Pat’s Pints Picks – Five Belgian Breweries to Visit

About two weeks ago I wrote a post highlighting my favorite British breweries with the promise to follow up with similar posts from my forays into mainland Europe.  In today’s post we move across the English Channel to the Low Countries.  Last April I spent 10 days with my wife and daughter visiting Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg  (mostly Belgium).  As expected the beer was delicious and unique, but were many other factors that made for a wonderful vacation.  Belgian’s love food just as much as their French neighbors, with a knack for doing simple dishes well.  It’s hard to beat a pot of steamed mussels, a plate of fries, and a glass of Belgian beer.  If you have any interest in the military battles that defined the 19th and 20th centuries—the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo, the trench warfare of WWI, the Battle of the Bulge—you’ll find the history of Belgium fascinating.  The people are welcoming yet pragmatic; English is widely spoken; the architecture in cities like Ghent, Bruges, and Brussels is an eye opener; and the countryside is surprisingly scenic for one of Europe’s most densely populated countries.

According to the most recent statistics I could dig up, Belgium had ~260 breweries at the end of 2017, a number that has doubled in the last decade.  While that number, comparable to the number of breweries in Ohio, might not seem impressive at first glance, remember that the area of Belgium (11,787 square miles) is four times smaller than that of Ohio.  While this tiny country may only be responsible for producing 1% of the world’s beer, in every metric aside from volume it punches well above its weight.  It is the birthplace of some of my favorite styles—Saisons, Lambics, Flanders Reds, Oud Bruins, Trappist Ales, and Witbeirs.  This embarrassment of riches is a blessing and a curse for the beer traveler.  Unless you’re living the life of Michael Jackson, there’s just no way you can visit all of the deserving breweries.  To assist in your planning I thought I’d share the five breweries that are at the top of my list.  I wouldn’t fault you for picking a different set, but I am confident that if you visit these five breweries you will not be disappointed.

A few thoughts on Belgian beer 

Before diving into the list, a few comments about the differences between the beer cultures in Belgium and the US.  While things may slowly be changing, brewery taprooms are not common in Belgium.  I very much wanted to visit Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels, but they have no taproom and only give tours to groups who make prior arrangements.  De Struise Brouwers in the West Flanders village of Oostvleteren was also high on my list, but they are only open for visitors on Saturday from 2–6 pm.  It’s a similar story for De Dolle Brouwers in Esen, and as a general rule the Trappist Breweries are rarely open to visitors, more on that below.

Another big difference between Belgium and the US is a strong preference for bottled beer.  Draft beer is kind of an afterthought in Belgium.  It would not be unusual to visit a highly regarded beer bar and find 3–4 draft beers and 100+ bottled beers.  Furthermore, the best bars serve each different beer in glassware designed specifically for that beer, including some wildly impractical contraptions like the Kwak glass, which requires a wooden holder to stand upright.  This speaks to the Belgian idea that beer is something special, an art form to be celebrated, not some mass-produced alcohol delivery vehicle [1].

Finally, it’s worth noting that beer is incredibly affordable in Belgium, particularly packaged beer sold at brewery gift shops.  I was able to buy 750 mL bottles of amazing beers like Rodenbach Alexander and Cantillon Gueuze for €6−€7, and Saison Dupont for €2.20.  So, leave some room in your suitcase, better yet bring an empty suitcase and lots of bubble wrap.  Beers are more expensive in the bars and cafes, but even something as like a 750 mL bottle of Chimay Grand Reserve or Westmalle Tripel only sells for around €10 in many cafés and restaurants.  Part of this is due to relatively low excise taxes on beer in Belgium, but I suspect that’s only part of the story [2].

