Beer makes Belgium blossom

By Rick Steves
This item appears on page 80 of the October 2008 issue.
In Bruges, you can tour De Halve Maan brewery, which makes Zot, the only beer actually brewed in town. Photo: Steves

The other night I found my way home, a little tipsy after an evening in the Belgian town of Bruges. I’d been at my favorite bar in town, the t Brugs Beertje, where not only did I get schooled in the many varieties of local beer, I learned a few things about modern-day Belgian life.

I was a bit down on Bruges after a long day of visiting every sight in town. It’s inundated with tourists, especially when a cruise ship is docked. It seems nothing there is “untouristy.”

The growing affluence in places like Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark brings predictability and homogeneity, along with high prices. It took staying out late and enjoying a couple of beers to jolt me back into a positive mind-set.

A good percentage of the tourists you meet in Bruges are beer pilgrims. For two nights in a row I shared a table or bar with travelers, there specifically to enjoy the fine local beer. Run by Daisy, the ’t Brugs Beertje is beloved among beer aficionados for stocking more than 300 Belgian varieties.

I grabbed a stool at the bar with an agenda: to check material on Belgian beers for my guidebook. I planned to pick Daisy’s brain, but several beer experts surrounded me, all happy to clue me in.

Soon I had a chemistry lab of four different brews in front of me, each with its distinct beaker. A critical part of the beer culture there is the glass, which must fit the local variety.

Four brews were lined up in front of me. Zot (“the fool”), the only beer actually brewed in Bruges, is considered one of Belgium’s best. A kriek is made with bitter cherries. An apple lambic is what you’d order for friends who “don’t like beer.” The Chimay, brewed by Trappist monks, was new to me and perhaps the smoothest and most complex brew I ever tasted. Finishing my glass, I thought Chimay would almost make celibacy livable.

Sitting at the bar, I was surrounded by talkative Belgians. I mentioned how unpredictable the weather had been, and they explained they had “nice weather 20 times a day.”

Loosened up by a few Zots, my Belgian stool mates started talking about their northern neighbors: “The Dutch have the worst beer, Heineken, but sell it all over the world. Belgians make far better beer, and it is barely exported. Those Dutch could sell a fridge to an Eskimo. The first thing the Dutch ask you is about money — how much people make and how much things cost — which is taboo here in Belgium.”

As I conversed effortlessly in English with a bunch of older Belgians, it occurred to me that the language barrier had sunk to new lows. This was really a switch.

In the past, only young people were fluent enough in English to be able to clue me in on things. Consequently, I would get a young perspective. Now that European schools have been teaching English for many years, even retired people likely speak the language. It’s a new age of communication.

Speaking of modern communication in Europe, it’s never been easier. Upon arrival at the train station, my first stop in that country, I bought a Belgian SIM card for my cell phone. When I asked where the shop was, the information person directed me to a machine. I popped a 10-euro bill (about $15) into the SIM card dispenser and got my chip with a Belgian phone number and €7.50 (about $11) of credit for making calls.

While communication is simple, the challenge for Americans is to survive on a weaker dollar. In Belgian restaurants (as in most of Europe), $30 is the going price for a main course in a decent restaurant.

And no restaurant there serves tap water. They claim their tap water is “recycled” and that a bunch of people got sick drinking it a few years ago. So, apparently, the government doesn’t allow restaurants to serve it. That makes expensive eateries even tougher on the pocketbook.

That’s the bad news. The good news — you can eat cheap in the pubs. Go low end on the food (you can get hearty bowls of spaghetti for $10) and go high end on the beer, sampling the best in Europe for $4 a bottle. This allows the poor American tourist to have two great beers and a basic meal for $18.

As a beginner in Daisy’s pub, I was extremely steep on the learning curve, but it was a fun education at an affordable price.