Savoring Belgian beer

Photo by: Olena Kachmar
Photo by: Olena Kachmar

Savoring Belgian beer

by Genevieve Northup
Stripes Europe

Hours of sight-seeing have made you ravenous, so you’ve taken a break to down some pommes frites and a foamy beverage. But you’re not in France-- you’re in Belgium, where the locals still dispute the origin of “French” fries and crafting beer is a fine art, hundreds of years in the making.

A brief history

Though beer has been a part of human history for thousands of years, beer brewing became a common practice for abbey monks, in what is now Belgium, during the Middle Ages. Beer was more sanitary than water and could be traded. Tumult during the French Revolution left many monasteries destroyed, but brewing rebounded with Louis Pasteur’s invention of pasteurization because higher quality beer could be stored for longer. In 1900, more than 3,000 breweries produced beer in Belgium. Today, approximately 120 breweries produce hundreds of choices for your enjoyment.

Belgian brewing tradition

Only a few monasteries in the world—six of which are in Belgium—produce Trappist beer. This rare distinction requires that beers be produced within or in close proximity to a Trappist monastery in accordance with monastic business practices, and the majority of profits must be returned to the community. The result is superbly crafted beer which echoes the passion and history of beer-making.  Abbey beers follow similar recipes and brewing processes. Ales bearing the “Certified Belgian Abbey Beers” label have a historical connection to an abbey, are brewed by a non-Trappist abbey or are produced by a commercial brewery for an abbey.

Popular Belgian beer varieties include blondes, dubbels and tripels. The lightly colored blonde ales have a fresh taste and spiced or slightly fruity aroma. Dubbels are strong brown beers that receive double the normal amount of malt during fermentation. Tripels, which use three times the malt, are lighter in color and have higher alcohol content than dubbels. If you normally shy away from beer, try a fruit-infused lambic. The slightly sweet taste of this specially fermented wheat beer is a pleasant surprise on the palate.

Drinking belgian beer

Belgian beers are available at many restaurants and bars throughout Europe, and specialty beer stores often have many of the rarer brews. Most abbeys are not open to the public, but many commercial breweries offer private tours, providing you the opportunity to see the fermentation process and try different styles. Prior arrangements are usually required, so contact the brewery to schedule your tour in advance.

For the largest selection of beer in the world, visit Brussels’ Delirium Café, earning a Guinness World Record for its selection of more than 2,000 beer varieties. Grab a table — it will take a while to pick your poison.

If you have a bit more time, celebrate Belgian beer at one of the country’s many festivals. The Festival of 100 Beers in Anvaing gives new meaning to the concept of drinking games. Kicking off with a bike race, the festivities continue with a flea market and a night of sampling 100 beers and playing card games. On Saturday, join in a physical and intellectual challenge with a bicycle scavenger hunt combined with beer tasting. While sipping ales, listen to music, chow down on barbecue and bring the kids for fun activities.

Situated in one of the world’s most beautiful plazas, the Grand-Place, Brussels’ Belgian Beer Weekend illustrates the country’s obsession with beer. Breweries of all sizes will showcase their beer varieties.

Cozy up to your neighbor and get into the holiday spirit at the Objective Beer-tasters Essen Region’s (OBER) Christmas Beer Festival in December in Essen. Sample from more than 150 Christmas and winter beers, and get some Gluhkriek, fruit-flavored beer served warm, when you start to lose feeling in your toes.

Wherever you choose to celebrate Belgian beer, it will almost always arrive in the brewer’s distinctive glass, perfectly poured and crowned with foam. (In Belgium, head is a good thing!) Take a moment to savor your uniquely crafted beer. Cheers!

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