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Belgium: Sisters are brewing it for themselves

A Beer Tour of Belgium
Mechelen & Ghent
Cuisine: Belgian
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Liz O’Keefe: It was the women who kicked off the tradition of brewing in Belgium. Now there are more than 1,000 types I defy anyone not to find at least one they like. And as it happened, I found quite a few.
Beer isn’t just a drink in Belgium. It runs through this country’s history, economy and gastronomy; the rivers and streams might even flow with the stuff.  Women began the brewing tradition 800 years ago and now the locals produce more than 1,000 types of beer, so eclectic, I defy anyone not to find at least one they like.
And as it happened, I found quite a few.
Halfway between Brussels and Antwerp, and about 10 minutes train ride from the Eurostar, Mechelen is a ‘pocket-size’ city, with no fewer than 300 listed buildings and a host of lovely little independent eateries and pubs. In fact, you can easily wander around the whole city in a couple of days before deciding what you’d like to explore in depth.
One must-do is a trip up the medieval St Rumbold’s Cathedral with a guide A UNESCO World Heritage site and a literally breath-taking 538 steps high, the cathedral is a wonderfully preserved gothic masterpiece built in 1200 keeping the people of Mechelen safe for centuries, thanks to its high watchtower. Now fitted with a modern platform at the top to offer visitors a 360° view of the city and an opportunity to see the sunrise over Belgium, the watchtower inspired a beer, as most things in Belgium have, called Maneblusser
This high-fermentation blonde beer is light in taste only – it’s 6.2% ABV and citrusy. It reminds the city’s inhabitants that back in the 1700s someone was silly (or drunk) enough to convince everyone that the tower was on fire, when actually the flames were an illusion created by a blood-red moon and fog. Easy mistake, you might say. Unfortunately, they all downed beers and marched up the tower with buckets of water to put a non-existent fire out. The beer is good though and has an amusing or embarrassing cartoon illustration of the story on the label.
Women & Beer Tour of Mechelen
Although beer may conjure images of lads and pints, getting a bit leery, or old-man style ale pubs, its origins in Belgium were firmly in female hands and the Flanders city of Mechelen is steeped in the history of the brewster. Historically, brewing in Belgium and throughout Europe was as essential as our water works are now, with beer being the only source of non-contaminated water to drink and as a result, brewing was seen as a purely domestic matter and was well and truly women’s work.
Often part of hospitals, breweries were run by brewsters, producing an albeit very low-alcohol, tax-free beer for children and elderly. Roll on a couple of hundred years and beer started to make money. It was taken out of female hands, until the last couple of decades, when Belgium women have taken back their heritage.
To celebrate this mostly forgotten heritage, Tourism Mechelen has launched a Women & Beer tour of Mechelen guide, compiled by beer expert and historian Sofie Vanrafelghem, along with various breweries.
The guide and tasting tour takes you through the streets, explaining how times have changed, and also to the main food and drink market, Grote Markt, recommending a cheesemongers, Kaaswinkel Schockaert, where they soak pungent cheese in local Gouden Carolus beer.
Grote Markt has a touch of food theatre about it with traditional herring and oyster street food stalls, where you can try out dishes at tall, standing tables, along with a beer or glass of bubbly. On a weekend, locals seem to be in the habit of dangling the pickled herrings above their mouths and chewing them down in one go. I couldn’t bring myself to join in with that one, opting for the ceviche-style oysters, but it’s quite a sight and worth a walk by even if you’re not into seafood.
Het Anker
But back to the beer, and the oldest brewery in Belgium. Het Anker was built on the early success of brewsters and is part of the Women & Beer tour.
This brewery’s beers are all over Mechelen, from its tart yet creamy Gouden Carolus Classic to the full-flavoured Gouden Carolus Tripel, there’s a beer for every occasion. Using all Belgium malts and mainly own-country hops, the brewery now specializes in high-fermentation beers, conducts daily tours of the brewery and runs a hotel and brasserie within the 1912 brewery building. Well-worth a stopover for beer enthusiasts, Het Anker is the full story, with beer-matching menus, full tours of the brewing hall, massive copper kettles used for distilling and bottling, a lively restaurant and bar and a startlingly delicious toffee-like single malt whisky, also made on site, if all the beer gets too much.
One of the richest and most powerful cities of the Middle Ages, Ghent is another Belgium nugget enriched with beer history. It’s all down to it having a port, you see, and the guided VIZIT Nibbling tour of Ghent will take you through the grain houses, canals and market squares once the hub of activity and now a pleasant tourist attraction.
The guide took us to many spectacular historic buildings, including the 10th century crusaders moated castle in the middle of the city, and had some gory and some down-right worrying stories to tell about their inhabitants over the years. It’s an interesting, although sometimes unnerving, journey.
But, this is a nibbling tour, so what about the food? Well, first up was Ganda ham. This is a highly-prized traditional ham to Ghent, which is similar to Parma or Serrano (sorry Ghent). We nibbled it at the meat market Groot Vleeshuis, where hundreds of legs of ham hung from the market building. Daskalides Chocolates were next and in a class of their own and then traditional sweets from Temmermans sweetshop. The ‘neuzekes’, a blackberry-flavoured jelly sweet, which usually comes in a cones shape, but here was shaped as a slightly sinister baby face, were brilliant – they are gooey in the middle and full of crystalized sugar. There were lots of different types of sweets to choose from in this very traditional, postcard-worthy little shop.
