Beyond Nashville: Taste of Belgium
Chocolatiers on almost every corner, store fronts stacked floor-to-ceiling with beer, the smell of sweet waffles and fries with every choice imaginable of dipping sauce: Belgium was our land of indulgence. Sure there was lots to see, history to learn and culture to take in, but most of our exploration was for the palate.
Our Belgian excursion started in Bruges, a town known as the “Venice of the North.” The canals that weave through the town made for beautiful photos and a lazy boat tour of the town. Cobblestone streets, the click of horse-drawn buggies, swan-covered canals and churning white windmills are proof points that this town, indeed, resembles the pages of a fairytale book, but with more beer.
De Halve Maan Brewery
This is the only brewery located inside Bruges city limits. The tiny, stoned streets are narrow, making truck transportation through town difficult. For this exact reason, the brewery is developing a beer pipeline to a bottling facility outside of the city. We enjoyed tasting their traditional Belgian styles: a Single, Dubbel, Triple and Quadruple, while lounging on their outdoor patio. Here, you can tour the brewery, sample beer and grab lunch if you’re feeling hungry. The patio is a great place for people watching while sipping your beer.
Imagine every Belgian beer you can think of, lined wall-to-window and stacked to the rafters: it’s a craft-enthusiast’s heaven. In one of the shops, we found a case of Westvleteren, considered to be the “best beer in the world.” Produced by monks in the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren, it’s considered a very rare find. These monks produce a limited quantity, and only sell it to individuals (not wholesalers) at the brewery. We bought a bottle of Westvleteren 8, that we enjoyed on a picnic during our bike ride around Bruges.
Staminee De Garre
Down a narrow, bike-lined alley hides this tiny pub with a big beer menu. In Belgium, the glassware is as important as the beer. In fact, most brands have a specific shape for each particular style. There’s a science to it all, and they take it seriously at De Garre, serving each beer in its proper glass, alongside a sampling of Gouda.Why cheese? Well, this is another Belgian tradition, stemming from monks who produced both beer and cheese for a living. I’ll vote cheese over a pretzel every day with my beer, especially after trying Gouda with De Dolle Oerbier.
Roeselare – Rodenbach Brewery
After Bruges, we stopped off in Roeselare to visit Rodenbach Brewery. Lost, tired and lugging our backpacks, we had no idea that we were about to experience one of the highlights of our trip. We arrived and were initially told “no tours” and “no beer.” Be it pity, or the patron saint of beer blessing us from above, we were presented with the opportunity to tag along on distributor’s private tour. Just 5 of us total, and led by the head brewer, Rudie Ghequire; we got to see it all. After touring the brewery, we stopped in the barrel room. Surrounded by a room full of huge oak casks, Rudie poured us samples straight from the barrels of 3-month, 9-month and 2-year old beers. He explained the process of blending different ages to produce a consistent, final product. Blending is typical of this style of beer, known as Flander’s Red. We ended the tour in the tasting room by sampling special beers on tap that are only available at the brewery. My favorite sampling of the day included Grand Cru and Rosso, the blended fruit beer. The hospitality of Rudie and the private tasting experience paired with the taste of Rodenbach makes this by-far my favorite beer in Belgium. You can actually find Grand Cru here in Nashville at The Sutler, if you want to try for yourself.
Brussels – Annual Belgian Beer Weekend
Brussels was a much different pace, especially since the annual Belgian Beer weekend taking place in the central square of Brussels: the Grand Place. White covered tents sprinkled the square, hops-covered fences and every language imaginable filled the streets. The festival features more than 350 small, medium and large size Belgian Breweries. Unlike other beer festivals where you are given one tasting glass to move about the tents, in true Belgian fashion, each tent had a unique glass picked specifically by the brewery for you to taste your beer in. One of my favorites: drinking a special coconut beer from Delirium Tremens called Mongozo, that was served in an actual coconut.
Overall, Belgian cuisine is famous for chocolate, waffles and Moules-Frites to name a few. In Brussels, we had the real frites experience with our choice from at least a dozen (most mayonnaise-based) sauces. It is said that Belgium is where the fry originated, so when in Belgium, do as the Belgians do right? With sauce choices like Aioli, Zigeuner, Tarter and our choice: Samurai (mayonnaise with harissa), the flavor combinations are vast.
Chocolate is also an art form here. The store fronts look like they should be hung in a gallery, along with the chocolate inside. My favorite shop in Brussels was Elisabeth, initially for the irresistible design of the store front and packaging, then for the chocolate I sampled inside the store. My favorite sweets here were the truffles. They mix and match the flavors, so you can try them all if you want to indulge. I brought these back to Nashville for all Five Dishes to sample.
And the waffles, oh the waffles. If you bottled the smell of any Belgian city, waffles would be main base scent. On every corner, street and restaurant, it’s hard to resist not trying one (or two or three). You have choices here too, toppings range from whipped cream, chocolate (what?!), confectioners sugar or fruit.
A short train-ride later from the city-center of Brussels, Cantillon Brewery is disguised on a quiet, urban street. We found the large brewery door and to our surprise, opened to a bustling interior, filled with beer nerds from all over the world. After walking the self-guided brewery tour, we sat down for an actual tasting. The history behind Cantillon is rich: a family run business, with more than 115 years of tradition, operated at a loss for many years due to unpopularity of Lambic, sour style beer. With the recent resurgence of sour popularity, tourists are now flocking from all over the world and business is good. We enjoyed Gueuze, Kriek (with Schaerbeek cherries) and Rosé de Gambrinus (raspberry version of Kriek). We stocked up on several to bring home and drink on special occasions.
Beersel – Drie Fonteinen Restaurant and Brewery
We spent a day outside of Brussels, in a small town known as Beersel. This area (including Brussels) known as, Lambic-land, is popular for it’s natural fermentation process. It’s said that this style of beer cannot be produced anywhere else in the world, because this specific region produces natural yeast in the ecosystem that is used to create this special type of beer. In Beersel, we visited Drie Fonteinen Restaurant and Brewery. Family-owned by two brothers, one operates the restaurant and the other brews the beer. Over a salad (to shame all salads) and draft Lambics that you can’t find anywhere else in the world, we enjoyed our favorite lunch in Belgium. All the menu items were beer-based, so my salad had cheese and dressing made of Gueuze brewed right next door. A short walk up a hill and we were at the brewery. We were welcomed as if they had known us for years, and an eager young brewer gave us a tour and samples straight from the barrel room. The owner, Armand Debelier, shared stories with us at his outdoor tasting patio over a bottle of Oude Gueuze and Oude Kriek. With hospitality like this, we had a hard time saying goodbye.
Ready for your own Belgian taste excursion? Luckily an upcoming event, Nuit Belge, will offer a uniquely Belgian experience, right here in Nashville. Much like other Rhizome Productions, this beer and food event has a special twist. The concept takes an impressive lineup of restaurants, rare Belgian, Belgian-style, German and French beer then adds unique food pairings created specifically around each brew. Ticket offers range from general admission, a special Blackberry Farms experience and Spiegelau glassware tasting and education. This 500-person only event will sell out quickly. The event is March 14 at Marathon Music Works and tickets are on sale now. Hope to see you there!
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