Belgium is the San Francisco Giants of beer; I cannot call it the Simon Bolivar of fermentation but to me, it is the Godfather of yeast. In Belgium not many things are particularly cheap but high quality beer is; you can find it for a couple of euros in five different places per block and in grocery stores, you can pay less than one euro for international pop stars such as Duvel and Chimay.
But the beer culture in Belgium is much more than well-known exports. Originally, dating all the way back to medieval times, many european countries consumed beer daily as a food supplement. When I was traveling in Duinbergen, my adopted Belgium brother Thomas Denys told me that he used to brew beer for one of his high school courses. The drinking age in Belgium is 18 for hard alcohol yet for beer is only 16. Thomas tells me that it was fun to learn about the process of brewing and the possible variations of the technique but at the end, the ultimate reward involved inviting parents and teachers to sample the final product.
In Belgium, there is at least one great beer for each person’s preference; ambers, blondes, stouts, lambics, tripels, you name it. When you go out for a beer, all servers are capable of making educated suggestions on what you should try and in what order. The waitress of a small neighborhood bar in Brussels started me with a lambic brew that she poured out of a jug, the beer was brown, fruity and very low in carbonation, it reminded me of iced tea. Second, I tried the “Duchesse de Bourgogne” (perhaps my favorite so far) which is a Flanders red ale with an incredibly creamy body, a sweet finish and a beautiful deep color. We wrapped things up with Affligem tripel, which was very good but perhaps a bit tangy for my taste. Tripels, usually noted with a XXX mark on the bottle, are beers in which brewers use three times the amount of malt… Now don’t ask me anything more, that is really all I know about beer.
In such a rich country, it is easy to get used to a daily beer by the coast or while sitting with your neighbors in the patio. I can imagine that the story of the man living upstairs, the old neighbor who lost his job due to alcoholism and has not tried to find another in 7 years, is not particularly uncommon. See, here in Belgium every citizen receives a minimum wage that is enough to live life, wether they work or not. I heard about this from Thomas back in Duinbergen but also later in Ghent when talking to my amazing host Marnix, who works in Bruxelles and lives in a beautiful traditional Belgium neighborhood that they refer to as a “beluik.”
A beluik is a typical community with little houses around a shared garden. There are artists, students and young professionals that share a deep connection and a true sense of community; they share meals (and beers!) and they treat each other with love and respect even if they come from very different paths of life. Even though I don’t know how each pays for rent I do know that none of them would be left hanging, or suddenly evicted, if they did not have a job. Instead, their social security would protect them. Imagine living in a world in which you know that your basic needs will always be covered. Exactly, the sense of safety and ease that comes from such a privilege it’s actually very hard to process as a South American-North American, but, based on my interaction with the Belgian culture I can only say that it feels right. Like Marnix told me, the difference between Europe and North America is that in North America the poor person is just a person that hasn’t gotten rich yet; so opposite to understanding that you can only truly care once you get to know your neighbor.
Belgium. Surrounded by other countries with cities that claim to be cooler and more exciting. Belgium. With neighbors that don’t speak the same mother tongue but all manage to understand each other because on average everyone speaks 3 different languages. Belgium. Where the summer is humid and a perfect invitation for a nice cold brew.
Visit Belgium, don’t give in to the notion that the only worthy stop is Brussels and only for a half day. Instead, I would recommends taking the train and stopping in other cities, such as Ghent which is fun and stunning or Antwerp, which is supposed to be very cool and I will have to visit next time.