Beer takes pride of place in Belgium’s cultural pantheon. Like everything in Belgium, the history of the brewski in Belgium has deep roots. Brewing took off here in the early Middle Ages, when hops cultivation was introduced and monasteries got in on the act. Today, some of the country’s top beers are still produced by monasteries. In addition to large industrial breweries, Belgium is home to many small artisanal factories that excel in creating special brands. Beer lists in pubs and restaurants in Belgium often have hundreds of options, and some breweries have guided tours and tastings. Here are some of our favorite brewery tours.
Antwerp today is Europe’s second-largest port and has much of the zest often associated with a harbor town. But it also has an outsized influence—that of clothing designers, and the people who love them. This is also a city whose denizens love to wet their whistles. In fact, there are at least 2,500 taverns in Antwerp, one for every 20 inhabitants. Drink up.
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De Koninck. Antwerp’s last remaining brewery is hidden between a crisscross of heavily trafficked roads. Things were quieter at the beginning of the 19th century, when Joseph Deconinck bought De Plaisante Hof (The Pleasant Garden), originally an inn, and turned it into the brewery that soon became Antwerp’s pride and joy. Arrange visits by phone or Internet at least one month in advance; you’ll get a general introduction, take a tour of the brewery, and taste two beers. 291 Grote Steenweg, Middleheim. 32/18-40-48. www.dekoninck.be.
Moortgat. This family-owned brewery has produced its signature strong (8.5%) blond beer—along with six others—since Albert Moortgat began importing yeast from Scotland in the 1920s. You’ll find Duvel (Devil) in almost every café in Belgium. The name’s meaning will become clear after your third glass. Groups of at least 10 can reserve a tour. In Breendonk, along the A12 motorway between Antwerp and Brussels. 58 Breedonkdorp, Breendonk. 03/860-9400. www.duvel.be .
Bierhuis Kulminator. This famous Antwerp bar pours 550 different kinds of beer, including EKU-28, known as the strongest beer on earth. Vleminckveld 32-34, Oude Stad. 03/232/-4538. Closed Sun.
The capital is an excellent starting point for beer lovers. There’s a beer museum in the heart of the city on the Grand’Place and numerous cafés with exhaustive beer menus around town. Some especially worthwhile ones are A La Mort Subite, Café Falstaff (near the Grand’Place), and the stylish belle epoque Hotel Metropole. Although there’s only one traditional brewery left, Brussels has historically been the home of Lambik beer. The eight other Lambik breweries are in the Pajottenland region, to the west of Brussels.
Brewer’s House. In the 16th century, the original brewers’ guild headquarters was on the Grand’Place in Den Gulden Boom. Today, the Belgian Brewer’s Association’s home is in an 18th-century mansion on the same square. The upper floors are closed to the public, but in the cellar you’ll find a small museum containing tools from the original Hoegaarden brewery as well as a high-tech video installation in four languages that provides an excellent overview of the brewing process. Grand’Place 10, Lower Town. 02/511-4987. www.beerparadise.be. Daily, 10-5.
Museum van de Gueuze. Since 1900, this brewery has produced Lambik and specialty beers. Although Lambik is the quintessential Brussels beer, this is the only Lambik brewery left in Brussels. On tours, available in English, you’ll see the works, from the aging containers to the bottling machines, and have a tasting. Many commercially brewed Lambiks bear scant resemblance to the real thing, so drink up while you’re here. Rue Gheude 56, Anderlecht. 02/521-4928. www.cantillon.be. Hours vary with seasons. Call ahead.
A La Mort Subite. Young and old, regulars and tourists patronize this atmospheric café. The beer list covers some real winners: Lambik, Gueuze, and Kriek from the Brussels region, and four of the six Belgian Trappist beers. Snacks include kip kap (a plate of assorted cold cuts), kop (meat from a pig’s head) and bread with platte kaas (creamy white cheese). Montagne aux Herbes Potagères 7.
