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Flanders is where the streets are named after breweries. The waterways that intersect it, flowing under bridges of graceful elegance, are of primary importance because they have enabled those same breweries to flourish. Flanders – one of the three institutional regions in Belgium – is the place where the beer on the table also appears on the plate in traditional recipes such as Flemish Carbonade or Asparagus Flemish–style.
The important role played by beer in Belgian culture becomes indispensable in the five Flemish provinces. After all, cuisine is a terribly serious business in this part of the world: as demonstrated by the Flanders Kitchen Rebels movement (22 chefs aged under 35 who are collecting Michelin stars and giving their gourmet tradition a rock ‘n roll take) and the number of restaurants, one of the highest densities in Europe.
Here are four addresses that will never leave your mouth parched or your stomach empty – even though your glass probably will be.
HERZELE: DE RYCK BREWERY
The main reason for visiting this village is a woman: Anne De Ryck, from the eponymous brewery owned by her family for four generations. Once inside the brewery pub, it is well worth tasting the Special De Ryck, a Special Belge Ale (a beer style born in the 1920s as a response to the lager trend which, in the absence of cooling equipment, they could not afford to produce), or the distilled brandy aromatised with Bierblomme herbs. Anne will be more than happy to show you round the brewery without failing to point out the tougher aspects of the business ("It’s like working out. Here fitness starts in the morning"), but also the satisfaction of doing a job in which women are still a minority.
And yet, in Belgium, there is an ever increasing number of brewsters who, no matter what their age and background, are recovering a craft that had been a women’s prerogative for centuries. The first recorded beer recipe was, after all, a hymn to the Sumerian Goddess Ninkasi, whose priestesses were assigned the task of brewing beer; and during the Middle Ages women were still engaged in the production of home-made beer, often ending their days burned at the stake because of hallucinogenic herbs getting into the brew, more or less accidentally.
MECHELEN: HET HANKER BREWERY
Just 25km from Bruxelles, Mechelen has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, owing to two important features: St Rumbold'sTower and the Large Beguinage. It is this labyrinth of gloomy alleys you should head for without a moment’s hesitation – at least for now – and with a parched throat. In the 1200s, it was here that the Beguines or unmarried women (the term spinster is not politically correct) settled and made temporary promises of poverty, dedicating their lives to others.
They mainly took care of orphans, elderly and infirm people: three categories for whom beer represents a safe drink, being less prone to contamination than water and much more nutritious, owing to its fibre and sugar content. Hence, the Beguines started to produce beer, aided by a law passed in 1471 that exempted them from paying taxes, in recognition of the “medical purpose” of their activity. Today, in the heart of the Large Beguinage stands HetAnker, founded in 1871 by the Van Breedam family and still run by the fifth generation.
Here you can take an interesting guided tour, shop for their products (it is well worth buying their most famous beer, the Gouden Carolus which has won umpteen international awards with its mellow blondness) or dine in the brasserie where abundant portions of traditional dishes are served up. This is the only brewery in Mechelen, but there is no shortage of pubs around town. At Honoloeloe you will find veggie dishes, hipster sandwiches and a choice of beer that will dissuade you from facing the rain for a few hours (we saw it in the sunshine, but they advised us not to trust the weather).
LEUVEN: a Beer hop in the brabant flamand capital
The capital city of the Brabant Flamand and one of the most lively areas of Flanders in terms of beer production, with 33 breweries distributed over 2000 square km, Leuven is known for being the city with "The finest town hall in the world" (it really is: inquire about the opening hours and visit it). Beer enthusiasts, however, consider it a not-to-be-missed stop on their beer tour of Belgium.
If a guided tour is what you’re after, the likeable youngsters of Beer Hop will be happy to show you round the historical volkscafés or reveal such spots as the M-Cafè, with about 70 beers to choose from, including some authentic pearls of great interest (strangely enough, one day a week it is only open to university students of philosophy and theology) or the famous brew pub Domus.
After all this pub crawling, an ideal place to enjoy a hearty breakfast the day after is Antoine, where Belgian chocolate is interpreted in a sensational series of truffles. What’s the secret of their extraordinary croissant? A sea salt caramel topping before they go into the oven.
ANTWERP: DE KROON AND MODESTE BEER FESTIVAL
When is the right time to visit Antwerp? To coincide with the Modeste Bier Festival which, in the early days of October, gathers together dozens of the country’s top breweries (and consequently thousands of enthusiasts keen to spend their tokens, which have really competitive prices compared to other festivals of this kind) inside the walls of De Kroon.
The brewery is a brilliant example of the Flemish flair for valorising its heritage of malts and hops, making it a tourist attraction without underestimating its historical importance. On the premises of De Kroon, tasting sessions and guided tours are held and it is possible to taste typical specialities – among other things – in the brew house.
Be sure not to leave without first trying the Delvaux which, with its 8.5 percent alcohol content, effectively balances the fruit-forward delicacy with a robust full-bodied flavour. A taste of Belgium that will linger in your mouth – and in your heart – for a long time to come.