Experience Flanders through 10 Belgian beers
An amber beer, mellow for Belgian standards, with hints of honey and fruit, and slightly bitter at the finish. 5.4% alc.
I stumbled upon the most random little street dance my first afternoon in Leuven. Salsa music blared over huge speakers. It was cloudy, and there were pennant flags strung up over the road. People danced wearing hoodies. It looked good and seemed quite natural, so I bought a Palm at the Buddha Mart and did a little people watching. Soon it began to rain, but nobody cared. I watched folks dance in the rain and drank Palm in the doorway of a nearby shop, staying dry.
- Impression: Kind of a washout.
- Rating: 5/10
2. Kriek Lindemans
A fruit beer created by mixing pure cherry juice with Lambic during the brewing process. Tastes like a tart fresh cherry. 4% alc.
After the rain I had a strong desire to just crawl under the covers in my posh hotel room and drink cherry beer. The cliché says that sweet kriek beers are for women. While drinking this I watched reality television and told myself, “You are fulfilling your journalistic duty. People should know that fruity beer is for everyone.”
- Impression: Liquid candy.
- Rating: 6.5/10
3. Geuze Boon
A modern-day version of Lambic, a beer dating back to the 14th century. The smell is reminiscent of a room filled with steamy lovemaking and stinky cheese, both good things. It has a sour, floor-of-the-barnyard flavor and tremendous effervescence. 7% alc.
Leuven (day 2): I met an interesting couple from Australia while visiting the Stella Artois brewery. After the tour, we walked across town to Oude Markt, aka “The longest bar in Europe.” It was sunny, so we sat outside a bar called Metropole. Martin and his wife ordered Jupiler (see below). I decided to branch out and try something new, Geuze Boon. Expecting a regular beer, I took a sip and got the taste bud equivalent of a kick in the balls.
“How…is it?” Martin said.
“It tastes like someone brewed it buck naked in a boiler room,” I said. “Once you get past that, it’s pretty good.”
- Impression: I love surprises.
- Rating: 6/10
4. Nostra Domus
This homemade amber beer tastes alive as it flows directly from the brewery (located next door) via a ‘pipeline’ to the tap installation of Domus. 6% alc.
Domus Brewery, Leuven: Domus Brewery has thousands of dollars worth of beer signs on the wall, and the freshest beers on tap. I slid into one of the churchy seating areas and browsed the menu. It was lunchtime, so when the waiter came over I asked him what beer he’d recommend with the Flemish stew. He shot me a look that said “gimmie a break.” It quickly became obvious that my waiter at Tres had pampered me. This waiter was in no mood for coddling. His only bit of advice was, “The stew’s cooked with amber beer.”
- Impression: Triumphant.
- Rating: 6.7/10
A golden-blond beer with a pleasant sparkle and a strong, complex aroma of caramel, citrus fruit, Belgian yeast, and butterscotch. 9% alc.
Domus Brewery (again): Round 2 began when I ordered my next beer, La Chouffe, which costs €11,00. “No,” the waiter said abruptly. What do you mean, no. He said, “It is a big one, you see?” I pretended not to see, hoping he’d go away and bring me my goddam bottle. “So, you will have…what?” I suppose I could have demanded. But at the risk of coming across as a demanding lush, I put my dreams of drinking The Most Expensive Beer of My Life on hold. I looked for another beer, hoping perhaps that the waiter would enlighten me with his expertise. But no. I took too long and he walked away.
I live in Germany, and am accustomed to this level of service. It’s nothing personal, you just have to remain dignified. When he came back around, I announced, “Brigand,” and he nodded his approval.
- Impression: Knock out.
- Rating: 7.4/10
6. Gouden Carolus Tripel
A hazy beer with a deep-golden taste, subtle mustiness typical of Belgian beers, and slight lingering bubblegum finish. 9% alc.
