Belgium is often described as the "culinary capital of Europe." Perhaps much to the chagrin of their French neighbors to the west, Belgians have rightfully taken this title to heart, producing some of the finest food in its many restaurants, cafes, and pubs. When I recently asked a friend to recommend a good lunch spot, his answer was that it was nearly impossible to make a bad choice. If a place is poor then it won't be open for long: Belgians have a very low tolerance for mediocrity when it comes to food.
While I have been happily sampling the cafe culture in Leuven, I have been slow to truly experience the art of drinking Belgian beer. Perhaps a drink here or there with a meal (when the water and soda costs just as much as the beer on the lunch menu, then, well, why not?) but nothing too intense. So when a friend asked me to join her and her partner last night for "a drink," I didn't hesitate: absolutely!
Well, I should have known that Belgians don't go out for "a drink." And when one of the party is a British guy high off of Chelsea's recent football victory over Barcelona, then the drinks just keep on comin'. And I like to think that I have a pretty high tolerance, especially coming after a heavy meal of rice-vegetables-and-peanut-butter-in-a-pot surprise (don't laugh, it was actually very good!) Oh, how foolish I was. At 12:45 PM I am still padding slowly about my little studio, dressed in my flannels and wishing I had said "no" to that generously-offered fourth beer. I should have remembered Bill Bryson's experience drinking beer in Belgium. The good taste comes in part from a high alcohol content, a fact he leanred the hard way. If memory serves he was forced to attempt the pedestrian-swerve over uneven cobblestone streets on his way back to his dimly-lit hotel room which, of course, was on the top floor of an old, elevator-less building. My own post-drink experience was uncannily like his!
Bad decisions aside, I really enjoyed my sampling of beers last night. There is a great variety of Belgian beer. They are divided between blonds and darks, lagers and abbeys, heavily alcoholic and more-heavily alcoholic. They are often served in specific glasses which, according to my Belgian friend, are meant to reveal the unique attributes of each beer. According to her British boyfriend it really doesn't matter, they are all good and, hey, while we're at it, why can't they serve them in a heavy, thick, British-style pint glass and not these little 25 cl. servings? I may have been inclined to agree with him last night, but today I am happy that the Belgians are so thoughtful towards those of us less-informed about the strength of their beer: smaller, in this case, is definitely better.