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Stories from our Travelers

In Search of the Holy Grail - Belgian Beer

Belgian beer on offer

Intimate restaurant Le Mistral beckons visitors

A keg is hauled up side of building in Antwerp
by Nick Walton

[From Summer 2012] For beer lovers there is no pilgrimage destination like the beer halls of Belgium, and the historic city of Antwerp brings class to your next glass of golden beauty.

There is a hushed tone and an almost imperceptible intake of breath as I browse the drinks list at one of Antwerp's 2,500 rustic little beer bars. The list is daunting, stacked with exotic sounding ales and lagers – some dark, some light, some lethally strong. Finally I pick a beer, the most exotic sounding I can find, and the bartender smiles; I've passed the tourist's test by not ordering a Stella.

Here in the tiny nation of Belgium, they take their beer very seriously. International marketing and massive advertising budgets mean Stella Artois, a Belgian staple, has become a household name overseas. But with 125 breweries producing 800 standard beers and literally thousands of one offs for festivals and anniversaries, there are so many less commercial drops to be sampled, and summer in the cathedral city of Antwerp is by far the best time to follow your taste buds.

Sleepy, postcard-perfect Antwerp is a city that's often overlooked. Only 40 minutes drive from Brussels’s international airport, Antwerp and its southern sister city have a relationship that makes the Kiwi-Aussie rivalry look like a tickle fight. In Belgium you're defined by the city you call home and the language you speak (Flemish in Antwerp, French in Brussels). But their one uniting factor is a love of beer.

Despite its trendy café culture, riverside restaurants, fashion boutiques and bicycle addiction, the heart of Antwerp has changed little over the centuries. Its core is dominated by several beautiful medieval buildings, including the towering Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal, the Cathedral of our Lady, and the nearby Grote Market square, sided by the City Hall and a series of 16th-century guild houses.

Many of the city's more than 2,000 bars, pubs and alehouses can be found here in the Old City, hidden away in the basements of century-old homes. While some are new and modern, like the trendy Burning Plague, others have been serving beer since the 1700s, with little thought to décor or modernity save for a spot of refrigeration.

After a mid-morning wander down cobblestone lanes hemmed in by tiny apartment buildings fringed with pots of blooming flowers, I emerge from the warren of the Old City before the cathedral, which towers into a pastel blue sky. Built in 1351, it stands at over 400ft high, the shadow from its twin spires reaching out across the ancient market place where bar owners set out tables covered in bright red and white table cloths.

Religion and Belgium's beer credentials go hand in hand. I soon find myself in Pater's Vaetje ( Blauwmoezelstraat 1, +32 3 231 8476), a typical 17th century watering hole dressed simply in red tile and timber beams, with vaulted ceilings. By noon the bar is already half full, with sunshine streaming through leaded windows down to marble tabletops.

It's places like Pater's Vaetje where you can sample Belgium's myriad boutique beers, many of which are produced in small, seasonal batches. Trappist monks produce the best. In Belgium only six monasteries are licensed to produce these artisan drops; monks must be instrumental in the production of the beer and profits must be used to support the monastery or its social programs. Trappist beers, including Achel, Westmalle and Chimay – a beer that's treated like a champagne in Antwerp – only have the monks in common; some are musty and earth, others floral and fragrant, but all are worth an additional twenty minutes of beer garden respite.

Abbey beers are also available in many of the less commercial beer bars in Antwerp's Old City. Essentially these are commercial imitations of the Trappist beer style and have their roots in the popularity of Belgium's monastery beer production after World War II. Abbey beers are typically brune beers, a Belgium brown ale also known as dubbel, though some are blonde ales or pale ales, perfect for warm afternoons.

I carry my Chimay Blue, a complex, nutty, caramel-coloured ale, out to a sun drenched timber table to daydream of Friar Tuck making beer and thanking the Lord with every sip. “This is bliss,” remarks my beer-sipping neighbor, as he munches on a pottekeis, a cheese sandwich with raw slices of radish. “Sun on our faces and beer in our bellies.”

I continue my beer education down the road at the Kulminator, an iconic Antwerp bar known for its 500-strong beer menu. Tucked away in a small side street, it's well worth tracking down for its awesome collection of beers, which include consecutive beer vintages stretching over a decade, ales that were never sold commercially, and even a few drops left over from distilleries that are now closed. You can even take a peak at the bar's own temperature-controlled aging room.

This time I try a lambic beer, one of Belgium's many low alcohol 'spontaneous fermentation' beers that are loved for their dry, cidery flavours. Some lambic beers are made with fruit and make for an ideal lager alternative for summer. Fruit lambic beers resemble little bottles of champagne, complete with a cork, and are made from raspberry and peach right through to apricot, cloudberry, lemon, blueberries and apple. Many of these fruit beers are quite sweet so if in doubt you're best to ask so you don't end up with an alcoholic soda.

My Lindeman's Peche Lambic is subtle with a touch of sweetness and at four percent is great for that afternoon tipple. I sip it at the Kulminator's bustling bar top, which is populated by a never ending supply of European 'beer tourists' looking for the strongest and the oldest beers on offer.

Trying to get through as many of Antwerp's bars as possible appeals to the many young blokes on weekend tours. Others, like my neighbor at Pater's Vaetje, choose a more sedate pace. He's still there as I pass by bound for the river, with his beer and cheese, watching the afternoon sun fade behind the cathedral. He toasts me across the square; to sun on our faces and beer in our bellies.

If You Go
Kulminator (at Vleminckveld 32, tel. +35 3 232 4538) is known for its 500-plus beers on offer. Travel back to the 17th century at Pater's Vaetje (Blauwmoezelstraat 1, tel. +32 3 231 8476). Tiny restaurnt Le Mistral (Pelgrimstraat 20, tel. +32 3 232 94 72) welcomes diners with good food and friendly service.

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