I don't often do beer tourism as such, but somehow my normal tourism ends up taking me to a lot of places with good beer. And normally when that happens, it's easy to know what to do to be impressed. Visiting New York and New England with my partner, we tried fresh local IPAs, and American classics that seldom make it across the Atlantic. In new bits of the UK, we go to classic pubs and seek out exciting local microbreweries. In Dusseldorf, we spent evenings in Uerige and Schumacher, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the company with their perfect, balanced session beers forming a backdrop rather than a focus.
Now she's spending a few months in Brussels for work, and thanks to the wonders of remote working I'm getting to spend a fair bit of time over there too. This is obviously pretty cool, but with the amount of Belgian beer that turns up in the UK these days, I found it surprisingly easy to be disappointed by the reality of a night out there. You go into a well thought-of bar, start leafing through a long list of bottled beers, and realize that most of them are actually pretty easy to get hold of back home. Swerving the wallet-busting bottles of vintage gueuze, you pick something sensibly priced that you've never heard of. When it arrives, it turns out to be a nondescript sugary blonde brewed to order for a beer marketer, or a slightly rough-edged take on a US pale from some local craft hopefuls.
After a few slightly unsatisfying experiences like this, I've come to suspect that over an evening drinking beer in Brussels, you normally have to pick two out of unusual, affordable, and consistently great. And once you accept that, you seem to end up with three basic approaches that you can take if you want a satisfying beery night out.
Splash out on vintage lambics
It'll cost you, but an evening picking from the vintage bottle list in a bar like Moeder Lambic is an experience the like of which you won't get in many places on earth. If it helps, try to remind yourself that wine buffs probably have it even worse. Going mob-handed and sharing bottles also softens the hit a bit.
If you're the sort of person who thinks that spending 50 Euros on a 75cl bottle of beer is a reasonable thing to do then you'll probably already know where to do it, but just for completeness, the obvious options are to head to either of the Moeders, visit Cantillon during the day, get dinner at Nuetnigenough, or take a trip out of town to De Heeren van Liedekercke, Grote Dorst or the Lambik-O-Droom.
Explore new micros
My experience of the newer small breweries in Belgium so far has been that they sometimes do great stuff, but don't have a particularly greater hit rate than similar breweries anywhere else. There do seem to be some gems, though.
I'm not so hot on this routine but again, either of the Moeders (but sticking to the draughts this time) or Nuetnigenough seem like good bets.
Immerse yourself in the classics
Possibly my favourite option. Sure, you probably can go to an adequately beer-geeky pub in the UK and find beers like Rochefort 10, Drei Fonteinen's Oude Gueuze, Dupont's Bonnes Voeux, De La Senne's Taras Boulba or De Dolle's Oerbier. But unless you're particularly well-off, any one of them is likely to feel like a treat - something that you splash out on after a few more sensible rounds. One joy of drinking in Belgium is that you can spend an evening wandering through these sorts of classic as the fancy takes you, knowing that at about four Euros each, none of them are going to break the bank.
If you're having dinner, Bier Circus and La Porteuse d'Eau have a lot of classic stuff. For drinking only, La Porte Noire, La Brocante (daytime only) and Pochenellekelder are obvious choices in the centre, while Amere a Boire is a hidden gem that's well worth a visit if you happen too be down South in Ixelles.
A few more ramblings...
Okay, so there is one thing you can do that's affordable, unique and consistently pretty great, and that's drinking draught young lambic. On the other hand, I normally find that after a glass or two in Moeder I start wandering off into the rest of the draught list, or asking for the bottle menu...
Delerium Cafe is one of the more famous beer bars in Brussels, and its subsidiary branches are turning into quite a chain. But although it's a well known beer-destination, it's conspicuous by it's absence from any of these lists. This is basically because I've only been in on a Friday night, at which point it was so overcrowded and understaffed that we rapidly got fed up and left after our first beer, so I don't really feel like I had a chance to figure out what it was about. I might try again on a Tuesday morning or something.
I think the difficulty of reliably picking good, new, cheap stuff in Belgium is partly down to the tendency of most established Belgian brewers to focus quite hard on a small core range of beers. This is part of what makes them so good, but it does also mean that you're relatively unlikely to come across a beer you haven't tried from a brewery that you know and trust, which in turn means that unless you spend the whole time flicking through a book or fiddling with your phone, trying a new beer is more likely to involve taking a punt on an unknown brewery.
I'm not claiming to be an expert on the Belgian beer scene. These ramblings are based on a bit of background research and a few weeks spent living and drinking in Brussels. If I've missed anything out, please suggest it in the comments. If you think I'm spouting crap, please try to break it to me gently.