I recently spent two weeks traveling in the lovely country of Belgium, where I dived headfirst into drinking my way through so many delicious beers I’d never heard of and beers I certainly can’t buy at home. I visited breweries, well-known beer cafes, hole-in-the-wall bars, nearly every bottle shop I saw and I also attended a beer festival. I know for a lot of beer lovers and industry pros here in the US Belgian beers are highly regarded and often hyped to extremes. And while I absolutely would rather be drinking Belgian blondes and faro lambics daily, there’s a lot more to the beer culture in Belgium than just hype. There’s a long history and respect for beer and its place in daily life. Here’s my breakdown–I hope it inspires you to travel, or if not, perhaps just incorporate some of the following thoughts into your love of (Belgian) beer.
In Belgium almost every beer on tap, regardless of style is served in a 25 cL pour–about 8.5 oz. Once in a while one might be poured in a 33 cL (about 11.2 oz.), and a few (mostly light lagers) end up in a 50 cL (half liter or 17 oz). The smaller pours allow beer to stay cool and bubbly and it leaves you with more opportunities to try new beers. There’s no chugging, and there’s also no hurry.
The majority of Belgian beers in bottles have been bottle conditioned or refermented in the bottle. This helps create a great head/carbonation and somewhat elongates the shelf life. It also allows retailers to store more of their supply warm, which undoubtedly helps keep the price down for their own sales (less refrigeration). I love the mouthfeel of a bottle-conditioned beer. It’s a celebration in each bottle.
The cost of beer in Belgium is pretty low to consumers. So low, if you visit, you’ll have trouble not hoarding nearly everything you see. Obviously here we pay a price for importation, and our 3-tier system adds a pretty penny at every level. But fantastic beer is available to so many more consumers in Belgium as an everyday or more frequent option than many countries. It definitely feels like a national priority.
Belgian beers should have a really fluffy, foamy head (except for lambics and other spontaneously-fermented beers that are often served barely or completely uncarbonated). This is a general principle to pouring beer, whether from the tap or out of a bottle. A half-full glass with foam to the top is quite normal–it’s a great way to experience the flavors and aromas.
Mix of Old and New
Belgian beer has a huge, long history. Some breweries and styles have been produced nearly unchanged for hundreds of years. There is pride in maintaining these pillars of beer, and it’s fabulous to taste history in a glass. It’s not something we often experience here in the US! At the same time, there are newer breweries opening, and older breweries are experimenting a little more. There is a feeling of innovation while mostly still paying high respects to history.
Built for Food Pairing
Belgians cook with beer–it’s everywhere. I’ve read that children are taught early on to cook with beer at home with the family. From carbonnade with abbey ale to rabbit in kriek or bread baked with beer yeast, it’s a great knitting of locally-made products into a bigger cultural scheme. Plus, it makes pairing really easy!
While Belgian blondes and macro pilsners are bound to pop up in every corner, there is actually a high level of variety around, regionally and nationally. There are hoppy beers, wild beers, aged beers, Belgian stouts, beers made with herbs instead of hops, and an incredible amount of different takes on every style around. You won’t get bored for a long time.
While you can’t expect expert and perfect service everywhere you go, anywhere, Belgium’s bartenders, servers and beer shop workers are in general highly knowledgeable, smart, and technical at their jobs. This definitely helps unfurl a world of excitement beyond just sampling new things. Note: the style of service is quite different–unless you need something, you’re pretty much left alone. Kind of refreshing!
There is a real sense of non-judgment surrounding drinking choices–whatever you like, have a fancy for, or feel goes with a meal is just fine. If you aren’t drinking the most bitter, or the highest in alcohol, or the most rare–no worries. Drink what you like.
Beer is for Everyone (and also Whenever)
Wouldn’t that be great, to be able to start (responsibly) drinking beer at age 16? Or to continue enjoying a big glass of strong tripel as an old lady in an alley bar? How about having a small pour or two at lunch with a friend, or drinking openly on the canal with your family (or anywhere in public)? Yes, all these things are possible in Belgium. Responsible drinking is highly encouraged, and the enjoyment and respect of beer is primary. Trust is implied.
Ready to go buy yourself a Duvel and pour accordingly? I certainly am. Cheers and enjoy, fellow beer lovers!