People travel for all sorts of reasons, but I have found that the basic motivation for travel is to indulge one’s favorite of the five senses. Some travel great distances to see historical buildings, art, or museums; some pack up nothing but swim suits and sun tan lotion to feel the sun and sand on their skin; some travel to hear music or speeches by the greatest artists or leaders today. Others, like me, travel purely to satisfy our basic sense of taste (and thereby, smell). In my travels over the last year, I can tell you that if epicurean travel is your idea of the perfect vacation, then look no further than Belgium. Belgium is a small country of only about 11 million people in Western Europe on the North Sea. Belgian culture and culinary prowess is a direct result of sharing its border with France, Luxembourg, Germany, and the Netherlands. The Belgian approach to food and drink combines the rusticity of the Dutch, the sturdiness of the Germans, and the finesse of the French. Dining in Belgium is truly a once in a lifetime experience.
Even more than food, the Belgians are known the world over for their brewing tradition. So gripping is the hold that beer has on food and culture in Belgium, the main style of food prepared is called biere de la cuisine. Home to thirteen original and officially recognized beer styles, plus the vastly diverse category of “Belgian Specialty Ales,” Belgium has a brewing tradition like no other country in the world. Such a rich and compelling brewing tradition comes by no accident or happy mistake. Due to ownership and control of the nation changing hands a whopping eighteen times between 1477 and 1830 (key years in the early development and skilled crafting of beer), the Belgian brewing tradition has adapted and absorbed the best of the brewing traditions of the rest of Europe. In addition, unlike Germany’s 1516 beer purity law called the Reinheitsgebot, Belgian brewers have been and continue to be totally free to experiment with any ingredients they choose. The result of this experimentation is the most diverse, dynamic, and sensational beer culture in Europe.
Sit down in a fine restaurant anywhere in the US and you will most likely be presented with an extensive wine list. The same is true in Belgium, except with a beer list. (There is even a bar in Brussels frequented called the Delerium Cafe, world record holder for most beers offered at one time at 2004 varieties! The beer menu is 256 pages long!) Belgian beers range from the palest yellow white to a brown so dark your eyes would have you believe you needed a knife and fork to dig ingest it. Belgians brew beers that are spicier than Indian curry, maltier than a greasy spoon diner milkshake, and sourer than week old milk (yes, you read that last one correctly!). While American brewers seem to be setting the curve now-a-days for pushing the envelope when it comes to innovative and strangely delicious beers, they are only following in the footsteps of the Belgians. If beers could talk, Belgians styles would say to American styles “Son, I’ve been doing this since before you were born.”
The styles for which Belgians are best known are:
Light and Fruity
Belgian Pale Ale
Tart and Acetic
Flanders Red Ale
Flanders Brown Ale/Oud Bruin
Straight (Unblended) Lambic
Malty and Complex
Belgian Blond Ale
Belgian Strong Golden Ale
Belgian Strong Dark Ale
In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is but one rule in the Universe: always bring a towel. The same is true in Belgium. You’ll need it when you start drooling uncontrollably over the best food and best beer in the world.