The seeds of the idea were planted many years ago during my first trip to Belgium when I was just 13. My dad was working in La Hulpe near Brussels, and our family had the opportunity to meet up with him for a couple of weeks in the capital city. I recall enjoying the trip quite a lot in spite of not being old enough to drink. I ate escargot, waffles, chocolate, and luxurious steak with peppercorn sauce. Although we stayed pretty close to the capital city, the history of the place impressed me deeply. Every building you see in the city center is hundreds of years old, something you just don’t experience in the U.S..
As my passion for beer has developed in years since, the Belgian styles have risen to the top and stayed there: dubbels, triples, quadruples, saisons, abbey ales, and trappist ales. Even geuzes and lambics I have a deep appreciation for although sometimes the sourness is shocking to my palette. My favorite beer is Gouden Carolus Grand Cru of the Emperor, brewed by Het Anker just north of Brussels. It’s intriguing to me how these beer traditions can be centuries old, how monks brew and sell beer to make enough money for subsistence, and how spontaneous fermentation can yield products renowned the world over. Can you imagine brewing a beer from spontaneous fermentation in Southern California? Doesn’t sound tasty.
On top of that, the Belgian beer tradition has inspired many of the breweries I love here in North America: Unibroue, Ommegang, and the Lost Abbey. If these breweries are so incredible, then I should also experience the beers and tradition on which they were based.
I heard once that the Belgian beers that get imported to the U.S. are but a fraction of what is available there, and have endured a tough voyage across the sea. If I enjoy the Chimays and Deliriums here, a wonderland awaits a mere 7,000 miles away.
The trip to Belgium was an opportunity to experience new beers, to taste that which is not readily available in the U.S., and to learn about the culture that has given rise to my favorite styles of beer.
Day 1: Brussels
With the 9 hour time difference between San Diego and Brussels, there’s really no way to get there but to lose a day in the process. Our plane left San Diego at 8am on September 10, 2009 and we arrived in Brussels at 8am on the 11th after 12 hours of flying and a 3-hour layover in D.C.. The trip across the Atlantic was miserably turbulent and my mood was worsened by the hunger stemming from my fast. I was trying to reset my internal sleep cycle clock in just one day by not eating for 18 hours. Between a 6:30am banana in San Diego and breakfast as we were landing in Brussels I drank only water. But it worked and I was immediately accustomed to the new time zone and able to sleep and wake at normal Belgium time.
If you want to start off on the wrong foot with Brussels, the best way to do it is to try to drive in to it during morning rush hour without a map. We thought we were following signs to the center, but we hadn’t seen one for a long time and needed to pull over to get directions once (my first time trying out my French as well). We got back on the right road and then had to fight through construction near our hotel destination to finally find parking. I’m sure part of this frustration was just our initial shock at the differences between signage and street layout logic between the U.S. and Belgium; driving in Liege at the end of our trip was seemingly much simpler once we were more accustomed to driving in the country.
The hotel Le Meridien was kind enough to let us check in early, so we got a chance to shower and change before heading out. Once we started out on foot, the streets were nearly as confusing as driving, actually. We wandered aimlessly around the Grand Place looking for a good place to eat our first Belgian meal and settled on a cozy restaurant with an persistent host. What better way to start off with Belgian specialties: Moules Frites (mussels and French fries) and escargot (snails). The Moules Frites were the “traditional” style, which turned out to be boiled in a large amount of onion and celery. This was actually quite overpowering in flavor and we ended up not liking it much, although the quality of ingredients was excellent. We also ordered a small 0.5L of water which cost us 6 euros and decided to never order water again since beer is only 3 euros.
Having filled our bellies we set about exploring the city. We started with the Grand Place, looking at buildings and poking around the shops. There were a couple Belgian beer shops with impressive selections.
We walked to go see the Mannekin Pis statue, which is a water fountain of a little boy peeing (seriously). We also walked up to the Parc de Bruxelles which is several city blocks of trees, dirt paths, inactive fountains, and park benches. This was a great area with people joging, relaxing, drinking, eating, and running their dogs.
We were planning on eating dinner at the Delirium Café but it turns out they don’t really have much food, just lots of beer. They claim to have the Guinness Record for number of beers available with over 2000. These are listed in a hefty binder along with descriptions. The vast majority are Belgian with maybe only 100 from elsewhere. Those are spread across a wide number of other countries. The only U.S. craft brewers represented well there were Rogue and Flying Dog. Most beers are in the bottle of course; only about 10 were on draft. Because of the popularity of the place, however, it was rather difficult to get service.
We went with beers from the bar’s namesake—Delirium Nocturnum and St Idsebald—but it took 10+ minutes to get the bartender’s attention and order them. We enjoyed the beers of course, but I ended up thinking of the place more of a gimmicky tourist trap than a great destination bar.
For dinner we headed back to a restaurant near the Grande Place and I indulged in a steak with peppercorn sauce, a meal I would repeat several times throughout our journey. The cut of meat is a ribeye I believe, but they call it “entrecote”. One big difference to the U.S. is that it is cut fairly thin, about ½ inch. The flavor, however, is excellent and the sauce divine. We assumed incorrectly that the restaurant would take credit cards, and ended up coughing up most our cash on dinner. Another lesson learned: always make sure that the restaurants take credit cards.
We then made a beeline for a destination we had spotted earlier near the Mannekin Pis: a Belgian waffle stand (although in Belgium of course they just call them “waffles”). My waffle with whipped cream and melted chocolate was one of the most delcious desserts I have ever eaten. The waffle was crisp, the chocolate plentiful and dark, the whipped cream thick and rich. I definitely need to try and reproduce that at home but I’m not sure we have room for the big whipped cream dispensing machine they use.
Our first day of driving, eating, drinking, and touring complete, we returned to Le Meridien for a well-deserved slumber.
Today I tasted:
- Unknown light beer at lunch
- Delirium Nocturnum
- St. Idesbald Blond
- Tongerlo Brune
- Unknown white beer
Total to date: 5 beers