Six years plus a few weeks ago, there was really just one working brewery left in Brussels: the famous lambic maker, Cantillon. Today there are seven breweries in Brussels, and soon to be eight.
This is good news for the city—which lately can use all the good news it can get—but also for its visitors from around the world. All eight of these breweries are, or else plan to be, visitor-friendly.
Many of them will line up along the canals, easily reachable on foot or bike. More than one brewer has compared this to a certain stretch of London breweries, whose Saturday opening hours led to a popular crawl.
“On the port road it’s like Bermondsey in London,” said Maxime Dumay, who recently launched No Science north of the city center. “You’ll be able to go to all the breweries.”
That’s an unusual thing in Belgium, believe it or not. In North America, we’re used to breweries that have tasting rooms, restaurants or regular tours. They are savvy to the fact that welcoming new friends is the surest way (besides making good beer) to add loyal customers for life.
That’s not the case in Belgium, where breweries often have fewer employees and find it a challenge to welcome visitors. Many have policies that limit tours to large groups for large fees, by reservation only.
There are signs of that culture changing in Belgium, gradually. For example, De Koninck in Antwerp added self-guided tours (plus a bar, restaurant, cheese shop, chocolatier and butcher). In West Flanders, Van Honsebrouck opened a restaurant, shop and visitor center on the grounds of its castle brewery, redubbed the “Bierkasteel.” In well-touristed Bruges, the Anthony Martin group opened a working brewery, with a bar and tours, for its Bourgogne de Flandres brand. All three of those opened in the past year. Others appear to be heading the same direction. For example, De Ranke in western Hainaut has included a tasting room in its ongoing expansion project. Sainte-Hélène plans to do the same in Florenville, in the country’s rural southeast.
The country’s most popular brewery visit, though, is the one that was the last Brussels brewery standing in 2010: Cantillon. The lambic brewery became a nonprofit museum in 1978, a decision that helped save its life and turn around the fortunes of lambic in general. Its location near the busy Midi train station doesn’t hurt, either, in attracting more than 40,000 visitors each year.
The brewery’s dedication to old-fashioned authenticity is dogged, and it makes an impression on those visitors. It’s difficult to estimate the brewery’s impact on the wider, international movement toward greater diversity in beer; how many brewers have walked through those doors over the past 39 years, only to walk out with new (old) ideas? A more obvious effect of the popular, self-guided tours: It’s helped to make a lot of loyal customers.
The one that doubled the number of local breweries about six years ago was the Brasserie de la Senne, whose location in a Molenbeek industrial building is somewhat less convenient for thirsty tourists. Nonetheless it’s reachable by tram, and the brewery has a taproom whose windows look out on the brewhouse and bottling line. Individuals who drop by shouldn’t expect a full tour; the idea is that a member of the team will take a minute to say hello and pour beer before getting back to other duties.
Visiting Senne should be simpler and more hospitable by the end of 2018, when it plans to move to a Tour and Taxis site just north of the city center. The new facility is to include a large two-level taphouse in view of the brewing equipment.
Conveniently, for those attracted to such things, there will be two more breweries nearby.
No Science is already there, as of mid-2016. Dumay’s new microbrewery is in the Greenbizz industrial park, just north of where Senne will be. Coming soon to the same park, just a few doors down from No Science, is the nano En Stoemelings. The latter is currently in the Marolles neighborhood, south of the city center—and open to walk-up visitors, Tuesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.—but now they want more space for a bigger brewhouse.
That cluster of three breweries would then anchor the north axis of a very bikeable route along the canal. The next stop southward would be Brussels Beer Project, which brews an evolving series of playthings on site at Rue Antoine Dansaert (its regular beers come from the Anders brewery in Limburg). Its popular tasting room is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., on the western edge of the city center.
From there it’s about six minutes by bike (20 minutes on foot) south to Cantillon … and to another new brewery soon to open. The Brasserie de l’Ermitage site is literally just around the corner from Cantillon. It’s not clear exactly when it will open, but recent Facebook photos portray an industrial space and jackhammers at work.
In nearby Saint-Gilles, not far from the original Moeder Lambic, there is an unusual brewery open to visitors since late 2015. Beerstorming is really a brew-it-yourself concept, conducting homebrewing courses and renting out its small kit to anyone who wants to try a recipe. But it also brews its own recipes for tasting in house and fills bottles or growlers to go. It’s open Wednesday to Friday 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Finally, in the southern commune of Uccle, the new Dibiterie brewpub near Place Saint-Job fired up its kit for the first time earlier this month. It’s the same address as an older brewpub called Imprimerie, whose previous ownership was more interested in wine and dance parties. Current management offers a solid list of beers from other independent breweries and, soon enough, its own house beers.