There are some beer festivals that every beer fan should experience once in a lifetime. I believe The Belgian Beer Weekend is one of them. It’s held the first weekend in September (Labor Day weekend for those in N. America) in the Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium. The event is held by the Belgian Brewers guild and features beers from Belgium exclusively. This includes traditional trappist beers (yes, you can get Westvleteren at the festival) and newer breweries like Urthel. If it’s made in Belgium, there’s a pretty good chance at least some of their beers will be available. We were lucky enough this year to visit Brussels and participate in this wonderful event. Here’s what I remember.
Brussels is dead-easy to get to from anywhere in Western Europe. The train station for international trains (Zuid/Midi) is a 15 minute walk or 5 minute subway ride from the festival. Brussels also has tons of flights to/from North America. We flew in to Amsterdam from Toronto and took the Thalys high-speed train down. First class, baby!
The festival is held in Grand Place, which is in the center of old Brussels. Accommodation is very easy to get, as it’s a tourist destination. We rented an apartment a few blocks away for $90 a night on Air BnB. Having a fridge to keep our purchased beer in and a coffee maker for those rough mornings was a very nice boon. Since the festival is on a weekend, and Brussels is very much a business town, you can also find very good deals on hotels if you’re only interested in staying for the weekend.
The days we were there the festival was from 11-7pm. You need to buy beer tokens (bottle caps) from one of the authorized booths. None of these booths is located inside the festival perimeter (more on that below) and the queues to purchase tokens gets long. Ludicrously long. Go early. You also need a mug token. At each booth, you exchange your mug token for the appropriate brewery glass. When you’re finished with that booth’s beer(s), you return said glass for the mug token. Repeat until done drinking when you can return your mug token for the deposit.
It’s important to remember what you’re drinking and where it came from. Later in the day, this gets harder. Trust me.
You then proceed to the festival itself*, which is a quad of tents ringed by 2 layers of waist-high fencing. There are gates and if the festival is full, you will not get in. Again. Go early**. Turn in your beer tokens (usually 3-5 tokens per beer) and mug token and start enjoying Belgian beer! There are plenty of tables spread around the festival to place your beers down, but no seats. There are also no toilets in the festival itself. You must go out the gate, down the street, possibly queue, and then pay 1 Euro for a fancy port-a-potty. There are food stands at Grand Place, but again these are outside the festival itself. Eat a hearty breakfast and bring water.
The Belgian Beer Weekend is far from the only reason to go to Brussels. For starters, the world-renowned Cantillon has their brewery 20 minutes from Grand Place. I highly recommend you take the time to visit it and go on the tour. I’m not even a huge fan of sours, but this was excellent!
Perhaps you enjoy Delirium Tremens? Well, the labyrinthine Delirium Village complex of bars is just a stumble from the festival and has 2,700 bottles of beer and a zillion taps including Delirium’s own brews. Warning: you will get lost in Delirium Village if you explore the bars. Bring breadcrumbs.
The craft-focused Moeder Lambic likewise has a location close to Grand Place and a ton of good beers from around the world. It’s more laid-back than the Delirium bars and tends to an older crowd of experienced beer drinkers. They have a comfortable patio for afternoon sipping. The servers really know their beers and can point you in the right direction. It’s the only place I found in Brussels with truly hoppy beers on draught.
Or you can just stroll the streets of Brussels and pop into a cafe that looks interesting. That’s what we did many times and found ourselves in 100 year old pubs drinking excellent beers off-the-beaten-track. You’ll be hard pressed to find any place in Belgium with a crappy selection of beer. Also, there are a ton of good bottle shops in Brussels if you want to bring some home. Even the grocery stores in Belgium have a selection that puts anything in Ontario’s LCBO to shame.
*there were 2 satellite event locations that we didn’t drink at – these offered pre-set samplers from what I saw
** we attended on Sunday and there were basically no lines, but Saturday was chaos and people were launching friends across the perimeter barriers