Depending on your preferences, one of the greatest gifts that Belgium has given to the world is beer. Some would say waffles, but they probably just need to try more beer to get their priorities right. Here’s what English writer Michael Jackson had to say in his book Great Beers of Belgium – “Civilization may have begun with beer. On the basis of that theory, it might be argued that Belgians have their priorities right. In pursuing their enthusiasm for beer, they are simply seeking to be civilized people. The suggestion is that, when humans stopped being hunters and gatherers, and settled into organized societies in order to grow grain, their purpose was not to bake bread, but to brew beer.”
Belgian beer is unlike no other in the world. Michael also writes – “No other European country has beers that are quite so complex in character as the finest in Belgium. No other country has native beers as diverse, individualistic, even idiosyncratic. Some are so unlike conventional beers as to shock the unwary consumer.”
So where do we start our Belgian beer journey? Do we head to an Abbey or Trappist monestary? Do we go in search of wild yeast Lambics? Where can we find red beer, fruit beer, spiced beer, farmhouse ale, dubbels, tripels, quadrupels? Well, you can’t really make a bad decision in this country, but as for us, we started in the northwest area of the country in the province of West Flanders.
There are so many fantastic places to visit in Belgium, but certainly on the top of any list of where to go should be the city of Bruges. How special is it? Well, the entire city center of Bruges is designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. It is one of Belgium’s and Europe’s best preserved medieval cities. There is so much to see, do, eat (9 Michelin Star restaurants!) and drink that you should spend a couple days here at least as part of your Belgian beercation.
During the “Golden Age” in the 12th through 15th century Bruges was a European economic powerhouse. Foreign merchants from Portugal, Gaul, England, Scotland, Venice and the middle east all set up trading in Bruges. It was the home to what is widely believed to be the worlds first stock exchange opened in 1309. Now Bruges is a picture postcard perfect tourist destination, with wonderful canals and within the historic city center, street after street of charming historic buildings.
There is so much to see and do in Bruges. You may want to start by climbing the belfry to see the carillon in action. You definitely should take a boat ride on the canals. You may even want to go to the lace museum. Eventually though, you really should make your way to De Halve Maan, the only family brewery in the historical center of Bruges that is still active.
Historical records mention existence of a brewery called Die Maene (The Moon) in 1564. However it wasn’t until 1856 that Leon Maes (also known as Henri I) founded a “modern” brewery. In 1867 his sons took over the brewery and started applying new technology imported from England to produce stouts and pale ales. The sons died young, but their widows helped manage the brewery through the difficult years of the first world war. In 1919, Leon’s grandson (Henri III) took over and picked up the latest brewing technology from Germany. They began to brew lagers and rounded out production with soft drinks as well. Henri III specialized in a home delivery service system with horse and hamper, making a point to visit every customer at least once per year. In the 1950’s Henri IV took over and helped expand the breweries home delivery service with trucks. However, in the 1970’s this was the downfall of the home delivery system as people had their own cars and started buying beer in supermarkets. In the 1980’s, interest in traditional regional Belgian beers was increasing and Veronique, the daughter of Henri IV launched a new special beer, brewed to honor the inauguration of the Saint Arnold (patron saint of brewers) statue in Bruges. It was a blond beer of high fermentation and was given an appropriate name of Straffe Hendrik (strong Henri). However, In 1998 Straffe Hendrik brewing was taken over by a different brewery, Riva NV. In 2005 Veroniques son Xavier Vanneste revived activities a the brewery through extensive rennovation and modernization. He launched a new beer “Brugse Zot”, which has been brewed with great success, garnishing many awards. In 2008 Straffe Hendrik brewing returned once again to De Halve Maan.
De Halve Maan is a rather vertically oriented brewery, so during the tour you move from the brewing room up, up and up until you are on the roof of the brewery and have a great view of city of Bruges. The old malting room and fermentation tanks are still in place (although no longer used) and make for a great combination of the modern and historical during the tour. Tours are extremely popular and a completely international affair, provided in Dutch, French, German and English!