For those who drink, an unmissable part of visiting Belgium is the chance to explore its beer culture. Aside from drinking copious amounts of different beers, another way is to go on a tour of one of the country’s breweries. While I had several different choices of breweries to visit, I decided to pick one of Belgium’s most prolific beers, Stella Artois. There were plenty of things I was keen to see when visiting Leuven, but the Stella Artois Brewery was near the top. What resulted was an especially informative and engaging brewery tour through a cultural landmark of the city of Leuven.
Leuven’s Beer History
It’s fair to say that beer has had a major role in the history of Leuven. The city’s brewing legacy extends back far before Stella Artois, with evidence of breweries existing as early as 1366. Leuven owes its tradition of beer in part to its prosperous university and strong academic culture, like many cities with historic ties to brewing. Rather than associating this link with an academic understanding of the brewing process, most people tend to simply connect students and drinking!
The importance of Leuven’s brewing industry didn’t have an impact on just the city’s growth, but also it’s very landscape. Like in many Belgian cities, the Vaart canal was built to link Leuven with the neighbouring city of Mechelen. Since the building of the Vaart, the surrounding Vaartkom area has had strong ties with the city’s brewing culture.
One historical building of the Vaart that still has a place in modern Leuven is the De Lantaarn Cafe. The cafe arose as part of the boom around the Vaartkom in the 18th century, and after World War II became synonymous with the Stella Artois brand.
History of Stella Artois
Even though the name “Stella Artois” is globally well-known, it’s only been used for the last century of the this centuries old history. The origins of Stella Artois actually begin just along the Vaart from the modern Stella Artois brewery at the Brewery Den Hoorn. Established by 1366, Brewery Den Hoorn became a major Leuven institution, gradually becoming the biggest business in the city.
It wasn’t until 1708 that the Artois name came into play, when Sebastien Artois became the brewery’s master brewer. He would actually buy the brewery in 1717, renaming it the Artois Brewery. The next big change to the brewery didn’t happen until 1928 and with it “Stella Artois”.
For the festive season, a special Christmas beer was brewed and given the name “Stella”. The success and the popularity of the seasonal beer was so immense that it soon became available year round and led to this name change. The original horn symbol can still be spotted as part of the Stella Artois emblem.
The Brewery Tour
After walking up to the Stella Artois Brewery, I arrived at the visitor centre and was given a high-visibility vest and ushered upstairs. Once we’d been given an introduction and safety briefing, we were on our way and started the tour.
We were led into the brewery grounds proper and into a small theatre. It was here that we would learn about the history of Stella Artois and the brewing process. It was quite interesting to learn the role each of the ingredients played in the composition of the beer. This is despite the fact that this was not my first brewery tour, having visited the Pilsener Urquell Brewery in Pilsen, Czechia.
For those that don’t know the process of how beer is brewed, I’ll try to give you a brief overview. The four essential ingredients of beer are water, barley, hops and yeast, however Stella also interestingly adds maize. It is the origin of the water, barley, maize and hops, and the strain of yeast, that give each type of beer its unique taste.
The brewing process starts with the “malting” the barley, by heating, drying and cracking it. After that is the “mashing” stage, where the malted barley is soaked in hot water to release its sugars. The mash is then drained, leaving behind a sugary liquid known as “mort“. Next, the mort is boiled while the hops are gradually added, balancing out the sweet flavour of the mort. All of this is done in rows of immense, shiny kettles. The last step in the brewing process is fermentation, caused by adding the yeast to the strained and cooled mort.
While Stella Artois is brewed in other countries for the international markets, if you drink Stella in Europe, it was likely brewed here in Leuven. We were able to see the kettles, before moving on to the bottling plant. From a viewing platform above, you can look down into the automated bottling machines and watch the process take place. While Stella is brewed here, mostly other brands are actually bottled on site, including Leffe.
The end of the tour rightly finishes with the opportunity to do some tasting of freshly and meticulously poured Stella Artois on tap. There is actually a 9 step process required to ensure the perfect pour. They allow plenty of time for you to enjoy a drink or two, as well as take a look at the gift shop. Before returning to the visitors centre, they kindly handed out gift bags to everyone, including several drinks for you to try.
Brewery Tour Information
Tours of the Stella Artois Brewery are run Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm and last a bit under 2 hours. Entry costs 8.5€, with information here. Note: the entrance is by the large car park and you should allow more time than you think to get there. I was one of many who were struggling to find the entrance as the clock ticked down to 3pm.
Would you make time to take a tour of the Stella Artois Brewery on a visit to Leuven? Have you been on a brewery tour before? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
*Disclosure: I received free tickets from Visit Leuven for the Stella Artois Brewery Tour. As always, opinions are my own.
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