A little over two weeks ago, Rob and I made it back from our second annual trip to Belgium. We took 9 days to make the rounds, revisiting some favourite haunts in Brussels, making it to a spot that we missed out on last time, and spending a few days exploring the countryside along the Belgium-France border. The trip was a great chance for us to take a step back from daily life at the shop & in the brewhouse; we came home with a few exciting ideas and stomachs full of beer & cheese.
To keep this blog post from turning into a novel, I’m going to embed that we used to track our trip at the bottom of this post. It includes layers for our brewery stops, beer-centric bars & restaurants, the hotels we stayed at, and the places we missed out on.
Not super worth checking out this layer on the map. Our travel policy is to spend enough to be comfortable, but no more than that. We’d rather spend our money on beer & food. The only exception to the policy was our night at The Brouwershuis, a B&B tucked right in beside St. Bernardus brewery. We spent a little bit more for our night there, and were glad we did. It’s a gorgeous spot with kind hosts and a great breakfast. They also helped us coordinate a tour at the brewery.
The brewery itself was enormous. They have a production size of 40,000 hl, which they are in the process of doubling… and yet our guide referred to the company as a “small brewery” throughout the tour. This was a phenomenon we’d see later in the trip, too, at Jenlain/Brasserie Duyck. As we travelled, we figured out that this is the language of large, independently owned breweries. It has less to do with size than with family/community-focused business goals.
As soon as you get outside of major cities, Belgian breweries operate on their own schedules. Generally speaking, this means bottle shops that are open 1-2 days a week for super limited hours, if at all. One of Rob’s very favourite pit stops was at Girardin. A family-owned brewery and farm, they offer bottle sales from their warehouse on Fridays and Saturdays (limited hours). No tastings, no tours, no nonsense. Two 750ml bottles of Girardin Black Label + a glass cost €9. We immediately found the closest picnic table and put that glass to use.
Anyway, my point is that it’s just not possible to get everywhere. This time, we missed out on a few spots on our list based on the way that brewery hours lined up with our trip plan. We’ll hit them next time.
RENTING A CAR
Belgium is a great country to travel by train. That said, we wouldn’t have been able to get to many of the places on our list without a car. We spent a surprising amount of time driving down one-lane country roads, pulling off onto the edge of a field to let someone pass going in the opposite direction. Without a car, we wouldn’t have made it to two of our favourite brewery stops this trip:
Au Baron, a French farmhouse brewery that sits right along the Belgian border. They make excellent small-batch Biere de Garde, and have a great restaurant attached to the brewhouse that offers a full menu (a rare find) and a riverside patio. Owner/brewer Xavier Bailleux took the time to tell us about the brewery’s history (started by his father), focus, and process. The drive in and out of the countryside brewery was gorgeous.
Fantôme, home of Coca-Cola drinking, politics talking, kind-hearted, badass brewer Dany Prignon. I prearranged our visit via email, and we were expecting a quick pop in to check out his brew house and pick up a few bottles. We ended up spending close to six hours with Dany, who brought us to lunch with some extended family members. Rob has long been a fan of Fantôme’s brewing philosophy (and oh-so-delicious brews, of course), and this stop - to me - was the ultimate example of Belgian hospitality.
Don’t rent a car to use in Brussels. Driving in this city sucks. Otherwise, it’s an awesome place. Get on a bus on Sundays and head out to Grote Dorst for an unmatched bottle selection and the nicest people. Check out Booze n’ Blues, our favourite dive bar: go there to sit at one of their sidewalk tables and drink a selection of De La Senne on draught or Cantillon Gueuze (+ a couple others) in bottles.
Speaking of, WE MADE IT TO CANTILLON! The timing of Church holidays during our last trip meant that Cantillon was closed the entire time we were there. Not so this time around. We went at open, did the self-guided tour, and spent far too long in their tasting room. We also brought home as many bottles as we possibly could. Cantillon really is must-visit (ideally, on every trip).
THE WORLD CUP
We aren’t big soccer/football fans, but being in Belgium and France during the world cup finals and semi-finals was awesome. We did the big public space thing once (Belgium v. France) in Ypres, Belgium. Beyond that, we tracked down beer bars & bottle shops that were showing the games, and are glad we did. La Capsule in Lille, France, is a great spot. When we got back to Brussels at the end of our trip, we were pumped to be able to watch one game at Moeder Lambic Original and the other at our favourite bottle shop, Le Barboteur.
Well would you look at that, a small novel. Honestly, this was the shortest I could make this thing while still doing the trip some level of justice. If you made it this far, thanks. Belgium is a special place; we’ll be going back.