The popularity of lambics is spreading, and Belgium is the place to discover them. Joe Stange shares his must-visit addresses
For years we have simultaneously hoped and feared that authentic lambics would catch on with the rest of the world and get the attention they have long deserved. You might have noticed: it has happened.
The good news is that their survival is now ensured. The bad news is that our smug little club of lambic lovers is not as exclusive as it once was.
Thankfully, the people of Brussels and the Pajottenland area still refuse to pay much more for a tumbler of draught lambic than they would for a cup of coffee. The flat-capped, gueuze-drinking, pigeon-fancying gentlefolk have not yet vanished from the earth. Indeed, there are signs that their grandchildren – peculiar offspring of the global and the local – are donning flat caps of their own and filling up tumblers. The upshot is that the pilgrimage, like the beer, survives.
Inevitably, some of those international whale-hunting geek-speculators will mature. Some will realise that instead of spending hundreds on rare bottles, they could spend hundreds on a plane ticket and come to drink the stuff cheap, at the source, in its proper context. They will come to pay their respects. Then they can join our inner circle.
Until then, let’s keep this to ourselves. What follows is a producer-heavy tour – mostly brewers and blenders – plus a few of our favourite lambic cafes. If you want to find more, get a good guidebook – might we suggest Lambicland or Good Beer Guide Belgium? – or ask the brewers and blenders themselves for tips.
There is no cafe here, and you cannot tour the brewery. What you can do, besides peek at the shiny coppers through the windows, is buy world-class beer at very reasonable prices. The quietly superb, unfiltered Fond Gueuze – the “black label” – is here, along with the brewery’s other products. Notably, these include big plastic jugs of Girardin’s soft, tart draught lambic, straight from the barrels. There’s a deposit for the jug, which is a hit at parties (let the others bring lager and crisps; you bring lambic and pottekeis). Flavourful yet easy to gulp, it’s clear why so many blenders use it in their own gueuzes.
12 Lindenbergstraat, Sint-Ulriks-Kapelle, 02 452 94 19
Sale hours weekdays 8.00-18.00, Saturdays 8.00-15.00, closed Sundays and lunchtimes
Despite a 160-year pedigree of making the real stuff, this Anthony Martin-owned brewery has been better known since the late 1900s as a purveyor of sweetened commercial fruit drinks. The revival of an Oude Gueuze in 2009, followed by an Oude Kriek, was the company’s recognition of the growing market for authentic lambic. A visit takes some planning; the brewery is only open to individuals once a month, on the second Sunday from 14.00-17.00 (guided tour at 14.30). Sights include coolships and burbling barrels, but we adore the wonderfully gezellig tap room, which lands somewhere between faux-British pub and deep Belgian brown. We think they should open it every weekend.
11 Kerkstraat, Itterbeek, 02 569 03 57, brtimmermans.be
3 In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst
“The Insurance Against Great Thirst” might be our favourite name for anything, ever. It doesn’t hurt that this heart-of-the-village pub has one of the region’s finest selections of bottled lambics, plus a few more on draught. They also sell bottles to take home, where you’re far less likely to make new friends. This ought to be on the bucket list of any serious lambic enthusiast; the catch is that it’s only open Sundays (10.00-13.30) and for the occasional wedding or funeral. Or you can rent the place yourself. Invite us.
45 Frans Baetensstraat, Eizeringen, 02 532 58 58, www.dorst.be
4 Volkscafé De Cam
There is no official connection between Gooik’s folk museum/cafe and the blendery where Karel Goddeau plays with lambics in repurposed Pilsner Urquell casks. But they share a name and a courtyard, and beer crosses that courtyard to be served in the cafe, so why get technical? De Cam’s draught lambic and cherry lambic are usually available and served in adorable crockery, with bottles from other producers too. Best not to feed the caged pigeons. A peek at the blendery might be possible, if Mr Goddeau happens to be around.
67a Dorpsstraat, Gooik, 02 532 21 32, www.decam.be
Open daily from 10.00, closed Monday and Tuesday
5 Gueuzerie Tilquin
Flemish Brabant may be visible past yonder cow pasture, but four years ago this became Wallonia’s first lambic blender in modern memory. Pierre Tilquin further upsets the cherry-cart by using purple plums in his only fruit beer, offering a lighter version of his Gueuze on draught, and insisting, matter-of-factly, that there is no magic to the art of blending. Given the quality of his products so far, we take this as modesty. Unannounced look-sees possible at Saturday sales hours (10.30-13.00, September to June only) before finding lunch elsewhere.
