Belgium is a mecca of sorts for beer enthusiasts, and rightfully so. The countryside of this small European nation is dotted with breweries whose traditions go back hundreds of years. They're producing styles of beers such as wild and funky lambics, seasonal farmhouse saison beers, and strong ales made in monasteries. And it's only getting more diverse. "I think often people feel like Belgian beer has stood still for the last thousand years, but it is constantly evolving," says Greg Engert, beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group in Washington, D.C.
So how is a beer enthusiast supposed to decide where to go when exploring the beer traditions of Belgium? Well, first and foremost, Engert recommends you pick up a copy of the Good Beer Guide to Belgium by Tim Webb and Joe Stange. (Engert wrote an introduction to the book's seventh edition.) "It is the most amazing compendium of opinions of what's great about Belgium," Engert says. And he also recommends looking for travel advice on the ground. "If you're interested in beer, people in Belgium are so awesome," he says. "They love to discuss it and tell you their favorite little local places. Engage the people."
But Engert himself is a frequent traveler of Belgium, most recently undertaking an admittedly "super ambitious" itinerary of 12 breweries and 25 restaurants, bars, and cafes—all in just five days. This was a research trip for The Sovereign, the Belgian bar and bistro that Engert's restaurant group opened just last week in Georgetown. Between its 50 draft beers and 350 bottles, The Sovereign showcases the journey that Engert and chef Peter Smith took last year from the lambic countryside of Brussels to the strong ales of West Flanders. Here now, Engert shares his tips from that trip for those interested in exploring all the breweries, bars, and beer-stocked restaurants of Belgium:
One day, take a private excursion to Bruges and Ghent. In Ghent, visit St. Bavo’s Cathedral to see the spectacular Ghent Altarpiece (The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Also see highlights such as the beautiful waterfront quays of Graslei and Korenlei, landmark Belfry tower, imposing Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts) and medieval Patershol quarter. Continue to romantic Bruges, a fairy-tale town of canals and medieval architecture that’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Stroll through atmospheric backstreets, city gates and squares. Enjoy a boat tour along the canals. See Gothic buildings, ancient monuments, and museums such as the Groeningemuseum of fine art and the Hospital Museum, which has a collection of Hans Memling paintings. Other options include climbing to the top of the Belfry for views over Bruges, visiting a lacemaking studio, touring a local brewery, sampling locally made chocolates, visiting the Basilica of the Holy Blood, biking through lesser-visited neighborhoods, and seeing the historic Beguinage housing, also a UNESCO site.