We just got back from a trip to Belgium, and have been drinking Belgian beer for over a week straight. We generally plan our itineraries around food and booze, first mapping out where/what we will eat and drink, then we see what kind of historic things we can fit in between. Breweries, distilleries and wineries almost always have top priority.
This trip was of course no exception and Belgian beer has a reputation that needs no explanation, so I’ll cut to the chase. We visited three cities: Brussels, Bruges and Ghent and hit one brewery in each. There are hundreds of breweries in the country, but we selected these three because they were centrally located and easy to get to on foot.
#1 Cantillon – Brussels
Open: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday 1000 – 1700
Closed: Wednesdays, Sundays and public holidays
Cost: 7€ (comes with two sample sized beers)
Tour is self-guided and takes about 45 minutes.
More info: http://www.cantillon.be/
Going to Cantillon is like stepping back in time to see how beer was made 100+ years ago. Here they make Lambics, Gueuzes, Faros and Krieks the old fashion way, literally. Nearly all of the structure and equipment is the original from when it opened in 1900.
The process of milling and mashing the grain is pretty much the same as modern breweries today, but what is truly fascinating about this place is that they rely on spontaneous fermentation to make their beer. That means they do not add yeast, but instead pump their wort to a large shallow tank that is exposed to the ambient air, and wild yeast finds its way to the liquid. They are the only brewery in Brussels still doing it this way.
The beer is then pumped into large oak or chestnut barrels where it is left to ferment for up to three years. Yes, you read that right, three years. The beer can then be bottled or have fruit added, which gives them their kreiks.
Touring Cantillion is really an amazing experience because the place is unlike any brewery you’ve ever been to before. Like all great tours, at the end you get two tasting glasses to drink in the bar area. Even if you don’t feel like doing the tour, you can still buy a bottle and hang out for a drink.
Fair warning though, lambics are not for everyone because they are quite sour/bitter. If that’s not your thing, the tour is still worth seeing.
#2 Brouwerij De Halve Maan (Half Moon Brewery) – Bruges
Daily Tours between 1100-1600 in Dutch, English and French. On Saturday Tours available til 1700.
Check their website for times of the tours and to book your reservation.
Cost: 8.50€ (comes with a glass of their Brugse Zot Blond)
Group guided tour takes about 45 minutes and includes lots of stairs.
More info: http://www.halvemaan.be/en/brewery-visit
Half Moon Brewery in Bruges is set in a beautiful part of a ridiculously picturesque city. Nestled between a cafe-lined plaza and one of the city’s canals, this brewery is half modern and half museum. The brewing kettles were recently upgraded and the bar/restaurant area looks like an upscale brewpub. Taking the tour however, you see the evolution of machinery and equipment that have been used over four generations of brewing.
The tour meanders up and down stairs, through old lofts and between tanks. A brief stop on the roof gives an amazing view of the city, but also make it clear that they have no more room to expand their facilities and production. The solution, our guide explained, is to build a beer pipeline from the brewery to a bottling facility over a kilometer away. That’s right, a beer pipeline.
Beers here were great; they go by two different labels: Brugse Zot (with a blond and a dubbel variety) and Straffe Hendrik (with a tripel and quadrupel variety). You can try them all in the bar/restaurant and get lunch or dinner while you’re at it.
#3 Gentse Gruut – Ghent
Rekelingestraat 5, 9000 Gent (When you look this up by the address on Google maps it puts you on the wrong side of the river. It is directly across from Gravensteen Castle on Rekelingestraat)
Tour by appointment, mainly for groups Check their website to book.
Cost: 9.00€ (8+people) or 10.00€ (less than 8 people). Comes with three tasters.
Tour/tasting can be paired with some small food items.
More info: http://www.gruut.be/
Gentse Gruut is super interesting because they do not use hops in their beer, but rather a mix of herbs. This is apparently how beer was made before the days of hops, we’re talking medieval time here. Only one of their five beers has any hops in it, and honestly it was hard to tell which.
To be honest, we did not figure out the tour at this brewery, which recently moved locations. After walking by it several times (see note above about the address on Google maps) we came into what looked like a reception or event hall. There was a bar, tables and chairs, and OH HEY! a very small brewing setup. Given the really small size, it’s impressive the reach this beer has because we saw it all over the city. We certainly could have asked about the tour, but we really just wanted to sit and drink this hop-less beer, which turned out to be SUPER good.
One more interesting fact about this place is that the head brewer/owner is a woman named Annick De Splenter, which is really cool to see in an otherwise dude-dominated industry.
Have you been to any other awesome breweries in Belgium? Let us know because we’ll definitely be doing the pilgrimage again soon!