A couple of months ago in September, a couple of my friends and I decided to check out the beer festival in Brussels.
Quite honestly there’s ALWAYS some sort of beer festival happening everywhere in Belgium so if you miss one, you can always find some other.
Anyway – this particular one I’ve already seen when I first moved to Belgium. They always hold it in the middle of Grand Place so I’ve been curious to go just because the setting is quite nice for having a drink.
Note: I found out this thing actually started in 2010 – you can check out the site of the Belgian Brewers for more info about them and the event.
Here also is a link to the Facebook for the annual event.
So this Belgian beer weekend actually starts in the morning with some grand parade of beer around Brussels and ends in some sort of ceremony in city hall. But ok, unless you don’t have work on a Friday, ain’t nobody got time for that.
We went on a Friday evening after work, it was the opening day of the event so it was packed.
So the thing is held right smack in the middle of Grand Place, where there is a cordoned off area with the stalls and a bunch of tables. So the principle of the event is simply go and buy and drink as much beer as you want direct from the brewery stalls.
There is a huge billboard of all the beers and breweries being sold. This is also available online so it can be checked before coming to the event.
One big draw to this event for us was that Westvleteren beers would be sold.
What is Westvelteren you ask? More on this later.
So the first thing you need to do before entering the event area is to buy tokens. There’s 2 options. You can either buy these tokens from a machine or from some random person walking around outside the event area and buy it from them (with cash I think).
Since no one had cash, machines were the simplest. There wasn’t much of a line for the machines anyway so it was super easy.
1 token is equal to 2 euros and you can only buy in quantities of 5.
BACKPACKS NOT ALLOWED
Immediately one big problem arose, as we came from work, we all had our laptops with us, thus backpacks. I guess due to the small space and for security (??) backpacks were not allowed inside. We found out because we first tried to get in before we were told about this rule.
What was annoying though was there was a guy inside, literally beside the checker, who had a backpack. When we inquired about why this guy was allowed in and we weren’t – his answer was a simple, we try to screen but sometimes people get in with the bags. Okaaayyy. Why not ask them to leave then? BUT ANYWAY.
CENTRAL STATION BAG DEPOSIT
Just to avoid any more problems, we deposited our bags in the lockers of Central Station – believe me this bag depositing thing is not as simple as it sounds.
First of all, you need to actually find the lockers. I’ve been there once to help some friends with their luggage so I knew where it was already. But believe me, it’s not easy to find. A clue is that it’s BEHIND the big staircase of central.
Next, you need to have coins with you. If none, easily remedied by buying some random thing in one of the stores in central (assuming you have cash – if not there’s ATMs all around).
Lastly is finding one that actually works. This, in fact, was the big challenge. SNCB needs to check out these lockers because 1 in 10 of the lockers do not work at all.
Anyway – 20 minutes later, we were walking back to the Grand Place.
BACK to the beers
So we were finally able to get to the event, sans bags, and the first thing we targeted was the Wesvleteren tent. It was opening day and prime time for people coming off work etc so the place was packed. Just maneuvering to get to the tent took us a couple of minutes.
There were a bunch of other breweries around, but we skipped most of the ones that had beers readily available everywhere (ex. Delirium, Tripel Karmeleit, Westmalle). I would suggest to all to try to check out what beers are NOT easily available and target those. I get the feeling that with the price of the tokens, if you go for a “normal” beer, you would pay more than what you would in bars.
Anyway – happily the lines at the Westvleteren tent wasn’t long. It’s just crowded coz everyone’s just standing around drinking beers and there wasn’t much place to make a line to buy.
So each tent/brewer has their own glasses. Each time you buy a beer, you have to leave 1 token for each glass as deposit. Which was quite annoying because in the end you will always have one token left.
They’ve SLIGHTLY remedied this situation by having a tent outside wherein you can exchange your unused / not possible to be used token for some random gift.
So back to Westvleteren. It’s one of the few breweries still fully owned and managed by monks (these monks are of the Saint Sixtus Abbey). The beers brewed from the abbey, specifically Westvleteren 12, has reached some sort of cult status as it was previously named best beer in the world by some. One of the reasons perhaps of it being such a wanted beer is the fact that it’s quite difficult to buy beers from this abbey, even within Belgium.
It is only officially sold from the abbey itself through some complicated process of calling (now online reservation is possible) and reserving. You must also physically pick up your order direct from the abbey. To make it more difficult, the abbey itself is almost impossible to reach via public transport and is over 100km away from Brussels.
Some bars and stores do sell limited bottles but when they do it is extremely over inflated (at least 10 euros for a 33cl bottle).
ANYWAY. So back to the beer weekend, we were able to easily buy ourselves a round of Westvleteren 12 from one of the tents supplying trappist beers.
What I can tell you, not knowing much but having drank a lot of the most common Belgian beers, is that for a beer of 12 degrees, it is surprisingly easy to drink. Indeed it does get a bit heavy and seriously after a round of this it’s not hard to be buzzed already, but overall it was ok. I mean I can’t judge about it being the best beer in the world but it was good. But not THAT good I’d pay 10 euros for it in some bar or make all the effort to buy some from the abbey.
It’s always nice of course to taste the best of what Belgium has to offer 😛
Anyway, after that, we all had just enough tokens for another round of beer. At this point any beer was gonna be a light beer so we chose one just randomly from beers that were not familiar to us (and the ones where we could maximize our tokens).
All in all, I’m not sure I would ever try to go again to the weekend. I didn’t really find anything special about it and since it was out in the open and it was a bit rainy, we could have done almost the same thing (sans Westvleteren) but in a more comfortable setting (and with our backpacks).
If you are a tourist in Belgium though, especially one who loves beers, I would totally recommend the event to be able to taste and talk to people directly from the breweries/distributors. One tip – stay away from big industrial breweries like AB InBev. I don’t have anything against them (my favorite beer is from the AB InBev machinery) but their beers are widely available in supermarkets and groceries and bars. Try to go for some beers you’ve never heard of before and you may be pleasantly surprised.