Food and Drink: Where the ale is good enough to eat: Michael Jackson offers a beer-hunter's guide to the great brews of Belgium

NO COUNTRY has a greater diversity of individualistic, idiosyncratic beers than our temptingly close neighbour Belgium: the winey, appetite-arousing Gueuze (made with wild yeasts), from Cantillon, Girardin and Boon; refreshingly sour-and-sweet, oak-aged, red ales such as Rodenbach Grand Cru; spiced specialities such as Saison de Pipaix; Trappist monastery brews from the intensely dry Orval to the chocolatey Rochefort 10 and orangey-tasting Westmalle Triple.

The French and Dutch already know this, so book well ahead for a long weekend's beer-hunting in Belgium. If you travel by Calais or Dunkirk, head in the general direction of Ypres (Ieper in Flemish) and look for the hop-growing area around Poperinge. The hop's Latin name gives rise to the dialect Hommel, much heard in this area.

On the main square of the pretty little town of Watou, the Hommelhof Brasserie (17 Watou Plein; telephone: 010 32 57 388024, fax: 388590) offers outstanding cuisine a la biere: fish soup with wheat beer; goose liver on a salad in a vinaigrette of cherry beer; guinea- fowl with abbey beer. As you approach the town, look for Noel Cuvelier's Beer Store at 30 Abele Stations Plein, Poperinge (57 333305).

The local brew is the appropriately hoppy Poperinge Hommelbier. This, and several abbey-style specialities, can be bought in gift-packs directly from the Van Eecke brewery (open at weekends until Sunday lunchtime, 2 Douvie Weg; telephone: 57 422005).

Nearby, at the hamlet of West Vleteren, the Trappist monastery of St Sixtus offers its strong ales and cheeses at the adjoining cafe and shop in De Vrede (57 400377); very popular on Sunday afternoons. Look out for the rare, strong brew called Abbot. Another brewery which sells its own beer is De Dolle Brouwers ('the Mad Brewers'), 12b Roeselare Straat, at Esen, near Diksmuide, in the direction of Ostend (51 502781). This 1840s brewery was rescued by an architect and his family, who had made beer at home; they brew (and sell) at weekends, and the creamy, dark Oerbier is their speciality.

Or begin your beer hunt at Ostend with a cuisine a la biere dinner at Cafe t'Botteltje, and sleep on the same premises at Hotel Marion (19 Louisa Straat; telephone: 59 700928).

No trip to West Flanders should miss the great brewing town of Bruges, which still has two breweries, both of which can be visited. On a cobbled triangle in the old town, at the sign of the Half Moon, the Straffe Hendrik ('Strong Henry') brewery offers its fruity, dry, golden ale, and its light meals can often include beer and a good fish platter (26 Wal Plein; telephone: 50 332697).

Behind a 16th-century facade, the Gouden Boom ('Golden Tree') brewery has a beer museum, and offers visitors a drink but has no restaurant (54 Lange Straat; telephone: 50 330699). Its coriander-tinged wheat beer and complex Bruges Triple are also available at t'Brugs Beertje (5 Kemel Straat; telephone: 50 339616). One of Belgium's best speciality beer bars, it has 'off-sales', but does not open until 2pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 4pm on Sundays.

Most Belgians buy their beer at large, drive-in markets. The best- known is probably Wets, next to a now-silent brewery at 215 Steenweg op Halle, between Dworp, Alsemberg and St Genesius Rode, among the villages of Payottenland on the outskirts of Brussels. This closes at 1.00pm on Saturdays, and does not reopen until Tuesday. Plan your visit to Wets before a prearranged lunch at De Drie Fonteinen, 3 Herman Teirlinck Plein, Beersel (2 3310652). Accompany it with Gueuze and its fruit variants blended in the cellar; or have Gueuze with mussels, tripe, horse-meat or pigeon at In De Rare Vos, 22 Markt Plaats, Schepdaal (2 5692068). Also in Payottenland, you can stay at the stylish hotel Relais Delbeccha (158 Bodegem Straat, Dilbeek; telephone: 2 5694430), which makes its own beers including a delicious cherry brew. The beers can also be bought in gift-packs.

In Brussels, the commercially minded Belle-Vue brewery offers a surprisingly good Gueuze, Selections Lambic, at a guest bar in its former stables. It has a shop, during the week - but Saturday and Sunday visits are by appointment (43 Quai du Hainaut, Molenbeek; telephone: 2 41019035). The classic, austerely dry Gueuze is available by the glass and the gift- pack from the 'museum' brewery of Cantillon (56 Rue Gheude Straat, Anderlecht; telephone: 2 5214928). In the Brussels quarter known as Jette, Cafe Le Miroir (26 Place Reine Astrid; telephone: 2 4240478) brews its own beer, which it also uses in the kitchen.

If your tastes are more rural, head for the handsome town of Namur on a dramatically rocky stretch of the Meuse, a good base from which to explore the Ardennes. Sample classic Wallonian beers at Cafe L'Eblouissant ('The Dazzling'), 27 Grouchy Armee (81 737139), under the guidance of Alain Mossiat, a passionate Walloon of Irish descent. Snack heartily on Belgian sausages-and- mash, followed by ice-cream flavoured with beer. Go on Saturday; it is not open on Sunday. Neither is La Cave de Wallonie (6 Rue de la Halle), where Francois Tonglet has 300 bottled beers for sale by the bottle, with their appropriate glasses, and local gins.

If you have time for a long drive on Sunday, head for the Auberge de Poteaupre (60 211433), at the hamlet of Forges, near Chimay. This popular spot for family lunches is owned by the nearby Trappist monastery and sells all three of the Chimay beers, in gift-packs, as well as the monks' several cheeses.

Just beyond Florenville, a town full of charcuteries, prize-winning black pudding and sausage made with Orval Trappist beer, lies the hamlet of Orval itself. Lunch at Auberge de l'Ange Gardien (61 311886) and buy beer, cheese and bread at the monastery's shop. Guided tours are offered of the original abbey ruins and garden of medicinal herbs, but not of the present monastery.

In the hill country between Orval and Liege, the hamlet of Achouffe, near Houffalize, has a brewery with its own cuisine a la biere restaurant (61 288147). The beer, fruity and malty, is called La Chouffe. The last time I was there, it was full of hungry but guilt-prone Protestants from the Netherlands who, after their bibulous exertions, rode home on mountain bikes.

To eat cuisine a la biere, expect to pay 1,000 to 2,500 Belgian francs ( pounds 19 to pounds 48) per head. Hotel rooms in Belgium range from Bfr1,000 to Bfr3,500. Many speciality beers come in 75cl corked bottles, at Bfr100 or more; a gift-pack contains three, or two with a glass.

Michael Jackson is author of The Great Beers of Belgium. This, and Tim Webb's Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland, are obtainable from bookshops or from Camra (0727 867201).

(Photograph omitted)

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