A Beer Tour of Belgium
An extensive guide to the most superb beer breweries in Belgium: a beer-lover's nirvana.
by Charles D. Cook
België. Belgique. Belgium.
By whichever name you call it, be it Dutch, French or English, it is the world’s beer country. A place the size of Maryland with more than 130 breweries and 600-plus superb beer bars, Belgium is indeed a beer lover’s nirvana. But with so much to choose from, even savvy beer drinkers can be a bit daunted visiting the country. Fear not beer fans, The Beer Connoisseur is here to help. What follows is a road map to Belgium’s beer offerings, an expert guide to the best of what the country has to offer. Put away the guidebook and pour yourself a brew. We have a lot of ground to cover.
(Photos, unless otherwise noted, by Charles D. Cook)
Heading northwest, you will next come to Limburg in Dutch-speaking Flanders. While this rural Province is not awash in beer culture it does have a number of superb spots worth checking out. The Achel Trappist brewery is certainly one. The oldest part of the abbey dates to 1846, and the entire complex is serene and peaceful. The brewery’s 5 degree Blond and Bruin beers are only available in its taproom, where you can look through glass and see one of the monks, Brother Jules, and Mark Knops, a brewing engineer, at work. You can also choose from among hundreds of beers to take with you in the brewery’s “winkel,” or store.
Brouwerij Kerkom, in Bink, is another top destination. Here, Marc Limet crafts fine brews like the Bink Blond, Bloesem, Bruin, and Tripel. In the summer you can drink in the open courtyard, and there is a cozy café to greet winter visitors.
In the city of Hasselt, ‘t Hemelrijk is the go-to place. This beer café stocks over 550 brews and offers solid Italian cuisine. Heading north towards the Dutch border and Achel, Kasteelbrouwerij Ter Dolen offers several interesting brews, as well as a big tasting café with inside- and outside-drinking options. You can even see the historic castle from the courtyard.
To the west lies the province of Antwerp. Many Belgian beer lovers have heard of Bierhuis Kulminator in the city of Antwerp, which is the world’s most famous café for aged brews. The owners, Dirk Van Dyck and Leen Boudewijn, stock a couple of hundred new beers and many hundreds of cellared brews dating as far back as the early 1970’s. A short walk from Kulminator is Oud Arsenaal, which sports a 1920’s interior and a beery ambiance.
Outside Antwerp city there several other cafés worth visiting. In Blauwberg, Den Hulst offers 150 well-chosen brews, and in Herselt, Café Goede Vrijdag is a Trappist beer lover’s dream. Also try local beers from Brouwerij Den Hopperd, like Kameleon and Ginseng, and ‘t Hofbrouwerijke’s Hofblues, Hoftrol and Bosprotter.
In Noorderwijk, there’s Café Welkom, run by a young cyclist who collects old Volkswagen vans. Stop by for one of the 70 brews on the list. In Turnhout, the famed Spytighen Duvel, in a building that dates to 1740, serves 300-plus beers in a refined, cultured setting.
Two other great breweries with atmospheric tasting cafés and excellent restaurants are the Westmalle Trappist brewery’s Café Trappisten and Mechelen’s Het Anker brewery tap, Brasserie Carolus. At Westmalle, have a draft Dubbel, bottled Tripel, or a mix of the two called a Trip-Trap. Het Anker’s Classic, Tripel and Hopsinjoor are also must-tastes. You can buy beer and chocolates to go in the store next door, and there’s even a hotel on site to accommodate weary travelers.
Flemish Brabant Province surrounds Brussels, and it is packed with superb breweries, cafés and restaurants. In Beersel you can sleep, eat well and choose from among 150 beers at the Hotel Centrum. The Centrum is within sight of the superb Drie Fonteinen complex that includes a restaurant, a lambic blendery and the De LambikODroom café. There, Armand DeBelder blends world-renowned lambic, kriek and Oude Gueuze , while his brother, Guido DeBelder, creates great meals next door.
Also in Beersel is the Oud Beersel lambic blendery. (Be sure to taste its Oude Gueuze and Oude Kriek before leaving the Centrum.) Another lambic blendery in the area is Hanssens of Dworp, and you can drink Hanssens Oude Gueuze, Kriek and other brews, along with all the other lambic beers produced in the Payottenland, Belgium’s lambic country, at the excellent Boelekewis café in Huizingen.
