We thought we knew a lot about beer. Then Visit Flanders and Belgian Family Brewers invited us on a suds-sipping tour of Belgium, and it changed everything. Here are just a few things we learned as we bounced—and drank—across this fine land…
Whereas in America we try to minimize the head, for Belgians, foam is a big deal. They consider it part and parcel of the drinking experience, and every glass is designed to accommodate a healthy layer of bubbles across the top—as evidenced by this shot from Antwerp’s De Koninck Brewery.
Ever notice when you order a Stella or Chimay, it invariably comes in a fancy-looking goblet? That carries over from Belgium, where every brewery—including St. Bernardus—has its own unique branded glasses. They supply these to bars to ensure their beers are enjoyed properly—and remembered.
As we learned at Mechelen’s Het Anker Brewery—makers of the beautiful Gouden Carolus you see above—the best time to fully appreciate a beer is 11 a.m. Assuming you have risen at a normal hour, that’s when your palate has sufficiently cleared the flavors of coffee, breakfast and toothpaste, making it perfectly prepped to savor some suds.
The term “lambic” comes from the town of Lembeek, near Brussels, and this region employs spontaneous fermentation, hops aged three years (purely as a preservative) and a brewing process eight times longer than other methods. The result is lambic beer—often fermented in the presence of sour cherries—to produce cidery, carbonated, memorable beers like Lindemans Old Gueuze, above.
Operated by just four people—including the lovely Miek Van Melkebeke, above—Brewery De Ryck is the smallest of the Belgian Family Brewers but also one of the finest. Their roots go back to 1886, and their Arend Tripel consistently wins awards for its quality and taste.
Passed down from fathers to sons over 15 generations, Brewery Roman traces its history back to 1545, all the more impressive considering Belgium itself has only been independent since the 1830s. The two brothers in charge now oversee the production of Gentse Strop, a delicious top-fermented blond Belgian Special Ale, and seven other fine, strong beers.
This fellow here is Adriaen Brouwer, a Flemish painter whose name is on two of Roman’s beers. The Dark Gold beer he’s holding has a satisfying caramel flavor and an ABV of 8.5 percent, which among Belgian beers is pretty standard, really.
The town of Poperinge—which hosts a huge hop festival every three years—is home to the Hopmuseum, which celebrates the magical plant that gives ales that unmistakable dank scent and flavor.
Hop sprouts are actually considered a delicacy—and can cost a whopping 150 euros for a kilo. They are often served alongside a soft-boiled egg.
In one section of the Hopmuseum, you can see all of Belgium’s beers, organized by region. There are something like 1,700 varieties—or one for every seven square miles of Belgian land.
The bitterness imparted by hops may have been a necessary evil at first, as it was used to preserve beer, which was actually safer to drink than water during the Middle Ages.
Belgian brewers only use the female hop plants, as these contain the resin, called lupulin, needed in brewing. According to Belgian purity laws, farmers are forbidden to have male plants in their fields.
At hop farms across the country, cows are kept purely to fertilize the soil where the hops are grown. In other words, their job is basically to eat and crap. Sweet gig, huh?
No joke, the brewery is currently crowdfunding a two-mile, multi-million-euro pipeline from the brewery to their bottling plant. Go in for a 7,500-euro Gold Membership and you’ll get one free bottle of beer a day for the rest of your life. The only catch? You’ve gotta pick it up yourself.