Brewing a love of beer in Brussels
If I’d had more than 11 hours in Brussels, I would have visited the highly praised abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren to sample their vaunted Westvleteren 12, considered by critics to be the best beer in the world. In order to visit, there are certain rules: thou shalt make reservations, thou shalt buy no more than one crate during a 60-day period (they only brew enough to afford living as monks), and thou shalt agree not to then immediately sell the purchased crate for an absurdly high amount. Unfortunately, the 140km drive east was too far for my layover.
A more practical option would have been a tour and tasting at Brussel’s Cantillon Brewery, which still makes traditional lambics exactly as it did when it opened more than 100 years ago, but since it was closed on the day we visited (Sunday) we headed over to Café Belga in the Ixelles neighbourhood for a couple of rounds after filling up on frites at Frit Flagey.
A bright, spacious spot made for people watching as much as drinking, Café Belga is a prime example of Belgium’s ubiquitous beer cafes – buzzing with men, women, children and their dogs, the taps flowing into chalices, snifters and tulip glasses.
I started with a gueuze, a blend of old and young lambics produced by Lindemans, a brewery in Vlezenbeek, just outside Brussels. It was dry, sour, acidic and, unlike most lambics, effervescent. My dad got an Orval strong ale, the only beer made for the general public by the trappist Orval Brewery in Belgium’s southern Gaume region. It is an ale of such dry, hoppy deliciousness there need be no second. It is also the beer that inspired Goose Island's Matilda, one of the US’ more famous Belgian-style ales. Goubella got a Maredsous 6, a blonde ale brewed by Duvel Moortgat in Breendonk, just south of Brussels. I found it to have an offputtingly sweet aftertaste, especially considering it came from the geniuses who brew Duvel and are also one of the original investors in New York state’s Ommegang brewery, one of the best beer makers in the US.
We passed the three around before sampling the mildly spicy Tripel Karmeleit from Brouwerij Bosteels in the northern Belgium town of Buggenhout, and the malty St Feuilien tripel, brewed by Brasserie St Feuillien in the central Belgium town of Le Roeulx. Both were complex, smooth, slightly fruity strong pale ales that hit the spot.
There was something special about being able to drink – and compare – many of the beers that inspired my US favourites in their homeland. I say this with the deep belly laughs of almost every Belgian or German I’ve ever met still ringing in my ears, but I believe that, overall, the United States is currently brewing the best beer on Earth. Portland, Maine’s Allagash Brewery, for example, makes a tripel and a witbier that comes close to, or equals, any similar beers I’ve sampled from Belgium.
But I also couldn’t help but admire that, while Americans are still learning to appreciate the diverse, complex, adventurous suds, it has become second nature for Belgians. They have been enjoying similar local brews for so many generations that they’re not only discussing which brew is the best, but which vessel to serve it in and whether bottles should be shaken slightly to mix the yeast before pouring. Will a tulip glass suffice for that tripel or will only the bespoke trappist glass show the proper reverence?
After the slight buzz from the tripels faded and long after the memory of those sour notes from the gueuze left my tongue, I will recall the memory of passing those glasses around the table and the genuine joy of a local sharing his culture with travellers who were happily drinking it in.