For our 1 year wedding anniversary last month, my lovely wife surprised me with a weekend beer getaway to Belgium! Belgium is known for having some of the best – and most unique – beer in the world. It’s also known for its chocolate, specifically truffles, waffles, and fries (or frites). Katarina also gave me a book: The World Atlas of Beer. It gives some great insight to beer made all over the world, plus recommendations of what to try. After some research, we decided to visit both Brussels and Bruges in our weekend. It was so much fun, not just because I got to sample many beers! Here is my advice and suggestions if you ever find yourself in Belgium for a weekend.
Belgian Beer Basics
Belgian beer stands out for its variety. They claim to produce over 400 noticeably different styles and are known for their ales.
Trappist beer is brewed in an abbey under the supervision of monks. It is a special designation given to only 11 breweries in the world — 6 of those are in Belgium. Don’t confuse Trappist beer with the more general Abbey beer.
The terms dubbel and tripel are thought to have monastic origin (quadrupel is a modern invention). They tend to denote beer with increasing levels of alcohol. Typically, a tripel is a strong blonde beer, often aromatic and with hints of citrus. A dubbel is usually darker and might have notes of chocolate or coffee.
Lambic beer is a very special variety brewed only in Belgium with a very long tradition. It is a very unusual beer: quite sour. Some lambic beer is brewed with whole fruit in it, producing a very unique and (still very) sour flavor. Traditional fruity Belgian beer is never sweet.
Belgian beer is typically enjoyed in a chalice or tulip-shaped glass, often at warmer temperatures so you can enjoy the flavor.
Top Three Beers to Try
- Trappistes Rochefort 10: Perhaps the mother of all strong dark beers. You will never forget this one.
- Gulden Draak: Another dark and intense beer. My wife liked this one, and she doesn’t like beer.
- Cantillon Lambic: This brewery doubles as a museum and is too good to miss. There’s a self-guided tour, but if you go on the beer tour we took, you get a guided look inside. The beer is surprising but grows on you. We liked the raspberry.
Best Beer Experiences
- Beer tour: We went on a beer tour with Groovy Brussels and it was excellent. Our guide was really knowledgeable and entertaining. Sharing with my wife, I got to try 8 beers and learned a lot.
- Beer lunch in Bruges: Bruges is just a 1 hour train ride from Brussels and an easy day-trip even if you are only there for a weekend. After a busy morning seeing the charming medieval city, we hunkered down in a cozy bar called De Garre for at least a couple hours, sampling a few beers (including their homebrew) and enjoying a substantial meat and cheese plate.
- Late night beer in the Grand Place: You can grab a seat at one of the many restaurants lining the square and enjoy a Belgian beer while marveling at the square lit up after dark. This was a great way to end the first night after our short flight from Berlin.
The Winning Beers of the Weekend
- Orval: A wonderfully complex Trappist amber ale with a great aroma.
- Westmalle Tripel: An excellent example of what a Tripel should be, bold and strong with lots of flavor.
- Kapittel Prior: A rich dark Tripel that just keeps getting better.
Other Belgian Beer Drinking Tips
- In Belgium, bars are actually called “beer cafes”.
- Don’t just get what’s on tap. Some of the best beers, including many Trappist and Abbey, are available only in bottles, even in Belgium.
- True Trappist beers are denoted by a hexagon on the label.
- You often get a glass that matches the exact beer you ordered.
- Belgian beer often still has yeast in the bottle. An expert pourer decants your beer so most of the yeast stays in the bottle. This is why you are often served a bottle with a small amount of liquid along with your glass. Feel free to drink the dregs – they are rich in vitamins.
- In a Belgian beer cafe, eye contact is preferred over hand signals for indicating you want another beer. Be sure to make eye contact with the bartender or a server on the way in to avoid a long wait for service.
- Keep an open mind – some beers need time to grow on you.
- Take care: Belgian beers might be stronger than you are used to. Many are 8 or 10% alcohol.
- When you get hungry between beers, enjoy the frites, mussels, chocolate, and waffles.
If you enjoy beer and you can make the trip, you won’t regret a weekend in Belgium. Don’t worry, we’ll post about the non-beer parts about the trip too!
Next up on the blog: The Great Cheddar Showdown