(Wife and husband beer writers Diane Catanzaro and Chris Jones at Cafe Den Obelix in Hall, Belgium. Photo by Kate Keese.)
By Diane Catanzaro and Chris Jones
When you’re sitting there in your silk upholstered chair and thinking about your next beer-focused “Vayca,” consider this. There’s a place you can go that has some of the world’s most eclectic and unusual beer, chocolate that redefines chocolate, cheese that will make your mouth water, and bread that puts Wonder Bread to shame. Plus, history, art, architecture, and friendly people. What place is this? Friends, it’s Belgium, and you need to go there ASAP.
We were eager to get back to traveling, figuring that the pandemic might outlive us. Traveling to one country simplifies the COVID-related testing requirements. This article will describe the four cities we stayed in, highlights and some beer-related things we did in each, with an eye toward inspiring you to plan your own trip. We organized a trip for ourselves and six friends for sixteen glorious days in Belgium in September 2021. We had already rescheduled the trip once due to the pandemic, and decided to go ahead. As the weather from May through September is warm enough to allow outdoor dining and drinking, we were all fully vaccinated, and Belgium’s vaccination rates are similar to those here in the U.S., we felt comfortable traveling there. Happy to say our pre and return-flight COVID tests were all negative.
We flew nonstop from Dulles to Brussels and spent three days soaking in culture and world-class beers. Brussels has charming fin de siècle (turn of the century) cafes, a world-class Musical Instrument Museum in an Art Nouveau Victor Horta-designed building, and the Grand Place (Grote Markt) is one of the world’s most beautiful public squares and a World Heritage Site. Brussels highlights from our trip: (1) Our hotel rooms at Le Quinze Grand Place had stunningly perfect views of this glowing masterpiece. So what if the carpets in the hallway are old? How much time do you spend in the hallway anyway? (2) The Art Nouveau cafés Mort Subite, Cirio, Falstaff, modern lambic café Moeder Lambic Fontinas, and puppet-themed Poechenellekelder are all within a short walk of the Grand Place. Poechenellekelder is just across the street from the Mannekin Pis fountain and its terrace provides ample people watching (“it’s smaller than I expected”) plus a stellar lambic selection. While the terrace is wonderful in nice weather, the bizarrely decorated interior is a surreal experience. (3) Dinner at Nuetnigenough (“Never enough”) was one of our favorite meals of the trip, with traditional cuisine like carbonnade flamande (beef burgundy made with beer), poisson waterzooi (creamy fish stew to-die-for), and a tremendous selection of beers from Alvinne, De Dolle, de Struise, de la Senne, Dupont, De Ranke, Blaugies, and more. Plus, lambics from Cantillon, Oud Beersel, Tilquin, Drie Fonteinen, Boon, Hanssens, Lindemans, and Den Herberg. (4) The Cantillon Brewery and Museum of Gueuze is the last lambic brewery in Brussels, and a must-visit for true beer aficionados who appreciate the sour and tangy complexity of true authentic lambics and gueuzes. There are self-guided and group tours of this storied circa 1900 brewery where you may see three generations of the Van Roy-Cantillon family welcoming visitors, brewing, bottling, or running the small shop. We thoroughly enjoyed our private tour with Georgette and were happy to see Berto presiding over the new upstairs tasting room where visitors can now linger over lambics to their hearts content (or until last call at 4 pm). It’s not a very far walk from the Grand Place unless you get lost. Open daily except Wed and Sun, check in advance. (6) As we were in Brussels on a Sunday, the one day that In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst lambic cafe is open, we took the bus to Eizeringen and spent the day at this charming bar in a small village drinking kriek, Trappist ales, funky gueuzes, lapsang souchong lambic, Alvinne, and the local Janimal. (7) Georgette took us on a wonderful walking tour of Brussels lower and upper town and we learned much. Just don’t quiz us.
Next we took the train an hour to Bruges (Brugge), a beautiful little burg in Flanders. To truly appreciate this UNESCO World Heritage City you need to stay for several days. By day the museums, architecture, art, history, bike riding, and chocolate shopping will keep you busy in this popular tourist destination. At night the day-trippers leave and you have some of the best beer bars in the world to enjoy with locals and beer aficionados from around the world. Highlights? Everything.
