Beer Capital of the World Gets a $96 Million Monument to the Drink

The new museum at the Bourse in Brussels has a rooftop bar with some 50 beers on tap and more available in bottles.

(Bloomberg) — Belgian beer is known around the world for quality and breathtaking diversity, but until now the country has never had a proper showcase for its brewing heritage.

Designed in collaboration with Belgium’s major brewers, Belgian Beer World opens on Saturday in the Bourse, a neoclassical building in the center of Brussels that used to house the main stock exchange.

Offering a mix of history, agricultural science and storytelling, the museum celebrates the richness of Belgian beer culture, from its first brown beers and traditional Trappist ales to sour Flemish ales and fruited Lambics. The small country is home to 430 breweries that make more than 1,600 different brands of beer, ranging from the famous Duvel and Chouffe strong beers to those such as the Westvleteren Trappist Ales that can be purchased only at a monastery near the World War I battlefields of Ypres.

The €90 million ($96.5 million) project began with an ambitious renovation of the Bourse, a building built from 1868 to 1873 that once banned the presence of women. The site includes an archaeological museum featuring the remains of a Franciscan coven dating to the 13th century. Fittingly, it’s also said to house the burial site of Gambrinus, the probably mythical Brabant king credited with laying the foundations for the beer industry in Belgium.

The museum covers a significant part of the Bourse—two floors, not counting the rooftop bar or the gift shop. After the museum closes, the bar will remain open to the public, with some 50 beers on tap and 100 or so available in bottles. The museum aims to attract 400,000 visitors a year.

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The museum offers an interactive look inside a brewer’s mind. It explores the complex choices that come with making beer for sale, from handling the yeast to plugging leaks and making marketing decisions. An immersive theater experience simulates several fermentation processes used in Belgium, complete with bursts of cold air and real bubbles. 

A history section starts in medieval times—when beer was safer to drink than water—and continues through World War I and World War II, when Belgians worked to hide their copper beer tanks from the occupiers. 

“In Belgium, we always had the tradition of creating balanced beers that are in harmony between flavor, taste and aftertaste,” says Geert Van Lierde, a veteran beer writer who served as a consultant on the the exhibits. “Maybe that’s due to our history—that we have been invaded by lots of nationalities. You always have to look for compromise.”

The exhibits don’t gloss over the site’s history. In constructing the Bourse, Brussels covered the Senne River and demolished a number of breweries on its banks.

The highlight of the tour is a visit with a virtual bartender in a room lined with bottles of hundreds of beers, each displayed with the unique glass designed to maximize the flavor—another feature specific to Belgian beer culture. There’s even a tutorial on how to pour properly for the various shapes. 

The “bartender” queries a visitor’s preferences: Do you prefer a healthy dessert or candy? Your favorite kind of vacation? Burger or gourmet meal? It then recommends a suite of Belgian beers that might suit your palate, conveniently printed out on a souvenir coaster.

“Visitors will be guided through the concept of taste, a sense that is both universal and above all personal,” says Krishan Maudgal, the head of the Belgian Brewers association, a group that contributed €5 million toward the museum and includes the behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev NV and Duvel Moortgat NV. He says the virtual bartending will help people “discover the great diversity of colors and flavors that Belgian beer has.”

At the end of the visit, visitors can present their coaster to a real bartender and sample one of the choices in the rooftop bar, which offers panoramic views of the city center.

Tickets for adults cost €17 and include a beer tasting or non-alcoholic drink. The museum will open from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except on New Year’s Day.

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