Brewing a love of beer in Brussels
A man browses the shelves at a beer shop near la Grande Place in Brussels. (Mark Renders/Getty)
My father and I were supposed to consume as much beer, mussels and chocolate as we could stuff into an 11-hour trip to Belgium. If we happened to see some old stuff on the way, all the merrier, but sightseeing could wait. This was meant to be a gluttonous layover of Homer-esque proportions (Simpson, not Odyssey).
Yet six hours after landing, we found ourselves waiting – stomachs still empty – in a 40-minute queue for pommes frites (fries) at Frit Flagey in the Ixelles neighbourhood. Sure, Belgian pommes frites are generally good – great even. But when it comes down to it, chips are still just an item I order to complement the food I really came to eat – even when they are accompanied by delicious Provencal, aioli and curry mayonnaise sauces.
I had also yet to consume a single beer, which, considering my job, was irresponsible really. As far as I’m concerned, Belgium is a beer lover’s mecca and I only had a few hours to complete my pilgrimage before I had to be back to the airport. It wasn’t nearly enough time to put a dent in the country’s formidable list of lambics, abbeys, trappists and more.
You see, Hüseyin Goubella, a local who had generously agreed to show us around town, was filled with information about the city’s cultural history. From the headquarters of the European Union to the architectural magnificence of the Royal Palace, Goubella even knew where to find building-sized paintings of Belgium’s most famous comics, Tintin and the Smurfs (or les Schtroumpfs as they are locally known). But our well-natured tour guide didn’t seem to understand that my passion was really for the kind of culture that can be swallowed.
“The most healthy thing is to enjoy,” he kept saying every time I expressed a desire to sit for some food and beer. “As long as you enjoy, that’s what’s important.”
I knew Chimay would not literally be flowing down the street; I was aware Duvel wouldn’t actually be raining from the heavens, but I didn’t think it was unreasonable to pine for dubbels, tripels, saisons and Flemish red ales in the land that gave them birth. I wanted to sample all the beers that Belgium had to offer – white and red and brown in colour, each in a glass chosen specially to accentuate the drink’s most attractive features.
As someone who developed a love of beer near the beginning of the decade-old US’ craft brewing boom, I have high regard for Belgium’s storied beer-making history. Belgian abbeys started brewing low-alcohol beers as early as the 12th Century as a way to raise funds, and by the 14th Century it was seen as an alternative to unsanitary drinking water and a source of nourishment during Lent.
But while it is the pious monks of the country’s six trappist abbeys that still obsessively watch over some of the country’s best beers, the secular brewers they have inspired have also managed to make adventurous beers without sacrificing quality. This differs from some of Belgium’s European neighbours, where high quality beer is ubiquitous yet unimaginative.
For example, instead of following in the footsteps of Germany’s Reinheitsgebot purity law, which has held German beer to an almost oppressive set of rules for nearly 500 years, Belgians have been turning out ales of remarkable flavour and diversity for hundreds of years by employing a wide range of ingredients and methods that would bar them from even being considered beer by German standards. And it is this innovation that helped pave the way for the US craft beer scene and inspired the burgeoning small-batch brewery movement taking place in countries like Sweden and Italy.