Sunday, January 10, 2016

Beer traveling in Belgium - Introduction

I've been fortunate in that I've been able to make a good number of Belgium trips over the years due to either a flexible schedule or work in Europe. And I often get asked by friends who are planning a trip to Belgium about where they ought to go for the best beer experience. I generally spend quite a bit of time compiling places, how to get there, when to go, etc. from scratch for each person.  Since I'm back to Europe for a bit and will be visiting and re-visiting some of these places, I decided to compile some guidelines from my experiences with beer travels in Belgium. I figured that this might be useful to others and compiling it centrally might save me some time next time someone asks. This is mostly written for people who have never been to Belgium and who don't know much about it, so if you're a seasoned Belgian traveler there may not be as much in this first post for you.

Rochefort 10 - breakfast of champions
This is not meant to be an exhaustive guide to traveling Belgium. This is based on my experiences in Belgium, which as of now are based on about 3-4 months overall spent in there over 4 'trips'. One of these was an 8 month period spent living in Germany and another is a ~5 month stay in Germany that is currently ongoing. Both of these allowed for repeated long weekend to week long visits. The other two were more standard trips over the years. These visits have ranged from a pretty simple discovery of what Belgian beer is to directed time spent visiting out of the way saison and lambic producers for the purpose of personal studies of brewing and blending. There are plenty of great resources out there to find the best beer spots and this isn't meant to duplicate that. Rather, it is to help you prioritize what you want out of the trip and how to get there once you know where you're going (and to get around Belgium in general).

I'll put up some more targeted posts about visiting producers and/or cafes, and will link them to this when they are posted. But to simplify those posts, I'll try to get most of the logistical stuff out of the way here. Also, some of this is standard trip planning/common sense/be polite stuff, but based on how often I've seen/heard some things, I've included it here.

Ok, so some general guidelines:

Recognize why you're going - This is an important first step, and may often be overlooked in the excitement of going. Recognize why you are going to Belgium. Is it focused on visiting breweries and meeting brewers? Is it hunting for some previously unknown or rare beers? Is it an introduction to Belgian beer? Or Is it a mix of sightseeing and beer? Is it part of a general Europe trip? There is no way I could write a couple posts that could specifically address all possible ideal trips, but knowing what you're after will help you prioritize options and ask the right kind of questions when looking for more directed trip advice.

Also think about with whom you are going, and how much they want to spend their daytime in dark bars and breweries. This is important for organizing and prioritizing when and where to go. Finding that right balance based on your personal objectives, how long you can stay, and with whom you are going is key. Remember Belgium will always be there to go back to if you miss something, and you will likely want to go back once you've been once if you are serious about visiting Belgian brewers and/or finding certain elusive beers.

Panorama of Ghent from the Belfry.

Language - As you likely know, Belgium speaks two main languages: French in the southern (Wallonian) part  as well as the primary language of Brussels, and Flemish, a dialect of Dutch, in the northern (Flemish) part. As a general observation, the Flemish are likely to speak both French and English rather well while the Walloons may be less confident speaking either of those. The brewers, especially those selling more beer internationally and the younger brewers, are generally more fluent in these languages than the average person so you should be good with them. Generally you should be able to get around alright with English and a few phrases here and there, especially if you don't spend much time in the Wallonian countryside trying to ask directions. Of course if you are relying on English exclusively, keep in mind that you are in someone else's home expecting them to speak your language to you.

If you know some French, it might be better to not use it in the north (Flemish) part unless necessary. There is a bit of a Flemish-Walloon tension in Belgium and perhaps some frustration for the Flemish that while they know French, the Francophone Belgians don't often know Flemish. So English might be the more acceptable non-Flemish language when speaking with the Flemish. note that some Belgians may say that to claim a bit of tension is a massive understatement...

Generally finding whatever city you are heading for is fairly straightforward, but the dual languages in Belgium can add some tricks. Most have names that are easily recognizable in both Flemish and French but in some cases they can be confusingly dissimilar (the Wallonian city of Mons is Bergen in Flemish - makes sense when you know the meanings of those words but otherwise not so much) and even major cities can be a bit dissimilar (Liege = Luik, Antwerpen = Anvers). Note also that there are two Leuvens: Leuven (Louvain in French), a university town near Brussels, and Louvain-la-Neuve, another university town near Brussels.

