Known for its variety of barley and rye, the European destination boasts vibrant cities and historic significance that can be enjoyed year-round.Standing in the middle of the aptly named Grand Place, the central square of Brussels, is to be surrounded by architectural splendor spanning the history of Europe, the old guild houses bespeaking the wealth of the medieval merchant class. My eye is quickly drawn to the Baroque and Flemish decorative touches of one guild house in particular — 10 Grand Place, a 1698 building gleaming in gold leaf. But there’s the added pleasure in knowing that this is the last of its kind still serving its original function, as the Belgian Brewers’ Guild House.
It’s fitting that Belgium has a patron saint of brewing — Arnold of Soissons, who in various legends could create an endless supply of beer simply through prayer. Since that’s never worked out particularly well for me, I like to return as often as possible to the country that goes at its brewing with more verve, complexity, idiosyncrasy, and reverence than any other on earth.
Brussels, the capital, is a worldly spot in the middle of Belgium. As the seat of the European Union and NATO, it’s a highly sophisticated city, and a visiting oenophile can rightly expect to find deep and refined wine lists here without difficulty. But beer is king in Belgium, and the beer lists are more extensive, as thick as Bibles in some instances. Because the climate is more suited to grain and hop than the grape, beer reigns supreme and is served at the table here the way wine is in France.
“Actually, we still have trucks that make home deliveries,” said Michel Russe, now retired from the Brouwerij Van Eecke in Watou. “Ten drivers make about 1,000 stops a day, like milkmen. Many of the smaller breweries still do this.”
Several years ago, I circumnavigated the country on a pilgrimage to Belgium’s six Trappist breweries, and at the Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy in Rochefort, the then-general manager Vital Streignard conveyed to me that the priorities of the Belgium people were very simple: “Food is first. Beer is second.” Enough said.
With such overlapping priorities, Belgium is always high on my personal travel agenda, though I recommend booking beyond the average visitor’s stay; according to tourist board statistics, most Belgium travelers linger a mere two nights, whether for business or layover, which can hardly do the country justice.