(1) It’s a beer lovers paradise. You can’t swing an empty 750 ml bottle without hitting a gourmet beer shop. The Bierpaleis is loaded with beer, beer glassware, beer signs and tons of beer swag. The 2be has what must be the largest selection of beers on the planet, along with great outdoor seating where you can enjoy a beverage overlooking a scenic canal and medieval buildings. De Bierboom is a short jaunt from the tourist area and a local’s favorite. However, to get a true taste of Belgian beer culture, spend some time at the many unique and charming specialist beer cafes within a short walk of the Markt.
(2) Specialist beer cafes, a short list of must-visits: Le Trappiste’s stunning 80-year old gothic cellar lets you step back into the Middle Ages, but with MUCH better beer. And, music! The Esoteric Ramblers Belgian variant (Chris Jones, Kelly Murphy, and John Keesee) played a gig at Le Trappiste with Kate Keesee adding vocals and “equipment manager” Brugge native Dicky Antoine providing gear. It was an amazing night and the cellar’s acoustics were spot on. Owner Regnier De Muynck joined the band on stage at the end of the evening for a rousing finale.
Other must-visits are t’Brugs Beertje, popular with locals and beer geeks from all over the world, and sitting at the small bar is a great way to meet nice people. Beloved owner Daisy Claeys retired several years ago, and now “BB” is in the hands of the capable Dries Brouckaert and still a MUST-visit! De Garre, down the blink-and-you-missed it blind alley between the Markt and the Burg, is Jeff Maisey’s go-to beer café. Just order De Garre’s house tripel (brewed at Van Steenberge), cheese cubes with mustard and celery salt, and your cares will vanish. Rose Red at the Cordoeanier Hotel has its namesake roses providing a dose of charm to accompany the stellar beer. For a delicious meal with a thick book of beer options, make a reservation at Cambrinus. Brugge breweries? Well, the Halve Maan tours are pretty much de rigeur, the brewery is historic, and the rooftop view rocks. Bourgogne des Flandres brewery, known for their Flanders Red and mixed fermentation beers, has a variety of tour and tasting options, but our favorite thing to do is to simply order a taster flight of their several excellent beers, a simple cheese or tapas plate, and chill on their wonderful canal-side porch overlooking the Dijver. Everything so far in described in Brugge is within a short walk. Just outside the city ring, is the Fort Lapin Brewery, with a tasting room open Saturdays. There are many excellent hotels and guest houses in Brugge. We love De Drie Koningen Holiday Apartments for stays of a few days or longer.
(3) We did a couple of great brewery tours, at Van Steenberge (where we got to spend quite a good time in the taproom) and Het Anker (where we had a lively and engaging tour and learned why hops and fertile women supposedly don’t get along, and we also had a fine dinner in their restaurant). However, the tour of Verhaeghe, where they brew the Duchesse de Bourgogne, was extra special. They now do regular tours, and local tour guide Pol was excellent. We arrived early on the train from Brugge, and were prepared to kill time in the park, but instead they found us seats and started opening bottles of beer. Excellent beer. During the tour of the barrel room, we were delighted that Karl Verhaeghe came by and greeted us warmly. Then a journalist showed up and wanted a photo of all of us with Karl for an article she was writing about the Verhaeghe Brewery. Later, Karl gave us a beautiful metal sign with the Duchesse’s portrait, with a very kind personal message written on the back, and Chris gave Karl an Esoteric Ramblers CD. It was one killer day.
