Beer as something other than a cold drink to have while watching football is, I admit, something I've only come around to appreciate in recent years. Whilst I'm sure there are plenty of fine beers to be had in the US, my appreciation of the drink was all but nonexistent until I moved to Europe almost a decade ago and quickly became very fond of the British pint.
Time in different places had made me more aware of the flavours and possibility of beer as a very interesting and varied drink, especially in New Zealand where their local beer (particularly in the South Island) really awoke in me a keen interest in the flavours and the different ways in which they could superbly accompany a meal.
So when I decided to go to Bruges for a few days last Christmas, I was instantly very intrigued by the idea of beer sampling in the country known for exceptional production of beer. My knowledge of Belgian beer was, up until that time, very limited to the one or two bottles I had come across in the past. As is often the case with these first samplings, they were the 'bog standard' brewery ales that almost always seem to make it out of the country and become the ones which the country is known for. Almost always I find, the options you discover (whether it be beer, wine or whisky) when you are in the place itself are vastly superior to those which are exported.
So while sight seeing, and chocolates and taking photos and enjoying the Christmas scene in the little medieval city of Bruges were all high on the list of reasons for the visit - my real desire was to sample as many of the 800 odd Belgian beers as I could in the city, in what turned out to be a very short amount of time to do so.
One of my favourite parts of the Bruges experience was the time I spent in pubs and local bars, sampling the varied and exceptional delights of their beers and ales. For one thing, the pub experience in Belgium was very different from the UK, where everyone was drinking, but most (with the exception of some large groups of tourists) seemed to drink for the simple pleasure of the drink itself and the social atmosphere. Drinking for the sake of getting drunk was not the aim, and I found this remarkably refreshing.
As such, I sampled a number of pubs as well as their beers, and tried in every one to try something new and different. My favourite in the end my have been Cambrinus (see my review) but all of them had their charms.
I went with a mild enjoyment of beer and sampling (admittedly I'm more of a wine drinker) and came back with a new found devotion and admiration of the drink in it's finest form. I went dubious that there could really be over 800 standard Belgian beers (a number which vastly increases when you begin to count their specialist beers) and that they could really be all that different.
But I could not have been more wrong. If you enjoy beer even a little, a vast sampling of the selection in Belgium is a must for a trip there. I was astounded by the variety and the quality I discovered there, and the extreme attention to detail in everything down to the variation in unique glass style each beer is served in to best represent it's flavours and texture. If you order a Kwak beer you will find it served in a large curvy glass supported by a special wooden holder. I'm not connoisseur enough to tell you exactly what this adds to the flavour and aroma, but I can tell you it makes for an interesting drinking atmosphere (try this one as one of your first on the list, so you don't have to maneuver the strange glass much when you are beginning to get fuzzy...)
And while I'm on the subject - do keep in mind (especially if you are coming from the US) that Belgian beer does tend to be quite strong, especially anything termed a 'Dubbel' which can be from 6 - 8%. Some of the flavours are so delightfully mellow (their blond ales and lagers can taste very mild, and some of the fruity beers are so sweet as to almost drown out the alcoholic flavour, so it can be easy to drink more than you realize - a good hearty Belgian sausage dinner before going out may be advisable...)
A lot of specialist shops through out Bruges sell a huge selection of these beers as well, if you'd like to take some home with you to finish your sampling on another day. Also try 2be (see my review) for an enormous selection of beers to buy and take back to try later.
Most of the cafes and restaurants I discovered in Bruges also offer a very interesting array of beer choices, so you can sample some of these with foods as well. They accompany a meal of traditional Flemish stew beautifully on a cold night. Be sure to sample one of the Trappist 'abbey' beers as well while you are there. To be called a Trappist the beer must have been brewed in a monastery, and the monks themselves must have been involved in the process, with proceeds going to the monastery. This in itself makes it a bit of a unique drinking experience.
You can also visit some local breweries as well. I recommend De Halve Maan (the Half Moon) which is not only a superb brewery to visit with in walking distance of the city centre, but also happens to make what turned out to be my favourite of all the Belgian beers, the blond Brugse Zot.
Sampling beer in Bruges in a real experience, and one not to be missed when you plan your own visit.