Monday, May 16, 2011

Belgium: "Beer is the Answer"

I was planning to keep a list of all the beers we drank on our RTW adventure. However, I quickly abandoned that idea because beer (and everything else) was so expensive in Australia, our first destination, that we had to drink cheap wine instead! While we did make a point to seek out craft brews as often as possible during the trip, it wasn't until we got to Europe that we specifically went to a destination with the sole purpose of consuming as much beer as possible. Yes, it's true, we went to Belgium primarily to drink beer!
a fantastic beer bar in Brussels
What you have to remember is that Belgian beers generally have a fairly high alcohol content (ABV) compared to typical American brews. It is actually quite challenging to drink a lot of different 8+% ABV beers on any one day and still be able to navigate your way back to your hotel.  And considering that there are over 800 (not a typo) standard Belgian beers available, you'd have to spend a few YEARS in the country to try all of them!
this is what you'll look like after drinking too many strong Belgian beers
Greg & I only had a few days in Belgium; four and a half to be exact. We decided to start our Belgian beer adventure in Brussels (three nights) and then, for a smaller, more historic town experience, take the train to Bruges (two nights). As we were both still suffering from severe allergies, that also impacted our ability to consume as much beer as possible. But, of course, we did our best!
I'll take one of each, please
One thing you should know about our drinking styles (if you don't remember from all my Portland blogs or my Facebook beer list is that I prefer dark, full-bodied beers like Porters & Stouts and Greg generally drinks lighter beers like Pilsners & IPA's. Interestingly, we've recently discovered that when Greg's allergies are at their worst, he is more sensitive to hoppy beers as well as to either the sulfites or tannins in wine. Also, we jokingly like to say that Greg is quantity control and I am quality control!
guess which beer belongs to me?
I only have one negative comment about our Belgian beer experience. Apparently you can still smoke inside restaurants and bars in Belgium, something we did not encounter anywhere else in Europe. Oh, and something that is not specifically Belgium's fault:  While we were there, the dollar was trading at just under 1.48 to the euro, making everything seem even more expensive! In three days (including only one beer on a fourth day; see details below), I drank approximately 37.75 euros worth of beer or $56!!!
sitting next to a smoker at Delirium Tap House in Brussels
Besides pub crawls, one of the most interesting things we did in both cities was a brewery tour. In Brussels we went to Cantillon, a traditional brewery operating in the same location near the Gare du Midi/du Sud since 1900. Cantillon was unique because, upon paying 6 euros per person, we were given an informational booklet and a brief introduction from one of the staff, then allowed to roam freely throughout the brewery on a self-guided tour. Perhaps due to its location in a row of townhouses, we felt like we were poking around someone's attic! Cantillon specializes in gueuzes and lambics, quite different from your average beer. Included with each admission is a full glass of, you guessed it, either gueuze or lambic (cherry or raspberry). While these beers are an acquired taste, it was still an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. An added bonus: their website has a free, downloadable walking tour of Brussels.
at Cantillon: cobwebs are a brewers friend
In Bruges we toured De Halve Maan brewery. Operated by six generations of one family since 1856, the "Half Moon" has now been thoroughly modernized and continues to brew its award-winning Brugse Zot's and Straffe Hendrik. Our tour was conducted by the middle-aged grandson of one of the former bottlers (back in the days when everything was done manually). His enthusiasm was undeniable and our tour was even more interesting because they were actually brewing beer on the day we were there. Another fun aspect of the tour was that the layout of the brewery requires climbing up & down steep ladder-like stairs and navigating low-ceilinged rooms. Plus you are rewarded with a great rooftop view over all of Bruges, thus no need to pay 8 euros to climb the 366 steps to the top of the Belfry! As at Cantillon, our 6 euro tour included one 33cl glass of beer (Brugse Zot blond).
view from the roof of De Halve Maan in Bruges
One final note about our selection of beers. We intentionally sought out Trappist beers as there are only seven recognized trappist breweries in the world; six in Belgium and one in the Netherlands. The most exclusive, due to their miniscule yearly output, is Westvleteren. And while I did find a beer store that will give you one 33cl bottle if you spend more than 100 euros in their store or order a minimum of 25 bottles of other beers online, it is just as easy to ask around at the best bars, like 't Brugs Beertje, who can inform you which other local bars might have some (for anywhere from 9 to 25 euros for a small bottle!). However, after talking to one bartender who has tried Westvleteren several times, I decided there were plenty of other wonderful, unique beers to sample that were much easier to find and were half as expensive.
delicious beers (and free cheese!) at De Garre
Here are the links to my Belgium photo albums (despite what you may expect, there are plenty of photos of things besides beer!):

Here is my Belgian beer consumption list:

@ Cantillon Brewery
6EUR tour included one drink; I chose the Lambic

@ Moeder Lambic Fontainas 12pm
Adelardus Brune 7% 30cl 3,40EUR
served with roasted barley, plus we had a coupon for free tapas (a small sausage platter)

@ Chez Leon for lunch
ordered the "formule": 500gr mussels + fries + Maes Pils for 12,90EUR

@ A La Mort Subite 4pm
Westmalle Double Brune 33cl (draft) 4,30EUR

@ Delirium Tap House 5:15pm
Viven Porter 7% (draft) 3,70EUR (tastes like Portland, OR!)

@ Celtica 6:15pm
Maes pint 2EUR

@ Les Brasseurs de la Grande Place
tasted their Amber; shared a small Dark 4,50EUR

@ La Source for lunch: vol au vent 10EUR
Brugse Zot bruin 33cl (draft) 3,50EUR

@ Bauhaus Bar
Leffe Brune 6.5% 33cl (draft) 2,50EUR

@ 't Brugs Beertje
De Koninck 5% 25cl (draft) 2,50EUR

@ Carrefour Market (purchased from grocery store to drink in our hotel room)
Ciney Brune 7% 25cl ,85EUR

@ De Halve Maan brewery
5,75EUR tour included one 33cl Brugse Zot blond (draft); purchased Straffe Hendrick Quadrupel 11% 75cl 5,40EUR (brought home to TN)

@ De Garre
Gulden Draak (draft) 3,50EUR

@ 't Brugs Beertje
Achel Brune 8% 33cl 3,25EUR
met couple on vacation from Denver, CO who bought us a round to commemorate the last night of our trip: Smisje Guido 8%
purchased Basilius 7% 75cl 9EUR (brought home to TN)

@ Carrefour Market (purchased from grocery store to bring home to TN)
Rochefort 10 11.3% 33cl 2,09EUR
Rochefort 8 9.2% 33cl 1,49EUR
Corsendonk Pater Dubbel 7.5% 1,25EUR
Westmalle Dubbel 7% 0,92EUR
Orval 6.2% 33cl 1,50EUR
this is what I brought home in our checked luggage

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