Beer fermenting in an open square fermenter at De Dolle
How long should I go?
Obviously opting for longer opens up more possibilities. It is possible to have a good trip if it is only couple days, but the longer you go, the more opportunity you will have to get out to places more off the beaten track, whether they are breweries/blenderies, cafes, etc. It will also be more likely that brewery opening hours and/or events coincide with your stay. And it will give you a chance to maybe start to build some connections and experience the local culture instead of (or in addition to) being limited to more tourist-heavy bars in the major cities. I've done trips anywhere from a bit over a week to one month in Belgium when flying over from North America and down to long weekends when living in Germany. Every time I go I realize new things I wish I had done differently and I come back with a new list of stops for next time. So if you don't get to stuff and can only go for a tighter window you can still have a good trip. But I do think it is hard to make the most of quick trips of only a couple days if you haven't been before.

I've got friends in the area so I can't offer much in the way of long term housing advice, but it is probably a good idea to try to find a place on something such as airbnb that can serve as a home base. Belgium is small and lots of stuff (including many trips worth of beer stops) is doable as day trips from Brussels or with at most one night away, by public transport/walking. And if you're there for beer then you're probably buying some to drink during the trip and to take home. You don't want to lug that around wherever you go. There can be some benefit to spending more time in other cities, especially if your time is split between general sightseeing and beer-focused destinations. But much of that sight-seeing can also likely be done in day trips from Brussels presuming you are willing to miss the nightlife of whatever destination you had in mind. Find the right balance for you in convenience and spending nights all around Belgium.

The opening hours of Girardin
Check hours! - In general some places in Belgium keep hours that would be strange to the average North American and breweries are no exception. Some of the breweries you might plan on visiting are weekend/side jobs. So the hours that they are open will be limited and possibly strange. Likely all of the breweries you want to visit are functioning breweries, so even if there are people there in normal daytime hours they may not be equipped to deal with visitors/beer tourists. And even if they are, keep in mind that it is a functional brewery (and the reason you are there is probably that you like their beer) so be careful to not obstruct their work.

It is often worth it to contact the brewers ahead of time (and some basically require it). Be polite, tell them why you want to visit them specifically. They are busy, and having people visit might mean they can't get the work done that they need to do to make the beer that made you visit them in the first place. Understand that and be especially gracious for their time. Many Belgian brewers get tons of messages from beer tourists wanting to visit and talk to them. Sometimes so many that in the high tourist season they pretty much couldn't get any work done if they accepted (or even responded to) all the requests for visits. With that said, if the place has clearly posted opening hours/tour times for the general public then an email is probably not be necessary and you are good to show up at those times.

Not every place has a tasting room/bar, so there may not always be an 'official' place to have their beer. But some places (especially smaller ones) may be happy to give you something in the brewery while you talk beer.

Signs point to nearby towns (blue), and sometimes your destination (Brasserie au Baron)
Getting around
I used to say over the years that if you are really interested in visiting the small breweries of Belgium and Northern France, you should get a car. However I said this without ever getting one, and the more I travel without one the less I think you need it. So that advice has a some truth to it, but not nearly as much as I used to believe. I've been able to get to all the places I've wanted to go through some combination of public transport, walking, and rides offered by other beer enthusiasts (locals, tourist, and the brewers/bar owners I'm visiting).

Since I've never rented a car (or bike) in my travels in Belgium, I don't know as well first hand what I am (or am not) missing. But I'd say I've been able to make it to a good number of small breweries which are removed from direct public transit access without a car. I had ample time and was frequently traveling alone so maybe that influences things, but the point is getting around to many of the small breweries is definitely doable without a car or even a bike as long as you are fine walking a bit and taking a bit more time. And the idea of driving to spend a lot of time drinking and/or limit my drinking because I have to drive (even though the main reason I'm there is for the beer) doesn't appeal to me enough to change my methods. To add to that, if you are focusing on the major cities then trains are easy and you'll be fine without a car.

If you're pressed for time then maybe this public transport/walking plan isn't the route for you. But then maybe visiting the small country breweries also isn't the route for you, because it does take time getting out there and the opening hours are often limited.

Anyway I may be missing something by not getting a car but if you are willing to put some time into figuring out the local transit and don't mind doing a bit of walking you can get most of the places you'll want to. And one of my favorite parts about visiting these out the way beer destinations is that you learn about the region in a way you'd otherwise miss when you make the effort to get there without a car and take a bit of time in doing so. This all adds to the experience of finally reaching that destination and trying the beer.

