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.

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.