Rochefort 8

Rodenbach

Of all the breweries I’ve visited, if you pressed me I’d have to say that Rodenbach is the most singularly spectacular.  The history of the brewery mirrors the history of Belgium.  Several prominent members of the Rodenbach family fought in the revolution that brought independence to Belgium in 1830.  Constanijn Rodenbach co-wrote the first Belgian national anthem.  Alexander Rodenbach, who went blind as child, served in the Belgian Parliament and developed the first braille map of Belgium. Albrecht Rodenbach was a renowned author and champion of Flemish rights.

The 19th century red brick brewing complex reeks of history as well. It features a now retired malting kiln, a ceramic mosaic of St. George, and statue of Albrecht. The conventional parts of brewing—mashing, boiling, primary fermentation—take place in a modern brewhouse updated after Palm acquired the brewery in 1998 [3]. That’s all well and good, but it’s only when you enter the cellars that house the giant oak foeders that you come to understand you’re onto something truly special.  There are 294 foeders in total, with volumes ranging from 12,000 to 65,000 L (3,000 to 17,000 US gallons).  Some have been in use for more than 150 years, which is a mind-blowing thing once you stop to consider it.  The oldest ones date back to the reign of Queen Victoria and have survived two world wars fought on Belgian soil, though just barely.  Rodenbach was spared the pillaging of the German army that destroyed many breweries during WWII by paying a ransom of 20,000 Belgian Francs to the invaders.

Rodenbach Barrels1
One hallway in the massive foeder forest at Rodenbach.  Two full time coopers are employed to maintain the foeders.

Nearly all Rodenbach beers are a blend of beer that has matured in oak foeders for two years and young beer that has been lagered for a month in stainless steel tanks.  Eugene Rodenbach, grandson of one of the four founding Rodenbach brothers, is credited for the idea for blending old and young beer.  An idea he took from time spent in Victorian-era English pubs, where the publicans would add aged beer to freshly fermented beer to increase its complexity.  The standard Rodenbach, which our tour guide called an everyday beer, is made with 75% young beer and 25% aged beer.  This ratio is inverted in the more celebrated Rodenbach Grand Cru, which is 67% aged beer and 33% young beer.  Every year the foeder that produces the best, most balanced beer is bottled directly without blending and sold as Rodenbach Vintage.

The tour finishes with a tasting of the Grand Cru in an impressive room, lined with retired oak foeders and portraits of illustrious Rodenbach ancestors hanging on the back wall.  The Grand Cru has complex acidity with a touch of balsalmic vinegar on a rich base of toasted malts, highlighted by fruit flavors (apples, cherries, black currants, …) so bright you’d swear that fruit was added to the beer.  It is quite possible the beer that most closely approximates a fine wine.

You’ve got to e-mail or call ahead to book a tour (we were added onto an evening tour that was a team building exercise for employees of an international company of some sort), but it’s well worth it.  Unique is an oft-misused descriptor, but when describing Rodenbach it’s completely appropriate.

You can read more about my visits to Rodenbach, Westvleteren and other parts of West Flanders by clicking here.

Rodenbach Grand Cru
A glass of Rodenbach Grand Cru.

Cantillon

No style of beer is more romanticized than lambic.  Just about every aspect of brewing a lambic falls somewhere on a spectrum that runs from quirky to wildly impractical.  The grains are a blend of malted barley and unmalted wheat. The mash, which takes an extraordinarily long 3 to 4 hours, involves several steps of removing liquid and heating to boiling before introducing it; a process known as turbid mashing. The boil time of 3 to 5 hours is a throwback to old practices in Belgium, where boils of up to 16 hours were not unheard of. The hops are aged for years to minimize their aroma and flavor contributions while retaining their antimicrobial properties. Instead of pitching commercial yeast the wort is left exposed to ambient air so that wild airborne yeast and bacteria can take up residence. The fermentation occurs in oak barrels, each containing its own colony of yeast and bacteria.  Finally, the beer from various barrels is blended in proportions determined by the master blender to obtain a final product that has some modicum of consistency from batch to batch.  You would be hard pressed to make up a less efficient, more unpredictable way to make beer if you tried.  Yet several US breweries, and a few in other parts of the world, aspire to make beer like the lambic brewers of the Senne valley near Brussels [4]. At the turn of the 20th century there were hundreds of lambic producers in this region, but only a dozen or so remain.  Only one, the world famous Cantillon, is still operating within Brussels.  Visiting Cantillon is like stepping back in time.