Mechelen: I had lunch with Florie Wilberts of Tourism Mechelen at Brasserie Het Anker, the town brewery. She recommended the Filet van Mecheke Koekoek. “I call it a churkey,” she said. “It’s like a cross between a chicken and a turkey.” I recommended the five-sampler of 15cl beers. “My boss doesn’t like me drinking on the job,” she said. “Then again, my job is to take people out drinking.” The key, she offered, was to sip but not get drunk.
As these things happen, we began talking about reality TV. “I watched the Dutch version of Jersey Shore (Oh Oh Cherso) before I knew about the American one,” she said. I was curious to know what she found interesting about Jersey Shore. “Snookie,” she said, “is so…stupid. She actually entertains me.”
- Impression: Harmonized.
- Rating: 8/10
A blonde beer with an herby, hoppy aroma and a soft fruity taste. Also brewed by Brasserie Het Ander, it is the official beer of Mechelen. 6% alc.
After lunch, Florie told me how people in Mechelen came to be known as Maneblussers, or “moon extinguishers.” According to legend, some drunk dude was walking home one night — this was in 1687 — and saw that the tower of St. Rombouts Cathedral was on fire. “But the tower wasn’t on fire,” she said, “it was just the moon behind the tower.” You hear a story like this and think, Really. I mean, as if. But people weren’t so cynical back then.
Anyway, a fire brigade rushed to the rescue, because that’s what you do when it’s late and someone cries “fire!” What she didn’t say was that the drunkard was most likely flogged to death, but of course that part of the story is open to interpretation.
- Impression: Illuminating.
- Rating: 7/10
A pale lager, the most popular beer in Belgium. The smell is both floral and waxy like a box of crayons. The taste is slightly crisp with bready notes and grassy hops. 5.2% alc.
Ghent: Shortly after arriving to Ghent, I interviewed a cop and learned that bottles weren’t allowed on the street during the fabulous music festival. But of course the street is where the action is, and, as a professional journalist, I needed to be on the street. For a press trip like this, I have to be in top form at all times. A high school quartet playing an instrumental version of “In the Navy” by The Village People? Thanks, 50cl can of Jupiler! Speed walking from a band interview at Vooruit to an interview at Boomtown? It fits my active schedule.
- Impression: Actively seeking endorsement.
- Rating: 6/10
9. Duchesse de Bourgogne
A ruby red beer fermented in wooden casks. The taste is tart up front, then becomes wonderfully complicated by cherries and vinegar and malt before finally giving way to woodsy spiciness. 6.2% alc.
Ghent (day 2): I’d just finished a canal tour when I retreated to my secret spot — a quiet staircase on the canal — with a plastic cup and a bottle of Duchesse. There had been 20 people in the boat. The guide spoke over a loudspeaker, with every comment about this church or that tower repeated thrice, each time in a different language.
An ice cream bar was administered to passengers prior to boarding (half of whom were under 10), which seemed like a swell idea at the time — and a terrible idea in retrospect. Why did the tower in St. Michiels church go unfinished? I don’t know, but I heard the phrase “don’t get that on your shirt…the ice cream is melting…it’s melting…get it before it…give me that…yes, you’re finished…” in both French and Dutch.
- Impression: Time spent on a canal is never wasted.
- Rating: 9/10
10. Val-Dieu Brune
A dark abbey beer. According to their website, “If its aroma reminds you of coffee/mocha, the mocha taste disappears, leaving only a slight coffee flavour, with almost no bitterness.” 8% alc.
Ghent (day 3): It was 10AM. My bag was packed and I was about to leave the room to check out. I’d bought the Val-Dieu at the Beer and Gin House in the city center. When the lady recommended it, I told her I wasn’t really a fan of dark beers. “Perhaps you’ve never had the right one,” she said. “This is what a dark beer should be.” You hear something like that and think, Yea, my ass! But I bought it anyway, put it in the mini fridge, and never got around to drinking it. Until then. I left that hotel room with the taste of Belgium on my lips.
- Impression: About as close to perfect as it can get.
- Rating: 9.9/10
[Editor’s note: This story was made possible by a press trip sponsored by Visit Flanders.]