Belgium Generalisations about beer culture

In love with Leuven

We can’t believe it’s taken us so long to get to Leuven given that it’s only 20 to 30 minutes from Brussels. We’ve been missing out.

First, we simply hadn’t clocked that Leuven is an attractive city in its own right.

It has a large pedestrianised city centre with many noteworthy historic buildings.

It’s also got a good feel – just a pleasant place to be. Every fascinating street seems to lead to another fascinating street and the many students make it lively even on a grey Tuesday lunchtime.

It feels as if it should be better known, at least up there with Ghent and Antwerp.

Secondly, there’s the beer thing.

The enormous elephant in the room, or rather beyond the ring road.

Some schoolchildren stopped us in the street and asked us some questions for a project:

“How did you hear of Leuven?”

“Well, we’re from the UK, and there Leuven is famous as the home of Stella Artois.”

This is true and, if we’re honest, has been subconsciously putting us off visiting for years.

When we heard phrases like “Leuven is famed for its beer”, we had assumed this meant the enormous AB-InBev HQ.

And reading that visits to the brewery was one of the things to do in town cemented our suspicion that Stella Artois would have the town sewn up. If there was beer tourism, we thought, it would be of The Wrong Sort. 

We should have learned earlier to trust our Good Beer Guide Belgium: “Its beer culture is significantly more advanced than most Belgian cities, despite being the birthplace of Stella Artois.”

Use of the phrase “beer culture” made us think about our musings from a long while ago about what makes a healthy beer culture – in particular the diversity of venues and of different types of beer to drink. Leuven seems to have all of this. 

A cluttered, cosy Belgian cafe.
Café De Fiere Margriet, Leuven.

During our day there we visited:

  • A city centre brewpub – Domus, which had a really interesting and good unfiltered pils with a pronounced banana character
  • A suburban estate pub – Pakenhof, with an interesting beer list featuring local rarities; somewhat dead mid afternoon but livening up considerably from 4pm as the locals arrived for post-work, after school, pre-dinner drinks and socialising
  • A city centre beer exhibition pub – Fiere Margriet, with more beers on the menu than they could actually retrieve from the labyrinthine stores

We also saw small local boozers selling cheap Stella to drink by the fruit machine; cafes aimed at students; gay bars; and of course plenty of places to get a portion of frites on your way from one to another.

We really feel like we barely scratched the surface and would definitely come back for a longer stay. 

An industrial brewery beyond a flyover.
The Stella Artois brewery.

And yes, we did make it out to the Stella brewery, at least for a look. We didn’t intend to particularly but as we were wandering around the little Beguinage towards the north of the city centre, the smell of an industrial-scale mash – a wall of hot grain – hit us, and pulled us in.

It really is huge. Proud, you might say – or maybe arrogant.

The old brewery, half-demolished, is being converted into flats. If you’re a fan of brewery architecture or Art Deco more generally, there’s still enough there to look at and get a sense of how impressive it must have been.

We also drank some Stella, of course. It didn’t feel right not to. It came in a small ribbed glass, condensation trickling down the outside, with a clean white head. It tasted… pretty good.

A pub near Leuven central station.
A bar across the road from the station in Leuven.

It wasn’t one of those “everything you thought you knew was wrong” moments. This is still a beer with low bitterness, a bit sweet for our tastes, with a peculiar tang.

At the same time, we can see why the locals were so happy drinking it – especially for €1.90 for 330ml in the lively pub across from the station.