Make friends with locals:
This quick addition to the original post was suggested by a Belgian whom I've made friends with through my travels and who has helped me get around and discover new excellent places. Making friends with locals is a great way to get more out of your trip. In addition to a new friend you'll get inside and more tailored advice for spots to visit. And you may even get some help getting there. There's a good chance that whatever the purpose of you trip is, there are locals that share your priorities/interests. There are still many hidden gems in Belgium that aren't in guidebooks and/or aren't highlighted to the degree that they are really excellent. Locals may be able to help you discover these spots.

Much of the legwork for getting to know locals may be easier to accomplish before you go by finding them and getting in touch with them through some shared interest (beer, mutual friends, music, cycling, etc.). Feel free to let their suggestions mold the plans you've made so far. If you don't find them before you go, you can still find them as you go through your travels. There's a good chance that the locals similarly happy to find someone with their shared interests and will be quite open.

Evening in Bruges
SNCB-NMBS - The Belgian national train system. In most circumstances this will get you pretty close to where you want to go, if not directly there. Some trains to small towns may only run on weekdays as commuter trains (the Beersel station is an example of this) so make sure your routes are active when you want them to be. But generally it is pretty easy to navigate.

Belgium has a easy and inexpensive way for people under 25 to travel around on the train system - the Go Pass. It's good for trips between any 2 points and can be shared with multiple people (so not every person need their own Go Pass, you just have to fill out one line per person). Using the go pass saves you money on almost every train trip you'll take between any 2 points in Belgium. If you're over 25 there's the rail pass (confusingly, not the 10 journey card as that seems to only apply to one route). It isn't quite as cheap and requires a bit more planning to determine which routes are worth it and which are best taken by buying a normal ticket but most are worth it so it can still save you a good amount of money and/or time. Especially if you are running to catch a once an hour train and don't have time to wait in a ticket line. One pass can still be shared among multiple people the same as the Go Pass.

SNCF - The French train system. You might need it for getting to some Farmhouse breweries in the north of France (like Thiriez). Remember that for French trains when you buy a ticket you will need to stamp it at a machine at the station to validate it before you get on a train. You can probably play ignorant if you forget/didn't know, but try to remember. Sometimes the ticket machines will validate the ticket for you when you buy it.

Local transport
STIB/MIVB - This is the metro system for the Brussels area and it is separate from both De Lijn and TEC. The system includes a subway as well as buses and trams. For getting around the inner city you can generally walk (if you are comfortable with walking a bit) but you might need this to get to outer parts of Brussels or stops out of the city to switch to another bus system to reach some destinations.

De Lijn - This is the regional bus/tram system for Flanders, the northern Flemish speaking part of Belgium. They all use the same system so if you get a prepaid card you can use it for all the main destinations including Bruges, Antwerp, Gent, as well as small towns like the lambic-producing outskirts of Brussels. It is cheaper if you get a prepaid card, which I've gotten at grocery stores in Flanders. If you don't have a prepaid card you can still pay the fare when you board but it will cost you more. When I was last on the buses they did not announce their next stops, so have some note of your route down in order to find your stop. Hopefully this changes soon...

TEC - The Wallonian regional bus service. I have less experience here but it operates with the same basic principles as De Lijn. As with De Lijn, the last buses I was on did not announce next stops.

Cheers and happy travels!
Use-It - Use-It is a non-profit company that makes maps geared towards young tourists. They started in Flemish Belgium and have since expanded all over Europe. They provide free maps with recommended things to do from locals (new cities are added to their list when a local group of that area puts the map together). The maps update every year and you can download and print them or pick them up locally. If you think you're too old to use a map that is designed for young travelers I have a secret - the street names don't change depending on how old you are. Some of the recommended destinations may be some of the beer spots you're looking for. And they may have some interesting non-beer related stuff that you wouldn't otherwise know about.

Lambicland - If you are serious about visiting lambic breweries and cafes, this book is amazing. There are other good books (see the offerings from Books About Beer, I don't have personal experience with any others besides Lambicland) as well as travel books. They are probably a good idea.

Finally, don't be the shitty tourist who goes around stealing glasses. And try not to be the shitty tourist who drinks too much and is obnoxiously loud and aggressive in a bar or pukes in the street.

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