We're in the final week of the To Europe! Face-Off. Last week's winner was Oktoberfest (Munich, Germany). See the original post here.
It's World Cup time, and sports fans around the globe are hunkered down in front of the TV to root for their national teams. Whether they're watching at home, in a bar, or on a giant screen in the town square, many of these fans wouldn't dare watch the game without a beer in hand. So for our last To Europe Face-Off, we've got beer on our minds. Which European country has the most appealing beer culture for a traveler: Belgium or Ireland?
Have more to say than just a simple vote? Feel free to write a comment to explain your opinion, share a memory of one of the destinations, or simply tell us we're off our rocker because we didn't include your favorite in the matchup. The poll will close at 12:00 PM EST on Wednesday 6/23, and we'll crown our final European Face-Off winner later that afternoon.
Brewing's place in Belgium's cultural pantheon can't be overstated. No other country offers so many distinct and sophisticated styles of beer, each suited to a particular taste, occasion, or meal.
Some visitors to Belgium come specifically for beer tours of the entire country, but it's also rewarding (and easier) to incorporate visits to breweries and other beer-related sights into the general itinerary for your trip. Most breweries own one or several bars in the immediate neighborhood, like the cafés near the Trappist monasteries. They are moderately priced, know exactly how beer should be served, and sometimes have an extra kind of beer that isn't found anywhere else. Many breweries also offer tours, so it's a good idea to do a bit of research before your visit.
The prevalence of beer cafés means you don't necessarily need to travel to remote parts of the country to taste a specific beer. It's possible to order an Orval beer on the North Sea coast or drink a Rodenbach in the Ardennes.
Even though the market has forced many Belgian breweries to merge, creating big international conglomerates such as Inbev, which owns Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, and Anheuser-Busch, you can still find a ton of small breweries and local brands in almost every corner of the country, making Belgium a beer-loving visitor's paradise.
For centuries, the pub has been the center of Irish life. Dispenser of some of the finest beers in the world, informal information bureaus (if you want to know the time of the next bus, the time of Sunday mass, or the location of the nearest drugstore), and spontaneous concert hall, the Irish public house is a national institution. And at the center of it all is the bar, where connoisseurs can belly up to enjoy an array of lager beers (like Heineken Ireland) or the famed "black stuff": Irish stout.
"Stout" aptly describes the formidable heartiness of this thick black brew (and its effect on the human physique). Originated in Ireland, it is a dark beer made using roasted malts or barley, and there are three main brands. Draught Guinness is the standard, with a deep, creamy texture and slightly bitter first tasted, followed by a milder, more "toasty" aftertaste; Murphy's is very much a Cork drink and has a less bitter, more nutty flavor than "Dublin stout"; Beamish is another Cork drink, a little sweeter and less dry than Guinness and Murphy's. Whichever brand you order, remember to never sip until the glass has fully settled--you'll know this from the deep black color and perfectly defined white head.
While stout remains the traditional favorite, regular lagers like Heineken and Carlsberg now outpace the most popular stouts. But either stout or lager can make you feel like one of the regulars if you start "making the rounds." This is the ancient custom of pub newcomers offering to buy the first set of drinks, and when the pints are barely half-full (or is that half-empty), another imbiber stands the round, and so on in turn. To miss your "shout" is to become known for having "short arms and long pockets" and to be shunned by decent people.