Happy Advent! Today we will begin our Advent calendar tour of Europe in one of the great, if overlooked countries, Belgium. Go ahead and fill it in with their national colors: black, yellow, red. It was easy to pick as our first country because the mere mention of Belgium brings to mind chocolates, the perfect Advent treat.
Christmas in Belgium
Christmas markets are popular all over Europe, especially in the northern countries. Belgium hosts a market in almost every major city, but the Brussels market is considered to be one of the best in Europe. A Christmas market is sort of like a country fair with a winter theme. The streets of the heart of Brussels, which are already pedestrian-only, are transformed with music, art, and booths selling food, gifts, ornaments and fun goodies.
The center of the festivities are an ice rink and ferris wheel, although my friends that go to the Christmas markets would probably tell you that the drinks are the real heart of the event. Stands sell hot wine, cider, beer and champagne, among other things. The market this year is “Going Green” by selling cheap, reusable beverage cups….if that gives you any sense of the priorities of the festival. And yes, drinking on the streets is ok.
Belgium is well known for food, not just chocolate but mussels, fries slathered with mayo and beer. Sounds like a nice place to go, no? The beer alone makes a trip to the country worthwhile. If you’ve never tried Belgian beer before, this is what I suggest for your Advent calendar quest for the day. Pick up a bottle of Belgian beer to toast the holiday season.
I am not exactly an expert on beer in general, I’m an Italophile with a taste for wine. However, in my role as a tour guide for Rick Steves, I have spent countless hours with drivers from our wonderful bus company, Heidebloem, which is based in Belgium. Over my many years of hanging around Belgian drivers, they have schooled me on the qualities of Belgian beer.
Many of the most famous beers have been developed by monasteries, which often still brew them. These monk brews are called “Trappist Beer” or “Abbey Beer” and are still produced by the monasteries, with a portion of the production set aside for the brothers. Monastic life can’t be all that bad! Belgium, which is a fairly small country about the size of Maryland, has six Trappist, beer-producing monasteries, while the rest of Europe has only five, total. There are 180 breweries in Belgium all together. I’ve always found Belgians to be some of the jolliest companions, and maybe I just figured out why!
Just a warning, if you haven’t tried real Belgian beer, you’re in for an experience that may not be what you expect. Belgian beers tend to be strangely flavored for Americans that are used to Budweiser (which is Czech, by the way). Most have fruit flavors like peach or apple and are sweet, with an almost syrup-like consistency. Another warning, the beers typically come in large bottles and the beer is strong, with a much higher alcohol content than a typical beer in the can. I’d liken these beers to wine, and in fact, many of them need to be imbibed from a particular type of glass.
Kinds of Beer to Try
Chimay- This is a classic choice which should be available at your local grocery store RIGHT NOW. Chimay is one of the famous Trappist breweries and they make three kinds- Blue, Red or White. It is strong, thick and bittersweet. Which is best? I like Red, but this is a hotly debated topic amongst my Belgian friends. You’ll have to try all three.
Leffe- Leffe is to Belgium what Budweiser is to St. Louis, it’s their big, commercial beer. It’s a good introduction Belgian beer, not too strong or overtly sweet and is available everywhere as it is owned by Stella Artois. This is an Abbey beer, which is a beer that is brewed by or with arrangement with an Abbey. These days, Abbey beer is a pretty loose term as the “Abbey” is often fictitious.
Kriek- Lambic beer is something unusual. It is a wheat beer fermented with wild yeast, which means that they add fruit juice to the recipe to attract the fermentation. It can be a little sour and funky tasting, as well as vaguely carbonated, like when you forget about that Odwalla juice at the back of the fridge. If you don’t like beer, you may like this since it is nothing like beer. You’ll find Kriek in most supermarkets, sold in a pretty bottle that looks like champagne, and you can usually choose from raspberry, peach or strawberry varieties.
Kwak- Amber ales are pretty popular here in the US these days, and many of them can trace their recipe back to Belgian traditional Amber beer. Ambers balance manly sweetness and hoppy bitterness well, making them appeal to most drinkers. If you can find Kwak in a bar, try it. I recall being lectured by a Belgian once about the importance of drinking a beer from the proper glass. Kwak is the Kwak-iest of the bunch, with the beer served in a beaker/vase sort of glass, held up by a wooden frame. Just weird. But good.
Hoegaarden- White beer is made with both wheat and barley. It typically has herbs and spices such as coriander and orange added to the recipe, giving it a crisp bite. The yeast of a white gives the beer a bit of a banana essence, which some may not like, but others adore.Once you’ve got your beer in hand, toast someone near you in the Belgian way, by looking them directly in the eye and saying “Sante”. When you’ve finished the bottle, be sure to say goodbye the Belgian way and kiss their cheeks, right-left-right. Three kisses! Kisses, fries and beer. No wonder the Belgians seems so happy.