110 Chaussée Maïeur Habils, Rebecq, 0472 91 82 91, www.gueuzerietilquin.be
Guido Debelder owns the restaurant; brother Armand owns the brewery. They are separate but that hardly matters to most visitors. The restaurant (10.30-22.30, shut Tuesday and Wednesday) offers the internationally renowned krieks and gueuzes, including vintages, plus draught lambic, sweetened faro and kriekenlambic. Some of that beer hits the saucepans for hearty Flemish cooking, including guinea fowl cooked with kriek and cherries. And just round the corner (2a Hoogstraat) is the brewery shop, generally open on Friday and Saturday (9.00-18.00).
3 Herman Teirlinckplein, Beersel, 02 331 06 52, www.3fonteinen.be
This traditional blendery spent three years dormant before Gert Christiaens resuscitated it in 2005. The base lambic comes from Boon to an original recipe. A visit here means lots of photogenic oak, paraphernalia, and something to taste. Tours for individuals or groups are arranged in advance via the non-profit support club, Geuzen van Oud Beersel (www.degeuzenvanoudbeersel.be). Or anyone can pop in unannounced on the first Saturday of each month at 11.00 and 12.30.
230 Laarheidestraat, www.oudbeersel.com
Young Americans, Brits or Japanese getting into authentic lambic – old news. Young Belgians getting into it – very exciting. A traditional Pajottenland cafe run by the next generation with enthusiasm for the real thing gives us great hope for the future. This one stocks 125 beers including virtually all the authentic lambics, with at least one on draught. The bottles include Hanssens, which is handy since the blender – located two blocks away – closed its shop and doesn’t do visitors. No problem; this tavern is friendly enough for the whole village.
1 Gemeentehuisstraat, Dworp, 02 356 97 01, www.herbergdezwaan.be
Open Wednesday to Friday from 14.00, weekends from 11.00, Monday from 18.00, shut Tuesday
9 Lambiek Visitors Centre
A few years ago, in a fit of wisdom, local authorities and Pajottenland lambic makers banded together to exploit their unique drink’s untapped tourist potential. Then they put it all in Dutch, liberally studded with Beersel dialect. No worries: there are English pamphlets and guided tours available. It’s not a full-on museum so much as a large room decorated with history, vocabulary, ingredients and knick-knacks. The highlight is probably the cafe, with a wide selection at reasonable prices and lots of room to stretch legs.
1 Gemeenveldstraat, Alsemberg, 02 359 16 36
Open Friday and Saturday 11.00-18.00, Sunday 14.00-18.00; €3, with guided tours at 14.00 and 16.00
In Brussels near Gare du Midi, Belgium’s most visited brewery is an international ambassador for authentic lambic. Its increasingly popular self-guided tours have played an undersung part in the drink’s ongoing renaissance. The rustic, musty ambience of the brew kit and barrel rooms has made tens of thousands of friends over the years; many go home to remain loyal customers. That partly explains the hype, but the beers do most of the talking. One is included in the €7 visit price, with many more available by the glass in the estaminet. Takeaway bottle prices remain low too.
56 Rue Gheude, Anderlecht, 02 521 49 28, cantillon.be
Open weekdays 9.00-17.00, Saturday 10.00-17.00, shut Sunday
11 Moeder Lambic Fontainas
This popular beer-specialist bar in Brussels city centre has the country’s widest selection of draught lambics. Cantillon gets pride of place with lambic, kriek, framboise and faro all hand-pulled from cask. Cantillon Gueuze is served from keg – not quite traditional, but don’t knock it till you try it – as is Gueuze Tilquin. Others rotate and sometimes include Drie Fonteinen. The selection of bottled lambics is impressive, even if rare ones seem to be priced on Singaporean market value. Funky Brussels-style pottekeis cheese rounds out the quality beer-snacks. A must-do.
8 Place Fontainas, Brussels, 02 503 60 80, www.moederlambic.com
Open daily from 11.00
Pajottenland is justifiably proud of brewing lambic, but Brussels is justifiably proud of drinking it. Few cafes have stronger gueuze-swilling brusseleir credentials than the Brocante, with slang in the air and bloedpans on the menu. Wash it all down with one of the country’s most complete lists of bottled lambics, before or after perusing the morning flea market on Place du Jeu de Balle.
170 Rue Blaes, 02 512 13 43
Open daily 6.00-18.00 and sometimes a bit later