France has wine shows. Germany has its Oktoberfest. Belgium has beer festivals. Mention that you’ve frequented Belgian beer fests to a fellow enthusiast and you may get some envy or respect–for good reason. These events typically appeal to the aficionado rather than the casual beer drinker.
Every year, thousands of Belgian and foreign beer hounds travel to towns big and small across the country to sip at some of the world’s most interesting festivals. They range from subdued, white-tablecloth affairs on small cobblestone squares tucked into the Ardennes to major, big-tent extravaganzas with long, well-worn tables and a random brass band blaring oompah into your ears.
At a few events you might find the marathon drinkers guzzling and dancing on tables, but at most you’ll find enthusiasts swirling, sniffing, sipping and tasting everything from subtly flavored white beer to dark, potent Trappist ales. You might even spot some discerning types taking lengthy notes after each sampling—this can be serious business.
Each festival is different, and choosing one can be as much fun as selecting your next choice off a long beer menu. It can also be just as difficult; the calendar is loaded with these events.
So, when and where to plan your trip? We’re here to help you choose. Propelled by passion and thirst, we used a highly sophisticated rating system based on three criteria: beer quality, beer quantity, and fest atmosphere–plus bonus points for weirdness.
Our favorites are listed below. But first: How do you get there, and what to do when you arrive?
It goes something like this: Take the train to some remote town you won’t find in the Belgium guidebook, because there’s nothing that normal tourists want to see there. (Or, if going by car, a GPS system and a designated driver are essentials.) Then, following a sketchy map, leave the station and wander a few minutes, searching the winding streets for a totally nondescript event hall. You manage to find the place, identified only by the jolly red faces having a smoke outside, and enter. Your first stop is a welcome table near the front. You plunk down some euros for those magical items: tokens to buy beer and a 15 cL glass to contain it. Now the festival is your oyster.
What to drink first?
Your ultimate destination is the dark, strong, heavy stuff, but be warned-it packs a punch. Respect your palate, since that refreshing, citrus-laced Witbier will taste like water after that Calvados-barrel-aged barley wine. In general, start with the lighter beers and work your way up, since the big flavors make the subtler ones disappear. This is wise council for any tasting but especially for a Belgian beer festival, where the diversity of flavors boggle the mind.
Finally, if you really want to refine your palate, embrace your inner geek: take notes–discretely, if you must. Observe the look, smell and flavour of the beer, and how it feels in your mouth. Don’t worry about what others think, but feel free to discuss it. And when you find one you really like, slam the notebook shut and just enjoy it. Take in the bizarre festival atmosphere. Laugh at those funny guys with the red faces, singing and sloshing their dainty glasses in the air.
One more thing to bear in mind–many of these fests provides other forms of entertainment, and they can be a lot of fun. But if you’re contemplating a career in politics, understand that a photograph of you tumbling, limbs askew, from atop a high stack of beer crates could derail a budding Tony Blair or high priest of the Masonic Temple just when you’re on the cusp of success.
Now to the Top Ten Fests:
1. Zythos Beer Festival, Leuven
Run by the country’s largest beer consumers’ group, this major event attracts about 100 big and small brewers toting along about 300 different beers. At the Zythos Beer Festival you often get to meet the artists themselves, who typically bring surprises you won’t find in any pub. One example is the Aardnon (or “Earth nun”) from Struise Brouwers. This drink is downright complicated: a blend of the brewers’ dark, sweet and rich Pannepot ale – aged in oak – and their sourish, wine-like “Earth monk.” Trust us, you’ve never tasted anything like it. We look forward to meeting this year’s surprises – and to finding out who will bring them. If you’ve never been to a Belgian beer festival, and you must pick one, this is it.
2. Kerstbierfestival, Essen
The Christmas Beer Festival is No. 1 on the lists of many Belgian beer-lovers, with good reason. Organizationally it’s the most impressive on the calendar. Imagine a major event dedicated solely to Belgian winter and holiday beers–and somehow they manage to gather up more than 100 of them every year. Belgian Christmas beers come in all flavors and colors, but they tilt heavily toward dark, spicy and strong. Virtually all of them appear at this festival, including the rarest and hardest-to-find. You can also rely onsampling the gluehkriek–warm, spiced cherry beer that gives any hot wine a run for its money. The Belgians adore Christmas. More importantly, Belgian beer lovers adore Christmas beer. At this fest, you reap all the benefits.
3. Tour de Gueze, Payottenland
We like this one because it’s a festival on wheels, and because it’s dedicated to the world’s most distinctive type of beer: lambic. Authentic lambics are an acquired taste; they’re sour, acidic, and the aroma can resemble something like a horse stable decorated with old gym socks. But when oaked lambics of different ages are blended together, you get gueuze: a tart, bubbly drink every bit as complex as champagne. These beers are wild, literally–their fermentation comes from yeasts that occur naturally in the air.
