Last weekend, I embarked on a journey I've been wanting to take for quite some time. Together with my dad, who drove up from Paris, we took an amazing trip that took us through spectacular cities, quaint villages, world-class breweries, and outstanding bars. Though four to five days is by no means sufficient to do the culturally rich region of Flanders justice, it was certainly enough time to get a taste of the region's rich brewing tradition.

Day 1: Brussels

I had been to the European capital a number of times previously, so didn't spend much time visiting its major sights - though the Grand-Place, Magritte MuseumHorta Museum, and van Buuren Museum in nearby Uccle are all must-sees.

Our first stop was the Brasserie Cantillon. This outstanding brewery founded in 1900 ended up being one of our favourite visits on our trip. Located in a quite non-touristy part of Brussels, Cantillon is one of the most notable brewers of "lambic" beer, the delectable spontaneously fermented sour beers that call Belgium's Payottenland region their home.

{Brasserie Cantillon's mash tun, where the malted barley (and sometimes wheat) grist are heated in water at the beginning of the brewing process}

The self-guided brewery tour takes no more than 15 minutes, but you can see up close all of the brewery's ancient equipment, including boiling vessels and the awesome koolschip--a large vessel that helps cool down the recently boiled wort and begins the process of spontaneous fermentation from the Brettanomyces bruxellensis yeast present in the air. After walking through the ageing cellars and past the bottling line, we enjoyed a few samples of Cantillon's world-class beers at the brewery bar.

{Lambic beer ageing in barrels at Brasserie Cantillon}

Though this place is only open until 8PM, Délices et Caprices is a Brussels gem not to be missed. With an unassuming decor, this beer shop, which has a few tables available for sampling local specialties, has to be one of the premier ones in the country. The range of beers from small-scale brewers here was great, and we left with some great-looking bottles from De Dochter van de Korenaar and Owa, run by Japanese brewmaster Leo Imai in Belgium.

{Délices et Caprices, the best beer shop in Brussels}

In the evening, we checked out three different bars: Delirium CaféA La Mort Subite, and Moeder Lambic. The archetype of a dive bar in terms of appearance and atmosphere, Café Delirium is most notable for its beer selection, which is supposed to be the largest in the world with roughly 3,172 beers. Though A La Mort Subite is one of Brussels' most reputed cafés, we found it to be highly disappointing, with indifferent service and a mediocre beer list. As for Moeder Lambic, it is certainly worth a stop - it has a great selection of local beers, and is the cosiest and least dive-y of the three.

{Beer-themed ceiling at Delirium}

Day 2: Mechelen, Leuven, and Antwerp

Our first stop on the second day of our trip was the old town of Mechelen (Malines in French), about 30 minutes north of Brussels. The town was a prominent artistic, cultural, and administrative centre of Belgium when ruled by the Dukes of Burgundy and then the Habsburg Empire in the 15th century. Though few buildings from those glorious years remain, Mechelen remains a charming small town with a beautiful town square and a significant landmark in the 13th century Sint-Romboutskathedraal.

{Mechelen's Grote Markt with a view of Sint-Romboutskathedraal}

{A view of the old homes lining Antwerp's Grote Markt}

{Mechelen's lovely Hof van Savoye, from which Margaret of Austria ruled the Low Countries on behalf of the Habsburg Empire} 

Of most interest to us on this trip, however, was Brouwerij Het Anker. Mechelen has a rich brewing tradition since 1471, when Beguine sisters began to brew beers in the begijnhof or béguinage in the vicinity of the modern brewery. The modern brewery has been in existence since 1872, but closed down in 1980 before experiencing a major revitalisation in the 1990's that turned Het Anker into one of Belgium's most noted breweries. Particularly interesting on our tour was seeing much of the old copper equipment inherited from the old brewery that is still in use today.

{Het Anker's copper boiler from the 1940's, where the mash is boiled and hops and spices are added}

After a lunch that is not worth writing about, we moved on to the university town of Leuven, where we had the chance to walk around and enjoy the ornate town hall dating from the 16th century.

{The ornate Late Gothic Leuven town hall, built between 1448 and 1469. The 236 statues layering the exterior were added in the 19th century}

Our next stop was Antwerp, where we would be staying overnight.

{Antwerp's spectacular Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal), built in the 16th century}

After walking around the town centre for a while and enjoying the beautiful architecture around its Grote Markt (the central town square), we came across a lovely little beer store called Abbey no. 8, where we were surprised to come across some hard-to-find brews such as a Tsjeeses Reserva from De Struise Brouwers, and a Westmalle Extra, the table beer that the Trappist monks of Westmalle enjoy within their walls.

{Abbey No. 8, a gem of a beer shop across from the Cathedral of Our Lady}

For our first noteworthy meal of the trip, we stopped at De Groote Witte Arend ("The Great White Eagle" in Flemish) where we had a lovely seafood meal of grilled eel and baby soles. The beer selection was quite solid, and we tremendously enjoyed the hoppy Poperings Hommelbier from Brouwerij van Eecke.

{Simply grilled eel with tartar sauce at De Groote Witte Arend}

The true highlight of our trip to Antwerp, however, was a visit to the cooky bar named Kulminator. Decorated with garlands of hops and wooden furniture, it seems more like a casual bar where you can come read a book on a Sunday afternoon than anything else (precisely what the owner was doing when we arrived). The beer reserve list must have been 40 pages long and featured beers dating back to 1975, when the bar was founded. After initially starting off the Kulminator as a wine bar, the couple who run the place became pioneers in the ageing of beers when their initial focus on wine did not pan out commercially. The Westmalle Dubbel from 1992 was probably the best beer I have ever had. We also tried a Dolle Brouwers Stille Nacht from 1987, which, though also quite special, had a slightly overwhelming sweetness.

Favourite beers from Days 1 & 2

1992 Westmalle Dubbel (from Kulminator, Antwerp)

Though it had been ageing for 22 years in Kulminator's beer cellar, the bottle's carbonation had been tremendously well preserved - the beer practically exploded out of the bottle when our host at the Kulminator opened it. What is generally a solid trappist beer transformed into what can best be described as a nectar of the gods with age: the deeply fruity malt character and alcohol mellowed beautifully and developed wine-like qualities. Notes of rum-soaked raisins and dates permeate the palate, and are completed by a soft yeasty spiciness. Just wonderful.

Poperings Hommelbier (from De Groote Witte Arend, Antwerp)

This is a rare hoppy Belgian beer, and one of the original "Belgian IPA" style beers which has begun to gain popularity in recent years. It has many similar characteristics to a tripel, but it has a more powerful fresh hop character and lacks the yeasty spiciness that often comes with that style. Though it has a fairly high alcohol content (7.5% abv), it is a highly quaffable beer that maintains a strong balance and never becomes too bitter.

De Struise Tsjeeses Reserva (from Abbey no 8, Antwerp)

This was one hell of a yummy beer. This rich, bold Belgian Pale Ale was aged in bourbon barrels for 6 months, which help infuse the beer with a rich vanilla, molasses, and honey character without ever becoming too sweet thanks to its strong malt backbone.

Cantillon Gueuze (from Brasserie Cantillon, Brussels)

Though I have had this beer several times before, it was amazing to get the chance to taste this legendary Cantillon Gueuze (pictured on the right) in the brewery where it was crafted. A blend of 1- 2- and 3-year old lambics, this beer has a refreshing, flowery tart character that lingers on the tongue, and a pleasant barnyard funk that adds a layer of complexity. 

Days 3-5 will be covered in another post soon!