Surprise! I’ve got something new for you.
Although I love to travel the world and share my experiences with you, I also feel like my home country Belgium deserves some attention. After all, the home country of one person is the trip destination of another. I didn’t need to think long about how I would put Belgium in the spotlight: I’d tell you about its fabulous foods and drinks! If there’s something I always miss when I’m abroad it’s Belgian food. The simplicity of it. The sincerity of it.
One thing Belgium is famous for, is its beers. Only… I don’t drink beer. I know, I know, I’m a Belgian girl not drinking beer. But no need to worry: I found us an expert on the subject. The following weeks beer writer Christopher Barnes will share his passion for Belgian beers with us. (For those of you who are wondering why I chose Christopher and not a Belgian beer connoisseur: he was recommended to me and convinced me with his clear love for Belgian beer.)
Now I’ll let Christopher do the talking, with the first post in this series about…
Belgian beer De Koninck
Belgium is a small country full of local pride and local beers. Arguably, no beer is more tied to its city than the classic Speciale Belge De Koninck. De Koninck has been an Antwerp institution for nearly 200 years, and although they do brew several beers, they’re most famous and loved for their main beer which is simply called “De Koninck.” Low in alcohol, amber in color with a spicy yeast flavor and aroma; De Koninck is a classic example of a ‘Speciale’.
While most Belgian beer styles developed organically over time, the Speciale Belge was created intentionally. At the beginning of the twentieth century Czech and German style lagers were coming to dominate beer sales and push more traditional styles out of the marketplace. To counter this, Belgian brewers and brewing professors set out to create a ‘national’ beer style and thus held a competition to find it. What resulted was an amber ale of around 5% ABV made from 100% barley malt and hops with a firm yeasty character.
Belgium is famed for its beer service using matching glassware. Every brewery has its own style of glassware to serve its beer in to create a unique impression. De Koninck’s is the “bolleke,” a chalice shaped glass that looks like half of a ball. The glass is so famous in Antwerp, that you order the beer by asking for a “bolleke” (pronounced “boll-uh-kuh”). Do this and you’ll get a glass of Antwerp’s ‘house’ beer!
A ‘proper’ Bolleke
But it’s not quite that simple! Talk to any local fan of the beer and you’ll discover that not all Bollekes are created equal. You’ll get an earful on what constitutes the best or ‘proper’ Bolleke. Here are a few tips from my friend from Antwerp and long time Bolleke fan, Jan Meekels:
“It is important to find a bar that sells a lot of Bollekes – because the kegs go stale very easily (max 2 days!) – and that drafts it correctly of course.”
He also gave several tips on how to pour the proper Bolleke so you know what to look for when you’re watching the bartender.
- Don’t “pre-leak” the beer, or spill any from the line before pouring the beer into the glass. Just open the faucet and pour it directly into the glass.
- Don’t let any beer drip into the glass after you’ve closed the faucet. This will ruin the foam head/collar.
- It can be poured in one stage or in two, meaning; you can partially fill the glass, set it aside to avoid drips, then finish it. Or it can just be filled straight to the top even allowing a little to overflow the rim!
- Don’t slice the foam head off. A lot of Belgian beers/bars have a “head slicer” that looks like a butter knife they’ll use to give you a perfectly flat topped foam head. If the bar does this with De Koninck, it’s no longer a Bolleke! You want that extra fluffy round foam head to complete the “ball” like appearance.
Here’s a link to a short video featuring a gentleman who works for the brewery showing people how to properly pour Bollekes (It is in Flemish, but you can see and understand exactly what he’s doing even if you don’t understand what he’s saying).
Where To Go
The best Bolleke in Antwerp, arguably, can be found at De Koninck’s bistro, De Hand, which is across the street from the brewery. You’ll be able to experience a super fresh, properly poured Bolleke directly from the hands of someone who is trained to treat the beer exactly as the brewery wants. In addition to the classic De Koninck, you’ll be able to try several of the brewery’s other beers including a Tripel and a seasonal offering.
Cafe Den Engel and Den Bengel are two more great places to get a Bolleke. Both are situated on Antwerp’s Grote Markt; and both are renowned for the quality of their Bolleke. You can sit and enjoy your Bollekes while people watching in the shadow of Antwerp’s historic central square. You’ll sit in the shadow of Antwerp’s unique Cathedral while sipping on Antwerp’s beer; and as far I’m concerned, that’s living!
If you’re looking for something more substantial to eat with your Bolleke, you’ll want to check out the Carbonade Flamande at De Arme Duivel. Carbonade Flamande is one of Belgium’s national dishes. This hearty beef stew will pair nicely with the roasty caramel notes of De Koninck while the carbonation scrubs your palate clean for the next bite! De Arme Duivel is a great place to get a good Carbonade Flamande and a proper Bolleke, but call ahead for a reservation as it’s pretty small. What we did, in many cases, was stop by early in the afternoon and get our name on the list then continue with our exploration until it was time to head back for our dinner. A hearty Belgian dish paired with a lower alcohol beer will be the perfect way to refuel after walking the streets of Antwerp all day and before heading out to enjoy the nightlife.
Christopher Barnes is an American beer writer, blogger, and brewing industry professional with a passion for travel, Belgium and its beers. You can find his writings at I think about beer or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.