There’ll be plenty written about why us brewers went to Leuven in Belgium, so if you want to skip that bit, scroll straight down to the map for a fantastic beer adventure in Leuven if you have (at least) 24 hours to spare. And you’re in Belgium.
Here’s the why we went…
Norwich is a fantastic city for beer, and so is Leuven, and it has long been the beery vision of Roger Protz to bring these two cities together to share ideas, and form a bond through beer. With bottles rattling in my suitcase, I joined Moongazer, Tindall and Poppyland breweries on a train journey under the channel, through France and to Belgium to explore the great brewing city of Leuven, meet up with Belgium brewers and forge friendships ahead of brewing beer together for the City of Ale 2023. We arrived at lunchtime and left at lunchtime, 24 hours later.
In Leuven, you can’t get away from Stella. The InBev HQ and newly built Stella Artois brewery lives in the middle of the city, and we must have passed it six times within our 24 hours, though we did get about a bit. The old brewery stands opposite with its vast and slender cylindrical silos towering high above the surrounding buildings. All I could think was ‘how did they get the grain in the top?’. But the Stella was good! Many bars served it from tank, with less carbonation ergo less belching, and you realise how much flavour can be hidden behind the fizz. Any bar (and there were plenty of them), where we would have Carling, Guinness and Doombar as the main offering, instead had Stella, Leffe and Duvel on draught, and a fridge full of eye-wateringly strong bottled beers.
Despite the obvious dominance of Stella, there are a number of smaller breweries making quite a scene in and around town, both old and new. We didn’t get to see them all (you’ll need 48 hours for that), but it seemed to me that, because of the quality of the big brands, that to be a success each brewery needs its own unique edge to make it stand out. I am not going to say that they were passionate about brewing (which they were), as I’ve yet to meet a small brewer who isn’t passionate about brewing as small brewers clearly aren’t in it for the money. But each brewer I met had a real commitment and dedication to perfecting their craft, and without compromise.
Take Joris at Braxatorium Parcensis for example. His vision was to run a brewery on the exact same spot of the long-gone brewery at Park Abbey, a beautifully peaceful restored monastery standing just a few miles outside Leuven. But the brewhouse had an ancient ceiling that could in no way survive abuse from the brewery steam. Joris could have relocated to a nearby building on the same site, but no, instead he worked with engineers to devise a steamless and no-mess brewhouse. It is impressive, and very very clean. It was not only Joris’ innovations and love of a good challenge that got me hooked, but also his interest in grain (small ‘g’). He experiments with green malt (that’s barley that is germinated but left un-dried) and un-malted grains, especially rye, and has overcome some big challenges (ever tried milling wet malt without producing a big sludgy mess?) to get big results. So Grain and Braxatorium Parcensis will be teaming up next year to brew something special for City of Ale 2023!
Also, I was the only one who could remember the brewery name.
What to do with 24 hours in Leuven
These are places we visited in our 24 hours in Leuven. We had a sleep half way through, which helped as our total beer tasting count was around the ’27 different beers’ mark, though many were just sips. There isn’t a single one I wouldn’t recommend as a great place to visit.
- De Klimop (Martelarenplein 5, 3000 Leuven)
Our first stop was Restaurant De Klimop. Handily positioned near the main rail station and also our hotel to get you fuelled up for your adventure. Game croquettes and succulent lamb for lunch, accompanied by four different formats of potato. And beer of course. Just a Stella for me, but plenty to choose from on the menu.
- Braxatorium Parcensis (Abdij van Park 7, 3001 Leuven)
This new brewery is at the Park Abbey, a short taxi ride outside of Leuven town centre. The monastery itself is an impressive place, as is the brewery. Across from the brewery is the taproom, with a vaulted cellar, and the best place to try a good selection of Joris’ magnificent, and often experimental, beers, under the watchful eye of Libertus, aka ‘Papa Beer’. Watch out for a Grain v Braxatorium Parcensis collaboration next year.
- Brewery De Coureur (Brouwerij De Coureur, Borstelsstraat 20/bus 1, 3010 Leuven)
‘The Cyclist’ is a brewery and taproom built in an old car workshop out in the burbs of Leuven. You have to know it’s there as it is hidden behind brightly painted doors on a mostly residential street. Almost all of Bart’s beer is sold through the taproom, much of it direct from tank, and all amongst quirky cycle themed décor. You can also sign up to brewing experiences with them.
- Hof Ten Dormaal Brewery (Caubergstraat 2, 3150 Haacht, Belgium)
This one is the furthest away from Leuven, but still only a twenty minute drive or taxi ride, and it is well worth the visit. Andre and his family farm the land, malt the grain, and brew the beer in a full grain-to-glass experience. It is a beautiful rustic setting where you can enjoy beers in the taproom sitting beside huge oak tanks. If you ask nicely, Andre may pour you a glass direct from the tank. Apple beer, sours and takes on Belgium classics are all on offer here.
- Brewery Den Adept (De Smederij, Warotstraat 4, 3020 Herent)
Confession. We didn’t get to visit this one as Dimitri brought his beers to us to try at De Coureur. But they were exceptionally well crafted so I will set make this my destination when I return. Dimitri has many years experience brewing with some of the big boys of Belgium.
Adept is part of a great eating and drinking venue in the village of Warostraat, west of Leuven. It is easy to get there by train from Leuven central station.
- De Hoorn (Sluisstraat 79, 3000 Leuven)
This bar and restaurant is on the site of the original(?) Stella Artois brewery, and you can drink Stella from the tank whilst stood amongst the huge copper vessels of the brewhouse. Impressive. The food upstairs in the restaurant was also good, and I enjoyed Hake whilst others had beef stew. My fondest memory is of the selection of cooked meats we had as a starter, that were served on what looked like some kind of whale bone. I guess they had run out of plates.
- The Longest Bar (Oude Markt, 3000 Leuven)
The Longest Bar is in the Old Market of Leuven, where every building looks different, and every one of them is a bar. Lots of Stella, Leffe and Duvel, but also bottled Trappist beers and other delights. Look out for cyclists wobbling around, and don’t be surprised if people are sat outside in the middle of winter. We went in November at night time and it looked right pretty all lit up.
- Malz (Brusselsestraat 51, 3000 Leuven)
Leuven’s newest craft beer bar (it was in November 2022 anyway). A small venue, with all the kinds of beers you would expect in a craft beer bar, kept well and served with a smile. This place was not just for hipsters, and anyone can feel at home here. We tried a few beers from the local breweries we had visited.
- Elsen Kaasambacht Cheese Shop (Mechelsestraat 36, 3000 Leuven)
You may have come to Leuven for the beer, but you can’t leave without trying and buying some cheese and chocolate. This central shop, not far from the Oude Markt, was rammed to the rafters with a huge selection of cheese, and tasters were available for all. One of our party came out with two bagfuls of the stuff.
- (or X on the map) Bitter Sweet Chocolate Shop (Bondgenotenlaan 108, 3000 Leuven)
We stopped in here on our way back from town after visiting the cheese shop. All the chocolate is made here in the shop, where you can see them at it, and they are each a thing of beauty. Whether you prefer your chocolate Buddha shaped, robot shaped, or looking like a lego brick, this is a chocolate lover’s paradise. With so much to choose from, I plumped for a ready made selection box, which made a great present to take home.
And then you’re just a short walk to the station to get the train to Belgium and the Eurostar back home again!