Let’s get the negatives out of the way first: It’s the busiest, grittiest city in Belgium. It’s where the airport is and it’s full of foreigners but it seemed like the hardest place to get around. (Maybe that’s just because I was there first when my jet lag and my foreign country navigation skills were at their worst.) Brussels is in Flanders but everyone speaks French, not Flemish, which is confusing. Street signs and many other important items are thus in TWO languages that aren’t the one you’re used to, which makes maps a Sisyphean challenge, especially after a few beers. People here seem more get-out-of-my-way and New Yorky than in other parts of the country. I’ve also never seen so many stores displaying beer in the window, which is a bad idea in any country.
Despite its drawbacks, a trip to Belgium wouldn’t be a trip to Belgium without a few days in Brussels. And with a train station in the basement of the airport, you can be drinking a good beer very soon after landing.
Obligatory non-beer note: this city has one of my favorite buildings, Brussels’ town hall, in one of the more mind-blowing public squares in Europe, tourist-clogged Grand Place/Grote Markt. Go at night for thinner crowds — you probably won’t be able to help but pass through the square a few times anyway.
They don’t make ‘em like this anymore
Cantillon, duh. For a long time, Cantillon was the only brewery within Brussels city limits, and it’s still the only one that encourages visitors. A trip here is the biggest no-brainer in town, and it’s conveniently located near the Brussels Midi/Zuid train station (which incidentally hosts the biggest flea market I’ve ever seen every Sunday morning). You’ll get a handout and can do a self-guided tour where you can touch the tanks and gawk at the coolship. No one was brewing on our visit, but cellar stuff and bottling was happening. I thought it was notable that the bottling guys were doing one of the most boring jobs in beer without listening to any music (my bottling job in 2013 would have ended in murder if not for Internet radio). Your visit ends, of course, with a few tastes of Cantillon. There are beers, t-shirts, glassware, and other swag for sale. For context of what Belgium costs once your plane ticket is paid off, 375 ml bottles were for sale for as low as 3.70 Euros, glasses of sour are under 3 Euros, and those big bottles you have to sell your firstborn to get in the Bay Area are $7 or $8 as opposed to $40 or $60. If you like sour beer this is a must, and if you don’t like sour beer you should probably still take this opportunity try it at the source.
Poking around Brasserie Cantillon’s nooks and crannies
Moeder Lambic. I went here every night I was in Brussels (the more northern location of the two). It’s a tourist attraction to be sure, but that’s because it’s awesome, not because it’s pandering. The bartenders looked like they had just been airlifted in from the Mission but could not have been friendlier — in the European “I will take all the time necessary to answer your questions and help you out in a very pleasant, competent manner” way, not the American “hi my name is SanDeE* and I’ll be your server today!!!” way. Much like Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in heels, Moeder Lambic bartenders do everything your favorite beertenders do at home but for barely any tips and in three languages. As a fellow server, sitting at the bar on a busy Saturday night and watching them work was a joy. You’d put up with slow, useless bartender if you had to for this selection, though. Ever had gueuze on cask? You will. This is heaven for sour fans but other styles are very, very well represented. As a bonus I discovered a new-to-me brewery here, Verzet (Flemish for “fun time”), and enjoyed their oud bruin and hoppy blonde.
Fantasticness everywhere you look at Moeder Lambic
A La Becasse: This time capsule of a cafe has tables only, so go with at least one other person if you don’t want that awkward turtle feeling. A bit of old school Brussels right in the tourist center with an interesting couple of Timmermans beers I did not try because I was dying for a fresh Orval and Timmermans is not my favorite. In the course of my one beer there, the server took both a meal break and a smoke break (inside the bar). Ah, Europe!
Le Coq: I was in the neighborhood and it was listed in my beer book. This came off as more of a neighborhood joint than a serious beer bar, with mostly the crap side of Belgian beers on tap, but the bottle list was on point and I got to enjoy a fresh De La Senne in the city of its birth. When I was there the jazz soundtrack was right on and seemingly hand-picked. A fine example of how seemingly everyday bars in Belgium have a selection many “beer bars” in the US would envy. On a different day, a group of us got lost and ducked into a locals bar outside the tourist center where our appearance was clearly going to be the talk of the regulars for the rest of the night — and the beer was great there, too.
Even the public art in this country likes beer
Poechenellekelder. Let’s assume your curiosity got the better of you and you went to see that dignified symbol of national pride, the little boy pissing in a fountain. You’re now a stone’s throw (or a strong pee stream) away from Poechenellekelder. Remember when you were a kid and those TGI Fridays/Bennigans places with a bunch of crap on the walls were really fun? This is like that, but with creepy puppets, world class beer, and a full menu. Our table had name plates at every seat, so one could adopt a Belgian persona for the night. Call me “Jacques le Grande.”
This place is going to haunt my dreams for years to come
Delirium Cafe: Close to everything but a little hard to actually find, and both worth the effort and not. It’s a zoo, but it’s a fun zoo with good people watching if you’re up for it. Three floors, with the quieter top floor offering a few American beers at grass-is-always-greener pricing that will make you chuckle. Prices otherwise seemed low for the location with the round of six beers I fetched totaling 20 Euros. Same alley as the female counterpart to Mannekin Pis squatting over a chamberpot. I don’t know.
The first rule of Delirium is …
Porte Noire: This cool bar in a cellar is open real late, though I’m not good at staying out til 3am so I didn’t get proof. It was a great stop even earlier in the evening, with an impressive bottle selection and some beers on tap I’d not otherwise seen yet.
If I’m ever in Brussels again I’ll check out Beer Mania and its Congolese immigrant neighborhood Matonge. I walked through the area once, but it was too early in the day and there was nothing to see except people getting their hair did. It sounds like a nice nightlife area, though. I’d also give Mort Subite a whirl even though I usually try to avoid giving money to Heineken. Part of a trip like this is accepting that what you get to do is a drop in the bucket — but what a tasty drop!
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