GRUUT Brewery
After saying tot ziens to our guide, next stop was a visit to progressive brewer Annick de Spenter’s GRUUT brewery, where the modern-day brewster has taken beer making back in time to create a French-style beer made with herbs not hops. Annick studied as a zythologist  – the Belgian even have a word for beer experts – for years, trying to work out the medieval recipe for herb beer that Belgians used to drink before the Germans came over and introduced hops.
Stood on a bar stool in front of a couple of tour groups within her microbrewery pub, Annick told us how she had finally succeeded and we had a taste of three of her five unfiltered Gentse GRUUT branded beers available – Inferno, Bruin, Wit, Blond and Amber. The Amber beer was dark, made with malt, and spiced, with a floral mulled taste – much better than any Christmas branded beer I’ve ever tasted, and would go down very well with your stilton on Christmas day. And if you’re looking for a white Belgian beer to rave about, the Wit has it all, with the coriander and orange peel coming through brilliantly.
Balls and Glory
All that beer does make you hungry, so a trip to the small stuffed-meatball chain called Balls and Glory in Ghent was probably a good idea. This is a very simple but fresh idea of serving up only stuffed meatballs, either with mash or a salad, to the city crowds, thought up by chef and entrepreneur, Wim Ballieu. The eatery serves 15 different kinds of meatballs that are changed seasonally available to take away and cook at home or an option of two different kinds with either salad or mash, to eat in – I had the pork and beef meatball with a sundried tomato filling. It can get quite busy at lunchtimes during the week and has a kind of modern London pie-and-mash-shop feel about it.
Pakhuis restaurant
If you’re looking for something with a bit more occasion to it, the Pakhuis restaurant is an impressive two-storey, bustling brasserie, built in a former warehouse between the towers of Ghent and designed by architect Antoine Pinto. The carpaccio is melt in the mouth and there’s a seafood selection platter to make your eyes pop. The set Market Menu is very good value for the quality of food at 45 and there is a full menu of Belgian beers behind the bar, with staff ready to advise you on food pairings.
C-Jules in Zotteghem
And, a little out the way of the beaten path, you’ll find an example of new-wave Belgian food at the restaurant, C-Jules  The restaurant is the creation of chef Julie Baekelandt who is part of the group of progressive young chefs in the country known as the Flanders Kitchen Rebels, who take pride in all local ingredients available in their area.
Tucked away in a quiet residential area, the restaurant is small, elegant and modern, and clearly dedicated to the art of dinnertime, with tables set for a lunch that will leave you full until breakfast the next day. Starting with an amuse bouche of raw salmon with wasabi crème and oyster leaf and a nugget of deep-fried calve brain, then continuing to a creamy soup of cauliflower and grey shrimp with edible flowers, to a main of veal stew with celeriac purée and finishing with an array of petits fours, it was a seemingly effortless flow of culinary treats fit for an autumnal day. The set lunch menu is €25 and a real experience, so allow a good couple of hours. And in true Belgian style, the restaurant will pair a menu with local beers from Gouden Carolus, if requested beforehand. It might be worth popping by on the off-chance of a table midweek, but booking is probably the best course of action here.
Leuven - An Hour of Beer Culture
Here in the capital city of the Flemish Brabant, you can go a step further with your beer admiration and book a Pub Tasting Tour with Leuven Leisure for €26, which roughly equates to 2 hours 30 minutes with a beer professional and five beers. The M-café  part of Museum Leuven, also has ‘An Hour of Beer Culture’ event every Friday evening from October through to May, where a beer connoisseur guides you through some of the array of local beers stocked at the café. Whilst the guide explains how beer is made and the local idiosyncrasies of brewers, you get to taste each beer with little morsels and decide which is your favourite. The newly released stout Caulier (12% ABV) was a real joy – bitter and sweet all at the same time, it would be perfect with a good fillet steak or some dark chocolate.
Time for chocolate (and beer)
You mustn’t leave Leuven before discovering chocolatier Patrick Aubrion’s first concept store, Antoine Sweets Nestled amongst the cobbled streets, the shop, bakery and chocolate-making facility produces 14 different truffles daily and artisan marshmallow batches as and when, as well as sea salt caramel croissants, almond tarts and all manner of delicious pastries with a twist (at around €1.30 each) at the weekend.
An expert in chocolate making both academically and in practice, Patrick believes in using only the best cocoa beans and complementing the chocolate he uses with innovative flavours like elderberry and beer. Yes, he produces three chocolate truffles flavoured with local beers, as well as runs a chocolate and beer tasting sessions in conjunction with Leuven Leisure for group bookings. If you don’t happen to get on a session, the pairing of Devlier Brut Bier (8% ABV; 750ml for €9) with the ‘bubbles’ truffle (four chocolates for €3) shows you exactly why people are matching beers with chocolate. A good alternative to a cava or sparkling wine, the beer is tart and smooth and taken with the rich strawberry powdered bubbles truffle, makes for a fruity sweet-and-sour sensation that shakes up the taste buds.
Be careful you don’t miss him though. If you’re visiting Leuven at the weekend, you need to hurry to make to most of Antoine Sweets – Patrick’s pastries are usually sold out by midday on a Saturday and he’s closed on a Sunday.
Liz O’Keefe was a guest of Visit Flanders
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13 November 2015
By: Liz O'Keefe
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