Home to a seemingly endless variety of beers and a vast array of traditions surrounding their consumption and production, Belgium’s beer culture runs so deep it’s actually a protected UNESCO Intangible Culture Heritage. (The “intangible” bit is slightly questionable— tell that to the bartenders who spend half their night washing intricately-shaped beer glasses by hand!—but okay.) While Oktoberfest roars along full steam, Belgium’s neighbor to the East often gets most of the credit as Europe’s beer capital. But with its charming sidewalk cafes, a twilight beer-sipping culture that’s more about quality than quantity, and, yeah, okay, famously boozy beers, Belgium is one of the best places to go for a beer-soaked vacation—without having to worry about bringing vomit-resistant shoes with you.
I’m lucky enough to live with a Brussels-born beer lover, which means that I have been indoctrinated into the world of Belgian beer, and recently returned from an intensive beer-research trip to Belgium’s capital. Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned about this beer-crazy country over the years. Call it a crash course in how to have a fruitful—and in some cases literally full of fruit—Brussels beer trip.
Trappist beers boast an official designation for breweries associated with Trappist abbeys. There are 11 Trappist breweries worldwide, and six in Belgium: Achel, Orval, Westmalle, Rochefort, Chimay, and Westvleteren (which is sometimes called the best beer in the world). The Trappist breweries make a variety of styles, often including several famed dubels and tripels. Achel brews a bunch of types of beer, while Orval only makes one. (That said, you might be lucky enough to find aged Orval on menus, which I recommend trying.)
You will also occasionally see the terms “Abdijbieren” or “Bières d'abbaye” on menus. These refer to abbey beers. This is more or less a marketing term that means the beer or brewery in question is in some way associated with an abbey, but not necessarily a Trappist one. Regardless, many of these beers, including St. Bernardus, Tripel Karmeliet, and others, are some of the best you’ll find.
Another incredibly famous Belgian beer, lambics are grouped by their brewing method. These are often quite sour and are a bit of an acquired taste, but once you get into them there’s a whole world of lambic to explore.
Variations on lambics are often sweetened slightly. There is faro, in which a lambic is sweetened a bit with caramelized sugar and is traditionally served flat, although carbonated versions are available. Geuze is made by combining a young lambic and an older lambic together in a bottle and allowing a second fermentation to occur. And finally the famous fruit beers, in which lambic is sweetened with fruit. Common flavors include kriek (cherry), framboise (raspberry), or peche (peach).
The Other Stuff
Belgium makes a hell of a lot of beers beyond Trappists and Lambics, though. There are the Flemish Reds, a sour, almost wine-like beer, and the wits, made with wheat. There are saisons and Christmas beers and golden strong ales and lightly hopped ambers. There are even, now, American-style IPAs—pronounced EE-pas, ha ha—if that’s what floats your boat. And the best way to find out what you like is to drink your way through some of Brussels’ longest beer lists.
The Deal with Glassware
Unlike in the US, where bars serve beer in whatever pint glass is closest at hand, Belgium takes its glassware very seriously. Every brewery produces its own glass, and bars actually use them to serve their beer. These include simple, flat-bottomed glasses similar to (albeit smaller than) American-style pint glasses; bell-shaped, stemmed, etched beauties; and fantastically shaped blown glass numbers that require wooden stands to be kept upright. After heading to Belgium, you’ll never look at a beer glass the same way again, I promise.
Where to Drink in Brussels
Before you go anywhere on this list, do check to see what days the place is open, and double check their social media to see if they’re on vacation. I have learned this lesson the hard way.
- A La Mort Subite Near the Grand Place lies this charming slice of traditional Brussels cafe culture where you can get all manner of beer, plus an omelet or a croque monsieur if you’re feeling peckish.
- Poechenellekelder Yes, it’s near the tourist zoo surrounding Manneken Pis; go anyway. This is where you can go to find the weird and the rare.
- Brasserie Cantillon Cantillon is a renowned brewer of spontaneously fermented beers. Take the self-guided tour, then sample the goods.
- Moeder Lambic Original Get your butt out of the city center and into this temple to all beers lambic. (There is a central location as well, at Place Fontainas 8.)
- A l'Imaige Nostre-Dame Hidden down a long, narrow alley lies this cozy cafe that feels like a secret, even when it’s packed. Afterwards, head across the alley to the wood-paneled and super-cozy Au Bon Vieux Temps.
- Au Brasseur This is where to go for flights, if you’re looking to try more beers in a shorter amount of time.
How to Bring it Home with You
Now that you’re hooked, you’ll want to bring some beers back home. You can buy beer at the airport duty free, but these are some of the more common breweries that are often available in the US. Your best bet is to go to one of the many stores surrounding the Grand Place that cater to tourists, selling hundreds of different bottles (along with their accompanying glassware). Small bottles are best protected in your suitcase by shoving them in your shoes, while larger bottles can be rolled up in jeans. In either case, snuggle them in the center of your suitcase and cross your fingers. Try De Biertempel, Beer Planet, or Malt Attacks.