Cantillon was founded in 1900, with equipment that was already several decades old.  Due to the historic character of the brewery they bill themselves not only as a working brewery, but as the Brussels Museum of the Gueuze [5].  You can visit Cantillon anytime during business hours and do a self-guided tour, but guided tours are only given on Friday and Saturday mornings (check the Cantillon website for details).  The tour lasts about 90 minutes and costs €9.50, which includes two complimentary glasses of beer at the end.  Some people say that Cantillon is in a sketchy part of town.  I think that description is a bit exaggerated, but we can all agree there no cherry orchards or open fields for miles in any direction.

Cantillon Exterior

The tour is fascinating, if for nothing else than to learn about the crazy process they use to make beer.  For many, including myself, the gleaming copper coolship in the attic is the highlight of the tour.  The tour concludes in the tasting room, which doubles as the reception area for the brewery/museum.  The tasting room consists of wooden chairs distributed around a handful of retired barrels and a few small wooden tables.  There is a pot belly stove in the middle of the tasting area and a modest bar to the left. On the day I visited they were serving unblended lambic, gueuze, kriek, and Rose de Gambrinus (lambic with raspberries).  Naturally I had to try them all, and given how crazy hard it is to find Cantillon in the US how could I not pick up a few bottles to bring home.

You can read more about my visit to Cantillon and the follow up excursion to Drie Fonteinen by clicking here.

Cantillon coolship
The gleaming copper coolship in the attic at Cantillon.  They only brew from fall to spring, because in the summer the airborne beasties get a little too wild, even for a lambic brewery.

La Trappe

No post about Belgian beer would be complete without some mention of the Trappist breweries.  Of the more than 170 Trappist and Trappistine monasteries worldwide, twelve brew beer and sell it to the public.  Six of those twelve, are located in Belgium (Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren) and another two just across the border in the Netherlands (La Trappe and Zundert).  In the end I managed to visit five of the eight but were I to do it all again I would probably do things a little differently.  The brewing facilities are generally not open to the public, nor in most instances are the monastery grounds.  In practice this means you are visiting either a café that serves the monastery’s beer and/or a shop that sells bottled beer and other Trappist goods.  Unless you have special connections, or your visit happens to coincide with a rare open house, the only way to see the inside of a Trappist Brewery is visit to La Trappe.

The monastery runs a café housed in a relatively new building modeled after a sheep barn, complete with a thatched roof. This unusual design pays homage to the early days of the monastery, when the brewery was known by the name de Schaapskooi, which means the sheep stable in English.  When we arrived at the café for lunch on a Thursday the communal tables were about half-full. The clientele was not as heavily weighted toward beer geeks and retired people as it was at some of the Trappist cafés I later visited.  At one point a tall monk in the traditional habit walked into the room to speak to a group of people at the table next to us. Apparently the vows of silence don’t extend to interactions with the outside world.

La Trappe Cafe
The cafe/tasting room at La Trappe is open from 11 am to 6 pm daily.  The monks don’t go in much for nightlife

I ordered a bowl of beef stew made with the La Trappe Dubbel, and of course a chalice of the Dubbel to pair with the hearty meal.  We ordered a tray of wholegrain bread to snack on while we waited for the main course.  The bread, which is made at the monastery, was wonderful and went down quickly.  If you visit La Trappe don’t leave without sampling the bread.  While you are at it you might as well try the La Trappe cheese, another Trappist staple worth seeking out.  When the stew arrived it was equally delicious, tender chunks of beef and vegetables in rich gravy.  In fact, I’d recommend a visit to La Trappe for the food alone.

