As part of our “Field Trip” series, we’re following Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts and her staff as they get up close and personal with some of the best beer in Belgium. Next up: Stephen Beaumont, who along with “World Atlas of Beer” co-author Tim Webb ran into Watts on her trip, takes over the keyboard to discuss “The Belgian Mystique.”
“Do you still learn something new every time?”
That was Polly Watts asking me last night about my Belgian experiences. I first met Polly when I came to New Orleans for a conference several years back, but I’ve known Belgium for considerably longer. I made my first trip over in 1997, and I’ve returned at least once a year every year since. And yes, I do learn something new every time.
My colleague and “World Atlas of Beer” co-author, Tim Webb, has visited Belgium many more times than have I, and although I’ve never asked him, I’d bet that he learns something new every time, as well. It’s that kind of place. Since I make my living writing about beer and have done so for 26 years now, it won’t come as a shock that I began visiting Belgium for the beer. What keeps me coming back, though, carving out a week here or a few days there from a sometimes ridiculously packed travel schedule, is the delightful absurdity of everyday life in this tiny and divided land in northern Europe.
When I do speaking gigs, as I’ll do at the Avenue Pub in November, what gives life to the beers I present are the stories I’m able to tell about the breweries, the people behind them and the sometimes odd and eccentric ways in which I’ve encountered both. A large number of these stories are based in Belgium.
I’ve been taken on an all-night pub crawl by the chef-owner of the restaurant I ate dinner in for no other reason that he offered to show me around. I’ve lied my way into a Trappist monastery, pretending to be part of a couple considering a religious retreat, because the brewery had just hosted a German film crew whose visit had not gone well and the prior had decided to shut the place down to further media visits. (The resulting story was reprinted in the Catholic Digest, so I guess we were forgiven.) I’ve been led at 3 o’clock in the morning to an artisanal cocktail bar the equal of any in the United States, which also just happened to be an illegal underground speakeasy. I’ve drunk some of the world’s best lambics all night in a field in the middle of nowhere.
And that’s just scratching the surface!
The bottom line, as I will tell anyone who asks, is that beer is just the start of the Belgian experience, and when visiting it is important not to get so focused on the fermented stuff that you miss all the rest. Visit bars outside of the legendary beer destinations. Talk to locals and really listen to what they have to say. Have a plan, but also harbour a willingness to abandon it and shoot off in a new and entirely unanticipated direction.
But most of all, come and visit Belgium. The economic effects of those horrific terrorist attacks a while back are still being felt, and Belgium in general and Brussels in particular could use some tourist love. As an added bonus, hotels remain surprisingly inexpensive, making this a very safe and utterly affordable destination.
Oh, and there’s quite a bit of extremely good beer over here, too, including a lot of stuff you’ve likely never heard about. And you’ll be surprised by how cheap it is in the bars!
Stephen Beaumont is the author of “The Beer & Food Companion” and co-author with Tim Webb of The World Atlas of Beer, the fully updated and revised second edition of which will be published by Sterling Epicure in October.