Karel Goddeau blends some great lambic brews at De Cam in Gooik. His lambics are offered on draft next door to the blendery at Volkscafe De Cam, which also serves standout cuisine. Beginning to see a pattern here? Great lambics and great food go hand-in-hand in Flemish Brabant.
At Brouwerij Boon in Lembeek, Frank Boon, the brewer and owner, and the rest of the crew also craft some mighty fine lambics. And lastly, the Girardin lambic brewery in St-Ulriks Kapelle, whose Oude Gueuze 1882 remains a classic of the style, is known as Belgium’s most difficult brewery to visit. It is an independent, self-reliant and proud family brewery that is never open to the public for tours, though you purchase its beers on-site in the sales office.
The most well-known brewery in the rural province of Wallonian Brabant is Brasserie Lefebvre, also closed to the public. Keep an eye out for their new Hopus beer, at 8.5 percent ABV and 40 IBU’s, which has fast become popular in craft beer circles all over Belgium. The newest beer star in the area is Jandrain-Jandrenouille, a farmhouse brewery in 17th-century buildings that produces the very tasty Saison IV and other beers.
Luxembourg Province, in the far southeastern part of Belgium, is dominated mostly by countryside and rolling hills, but there are some real gems there. Dany Prignon, the eccentric head of Brasserie Fantome, creates some eclectic brews in the town of Soy. Brasserie La Rulles’s Gregory Verhelst also produces a superb lineup of beers, like the Blonde, Estivale and Triple, at the roadside brewery.
But the most famous brewery here is the Trappist Orval, whose popular namesake pale ale is known for its a funky, hoppy character, the product of wild brettanomyces yeasts and dry-hopping. You can tour the impressive 12th-century abbey’s grounds and dine at the brewery’s l’Ange Gardien taproom.
Head north into Namur Province and you will find the Rochefort Trappist brewery. Unfortunately you’ll have to enjoy the excellent 6, 8, and 10 degree dark brews elsewhere, as there is no brewery taproom. Try the Relais St-Remy tavern, which is not too far off a rural road from the abbey, or, in the town of Rochefort itself, La Gourmandise. Either way you won’t be disappointed.
Brasserie Caracole, situated near Dinant, still uses a brew kettle heated by direct fire to turn out a solid lineup of brews, like Saxo and Nostradamus.
Hainaut Province, the home of farmhouse ales, is one of the most beer-centric parts of Belgium, with around 25 breweries in all. The renowned Brasserie Dupont produces a stellar lineup of beers like Saison Dupont, Moinette, Avec Les Bons Voeux and Cervesia, and its copper brew kettles, dating to 1844, are the oldest still in use in Belgium.
Blaugies, with its taphouse and restaurant, Les Fourquets, is another farmhouse brewery well worth a visit. And don’t miss Dubuisson and its restaurant either, especially if you like strong brews such as Bush (Scaldis) 12. Also in the neighborhood is Brasserie Vapeur, whose brewhouse, as its name implies, still runs off an old steam engine. Stop by on an open brew day, the last Saturday of every month, to see it in action. De Ranke in Dottignies also crafts some of the best beers in the country, such as XX Bitter and Kriek.
The province of East Flanders lies to the west of Brussels and is part of the heartland of Belgian beer, rich in breweries and cafés. One of the greats is Malheur, also called De Landtsheer. The Malheur Brut and Dark Brut are two superb strong brews, produced roughly in the Méthode Champenoise style. De Glazen Toren, near Aalst, also has some great beers, such as a Saison and a Tripel. One of the three brewing partners is Jef Van den Steen, who is well known as Belgium’s premier beer writer.
At Brouwerij De Ryck, An de Ryck has been brewing longer than any other female brewer in Belgium. Her De Ryck Special is a classic Belgian pale ale and is sometimes served from gravity kegs.
