Tourists have an unbridled love affair with the awe-inspiring medieval city of Bruges, Belgium. They gape at its gothic spires, cobblestone squares, and quaint canals that flow under stone bridges wide enough only for foot-borne traffic.
Serious beer enthusiasts also come in droves and are no less impressed. Bruges boasts two downtown breweries, a beer museum, a long list of cozy beer cafés, and beer-friendly epicurean restaurants, all within walking distance of one another.
Bruges was a major port in the Middle Ages and one of Europe's wealthiest cities. Around the world, wealth has always been accompanied by a healthy thirst for beer. Beer is, after all, a very inneficient means of transporting and consuming alcohol. So it's consumption has always been a luxury.
Bruges was no exception. At the height of its wealth and power in the 15th century, the city boasted 54 breweries. The most prosperous family in Bruges controlled the trade in gruit, a style of beer consumed in medieval Europe and made with spices other than hops. Today, the family's 600-year-old castle is the Gruit House Museum, a popular showcase for Flemish art. Spiced beers, meanwhile, are still made at local breweries.
By the 1500s, Bruges was in decline. The Zwin River, its lifeline to the North Sea, silted up and became impassable. Antwerp ascended and became the first city of Flanders. Bruges languished as something of a ghost town. In 1892 it was the subject of a French-language novel, "Bruges la Morte" ("Bruges the Dead"). The industrial revolution and world wars passed Bruges by, leaving its majestic medieval architecture to tell the story of its former glory.
Tourists inspired the city's rebirth in the 1980s, attracted by the gorgeous architecture and the canals that still crisscross the city, making Bruges a veritable "Venice of the North." Its reputation as a world-class beer destination soon developed "in response to what tourists wanted rather than to strong local demand," said British writer Tim Webb, author of the "Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland."
The De Goudon Boom beer museum (Verbrand Niewland 10; www.degoudonboom.com) traces the history of beer in Bruges back to the 13th century. French-, German- and English-speaking tourists crowd its lively tap room for glasses of modest Brugs (sic) Blond and the more assertive Brugse (sic) Tripel (sic), a golden strong ale.
House Brewery De Halve Maan (Walplein 26; www.halvemaan.be
), also known as Straffe Hendrik, is a popular brewery-restaurant that specializes in Flemish dishes and offers frequent brewery tours. It abuts one of the city's canals and the lush green grounds of the Begijnhof, a 760-year-old nunnery.
Straffe Hendrik Blond is flavored with coriander while the Bruin ("brown") has hints of licorice. Both surprise with their gentle English hops. "People complain that we don't use local hops, but they're not right for our beer," explained Straffe Hendrik tour guide Inge Vermeire. "Belgian hops are better in abbey ales."
More than 120 beers from small, independent Belgian breweries can be sampled at tiny, charismatic Staminee De Garre (Garre 1, pictured here). It's an ancient café of brick and black, craggy wood nestled in a narrow alley between the city's two main squares, the Burg and the Grote Markt. Waiters strike a serious pose and, with regal authority, serve beers accompanied by small dishes of local cheeses.
"Tourists know more about Belgian beer than we do," said De Garre owner Carl Ascoop. "They're always taking notes as they taste their beers."
Brugs Beertje (Kemelstraat 5; www.brugsbeertje.be
), meanwhile, is described by Webb as "one of maybe a dozen beer bars anywhere in the world that you have to visit before you die." It features spectacular beers from small Flemish breweries, such as the gloriously musty and well-hopped De Ranke XX Bitter or De Dolle's strong, blonde Arabier (both are available in the States). One of Beertje's most interesting offerings is Sleedoorn (sloe berry) Bier from Brewery De Regenboog, located a few miles from downtown Bruges.
Beer-loving gastronomes flock to Den Dyver (Dyver 5), a high-end restaurant that specializes in dishes cooked in and served with beer. Visitors are impressed by the multilingual waitstaff well versed in the intricacies of matching beer with classically prepared foods. The restaurant has a long beer list and features prix-fixe three- and four-course meals, with recommended beers. It sits across the street from one of the city's most picturesque canals and an embarkation point for Bruges' popular boat tours.
Scores of other pubs, cafés and restaurants featuring Belgian beer, and Flemish beer in particular, fill the city's grand squares and pedestrian-friendly streets. They attract a large contingent of international beer enthusiasts and make for an inspiring beer culture.
"Belgian brewers created an accidentally great heritage of beers," said Webb. "It took Brits and Americans to point out that it was there."
Bruges is easily accessible by train from major Dutch and Belgian cities such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp and Brussels.