There are many ways to experience a place. Certainly, you should try to get a glimpse into where a place began, and museums and historic buildings, monuments, and squares are great for helping you get a better understanding of where you are. The food, the music, the people (and their culture), each individually can be enough to fill weeks of your time in any place, depending on how deep you wish to go. This trip, and this article, is about us going down the rabbit hole, following beer, in Belgium.
We arrived in Brussels with the expectations of being there for only a couple days. I had been in Brussels before, and it was not one of my favorite cities. Many first time travelers to Europe love the city, and though it is rich in history and does have many beautiful aspects to it, I preferred Ghent to Brussels, and had been told we needed to visit Brugge. But this was a beer tour, and our first order of business was to taste lambics – beers brewed by spontaneous fermentation by bacterias and yeasts native to the Zenne valley, where Brussels lies. There are many lambic or lambic derived beers out there, but we were looking for rare lambics, not just by American standards, but truly rare; the kind that is only served at a few restaurants, with the special gem from time to time – the bottle that was brewed specifically for one restaurant, or a lambic from a certain year…the older, the better.
What was supposed to be a few days in Brussels and nearly 10 days elsewhere in Belgium on a beer exploration turned out to be a near two week Brussels Lambic experience, with two dinner excursions to nearby towns. And when it came to Lambic, we drank many, from more common bottles to the extremely rare.
We stayed in what was considered the “rougher neighborhood,” mainly because we wanted to be near Cantillon. The location couldn’t have been better, and we later came to find that the neighborhood was considered less desirable because it was where Arab immigrants tended to gravitate to. In terms of crime, there was nothing to worry about, from our experience of it anyway.
I won’t talk about Cantillon any more in this post – I dedicated an entire post to the Cantillon experience and you can see it all there. It would be a disservice to not begin with Moder Lambic, a bar with a very minimal food menu that had an exceptional beer list, and a place we found ourselves in the mornings and evenings, usually ordering the last bottle left in the cellar from their bottle list. This is where locals and serious beer drinkers go to drink – just five minutes down a couple cobbled roads is the main square, Grand Place, were all the tourists tend to drink and gawk at one of the most perplexing tourist attractions, Manneken Pis.
We walked in and one of the guys behind the bar wore a DC Brau shirt, a brand you wouldn’t recognize outside of DC. They brought us a chalkboard of things on tap and we asked for the bottle menu. The prices are not something I’m accustomed to when ordering beer, but when we’re talking about lambics, bottle between $30 and $50 are reasonable. Those same bottles in the US, if you happen to find them online, can fetch a couple hundred dollars easily, a practice of beer trade that is frowned upon by most who appreciate a fine, well aged lambic.
We spent the first afternoon and evening at Moder Lambic; an eight hour journey of tastes and inebriation that’s unique to both lambic beers, and the occasional strong beer from the perspective of alcohol content to cleanse the pallet between lambics. Eight hours of drinking like this is not at all like taking a 24 pack of an “American Lager” to a pool party. You experience a euphoria, somewhere between dreaming and hallucinating.
The next morning, day two of our trip, we made our first obligatory tourist stops in the morning, spent nearly the entire second day at Cantillon and then went back to Moder Lambic for the night. Many more beers, mostly on tap this time, and one more rare lambic.
The next day we headed toward Heeren van Liedekercke, self proclaimed on the website as being the best beer restaurant in the world. If you read reviews, everyone says that the food and beer are great, but the service is awful. If you’re expecting to be served by a staff that is watching your every move to make sure you have everything you need when you want it, maybe not the best staff in the world. But we ordered beers unassumingly and asked about the beers we could purchase to take with us – there are many beers they don’t let you buy unopened because of incidents of people auctioning them off rather than enjoying the beer themselves – and in the end were offered a list to the train station since taxis were difficult to come by out there. The food…amazing. The beer….well, it may be difficult to tell what constitutes being the best beer restaurant in the world, but this place is way, way up there.
We started with a J & J, a traditional gueuze brewed by Three Fountains Brewery for the couple who own the Heeren van Liedekercke in celebration of their marriage in 2003. There is no other place in the world where this beer can be found, and the price fit the bill. The taste, well, maybe I should put the disclaimer here: lambics come in all flavors and assortments. The price, and the rarity, does not necessarily mean a better tasting lambic. But a lambic is about more than the taste. It’s about an experience. And we experienced a beer that’s based on natural fermentation that captures what the environment in 2003 spontaneously produced, unlike the controlled fermentations that produce most of the beers (and wines and other spirits) you’d find on the market. We didn’t stop there, leaving satisfied by the bottles we left behind, and those we were allowed to take away. There may have been other things to do in the town, but it seemed to us that many, like us, had come for one reason alone – the beer menu.
The following day we went back to Cantillon and enjoyed a couple other beers and bought more to take with us to our AirBnB. Bottles were much cheaper at the brewery than at the restaurants, bars, and many beer shops across the city. We were working while traveling and had to make sure the important mission of our beer tour of Belgium didn’t interfere with our other obligations. But by late afternoon, more bottles remain open and empty on the table than we had planned. By then, we had also planned on staying just a couple more days in Brussels…the other cities could wait.
Somehow the week slipped by us, and though we went to several tourist spots, as well as found beers of other sorts all over the city, we tended to make our way back to Moder Lambic for the last few hours of the night.
The next day we had one more dinner planned – the restaurant of 3 Fonteinen (Three Fountains Brewery, above) across from the church of Sint Lambertuskerk in Beersel. The cafe and geuzestekerij were founded in 1887. It bought by Gaston De Belder in 1953, who expanded it with a restaurant and left it to his sons Armand and Guido in 1982. Armand’s son was on hand at the restaurant to serve us from the rare selection of bottles where keep in the cellars, and to explain the history, flavors, and aroma as he opens and pours the beer. You can see how much pleasure and pride he takes doing this – lambic is all about the experience.
By the end of the first week we decided that we didn’t really need to go elsewhere. We had drank other beers that Belgium is known for, and had done it many times before. This trip was now all about Lambic. I had just under one more week left before I needed to leave Europe – I had already been out for three weeks, which isn’t a long time compared to many of the other adventures we’ve taken. The rest of the trip would be spent in Brussels.
We settled down a little after that first week. Not a single day went by where we didn’t consume a large quantity of beer, and asked ourselves a few times if this constituted alcoholism. By the time I left I was ready to leave. Brussels remains not one of my favorite cities in Europe. There are so many more magical places…so many, many more. This isn’t to say Brussels doesn’t have it’s attractions. All I’m saying is to make sure you experience a lot of lambic while you’re there. Otherwise, you’re really missing the top reason to go to Brussels. Top reason to go to Belgium? Listening to the organ music at dusk in Ghent.