Our tour was given by Dieter Lauwers, the export manager for La Trappe, but anyone can sign up for one of the tours that are given on a daily basis throughout the year.  The brewery itself is rather modern, having gone through a multimillion dollar renovation in the late 1990’s. Stainless steel brewing vessels have replaced the lovely old copper brew kettles, which are still on display.  The brewery sits next to a grand neo-Gothic abbey  that was built at the end of the 19th Century.  The tour does not include the abbey, but you do get to see the grounds of the abbey complex, which hearkens back to the days when abbeys were self-contained communities.  There is a bakery, a fire station, a creamery, and extensive farmlands. The abbey no longer malts its own grain, but the multi-story malt tower is still the dominant feature of the complex.  After the tour you can return to the café and sample from the range of La Trappe beers; nine in total, ranging from Trappist standards to a witbier, a bock, and an organic lager.

You can read more about my visits to La Trappe and Westmalle by clicking here.

Trappist Map_w Dupont
The Trappist breweries of the Low Countries.

 

Orval

The last two recommendations on my list are both in the hilly, forested, French-speaking, southwestern part of the country known as the Ardennes.  There are very few cities in this part of Belgium, but the scenery is superlative, not unlike the rolling Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio. The Ardennes is home to several breweries that are familiar to Americans, including La Chouffe, Rochefort, Fantôme, and Orval. I was lucky enough to visit the last two while in the Ardennes.

Orval produces a singular beer that is unlike anything else in the Trappist catalog.  A pale ale made with a splash of liquid candy sugar, prodigiously dry hopped (by Belgian standards), fermented initially with a saison-type yeast, then subjected to a secondary fermentation in the bottle with brettanomyces. It’s a mash up of brewing influences from various parts of Europe, and yet all the parts come together beautifully to make one of the world’s truly special beers.

Despite what I just said about the lack of access to Trappist Breweries a visit to Orval, the Valley of Gold, is well worth the journey.  The abbey grounds contain both the ruins of the abandoned medieval abbey, a historically important site in its own right, and the modern abbey built in the 1930’s in a style that fuses gothic with art deco.  You can visit a small brewery museum that features one of the old copper brew kettles, considerable information about the brewing process at Orval, and a collection of breweriana.  Like La Trappe there is a café on the grounds (l’Ange Gardien) that serves food and beer.  It has a rooftop patio and the view over the valley is superior to any of the other Trappist cafés.  It’s also the only place in the world you can get the low abv patersbier, Petit Orval. It’s hazy, thirst quenching, and redolent with floral, spicy hop character from dry hop additions of Hallertauer and Strisselspalt.  In fact, the hops in that beer made a lasting impression on me that still seems vivid 10 months after the fact.

You can read more about my visits to the iconic breweries of Wallonia—Orval, Chimay and Dupont—by clicking here.

Orval Monastery
The modern monastery at Orval.

Fantôme

The first time I came across a beer from Brasserie Fantôme was in Boston about five years ago.  A few years later I had another bottle while visiting Tokyo.  My next encounter was in Edinburgh from the well curated tap list at the fabulous Salt Horse, where I had an improbable saison infused with Japanese green tea.  After writing about my beer odyssey in Edinburgh, Dany Prignon, the man behind Fantôme left a message for me on my facebook page.  This turn of events led me to the heart of the Ardennes, to tiny Soy where Dany lives and brews.

For a beer that I’ve encountered on three different continents the scale of operations at Fantôme is astonishingly low tech and small scale.  The 20 hectoliter (520 gal/17 US bbl) system is a collection of items mostly bought second hand 30 years ago.  There are three 20 hL and two 10 hL fermenters in total.  Dany tells me that he brews about once per week on average, putting out somewhere in the vicinity of 500 hL/420 bbl per year.  Despite its small size and remote location, many highly regarded US breweries have made the pilgrimage to Soy for collaborations including Hill Farmstead, Jester King, and Grimm Artisinal Ales.

