On my first ever time backpacking in mainland Europe, I was a beer virgin, but returned home a beer aficionado. My college friend and I were headed from Amsterdam to Paris when we made a fateful decision to stop in Belgium for a few days.
While on the train, I headed to the vending machines to get refreshments. As I perused the choices, I soon found out that a can of beer was way cheaper than soda or water. Being a frugal backpacker, I decided to buy, unbeknown to me at that time, the most popular Belgian beer called Jupiler. As I cracked the can open when I returned to my seat, I realized that no one gave me the evil eye as I sipped and enjoyed my first taste of Belgian beer. From where I am from, a twenty-something woman drinking on a train would be judged as an alcoholic or worse. But on that train, everyone was doing the same thing and those few days spent in the land of waffles and chocolate became my first steps of self-discovery in beer gastronomy.
In between sightseeing, I discovered that beer is not only regarded as a treat, but as a natural part of life. People sit together in bars, parks, balconies and even beaches over a glass of beer at any time of day. It seems to me that beer is the glue that ties the Walloons (French-speakers) and Flemish (Dutch-speakers) together as Belgians. Even though they would congregate in their own groups, they share the same affection and appreciation towards their country’s brewing industry. There are several beer styles that range from lambic to dubel to tripel to saison to abbey and other uncategorized ones. What I found most intriguing is that the trappist style has a social dimension. It is brewed by Trappist monks. Profits from sales are used towards charity and to support the upkeep of the monastery. So you are not only drinking for fun, but also helping a cause. One note of caution is that Belgian beers are usually stronger. Some are even as strong as wine. Fortunately, you will be served in smaller glasses especially made for that particular beer to enhance its taste and your drinking experience.
With over 800 varieties brewed in Belgium, the entire country is a mecca for adventurous beer seekers who want to try as much variation as possible. Your first stop must be the capital, Brussels. It hosts the European Union where its institutions are located in the European Quarter. It is home to the Atomium with its nine metallic spheres connected by tubes constructed in 1958 for the World’s Fair and named Europe’s most bizarre building by CNN. It is the site of the iconic Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Brussels’ central city square where shops, restaurants and even a Brewer’s Museum are located. Other popular attractions include the Mannekin Pis, a statue of a toddler relieving himself, and Galleries Royales St. Hubert, Europe’s oldest shopping arcade. After a full day of touring, make your way to the greatest beer bar in the entire world, Delirium Cafe. It is on the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest list of over 2500 beers. The bar not only serves Belgian brews, but also beer from over 60 countries. Flip through the pages of their menu and if you can not decide, just order Delirium Tremens from which the bar is named.
Basing ourselves in Brussels which is in the middle of the compact country, we were able to squeeze in a couple of day trips. The university town of Leuven is only a half hour train ride away towards the east. With so many students from the oldest Catholic university in the world, there are a lot of cheap places to shop, eat and drink. Inbev, the world’s largest brewery, can also be found here and brews over 200 types of beer. Stella Artois, Leffe and Hoegaarden are the more popular ones and the factory is open for tours and tastings.
An hour train ride towards the west is Bruges made popular by the 2008 movie In Bruges starring Colin Farrel. This medieval town of canals and cobblestone streets boasts a family-run brewery since the 1800s called De Halve Maan. They offer tours that allow one to visit the modern brewery and the museum showcasing traditional brewing methods. Another place of note in Bruges is a picturesque central square lined with soaring towers and historic churches with a bustling market in the middle. One can buy fresh bread, cheese, fruit and chocolate as perfect accompaniment for beer while sunbathing at nearby Ostend which is only 15 minutes away. Ostend is a beach town with many seafood shacks lining the promenade. If you did not bring your own food, follow the locals’ lead and buy steaming hot mussels with crisp fries also called moules frites or some crab claws or other freshly caught seafood from the North Sea to enjoy with your refreshing ale of choice.
So if you find yourself in Europe in autumn and would like an alternative experience to Munich’s Oktoberfest, Belgium is the answer to quench your thirst for beer. Cheers!
Written by Faith Azul-Evia. Faith is an avid flashpacker (a slightly older version of a backpacker with a bigger budget but still wants to avoid a packaged version of a destination) and believes that her travels start as soon as she leaves her NY apartment building. She is in constant search of new places to explore, eat, drink, sleep, spa, run, hike and yoga. She has been to 38 countries in 6 continents and dreams of going to Antarctica someday. Follow her @faithflashpacks on Instagram.