Lambics are native to the rural areas around Brussels, and the Tour de Gueze puts you on a bus to visit nine breweries in eight towns and, of course, sample as many of their beers as you can manage. The breweries vary depending on which bus you ride.
4. Belgian Beer Weekend, Brussels
“Get the beer nerds out of the way, mate, and give me quantity. I’ll decide what’s quality, thank you very much! And, get me out of these drab event halls and give me some proper atmosphere!” If that’s you, go to the magnificent Brussels Grand Place in late summer for the Belgian Beer Weekend. Over three days, the Belgian Brewers–whose old guild house still stands on the square–organize this massive event in the capital. It gets crowded, since the location attracts at least as many tourists as devoted beer hunters. The selection is daunting–350 brews on last year’s list, from predominantly large breweries. The country’s worst beers are there–Mongozo Coconut, anyone?–but so are some of its best. But the real reason to go is that you’re drinking interesting beers in one of Europe’s most underrated and beautiful medieval city squares.
5. Bruges Bierfestival, Bruges
Now in its seventh year this large festival is a huge success. With more than 339 beers from 77 brewers, (including plenty of surprises), it takes in the center of one of Europe’s most attractive and best-preserved medieval canal cities, Bruges. The 2015 Bruges Bier Festival is scheduled for January 31 & February 1, which means winter and holiday beers are sure to make an appearance.
6. Brassigaume, Marbehan
The Brassigaume Festival for small breweries is strong on spicy Wallonian ales, such as the creative seasonals from Fantome. It’s also a bit remote, but don’t worry: You could easily combine a trip to this festival with a pilgrimage to the renowned Orval Trappist monastery and brewery nearby. Or take advantage of the beautiful Ardennes region and do some autumn hiking.
7. Night of Great Thirst, Eizeringen
Another lambic festival in Pajottenland, except this one’s not on wheels. Instead, The night of Great Thirst is in a village square whose lambic café is loved by connoisseurs for its variety and dedication. The café, whose name translates to “the Insurance Against Great Thirst,” is only open for Sunday afternoons, funerals and church holidays–plus this big night. This event takes place every two years, presumably to allow sufficient time for recovery between. The 2014 event was held in April.
8. Weekend of Special Beers, Sohier
Here’s a fest for beer hunters who prefer to buy it by the bottle–many of them are BIG bottles. They’re meant to be shared, especially if you want to stay the course. Set in the small, sleepy village of Sohier, there were about 30 beers available at the 2013 Weekend of Special Beers, including a number of traditional brews. This fest is held in February and attracts about 1500 beer aficionados.
9. Belgium Beer Festival, Lustin
Held in September or October, this festival is a shrine to beer memorabilia fans. It features displays of beer glasses, bottles, labels, coasters, old ads, clocks, mirrors, pints, jugs and other collector’s items. They claim to offer 850 varieties of the brew, plus meals cooked in beer.
10. The Grand Choufferie, Achouffe
This is more of a drunk fest than a proper beer festival, with only two or three of the Achouffe breweries tasty mainstays available. But it made our top ten for entertainment value: amid the revelry, there’s a contest to see how many beer crates you can simultaneously stack and climb. We saw a tiny fifth-grader get sky-high and win himself two big bottles of La Chouffe. Yeah, that’s a liter and a half of 8 percent alcohol by volume. Do the math. And welcome to Belgium! Also: this one had by far and away the best music of any festival we’ve encountered. There’s just something so right about Dixieland jazz in the Ardennes.
Belgium is not exactly Western Europe’s top tourist destination, overshadowed by heavy-hitting neighbors France and Germany. A stay in Belgium reveals the best of its stereotypes: charming little villages, sublime chocolate, superbly steamed mussels… and of course, the beer. We have no hesitation recommending a lengthened stay there to take in a festival or three. Win friends and influence people by casually bragging about the experience later. . . .Best to delete those embarrassing photos, though.
Written by Roy Stevenson and Joe Strange for EuropeUpClose.com
Roy Stevenson is a regular contributor to EuropeUpClose.com He is the author of several ebooks about travel writing, available at Pitch,Travel, Write
Joe Stange is a freelance writer and co-author of ‘Good Beer Guide Belgium’, the independent guide to Belgian brewing with 900 beers from 200 breweries listed. It also features 530 hand picked cafes, bars, beer shops and bistros to sample the beers. Joe’s other bylines include All About Beer, Draft Magazine, and NY Times.