Monday, 14 May 2012
Reader question: Beer shopping in Brussels
One question I get asked quite a lot comes from people planning beer-related trips to Belgium who want to know where to buy their favourite brands while here. I’ve written about the best bars in Brussels before (though that list may be a bit dated), but readers are also keen to know about purchasing bottles in the shops here.
Most recently, Mark Peachey got in touch from Australia...
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I am a great appreciator of the finer beers found on this planet and have continuously reviewed my own list of favourites as each beer becomes available here. As you can see I am an Aussie and I have a French girlfriend so my visits to France have pleased me greatly. This is mainly because of the price I pay over there compared to the ridiculous prices over here. For example Chimay Regal is about AU$17 per bottle (ouch).
I am planning a trip to Belgium next year and will be taking in a few breweries myself (with or without the girlfriend).
What I am keen to know is the availability of the “good” Belgium ales in the local bottle shop. Are they mostly available or are some hard to come by? Do I have to go to Westvleteren to buy it? What is your number 1?
Currently Orval is my number 1 but as you no doubt know it is very hard to say. A lot depends on the mood, time of day/night, thirst and food eaten etc etc.
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On beer shopping in Brussels: you can get many good beers in most supermarkets at a very reasonable price, but once you get past the twenty or so obvious brands, it gets trickier. The specialty shops in the tourist areas have hundreds of different bottles, but they’re expensive -- probably a tiny bit cheaper than Australia, but maybe not that much. Beer Planet may have the best bottle prices of the specialty shops downtown.
Then there are some out-of-the-way shops that have this or that brand, some with even a kind of strange seasonality to their stock. Some are dedicated drinks shops, others seem to be in some kind of grey zone between night shop, mini-supermarket and hidden micro-warehouse of goods recently fallen off the back of a truck. Some wine shops have a craft beer sections (check out the excellent Mig’s, for example), but in others, the proprietor will look at you like you’re an invading barbarian for even suggesting that beer and wine might be sold in the same establishment (or, for that matter, that beer could be sold in a place with solid walls and a roof). Some shops are willing to order special beer brands for you -- if the friendly guy happens to be minding the store that day -- and some even deliver if you buy enough. And naturally, you have to go to Cantillon, both for the tour and to buy as many bottles as you can carry.
It takes a lot of time to figure out what to buy where and when. We've been here for eight and a half years, and we're still often surprised by what we find and can't find in the shops. Attempting to detail all this would be like trying to pour beer you’re your glass while bouncing on a trampoline. (Legal notice: The management of this blog strongly advises against trying this at home.) So, to find shops with decent beer, simply put on a good pair of walking shoes and just hunt around.
It might all seem somewhat annoying, but it does keep things things interesting, I guess... sort of like when zookeepers hide food in the monkey cage in different places every day to keep the beasts engaged and amused. If things are too easy, all us primates get bored and listless.
If you just want to taste a wide selection, the bars are a safer bet, particularly Moeder Lambic: St Gilles for bottles and Fontainas for tap, two of my top ten bars in Brussels.
On Westvleteren, yes, going there is a hoot, but it's a pain to arrange the purchase with a rental car because they check the plate of the car against who has called to arrange pick-up, but it is possible. It’s one thing to keep the monkeys interested; quite another to needlessly waste their time with the least customer-friendly service ever designed by any primate.
Of course, just going to the pub across the way from the abbey is good enough for a tasting. But frankly, Westvleteren 12 & 8 are excellent, but the easy-to-find St Bernardus Abt 12 and St Bernardus Prior 8 give you exactly the same taste. No surprise: the recipe for both has the same origins.
Another thing you might want to consider doing while you're in the region is a visit to French Flanders. Yes, France. If your girlfriend is from around Lille, she may know, but amazingly, even most French people I meet don't seem to realise that one of the best beer regions in the world is in northern France. The "Belgian" beer culture in fact spans an area that definitely includes a sliver of northern France. And I can tell you, the people of Lille know it: go to the football-stadium-sized Carrefour there and pick up a 750ml bottle of 3 Monts for two and a bit euro... And there are 20 or more other brands there that are top class. OK, not strictly Belgian, but the culture of brewing and the styles are nearly identical. Very much worth a side trip...