves Italian cuisine, and the 173 rooms pay homage to Tintin’s creator (and Belgian national), Hergé, with figurines and artwork depicting his series’ beloved main characters (Tintin, Snowy the dog, and Captain Haddock). Doubles from $750, including breakfast daily and a $100 dining credit.
Located off boutique-lined Avenue Louise, the Sofitel Brussels Le Louise
welcomes guests with opulent flourishes such as pink crystal chandeliers and Fornasetti cushions, plus 169 stylish rooms with rainfall showerheads and Hermès toiletries. The hotel’s restaurant, Crystal Lounge, serves famously lavish Sunday brunches (complete with entertainment for children), while patrons of the adjacent lounge sip Champagne cocktails and – you guessed it – Belgian craft beer. Doubles from $495, including breakfast daily and a $100 dining credit.
More Belgian Beer Intel:
Top of the Heap: Westmalle Dubbel
Americans tend to love IPAs, and Belgium is not a big IPA country. Westmalle Dubbel provides a close IPA approximation: darker, with a rich and complicated flavor, notes of herbs and fruits, a bitter finish, and a dry aftertaste. At seven percent ABV, it falls in the same range as most American craft beers.
The Holy (Beer) Grail: Saint Sixtus
The monks at Saint Sixtus Abbey in the Belgian countryside needed money for a new roof in 2012, so they reluctantly agreed to sell their Westvleteren 12 beer abroad (a first-ever offering). The price tag: $85 for six bottles – most retailers sold out of it in less than 45 minutes. Some hardcore fans refer to Sixtus as the “holy grail” of the beer world. Even if you live in Belgium, this is a tough beer to get: The abbey is two hours west of Brussels in pig-farm country, and the monks pray seven times a day, so knowing the exact hour to come and taste or purchase is often serendipity. (Of course, a Virtuoso travel advisor can arrange a visit.)
Sour Notes: Lambic
Conventional beer is fermented by carefully cultivating strains of yeast, but lambic creation relies on a process called “spontaneous fermentation.” The product is exposed to wild yeasts and bacteria native to the Zenne Valley (near Brussels), which creates a dry, cidery beer with a sour aftertaste. Because of their strong flavors, lambics are also frequently used in Belgian cuisine.
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