Every year for the last 14 years the Grand Place at the centre of Brussels has hosted the Brussels Beer Weekend, the biggest celebration of Belgian beer anywhere in the country, and I’ll bet in the world. 51 breweries showed up for edition #14, presenting more than 350 different Belgian beers from Lambic, Stout, Trappist, Wit and Oud Brune to Golden, Saison, IPA, Abbey and beyond, they are all here! There is no admission fee, one just lines up for beer tokens (bottle caps actually) at 15 caps for 15 Euros and the obligatory 2 Euro glass token. Every Belgian beer has its own designated glass that it is served in, so you leave the token and get it back when you finish your glass, then you can move on to the next beer. This is a real challenge in the shoulder to shoulder international crowds that descend on the Grand Place in happy delirium.
This year, however, there were other options. Just a long block away from the madness was Beer Street, a 50 meter long bar with 46 taps set up at the back end of the Stock Exchange building. A somewhat smaller selection was available here, but it was less crowded and there were no worries about proper glass etiquette, all beers served in generic festival glasses. You still had to line up to buy tokens, as there seemed to be only 2 kiosks selling tokens outside, but then we discovered the Beer & Food part of the festival while looking for Kiosk #3. Inside the beautifully restored Stock Exchange building a Belgian Beer Cafe had been set up, offering tasting trays of 3 different beers paired with gourmet appetizers. What a marvelous idea! Not only that, but the delicious selections changed every hour throughout the day!
We tried the Malheur (6%, golden, subtly hopped honey beer) with prosciutto wrapped capers & cream cheese, Buffalo Bitter (8.5%, sharp, tart, hoppy) accompanied by a blue Gorgonzola style cheese and finally, a Stella Artois (crisp 5% lager) paired with some chocolate mousse. Right away the chocolate made the beer taste better, but with incredible hints of wood, as if the beer had been aged in oak. Wow! We did come back for different selections throughout our weekend’s activities.
Another match up: Hoegaarden Rose (3%, light, sweet, fruity) was offered against a beet, feta & couscous salad balancing them both, then Chimay Bleu (9%, beautiful dark auburn, complex & smooth) with a mysterious blue cheese, soft rind enhancing them both, and finally a Double Eighen, an abbey style dubbel (8%, deep amber, full malt) enlightened the chocolate mousse with candied sprinkles, underlying the contrast between sweet and piquant that swings both ways between beverage and tasty tapas.
My goodness, we flowed back to the sea of people in the Grand Place a few times over the weekend, and that’s one of the beauties of this festival – you can come and go as you please! We slipped out for food (a wonderfully spicy Ethiopian meal at Kokob), cafe time on other streets ((Poechenellekelder and Bier Circus) and visited museums (Magritte, Old Masters, The Royal Palace), but always returning to where there were still many untried beers to be had. We sampled Silly Saison (5% amber, dry & fruity) and Silly Pilsner (5% golden, malt balanced), barked at Blanche de Namur Wit (4.5%, cloudy, spicy, tart) and whistled at Vanderghiste Oud Brune (5.5% blended with lambic, oak aged) on Beer Street, we sipped Kwaremount (6.5% soft, rich) and puckered Petrus Double Brune (6.5% deep brown, full bodied) at the Bavik tent, we tippled Sint Gummarus Triple (8% golden, fruity, some hop) and threw back Pax Pils (crisp, clean, tasty) from the taps at Sint Josef and finally shared Keyte Grand Kriek (strong, big cherry, giant killer) at Strubbe. I’m sure there were more, but documentation gets spotty. All amazing beers in their own ways, running the spectrum of Belgian beer styles, all making me want more, to stay longer, try something new and different again and again! But, alas, all good things come to and end and soon it was Sunday. Surrealism was born in Belgium and is somehow fused into many aspects of Belgian life and society, and certainly the Belgian beer world can seem downright surreal at times, especially on those late nights when you wander from beer bar to cafe, well beyond a decent bed time, until you find yourself, once again, back at the Delirium Cafe wondering what will come next.