Poperinge is in the hops growing region of Belgium and the best time to go there is September when the hops are being harvested, or anytime when the weather is bike-friendly in this Northern European clime (probably May through September unless you are hardy). It’s about 90 minutes by train from Brugge. From higher to lower price points, Hotel Recour, and the affiliated Hotel Recour Guesthouse, the Palace Hotel, and Talbot House are all well located near the town center and close to the train station. All have bicycle storage. Highlights: (1) Riding our rental bicycles to In De Vrede, the ‘brewpub’ just outside the St. Sixtus Abbey where the famed Trappist Westvleteren beers are brewed under monastic guidance. In De Vrede is an easy 20-minute bike ride from Poperinge, through hops fields and farmland, and we enjoyed dinner on their wonderful outdoor terrace two of our three days in the region. Closed Friday, always check opening hours for this place (and every place you want to visit!) (2) This is the land of hops! We met a hospitable hops farmer and watched him harvesting and processing freshly cut hops vines. Visiting the Hops Museum the next day we realized we had met a true hops star as his family farm is featured in several exhibits. (3) The next day we rode our bicycles back to In De Vrede in Westvleteren for more tasting adventures. Our bikes got stuck in the mud, and a kind man offered to help. We followed him to the St Sixtus Abbey, the gates opened, and we were INSIDE the courtyard. They power washed our bikes! Then gave us a Westvletern Blond, 8, and 12 to take with us. (4) With clean bikes we headed to Oostvleteren, the next town over, to visit Struise Brewers and meet with charming owner-brewer Urbain Coutteau. Our bike route from In De Vrede to Struise, courtesy of the bikemap app, took us through some of the most beautiful farmland imaginable. The route was much better than the one google maps provided that we have previously used. Only open on Saturdays, Struise has a wide selection of adventurous ales and mead on tap and operates in a former schoolhouse (“Het Oude Schooltje”) that has been repurposed into the third most sustainable brewery in the world after New Belgium and Sierra Nevada. Urbain was a great host and we got to try all the yummy beers on tap! A Saturday bike ride from Poperinge to In De Vrede to Struise has to be one of the best possible ways to spend a day. Poperinge has several bike rental shops, we usually rent from the Hotel Palace. Website Fietsverhuurpoperinge.be has information. (5) The last day in Poperinge we rode our bicycles in the direction of Watou, and visited Bar Bernard, the 360-degree view rooftop bar at the St. Bernardus Brewery, for a late lunch. On the way we stopped at the fantastic ‘living room café’ Hellesketel, with its witchy kitschy décor. Owner Lena got the juke box going with Belgian lounge crooner music and we drank beers brewed at De Bie especially for the café, the labels adorned with cauldrons, cats, and Wiccan crones.
Our last few days were spent in the bustling market town of Halle, in the heart of the lambic producing Flemish Brabant region south of Brussels known as Pajottenland. Instead of taking day trips from Brussels, as many do, we wanted to visit as many places as we could. We were fortunate to meet up with Belgian Beer Specialist and author Chuck Cook whose drinkbelgianbeer.com website is a font of knowledge about Belgian beer, breweries, and beer cafes, and Patrick Van der Spiegel who is a lambic tour guide extraordinaire and whose company ‘Lambic Tours’ we highly recommend. Johan Deknoppe of the Flemish Brabant Tourism Office accompanied us as well, and we learned that lambic tourism is valued and being promoted. The definitive guide to this region, a small but mighty book titled “LambicLand” by Tim Webb, the late “Podge” Chris Pollard, and Siobhan McGinn’s is awesome but the second and last edition was 2010. As there are no plans to update it at this time, it’s still worth buying and a great resource.
Halle is fairly central and our ‘Flemish Home’ Air B&B was an eight-minute walk from the fabulous Halle Grote Markt, where the Sint Martin’s Basilica is home to the Black Madonna, the Den Obelix café serves up lambics and gueuze, and the highly praised ‘t Parlement café is close by but unfortunately was closed on holiday during our visit. Nearby hotels Les Eleveurs and Kaai 16 are hotels walking distance from Halle’s Markt. Highlights: (1) Within an hour of our arrival in town we visited a ‘living room café’ in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw called In de Oud Smis Van Mekingen (In the Old Blacksmith’s Shop). A small rustic cinderblock building with an authentic old-time feel, a table of regulars playing cards and drinking Jupiler, and owner Annie Stiens pouring Morieau and Boon Gueuzes as she chats with customers and is possibly bemused by American tourists who think this is all fantastic. Our local friends Raymond and Georgette (see: Brussels-Cantillon) read the crowd (of about 6 people other than us) and suggested the Esoteric Ramblers might play a few ditties. Next thing you know the card players have picked up the tune and are singing enthusiastically and cheering the band on. One of these gents brings in a regional specialty ‘rice pudding’ type of cake from his vehicle and we stuffed our faces with cake and washed it down with gueuze. Not a bad beginning to our Pajottenland experience. Then, we walked to the nearby Hotel Alsput to dine in their fine restaurant. Mussels were in season and available with gueuze or white wine sauce, and we had a great meal. The hotel has seven rooms and you could walk to the Old Blacksmith’s Shop!