The boot-shape Botte du Hainaut region is rich in wooded valleys, villages, and lakes. Towns here are small and untouristy. At the bottom of the “botte” is Chimay, a small town where time seems to have come to a standstill. It has a château, a mostly 16th-century church, a nearby monastery, and decorous classical-music concerts. Chimay was also the home of Froissart, the 14th-century historian whose chronicles furnished the background information for many of Shakespeare’s plays.
Notre-Dame de Scourmont. The monks of this Trappist monastery (established in 1850) produce some of the best cheese and tastiest beer in Belgium. Chimay is commonly praised for its blue and red beers, colors referring not only to the label, but also to the beer itself. Red Chimay is deep red and tastes soft and fruity; its blue counterpart has a dark brown appearance, and its full, rich flavor continues to evolve. They also make five different kinds of cheese. Although the abbey is not open to the public, except for retreats, you can visit the church and the gardens. About five miles south of Chimay. 060/21/03-27. Church and gardens daily 8-8. Tues.-Fri. tour at 10. www.chimay.be.
Auberge De Poteaupré. The Abbey’s beer and cheese, as well as other local products make up the menu of this café and restaurant. The space accommodates up to 260 people and has seven rooms for rent. Rue de Poteaupré 5. 60/211433. www.poteaupre.com.
A 30-minute train ride from Brussels, Leuven, like Oxford or Cambridge, is a town dominated by its university. Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, founded in 1425, is one of Belgium’s oldest universities. After hitting the books, the university’s 31,000 students have little difficulty finding a local brew to unwind over.
Stella Artois. Stella is the premier institution of Belgian brewing. The brewery resides in a mammoth building with a sleek, modern exterior. All that contemporary gloss suggests the brewery hasn’t been around long, but in fact beer has been made on this spot since 1366. Master brewer Sebastien Artois took over the operation in 1717. You can size up the enormous modern vats as a tour takes you through the entire brewing process. It’s best to make tour reservations three weeks in advance. Vaartkom 33. 016/24-71-11. Weekdays 10, 1:30, and 3.
Domus. Tucked into a back street off the Grote Markt, this café adjoins the tiny Domus brewery, famous for its honey beer. The place is casual, the clientele on the young side, and the decor authentically rustic: craggy old beams, a brick fireplace, dusty bric-a-brac, and paisley table throws. The menu includes traditional dishes such as black-and-white pudding with apples. Tiensestraat 8. 016/20-14-49. www.domusleuven.be.
Once an important center for tapestry making and silversmithing, Oudenaarde is now a quiet provincial town on the banks of the Schelde river. For a taste of rural Flanders, visit the region to the north of Oudenaarde. Small villages (like Mullem or Wannegem) with cobblestone streets and old cafés are hidden among the woods and fields.
Liefmans. This small brewery is a bit outside of town, towards Aalst. Visits are possible (only by appointment), but make sure you get a peek at the magnificent Baudelot hall no matter what. Several tasty beers are made here, including the soft, dark Oud Bruin, the newer and stronger Jan van Gent, and the very sweet Kriek and Frambozen bier (cherry and raspberry beer). Aalststraat 200. 055/31-13-91. www.liefmans.be.
Roman. A family brewery since 1545, Roman is now run by the 12th generation of Romans. In addition to the traditional Romy pils and wheat and brown beers, in 1990 it added to its list Ename, a rich and delicious abbey beer. Haurwart 105. 055/45-54-01. Visits by appointment Tues.-Thurs. www.roman.be.
De Mouterij. A nice place to taste some of Liefmans’s beer, along with 30 other types of Belgian beer, De Mouteroj is a former malt factory near the Markt. The menu provides abundant and inexpensive dishes such as everzwijnstoofvlees (stew of wild boar) and vispannetje (fish casserole). It’s closed on Wednesday. Meerspoortsteeg 2. 055/30-48-10. www.demouterij.com.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of (l-r) (1)Lise Gagne; (2)Museum van de Gueuze; (3)Domus; (4)Liefmans