Belgium’s Flanders countryside is easy cycling miles. It’s flat. There is green grass and tall bushes hedging lawns with cows, goats, sheep and, surprisingly, llamas grazing in the fields. Cycling is a national sport and the Spring Classics are covered constantly on television. Road bikes quickly and quietly hum past me while I fall into a rhythm on my loaded touring bike.
At night, or in the late afternoon, my cycling buddy and I can stop at a bar or cafe and choose to drink one of 10 to upwards of hundreds of beers to discover in the menus. We “cheers” and proclaim, “Day drinking!” The beer is well deserved, however, with wind in your face at times. We don’t drink a lot, but we drink often — sharing a beer socially with one of our WarmShowers hosts.
Untappd, the beer logging app, has gifted me the “Belgian Holiday” badge Level 16. “That’s 80 different beers from Belgium,” the badge proclaims. The beer is tasted, not drunk. Traveling with another person makes it easier to try more beers as we can get two different beers and try each other’s thus I am not drinking enough to make my mother worried about me.
The woman tending bar in a small town conveyed which beers they had by showing the glassware, not the bottle. There is a branded beer glass for almost every beer. Most of the beer at cafes and bars is served from bottles, but there is always a proper glass to go alongside. In homes, many Belgians have a stock of glasses of their own. No shaker pints here, but tulips, goblets, flutes, snifters and pils glasses. Brands attempt to get drinkers to drink their beers by enticing them into buying their branded glassware, which is packaged with beers in what looks like a gift set. Grocery stores sell these packages year round with a bottle or two of beer and a glass or two to serve it in for surprisingly reasonable prices. The glassware is inexpensive because the breweries benefit from having their consumers drink it in proper glassware and having their logo prevalent in people’s homes.
I had trouble ordering beer at first because the style names do not align with what is in my head from the Beer Judging Certification Program Style Guidelines. You wouldn’t call something a Belgian Strong Ale, because you know that it’s already Belgian. Bruines and Blondes are popular. There are six Trappist breweries in Belgium that brew the traditionally named Dubbel and Tripel beers. Quads are not as common. The naming convention is historical. Dubbel beer got its name from Westmalle because it was the second beer their brewed, and Tripel the third. The name stuck.
In addition, Abbey breweries make the same styles of beer, but are unable to brand themselves as Trappist because they are not made in a “Trappist” monastery, but may be made in a different monestary, and can be made by commercial breweries as well. Then you’ve got the Lambics, most commonly cherry, named “Kriek,” which is sweeter and fruity and with a low ABV (around 2%). Lindemans and Timmermans make Lambic beers. Flanders Red Ales are my favorite, but despite biking through Flanders, they are not that easy to find. Rodenbach is distributed the furthest, but Duchesse de Bourgogne is my favorite.
Beer is poured from bottle to glass from such heights to get a foamy head and there is not even enough space to transfer the whole bottle into a glass without waiting for a moment for the head to subside. The remainder of the bottle is used to top off the glass. However, in the case of Belgian beers refermented in the bottle, the remaining yeast on the bottom is only added to the glass if the taster desires it, as some drinkers believe it spoils the beer. The same is done with homebrew in America.
In addition, beer is cheap. A Rochefort 10, an 11.3% ABV beer, sells for around $8 in the USA for a 12-ounce bottle. Here it is commonly €2.70. Single bottles at the grocery store are usually €1-3. At bars, beer is rarely over €4.50, even for the highest ABV beers.
To maintain the balance between beer and cycling, a bike tour is the perfect way to see Belgium. Once you leave the countryside and enter a city, streets confusingly careen around to meet in beautiful, old squares with ancient churches and street fronts.
Brasseries with open air patios spilling onto the squares are the best way to share a meal the European way: With good food, beer or wine, and conversation. Conversation never feels rushed in Europe. You are never rushed out the door at a cafe and you can sit and converse for hours.
The carbs cycle tourists need are provided in the form of Belgian waffles with caramelized sugar crisping the sides, fatty frites with mayonnaise or curry ketchup, freshly baked bread, and in the south, fabulous crepes and croissants inherited from the French.
The strong beer may be balanced with a sweet, frothy cappuccino as a nightcap or afternoon pick-me-up. Oh, and the melt-in-your-mouth truffles are pretty great too.
Much of Europe is about feeling things, not necessarily doing things, like viewing art in museums, or architecture or the atmosphere. Beer is treated the same way. Beer isn’t meant to be rushed, but to be experienced. And here is one of the best places in the world to experience it because it is part of culture. In fact, UNESCO added Belgium’s beer heritage to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list last year. If you’ve been, you know why. Tradition lives on through Trappist breweries and continues through new Belgian craft breweries, whose beer give the hundreds-of-years-old breweries competition.
America may have craft breweries scattered throughout the nation, but the historical impact of beer in Belgian taverns and knowledge your “everyday Joe” has of beer and glassware, always offering to share their opinion about their favorites with you, is alluring and exciting.