Mussels, fries, chocolate, beer, and waffles - that's basically what I knew of Belgium before I arrived. Oh, and The Smurfs are Belgian. My goal in Belgium was to learn more about beer and I met my goal after about four hours in Brussels. I first went on a tour of Cantillon Brewery, famous for its traditional lambic beers and for being the only remaining brewery in the capital city of Brussels.
Lambic beers are produced via spontaneous fermentation, which means that the beer is exposed to wild yeast (in open air) and allowed to, literally, ferment spontaneously instead of having the brewer(s) add specific yeasts to the batch. Since this method of brewing can open the beer up to bacteria and spoilage, quite a large number of dry hops (a natural preservative) are always used in lambic-style beers. The dry hops still include all of the preservative qualities of the plant without making the beer overly hopped. This produces a dry and sour end result - in my opinion, it's an acquired taste and one that I am still trying to acquire. I did find a great beer made by a new brewery called Vicaris in Dendermonde, Belgium (about 35 min. by car from both Ghent and Antwerp) - it's a Tripel-Gueuze, which is a traditional lambic-style blended with a traditional Belgian Tripel. It has the richness of a Tripel with some tart funkiness of a lambic. The best of both worlds, for me.
Bruges is a lovely little town and a short train ride from Brussels. I visited De Halve Maan brewery, which has a history dating back to the 16th century although they have only been operating at their current location since 1856. They are the last brewery left standing in Bruges and their beer is actually GREAT.
Honestly, the best part of Bruges was this perfect Liege waffle pictured below. There is just no sense in having another kind of waffle ever again. Sometimes when I'm in Manhattan and I happen to pass by the Wafels & Dinges truck, I'll get a waffle just to have a special little moment with the memories of this waffle pictured here...unfortunately, nothing will ever compare, but Wafels & Dinges is the only one that has come close. Why so good, you ask? Liege waffles are made with a yeast dough (not a batter) and pearl sugar. Pearl sugar = big bits of sugar that melt and caramelize when the waffle dough is cooked in a super hot cast iron mold. So, to sum up, this waffle was amazing and may have changed my life and everything else forever.
I had some delicious mussels, fries, and chocolate in Belgium as well, but the real purpose of the destination was beer education. One place that definitely shouldn't be missed is Délirium Café, a bar in Brussels known for their insanely long beer list. Spending an hour here might be a beer education on its own. (Délirium Café: Impasse de la Fidélité 4, 1000 Bruxelles)
*all photos by Shauna Burke