Arranging a visit at the taproom was a somewhat unusual experience. Before coming I asked Dany if his taproom had hours and he simply responded on weekends and holidays.  When I asked if weekends meant Saturdays and Sundays, he replied “Saturdays yes, unless no one comes by in which case I close.  Sundays only sometimes depending on my mood.”  Eventually we established that I would drop by on a Saturday afternoon.  We arrived around 3 pm on a sunny, but still brisk day in mid-April.  The taproom setting was no less informal than its hours.  There were two beers on draft, a blonde and a brown which if I understood correctly (Dany’s English is pretty broken, but still substantially better than my French) were the house Saison and the Christmas beer.  There were no bottles for sale, no swag adorned with the Fantôme ghost, not even a cash register that I could see.  The only other patrons were a couple who run a beer bar in Amsterdam and a few locals that seemed to be friends of Dany.

dany and pat
Yours truly and Dany Prignon (right) behind the bar at Fantome.

Given the language barrier it was hard to go into too much detail with my questions.  When I asked about comparison to other Belgian saisons, he tells me his beers are not saisons (Belgian brewers are famous for not accepting style classifications that we take as gospel in the US).  When I ask how widely his beer is distributed he tells me that they want him to start exporting to Singapore, but he’s not sure he has the capacity to do so.  When I ask where I can find his beer in nearby La Roche-en-Ardenne, where we are staying that night, he shrugs and says they don’t carry it there.  He made a few comments that seemed to suggest that selling beer in Belgium requires more marketing than he is willing to do [6].

Despite the language barrier it’s easy to see that Dany is friendly and modest to a fault.  When I try to order a third glass of beer to get some notes on the brown bier de Noel, he instead goes to the back and pulls out a bottle of Blanchot.  I try to pay for the bottle, but he won’t take my money.  I decide to stop worrying about writing a story and just enjoy the moment for what it is.  We move outside to soak up some sunshine and enjoy a truly artisan Belgian beer. Not for the first or last time on this trip I realize that special moments like this don’t come around very often, they need to be savored.

fantome_blanchot

Look for similar lists on Germany and Prague/Pilsen in the coming weeks.

Footnotes

[1] That’s not to say Belgium is innocent of making beer on a massive, commodity scale.  Future historians may trace the decline of western civilization back to the 2004 merger between Belgium-based Interbrew and Brazilian megabrewery AmBev.  In 2008 Anheuser Busch was added to the fold, creating AB-InBev.

[2] I spent some time trying to come up with a valid comparison of taxes between the US, UK and Belgium, but it’s sufficiently complicated that I eventually threw in the towel.  I did figure out that excise taxes on beer are about 4 times higher in the UK (€100/hL or $4.36/gal) than in Belgium (€24/hL or $1.05/gal).  If figures from the Tax Institute are to be trusted the excise tax on beer in Ohio is $0.18/gal, much lower than Belgium but I can’t help thinking I’m missing something here.  I can tell you that bottles of Saison Dupont are not selling for $2.50 at my local bottle shop.

[3] Bavaria Brewing, a family-owned Dutch brewer who manages several brands, including distribution for La Trappe, acquired both Palm and Rodenbach in 2016.

[4] Like champagne, lambic beer is an appellation.  Only those breweries who use traditional methods and brew in the valley of the river Senne near Brussels can call their beer lambic.

[5] Both spelling and pronunciation of the blended form of lambic can be confusing to English speakers.  The French spelling is gueuze and is pronounced something along the lines of gerz, while the Flemish spelling is geuze and the g at the beginning of the word is deemphasized while the uh at the end is more pronounced, something like hherzuh.

[6] I did not see Fantôme beer anywhere else during my travels in Belgium.  I later read that 90% of their beer is exported.

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