(2) Halle was a good base for exploring the region, and the 3 Fonteinen Lambik-O-Droom in Lot is a must-visit. We looked at riding bikes but instead opted for a large taxi van which was 25 euro. We toured the bodacious barrel room, drank lambics and gueuze in the tasting room and on the large patio, and bought some beer to take home as well as necessary schwag.
(3) Saturday was a banner day and our last day as a group in Belgium. We started the day with a tour at the historic Oud Beersel Brewery with owner Gert Christiaens, and marveled at how they combine tradition and innovation with creative spices, herbs, and fruits in their tasty lambics, as well as packaging. By the time you visit, their Bierhuis taproom will be renovated from the flower shop that replaced Oud Beersel’s original bar. You definitely, absolutely want to go there if you are a lambic lover. Next we visited De Cam in Gooik, where blender-owner-cellarman-tour guide (okay, he seems to do everything here) Karel Goddeau enthusiastically told us everything about his gueuzes, krieks, and framboise, and made us drink them. Oh my, this was turning into quite a day. A good one, for sure. Then he took us to the Folk Museum across the way where we admired the local and handmade musical instruments, Karel dusted off his unused-for-months during lockdown bagpipes for a brief musical moment, and the Esoteric Ramblers Belgian variant played a couple of songs for Karel and a sweet Polish couple who joined our visit, to rousing acclaim. Next stop was a place I hadn’t heard of, and it turned out to be one of the most stellar stops of the entire trip. Cafe ‘t Paddenbroek, also in Gooik, is a bicycle-and-hiker friendly café in a spacious rural park setting. Manager Roel Janssens and his crew were fantastic hosts. They have a large lambic selection with choices from Boon, Oud Beersel, Hanssens, De Cam, Cantillon, Tilquin, Moriau, Lambiek Fabriek, as well as lambics brewed at Den Herberg, owned by Roel’s Uncle Bart DeVille and family, under the DeVille label. Props to ‘t Paddenbroek for wonderful food, including chicken stewed with gueuze and a vegetarian tortellini dish that Diane devoured. They have meeting space for larger groups and host live music events. While they have only recently opened during the pandemic, Café ‘t Paddenbroek was just awarded the 2021 Gouden Lambikstoemper Award which is a big honor in Belgium. As mentioned, Roel’s uncle owns and brews at Den Herberg, a beer café with the DeVille brewery in the back. Turns out Den Herberg is only a 5-minute drive from our Flemish Townhouse. We could have been tired after drinking amazing lambics since 11 am, but the friendly atmosphere at Den Herberg (plus some peppy classic rock) kept our energy high. The entire staff seems to be family, and Bart and his wife Ann made us feel at home, as did some neighborly patrons who wanted to chat. A few of us visited the brewery in the back of the café where they make a range of beers, including lambic and the excellent Cuvee de Ville Belgian Pale Ale, fermented with a little Brettanomyces. This was our last stop of the day and, sadly, our last night together in Belgium before most of the group flew home.
We hope this inspires you to visit Belgium soon. If planning your own trip is daunting, these are some folks we personally recommend. They know the people, the breweries, the logistics, and best of all you leave the driving to a professional.
Stu Stuart operates Belgian Beer Me. There are numerous tours each year that cover different themes and regions of Belgium. Check out his website and drool.
Ron Smith leads beer tours where you can get your MBA…Master of Beer Appreciation. He has a schedule of trips and also plans custom or private trips for you. Ron is a Master Beer Judge in the BJCP, a Certified Cicerone, and Beer Educator. Check out his website at www.beermba.com
Patrick Van der Speigel specializes in Lambic Tours. He is a native of Halle, lives there, and knows the entire lambic region, the people, and the breweries very well. Patrick will happily guide you on a custom tour. He can also help with transportation, as Payottenland is spread out and public transportation isn’t always convenient in the rural areas. You can hire Patrick for a day or several days depending on your interests and schedule. http://lambictours.com