Any beer drinker who comes to Flanders to drink lager such as the local Jupiler has missed the point. It is like wanting to sample the food and sticking with chips, or trying to see the region without leaving the motorways. International-brand lagers are like white sliced bread – simple, predictable, dull and everywhere. Flemish ones are no better than the rest.
The beers that make Belgian brewing world famous come mainly in bottles, usually with a yeast sediment (so pour with care) and sometimes in a size (75cl) designed for sharing, like wine. Some come bearing a logo that reads ‘Authentic Trappist Product’, a sign that it is made within the confines of a Trappist abbey at the behest of the Order. The monastic connection goes back to the days when abbeys were centres of scientific study, which included working out how a benign Almighty had enabled man to make alcohol out of anything that grows from the ground. Whoever makes the beers, they come in just about every strength, shade and style imaginable. Each has its own glass, too, though this is mainly for marketing purposes.
Relatively well-known brands like Hoegaarden wheat beer, Belle Vue cherry beer, Leffe Blond and others have popularised Belgian brewing, but are not its finest achievements. What follows is a quick run through of Flanders’ better brews.
(Photo: © Visit Flanders)
The van Eecke and St Bernard breweries of Watou, in the hop-growing area west of Poperinge, brew great beers in numerous styles under the Watou, Kapittel and St Bernardus brands. Nearby, the café opposite the abbey gates at Westvleteren serves its remarkable Trappist ales. Best local style Oak-aged ales like Rodenbach Grand Cru, Vichtenaar, Duchesse de Bougogne or Bavik Aged Pale come mainly from around Kortrijk.
Brewery to visit: Oerbier brewed by Dolle Brouwers near Diksmuide.
The transformation of Limburg from the Flemish coalfield to a holiday area of forests and lakes brought with it a quiet revolution in beer making, topped off by the arrival of the new Trappist brewery at Achel, on the Dutch border. Best local style Limburg brewers make light blond ales with a distinctive hoppy character. Try Martens Sezoens, Bink Blond, Ops-Ale, Ter Dolen Blond or the draught blond ale at the Achel cloister to get the drift. Brewery to visit The loveliest brewery buildings in Flanders belong to Kerkom Brouwerij, near Sint-Truiden, (469 Naamsesteenweg, Kerkom; Apr–Sep 12.00–19.00 Wed–Fri, 10.00–19.00 Sat–Sun, Oct–Apr 12.00–19.00 Thu–Sun). In summer they use the old farm buildings and in winter open their traditional 19th-century café. Try the two Bink tripels.
The crucible of the Belgian beer revolution is going through hard times. A bolleke of De Koninck may still be the toast of the city but is rarely seen beyond it. Big blond Duvel, from Breendonk near Puurs, is the beer that struts its stubbybottled stuff round the globe. Best local style The modern incarnations of the dubbel and tripel styles of ale have their origins in beers made at the abbey of Westmalle, northwest of Antwerp, whilst the last of the great Mechelen brown ales is Gouden Carolus Classic. Brewery to visit Het Anker, in Mechelen, is the only brewery to offer a guesthouse and it has has a massive bistro.
Brussels and Brabant
The only Belgian beers with a European Union TSG (Traditional Speciality Guaranteed) certification are three types of lambic beers called oude g(u)euze, oude kriek and faro. The oude distinguishes them from (often tacky) modern derivatives. Best local style The building blocks of lambic beers are musty, fungal, lactic, citrus fluids called lambics, made much like regular beers except that they are fermented by naturally occurring air-borne yeast, over years, in oak casks. Expert blenders then mix these and bottle them, sparking new life to create clear, ultra-dry oude geuze. Alternatively they may fill a cask with bucket-loads of hard, dry cherries to steep in lambic for many months before bottling as oude kriek. To appreciate authentic lambic beers, suspend disbelief and anything your taste buds ever taught you. Think traditional cider perhaps, or local wines from mountain villages. The very best are from Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, Hanssens and De Cam. Brewery to visit: The Cantillon brewery in Brussels shows how lambic is made and sells samples. There are public brewing days in March and November.
Most of the East Flanders’ 17 breweries produce good beers but, sadly, few let in visitors. And while brand names like Witkap, Pater Lieven, Valeir and Malheur usually indicate high quality, there is no longer a specific East Flanders’ style of beer. However, if there is such a thing as the nicest pub in Belgium, the Gulzigen Bok (48 Gentweg; 11.00–late Thu–Sun) in Vurste, just south of Gent, might just be it.