My minimal goals were to taste some true lambics and to find Westvleteren (my only missing Trappist) and both targets were achieved by the very first day in Bruxelles. Cantillon lambics tasted at the brewery (1) (the Gueuze and the Rose' de Gambrinus framboise) are outstanding and much, much different to the "mainstream" Bellevue and similar I can have here. But I was also impressed by the straight unblended Cantillon Lambic I could find on tap at the In 't Spinnekopke (2) pub-restaurant. It's flat, as tart as the Gueuze but slightly less dry, complex but very enjoyable. The dark, dusty Cantillon Brewery was a bit shocking to my wife (and a bit to me also...). She wouldn't believe it was truly a working brewery and not just a museum of the brewing art of some century ago - being used to my efforts of cleaning, sanitizing etc when homebrewing...
Many (new) beers that you can find in Belgium are golden, strong ales in the Westmalle Triple or in the Duvel style, all very good and some excellent but none very original and surpassing the above mentioned classical; I would just mention only the spicy Lamoral as a good example. More interesting were the fresh Sezoens, the reddish ale (another saison?) Jean van Gent by Liefmans and especially the Ellezoise specialties, both the golden Quintine and the amber Quintine Ambree. Both are very full and rich and quite hoppy for Belgium standard, not spiced in the traditional (coriander etc) way but a bit.. "pungent?" all the same. Probably the best in my tour.
Speaking of pub/restaurants, the top was the above mentioned Spinnekopke (2) for the good beer selection and very good food. And in Bruges, the Den Dyver (4) features a very good "cuisine a la biere" menu, serving each dish with a glass of the beer used for the sauces. The only thing, the kitchen is so slooooow, it took 3,5 hours for the dinner...
In Bruges, we visited also the "Straffe Hendrik" pub/brewery (5). Interesting, but the tour was more directed to the tourist than to the brewer/beer lover, and mainly devoted to the museum of ancient brewing equipment rather than to the present and actual brewery (could just see they were using DWC pale and munich malts, Goldings and Fuggles hops and some "secret"??! spices)
In Belgium even some everyday beers, widely available as to be considered "mainstream" in some way, can be very good, one was Palm Ale, a typical belgian ale, tasty but drinkable, a bit less complex and yeasty than the famous De Konink but very enjoyable also.
Shops: one of the hit of the tour was the outstanding shop Bieres Artisanales in
Bruxelles (6). It has only Belgian beers, and Nasser Ektaferi, the owner, claims to have the best
selection you can find, both of beers and glassware. It seemed to feature every beer I
heard of - also traditional lambics - but I could not see any example of Westvleteren. As
I asked Nasser, he almost whispered:
"I can only give you 3 bottles of Westvleteren".
He disappeared and come back 5 minutes later with the precious Trappist Ale.
Going from Belgium to Netherlands, we know we are leaving the "Beer Heaven". Holland is an interesting beer land, with a few classics and a growing number of micros, the difference is you have to hunt the good beers. In Belgium we could drop in any pub or restaurant and always find something interesting, in The Netherlands you have 90% chance to find just Amstel or Heineken (which is however the right stuff to wash down the formidable "rijtaffel" at Amsterdam Indonesia(7)).
Shops: I only visited the Bierkonig (10) which boasts about 800 beers, with a good selection of Belgian (micro, classics, lambics as Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen etc.), Netherlands (even small micro's) and also English bottle conditioned Ales. Only US craft beers were almost missing - hey, what are you waiting to export those IPA's and Barley Wines here to Europe?
The only missing item at the very end of the trip is La Trappe Quadrupel. Can I come back without the top product of Holland's only Trappist brewery? But there's nothing to do, it's a winter beer, it's out of stock at the Bierkonig, at the Wildemann, at other pubs where I ask for it.. well, next time, I say!
With this bottle and the Dark Wit in the night the beer tour is virtually over, or, let me paraphrase R.E.M. IT'S THE END OF THE TOUR AS WE KNOW IT (AND I FEEL FINE...)
APPENDIX: Back to Italy, back to food and wine heaven let me say. For a while, before starting to open all these Westvleteren, Cantillon etc. let's switch to fine white wines or maybe a low-alcohol diet (do you believe it?). But before ending the day, it's time for one more beer. MY beer! After tasting all these excellents beers, will my homebrewed "biere de garde" stand the comparison?
1) Brasserie Cantillon
2) In 't Spinnekopke
3) Europe Club Gourmet
4) Den Dyver
5) Straffe Hendrik
6) Bieres Artisanales
8) In De Wildeman
10) De Bierkoning