Belgian Beer Weekend
I must admit that this is one of my favourite times to travel to Belgium. You meet people from all over the world that travel here year after year for this great social event that just so happens to be all about beer. Held annually on the first weekend in September, this edition of the Belgian Beer Weekend was its 17th. 44 breweries were on hand in two rows of white tents set up on the Grand Place, the centre of town, with over 400 beers available to taste. There’s always a fair like atmosphere and no cover charge. You just buy your bottle caps at a kiosk for a Euro a pop (most beers are 2, 3 or 4 caps). Don’t forget your 3 Euro glass token, because this is Belgium after all, each beer has its own glass, and no body skimps on fills. There are colourful characters in period garb, dixie land bands marching about, the parade of beer wagons and an almost overwhelming number of beers to challenge your imagination! But the always packed Grand Place is not the only venue. Just a block away behind the old Stock Exchange building was the Bar National, also outside, but with a more relaxed space where you could share large format bottle-conditioned favourites with friends in a more casual atmosphere. And there certainly were some interesting corked specialties not to be found in the shoulder to shoulder fun of the Grand Place. For example, 1894 (8%) from De Brabandere, a strong Belgian pale ale aged in oak. Floral aromatics and yeasty intoxicants leads to a complex palate of fruit, wood and hops, great carbonation. Brugse Zot (6%) is another, beautifully pale, slightly hazy, white head, fruity hints of lemon nose, malt sweetness and spicy dryness characterize this flagship brew from Brouwerij De Halve Maan in Brugges.
Back on the square, there was so much to go for. The sour blends of Petrus at one end, the full bodied goodness of Trappisten at the other, fruit beers from Boon, Abbey brews from St. Feuillien and St. Bernardus, hoppy beers from Le Febvre and Silly, cool amber ales from Het Anker, John Martin and Huyge, to name just a few of the many famous Belgian brewers on hand.
But one must pace oneself at a festival like this. This was only Friday, we had two more days to get through. Plus there are other hallmarks of beer greatness to be found around Brussels, and much to look for cuisine wise too. Rabbit in Lambic, Moules et Frites to name only two. Take a break from the square and walk the tiny streets of the city centre, there’s a delight or two around every corner. The classic beer bar A la Mort Subite is across the street from Cafe Arcadi, a traditional little Belgian cafe with excellent food and a stellar beer menu. The famous Manneken Pis is across from Poechenellekelder, a great beer bar with a terrific terrace for people watching. Moeder Lambic Fontainas is a must stop. 40 taps of bliss, including many sour beers from Payottenlaand and for the festival, specialties brought in from tiny breweries across Europe.
Saturday morning, rain threatened again, but did not materialize. We visited Cantillon for a self guided tour, wondering through the cob-webbed corridors and barrel rooms of Brussels only remaining Lambic brewery. It was thick with festival goers. Then back to the square for more sampling and hob-knobbing. We met a couple of young women from China, a pair of Swedes from Malmo, heard many languages spoken and many cheers rang out. There were new brews from Des Legendes and De Bastogne, classic ales from Abbye des Rocs and Omer Vander Ghiste, Roman, Martens, Des Fagnes, the list went on and on.
Soon we went for frites and other fortifying snacks, and a small nap before tackling ground zero of beer culture in Brussels, the Delirium Cafe. Situated in a cul-de-sac a few short, tiny streets from here, 3 stories of beerology. The downstairs boasts 3000 bottles in their cellar, the menu is a book. The second floor tap room has more than 24 local and imported brews on hand and the 3rd floor Hop Attic, well, you can guess, they serve the hoppiest of beers. It truly was hopping on this Saturday night, shoulder to shoulder on every floor, spilling right out into the alley. Needless to say a fun time was had by all.
Sunday. One more day in the Grand Place to taste those last few beers we had not yet tried. Rain again was forecast, but our luck held out and the sun even shone through for an afternoon appearance. Everyone seemed more subdued than the previous two days. No doubt thinking about getting back to reality through their hangovers. Soon it was time to head our separate ways, homeward bound with bellies full of beer and memories of bubbly ambrosia. Until next time Brussels, à bien tôt!