This is a tale of marvellous beer and dubious parenting. The great Belgian Beer Weekend, held every September, is the optimum event to discover that Belgium makes the best beer in the world.
It’s a fact and I won’t accept any arguments about this. Mr Wandering Kiwi would never forgive me if I did as he is half Belgian. Belgium produces the largest range of beers in the world – by some accounts there are 115 breweries producing approximately 2,400 beers!
All of them are distinctively different and all of them are delicious. From effervescent lager to Flemish Red via lambic and Trappist and everything in between, there is really something for everyone. Last Christmas I even managed to get a couple of died-in-the-wool wine drinking, beer hating Australians to admit that a Rochefort 10 is a seriously complex beverage.
The Belgian Beer Weekend is redolent with tradition as well as soaked with alcohol. The “Belgian Brewers” is one of the oldest professional associations in the world and responsible for throwing this great beer-lovers party every year. Almost all the Belgian breweries belong to the Belgian Brewers and participating breweries from the Belgian provinces of Antwerp, Brabant, Flanders, Hainault, Liege, Limbourg and Namur are all represented at the festival.
A quick guide to the Brussels Beer Weekend
So how does it work?There is no entrance charge to the Belgian Beer Weekend but you do have to pay for the beer. First you go to one of the paydesks and buy a bag of ‘crowncorks’ and a glass ‘token’. Each crowncork costs 1 Euro and a glass of beer costs around 3 euros. The crowncorks are not refundable so think about how much you are going to drink. Mr Wandering Kiwi and I used a bag of 50 crowncorks over the course of a day. If you are in Brussels before the festival you can pre-purchase crowncorks at the paydesk by the Town Hall on Thursday.
You also have to buy a glass ‘token’ but you get this back if you return your glass at the end. Belgian beers are served in glasses unique to each brewery so as you purchase each beer you hand over your token for a glass that you then return and get your token back, which you take to the next brewery stall and so on…
The brewery tents are lined up around the glorious medieval set-piece that is Brussels’ Grand Place. There is tight security at all the entrances to the Grand Place and you can’t bring large bags into the beer festival area.
The beer festival is open from 11am until around 9pm on Friday and Saturday, closing a little earlier on the Sunday. Things get very busy in the evening, with long queues forming for the paydesks, beer stalls and toilets. Note the paydesks close a few hours before the beerstalls close. I recommend making the most of the daytime. We try to get there soon after 11am and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of the afternoon.
There are various parades and rituals throughout the weekend so check the programme to enjoy seeing all the colourful costumes and historic brewery carts. I highly recommend you go to the Mannekin Pis traditional outing.
There are up to 40 Belgian breweries running stalls in the Grand Place during the Belgian Beer Weekend and around 350 different Belgian beers on offer. With the best will in the world, you won’t be able to try them all. There is a list available so have a look at that first to see what looks interesting.
Consider what you’d like to taste during your time at the festival. We approach our beer tasting with a general plan, starting from pale wheat beers, moving through the fruit flavoured beers and then moving inexorably through the darker and richer varieties (labelled dubel, tripel, quadruppel). I usually concentrate on trying beers I haven’t tasted before and visit a mix of the breweries with a long tradition and new kids on the block. There is so much to try!
History and fun at the Brussels Beer Weekend
If you have visited Brussels before you will probably have gone to see a little chap called Mannequin Pis, a small bronze fountain sculpture erected at the corner of Rue de l’Étuve and Rue du Chêne in around 1618 (actually the statue has been regularly stolen over the centuries and the current version is from 1965, with the original in safe keeping).
The diminutive naked boy urinating into the basin is a very popular symbol of the city and often appears in different costumes. He has several hundred outfits, some of which are on display at the City Museum in the Grand Place.
On the Saturday of the Belgian Beer Weekend Mannequin Pis is removed temporarily from his niche and paraded around in his special brewmasters costume. An elaborate ceremony takes place for which the little guy is hooked up to a keg of beer and there is a lot of spraying the crowd and filling up the cups of passersby with beer. It’s like a pantomime and it is very entertaining.
There are more respectful goings on in the Grand Place, where the Grand Master of the Knighthood of the Brewers’ Mashstaff gets involved with various ceremonies, in particular honouring St Arnould the patron saint of brewers. The Knighthood is essentially the Belgian brewers’ Guild, responsible for perpetuating the traditions of the ancient brewer’s trade.
On the Sunday there is a parade of historical brewery carts and horse-drawn beer wagons through the streets. The legendary Gambrinus – King of Beer – also gets a look in, astride his beer barrel. Duke Jean I laid down the foundations for the brewing industry in the Brabant region of what is now Belgium by allowing the granting of licenses to brew and sell beer. No doubt he was fond of a tankard or two.
Families at the Brussels Beer Weekend
This is a picture of nine-month-old Wandering Kiwi Jr making friends at the Belgian Beer Weekend. Is a beer festival an appropriate place to take a baby? I don’t’ know but we would not have been able to go without her so there she is – a good photo for her 21st birthday party?
The truth is there was nary a sight of drunkenness or misbehaviour the whole day we were there. There is only civilised drinking and euphoric joy at the celebration of this most beloved of drinks in Belgium.
There are street performers and carriage rides, silly costumes, food stalls loaded with Belgian delicacies and many, many happy people. I would take Wandering Kiwi Jr again without hesitation. Only next time we’re going to dress up!
By Natasha von Geldern
While attending the Brussels Beer Festival I was a guest of the Thon Hotel Bristol Stephanie, a member of Great Hotels of the World Premium Collection. In my experience quality business hotels like this one often offer good rates and excellent value for travellers, especially during weekends and holiday periods. Double rooms at the Thon Hotel Bristol Stephanie start from £58 and the Avenue Louise location is very convenient.
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