Never mind the EU – there’s one very good reason for Britons to visit Brussels

Belgian Beer World opened in Brussels earlier this month
Belgian Beer World opened in Brussels earlier this month - JOHN THYS / AFP) (Photo by JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty

The doors slide shut. The room, perhaps five metres by three, is windowless and dark, and I’m the only person in it. Suddenly, a woman speaks, in perky Belgian-accented, American-inflected English. She’s talking about yeast. Hang on, she is yeast. “I work in beer,” she says. “And here’s my workplace: a magic Belgian brewery!”

It sounds like an odd dream – the kind you get after too much magic Belgian beer – but it’s actually part of Brussels’ newest visitor attraction, Belgian Beer World, which opened earlier this month. This is a section called The Yeast Theatre, a six-minute multimedia explanation of how yeast does its crucial work, turning sugar into alcohol during the production of beer.

The museum, part of a £77m renovation of the city’s 19th-century stock exchange, is an attempt to explain the complex, often eccentric world of Belgian beer. There’s ingredients (malt, hops and water, plus the various other things Belgians use), the brewing process, fermentation, and plenty of the quirkier aspects of Belgian beer culture (Gambrinus, iconic king of beer, is claimed, somewhat controversially, for Belgium). There’s also jaunty visuals and interactivity, from label design to beer recommendations.

Despite some teething issues I found it to be a good appetiser for Brussels, famous as the home of EU bureaucracy but also – of far more interest to British tourists – for its beer. A marvellous selection of traditional venues has been joined by a new generation of bars and breweries over the past few years. “When I moved to Brussels in 2009, it had one functioning brewery – if you’d told me 13 years later that number would be closer to 20, I doubt I would have believed you,” says Eoghan Walsh, author of A History of Brussels Beer in 50 Objects. “The city has a really fascinating mix now.”

The highlight of the museum is on the roof. Dozens of draught and bottled beers are available to enjoy, alongside a 360-degree view of Brussels’ city centre (a 15-cl taster is included in the €17 adult entry price). I went for St Bernardus 12, a rich, dark, toffee-laden 10-percent ale. As I sipped it, I reflected that this may be the bar with the finest view of Belgium’s capital – but where else could I experience the best and boldest of the city’s beer scene during a two-day exploration?

Bottles and glasses displayed at Belgian Beer World
Bottles and glasses displayed at Belgian Beer World - JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty

The best beer and food

Every sensible bar crawl begins with something to eat - and Brussels has plenty of places to enjoy food alongside beautiful beer, from Art Nouveau restaurant Les Brigittines to PinPin, a boulangerie-cum-bottle-shop. I plumped for La Fruitiere, a superb cheese shop with a bar à fromage, a simply decorated space for eating in, next door.

A glass of Brussels brewery La Mule’s Straight Saison – tangy, crisp, peppery – was the perfect foil for a plate of cheese and charcuterie, working particularly well with Rocamadour, a rich, unctuous goat’s cheese from southern France. Service was attentive and friendly, and I left ready to tackle whatever Brussels could throw at me.

The oldest beer

Cantillon, 15 minutes’ walk from La Fruitiere and 10 from Gare Du Midi, is one of the world’s great breweries. It’s Brussels’ oldest, too, having opened in 1900. The beer itself is also a grey-beard: Oude Gueuze, bone-dry and sparkling, is blended from lambic beers of up to three years’ barrel age, and then spends at least a year maturing in bottle.

For €8, I toured the brewery under my own steam. It’s a unique experience, taking in elderly brewing equipment (including a coolship, a snooker-table-shaped vessel in the building’s eaves where the beer is cooled overnight) and dozens of barrels used to age the beer. I finished with a glass of Kriek, made with sour cherries: it’s a tart, almond-rich delight, best sampled in the brewery’s simple, brick-wall bar.

Cheers! Will Hawkes on his beer odyssey
Cheers! Will Hawkes on his beer odyssey

The newest beer

Gueuze is the iconic beer of Brussels and its immediate hinterland, but until this year a new version had not appeared for decades. That changed this month when Brussels Beer Project – the city’s answer to Brewdog – released their own Gueuze. I tried it at the brewery’s bar in Dansaert, where it’s made, and where the written exhortation “Leave the Abbey, Join the Playground” looms over drinkers from the wall of the bar.

Gueuze Dansaert, as it’s called, has bold stone-fruit character and plenty of tannins, with a funky aftertaste that will appeal more to aficionados than novices. Never fear, though: there are more than a dozen other options, including crowd-pleasers like Pils and IPA. It’s a perfect example of how tradition and modernity co-exist in modern Brussels.

The strongest beer

It would take a (slightly) more foolish man than me to claim he could track down the strongest of all beers in Brussels, the capital of a nation with plenty of heavy hitters, but I have a good idea of the strongest delicious beer: Rochefort 10, a Trappist classic that weighs in at 11.3 percent ABV.

Hopping for the Cantillon Gueuze beer
Hopping for the Cantillon Gueuze beer - Hemis / Alamy

I found it at one of my favourite bars, À La Mort Subite, just north of the Grand Place, which was largely empty just after noon on my second day. Despite the early hour, the waiter didn’t flinch as I ordered, soon returning with the beer in its branded glass goblet.

As black clouds gathered outside, I savoured one of the world’s great beers. Every sip offered something different as the beer, served chilled, gradually warmed up: raisin, honey, plums, blackcurrant, brown sugar. It was smooth in a way that belied its strength. Was I feeling the effects by the time I finished, half an hour later? Let’s just say the rest of the day went by very smoothly indeed.

The cosiest beer

Where Mort Subite offers 1920s grandeur, Bar Daringman, a single-room pub with sandy-brown tones bequeathed during a smokier age and plain wooden bench seating, is down to earth. In that respect it’s a lot like the city, a place that always delivers more than it promises and which stubbornly retains its character despite being the political heart of Europe.

1920s grandeur at À La Mort Subite
1920s grandeur at À La Mort Subite - Scott Hortop Travel / Alamy

Daringman is cash only, but luckily I had the required €5.50 for a glass of hazy-orange Papegaei, with its elegant balance of acidity, hop flavour and unctuous honey character. It’s the sort of beer that natives take for granted – unfiltered, unpasteurised, refermented in the bottle, made with whole hops – but which would stand out anywhere else. Magic Belgian beer, indeed.

Brussels’ Best Brewery: De La Senne

For all Brussels’ new breweries, De La Senne, which first brewed in the city in 2010, remains the gold standard. Influenced by Belgian tradition but also other European beer cultures (Taras Boulba, the brewery’s flagship pale ale, is partly inspired by founder Yvan De Baets’ passion for cask ale), this brewery unerringly hits the spot, whether it be its zippy, lemony Zenne Pils or rounded Triple Jambe De Bois.

Like the beer, the brewery’s taproom north of the city centre is a joy. When I visited, the industrial concrete interior echoed to happy shouts from a crowd around a babyfoot table in the corner, while outside friends played boules, their bicycles deposited temporarily in a nearby hedge. I drank Taras Boulba, a beer whose forceful bitterness is balanced by a classically spicy Belgian yeast character.

Will Hawkes travelled as a guest of Visit Brussels.