De Proefbrouwerij in Lochristi is an amazingly clean, technologically advanced brewery. The brewer and owner, Dirk Naudts, used to teach brewing science before moving on to create beers like the Brewmasters Collection for SBS Imports. Many of the Mikkeller beers are brewed at the “De Proef” brouwerij as well. Contreras, south of Ghent, still uses some beautiful old brewing equipment, and it crafts a number of fine beers, like Especial Mars.
East Flanders is chock full of great beer cafes. One of the best is De Heeren Van Liedekercke in Denderleeuw, south of Aalst, a restaurant and café with 300 beers and excellent food. Another great one is De Gans (“the Goose”) near Huise, which is one of Belgium’s top country cafés. With 300-plus beers on the list and goose memorabilia covering its walls, you’ll be sufficiently entertained in this cozy, three-room roadside spot.
Another superb rural cafe and restaurant is De Pikardijn in Sint-Lievens Houtem. With delectable foods, 220 beers and enthusiastic owners, it is well worth a the trip. And in Ghent, Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant is a much-loved city café, situated near the center of old Ghent right beside a canal. It’s 175 beers, several of which are offered on draft, are all well-chosen.
Finally, heading west toward the Belgian coast will take you to the province of West Flanders. The Rodenbach brewery in Roeselare has Belgium’s benchmark Flanders red ales, aged in 300 huge oak barrels. Brouwerij St-Bernardus, near Watou on the French border, crafts superb blond and dark beers. The Westvleteren Trappist brewery is not far away, and you can sample the Blond, 8 and 12 at the Cafe In de Vrede across the street from the abbey. De Struise Brouwers, with great brews like Aardmonnik and Pannepot, is also in the area and recently completed work on a new facility.
De Dolle Brouwers in Esen should be on your itinerary as well. You can sample Oerbier, Stille Nacht and other beers in their taproom on weekends. Van Honsebrouck in Ingelmunster also has a fine range of ales, such as Kasteel Blond and Dark, both with 11 percent ABV. Cafe ‘t Kroegske, which serves more than 400 beers, is nearby in Izegem.
Picobrouwerij Alvinne in Heule is turning out many well-respected beers, including Podge Belgian Imperial Stout, Extra Restyled and Gaspar, to name but a few. Their tasting room, called Proefzolder, is open every other Saturday.
Cafe ‘t Rusteel near Kortrijk in Gullegem is another excellent place. Among its 300 beers is Netebuk, brewed just yards away at the Brouwkot microbrewery.
The beautiful medieval city of Bruges is home to one of Belgium’s greatest beer cafes, ‘t Brugs Beertje, which has been owned and run by Daisy Claeys since 1983. Its beery ambiance and selection of 300 bottled brews, as well as five on draft, will keep you happy for many a visit.
Take it from a Connoisseur. Don’t miss these spots on your next trip to Belgium.
De Cam and Volkscafe
De Dolle Brouwers
Girardin Lindenberg 10 12, Sint Ulriks Kapelle.
Tel: 02 453 94 19
De Glazen Toren
Grain ‘d orge
Den Hopperd Netestraat 67, Westmeerbeek.
Tel: 016 68 09 78
Malheur (De Landtsheer)
De Struise Brouwers
Westmalle Café Trappisten
Westmalle Abbey and Brewery
Cafe in de Vrede
Gans Kloosterstraat 40, Huise. Tel: 09 384 90 25
De Heeren Van Liedekercke
Hemelrijk Hemelrijk 11, Hasselt. Tel: 011 22 28 51
Den Hulst Hulst 4, Blauwberg. Tel: 014 54 49 35
Bierhuis Kulminator Vleminckveld 32, Antwerp.
Tel: 03 232 45 38
La Gourmandise Rue de Behogne 24, Rochefort.
Tel: 084 22 21 81
L’ Ange Gardien Rue D’Orval 3, Villers-devant-Orval. Tel: 065 69 00 79
Les Fourquets Rue de la Frontiere 438, Blaugies.
Tel: 065 69 00 79
Oud Arsenaal Maria Pijpelincxstraat 4, Antwerp.
De Pikardijn Cotthem 6, St Lievens Houtem.
Tel: 09 360 51 28
Relais St Remy
Le Vaudree cafes
Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant
(Feature Photo Courtesy of the Belgian Tourist Office NYC/USA)