One of the greatest things about traveling is that at times you find yourself in a place that in an instant inspires pause. Not a pause of reflection or of anticipation, but rather a pause of securing the moment, savoring all that surrounds you; the sights, smells, and above all the feeling or dare I say the emotion. This is why Brussels is my Beer exploration destination of choice. The Beer culture in Brussels is not featured with an arrogant strut, nor is it shown with awkward humility. The hundreds of styles and labels, each presented in it’s unique glass, is simply offered as if this were the natural order and while sitting in a Brussels café you believe that this is true.
Brussels is an ideal European spot for a short trip as the Grande Place, the central city square, anchors the old city. The Grande Place is small by most standards being just more than 100 meters in length and barely 70 meters in width. It is flanked by tremendous 17th century architecture being home to both public and private buildings. Most where constructed as guildhalls including the remarkable town hall. The smooth cobblestone floor of the square is still a vibrant city market as well as the site for concerts, festivals, and countless tourists. Here you can tour the old brewers guild, step into one the many cafés, or just take in the scenery (several cafés have outdoor seating ideal for enjoying a great Belgian Ale while taking in the sites). Standing in the square’s center you feel as if you’re in a movie. Depending on your cinematic taste you’re just about to receive flowers from a stranger, witness a man running with attaché case with law enforcement just steps behind, or a car will speed in, wheels squealing, and an odd looking fellow is spraying you in machine gun fire. If that’s the case you really should sit down and have a drink.
Much of the city’s great sites and destinations can be easily reached on foot from the Grande Place. This is a good thing for the Beer focused, as you will likely never have your sneakers impounded for inebriated walking. For his reason, Brussels is an ideal spot to visit if you have just a few days; perhaps a long weekend. (Although Brussels is engaging enough to capture your imagination for weeks on end.) You can simply land, train to the city center, drop you bags at your hotel and get to your quest. Many streets and alleyways intercept the Grande Place. Take any of them or all of them as each wandering will reveal a charming shop, café, or chocolatier and most random set of turns will simply lead you back to where you started. The old, central city is laid out like the web of a drunken spider that somehow forms a near perfect circle. No map I have seen shows evidence of this, and rather marks a street in a true singular direction. My walks and wanderings prove otherwise.
Once you have taken in the vibe and have become acquainted with your surroundings it’s time to tackle the task at hand, exploring Brussels’s great Beer destinations. A collection of classic Brussels Cafés can be found just steps away from the Grande Place. Le Falstaff, La Porte Noire, Le Ciro, and A la Bécasse, are all a stone’s throw away and La Morte Subite is not far. Many of the cafés and restaurants on the Grande Place are tourist oriented. However, one worthy of a look is La Chaloupe d’Or, which is a 100-year-old café with charm, and a glass of Duvel in such a spot is always gratifying. Falstaff and Le Ciro are both classic Belg/French Art Nouveau style cafés with ornate glass, brass, and woodwork. Stepping in is a step back in time. The number of Beers offered will not astound you but you will be hard pressed to walk out parched. While near the Grande Place you must find the unassuming café A la Bécasse. It is on Rue du Tabora just off a narrow and unspectacular alley jutting from the Grande Place. (Any local or Hotel can point the way.) Here ceramic pitchers filled with Lambic aged for two years plus are served at long tables as you are seated with strangers that like you, have made the journey to experience something incomparable. (As the second pitcher arrives the strangers become friends.)
Serious Belgian Beer scholars need to make time to visit Chez Moeder & Le Bier Circus. They are both off of the beaten path when centered at the Grande Place but neither is more than a 15 minute walk and both worth every step. At first steps into Chez Moeder and you may wonder what the fuss is all about as it is small, with uninspiring décor, and shelves filled with board games that have all seen better days. If you go as far as to sit down you will be treated to a Beer list with more than a 1,000 offerings and a very friendly staff. This is a must stop.
If you think that you have seen every Beer in the world, then head to Le Bier Circus. In fact, if you love Beer or if you have ever even liked a Beer you must go to Le Bier Circus as it has the best and largest selection of Belgian Beers that I have ever encountered. The list changes each quarter so return trips are always a good idea. The staff and owner Patrick is very helpful and appreciative of Beer lovers. Don’t go if you want to drink Stella all night. If you are new to Belgian Beers ask for help and your inquiry will be rewarded. If you are an experienced Belgian Beer drinker follow my lead. I go through the list and note any Beer that is unfamiliar. I then relay this information to the staff and ask them to make suggestions from this suggestion. It’s best to go here with friends so you can try as many Beers as possible sharing bottles along the way. A small menu consisting mainly of cheese, charcuterie, and simple pasta dishes may seem sparse to the serious diner but it’s all good and just what you need to compliment the star of the show, Beer!
When you are in the mood for a taste of local cuisine seek out Spinnekopke. The restaurant is located on a small square the likes of which can be found at countless intersections in Brussels. You enter just below street level through a small door. To the left is a service bar and behind it the larger of the dining rooms while a smaller room to your right. The tables in this room are impossibly narrow and this is where we sat ourselves for dinner. The cleverly chosen oval, oblong plates were in danger of falling into your lap. The menu is classically Brussels “cuisine a la biere” with most dished being made with the addition of Belgian Beer. The Beer menu includes about a dozen selections on tap featuring Cantillon Lambic. The bottle list included a nice selection of Trappist Ales and a wide selection of 750ml bottles of various styles and labels. We shared the Cocquil St Jacques and the Scampi in tomato cream sauce to start. For my main course I wisely chose the Carbonade Flamande, a tasty Flemish beef stew made with a Belgian Brown (typically sour) Ale. It was rich, spicy, with notes of ginger, pepper, and brown spices and incredibly tender practically melting in your mouth.
If sticking to the Grande Place you can find several spots serving great Moule et Frit (mussels with thin cut fries). A tourist place serving better than typical tourist fare is t’Kelderke right on the Grande Place (#15). Here they serve a really fine Waterzooi, a classic Belgian stew that in the north is most often made with fish. In Brussels it’s regularly based on chicken with carrots, leeks, potatoes, and cream. It’s a satisfying dish that doesn’t weigh you down. If you are in the mood to take a voyeuristic approach to dining you must walk down de Rue de Boucher (Beenhouwer-straat). This is a narrow cobblestone street restricted to foot traffic. This lane is simply filled with restaurants and for some reason nearly everyone of them has a burgundy colored awning. Seafood is the marquee attraction here but the specialty is tourism. A carnival barker style promoter guards each doorway and will readily meet you mid street in an attempt to lure you in. The pre 8pm menus are amazingly cheap and just as remarkably homogeneous from one end of the lane to the other. Post eight the menus get a little more interesting and pricey catering to locals as well as the flocks of tourists. Although the Rue de Boucher may be a bit too commercial, strolling the narrow lane is a must.
I have certainly provided you with enough hints and direction to get your journey started. When you go, do certainly: get lost at least once, have a waffle from a street-side vendor, visit a chocolatier, eat mussels, and come home with good stories.