After a wonderful excursion to Belgium and Germany in autumn 2003, I just had to go back. My close friends Marty and Michelle were still stationed in Germany, so I thought I’d once again go for the gusto while the opportunity was still there.
I was able to plan this beerhunting trip with the help of a Belgian beer map that shows the names and locations of all of the roughly 140 breweries in Belgium. This is a very nice density when you consider that Maryland, which is approximately the size of Belgium, has only about two dozen breweries.
Note: When I list beers we drank, I will put the beer name in bold, followed in parentheses by the brewery name and alcohol percentage, if known. All beers were bottled unless otherwise specified. You might notice that the spellings of certain words differ between beers. For example, triple might be spelled tripel or trippel; double might be spelled dubbel; brown might be spelled brune or bruin. The reason is that some beers are made in northern Belgium, where Flemish and Dutch are the common languages; while others are made in southern Belgium, where mostly French is spoken. You might also notice that we had some beers more than once. Oh well, I guess that’s just our bad luck.
Disclaimer: I can give no guarantee that anything written here is true, due to the fact that I was in a drunken stupor almost the entire time.
I flew Icelandair, which I had heard is one of the safest airlines. My wife drove me to BWI airport and helped me with my luggage (75 pounds of homebrews wrapped in old clothing inside two old hard-sided valises that I picked up at a church yard sale). We found a luggage cart, which was very fortunate because we had to walk about 93 miles to the terminal. It was then that I learned why Icelandair is so safe: terrorists die of exhaustion on the way to the gate. We passed several other airlines that had to have been named by drunken CEOs: Aer Lingus, Ransom, Hooters. Yes, Hooters. I can imagine flying on that airline: “Stewardess! Where’s my f---ing drink!?”
After my wife kissed me good-bye and told me not to return without at least five pounds of Belgian chocolate, my carry-on bag and I were given a healthy dose of X-rays before I was allowed to enter the area that is open only to ticketed passengers. This is a very exclusive club consisting only of people who opt to pay hundreds of dollars to spend several hours packed into flying cattle cars.
While on my way to the gate, I ran into my friends Pat and Janet, who were on their way to Ireland for their own vacation of friends and beer. They had been to Belgium so they gave me some tips on good places to go.
Icelandair is not only safe; it has beautiful stewardesses. All the flight attendants on my flight had nice chiseled features, smooth skin and model-caliber bodies. Unless my wife is reading this, in which case they were ugly. Yeah, that’s it – ugly. They could make an onion cry. Really, Honey.
We took off at 9:00 p.m. on May 27. My window seat was placed over a wing, which sort of figures, but with the world situation the way it is, I’m just happy if I get where I’m going in one piece. As usual I was unable to sleep strapped into an upright seat, but I did manage to doze off for a while. We raced around the planet to meet the sunrise just four hours later and landed in Iceland for a layover. It was cold, cloudy and wet, but an hour later I was in the air above the mottled brown and light green landscape on the second and final leg of my flight – over a wing again.
While reading Icelandair’s in-flight magazine Atlantica I learned that Iceland is home to some delicious yet not very well known cuisine. For example, hákarl, which is pickled shark meat, is described as causing “gagging sensations”. Hangikjöt is lamb that’s been smoked over manure. Then there’s svid, which is a sheep’s head; reportedly, the eyeball is the best part. Bon appétit.
Upon collecting my luggage I discovered that one of my valises had busted open from a combination of being jam packed with homebrew, being old and brittle, and getting thrown around by Neanderthal baggage handlers. No casualties, though, as I had wrapped each bottle carefully. However, in my other valise, a bottle of my award-winning Triple had exploded. Thanks again, baggage monkeys. Fortunately, the shirt it was wrapped in absorbed most of the liquid.
I was greeted in Frankfurt by my friends Marty and Michelle and another old friend of ours, Steve, who also lives in Germany and who I had seen only once since 1990. I threw my stuff in the trunk and jumped in the car, and the four of us took off for Belgium. Our precise destination was Brugge (pronounced broozh), which is located in northwest Belgium. It can also be spelled Bruges, Brugs or Brugse, but I will use the Brugge spelling because I like to be difficult.
Marty had packed some warm beers (Belgian, as well as a few homebrews I had previously given him) for our 5½-hour drive to Brugge. We immediately opened a bottle of Orval (Abbey de Notre-Dame d’Orval; 6.2%) with a wooden-handled Orval bottle opener that has the same duckpin shape as the bottle itself. Then we had a large bottle of Blanche de Namur (Brasserie du Bocq). We followed that with a bottle of homebrew that I had brewed with yeast cultured from a bottle of Orval.
We could not stop in Germany for good beer because only German beer is generally available in that country. Yes, I know that German beer is better than American swill, but then again, so is pee. German beer just can’t compare with Belgian, and it is sad that a large percentage of the German people are completely unaware that Belgium makes such great beer – or any beer at all – because they are kept ignorant by German-only beer sales. We are fortunate in the States to have many more selections available, because it enables us to think outside the bocks.
Once we entered Belgium we stopped at a convenience store for munchies, beer and chocolate. They had canned beers for sale. That’s right – several Belgian beers are now available in cans. Judas (Alken-Maes; 8.5%), a blonde ale, had a nice phenolic aroma and flavor. Gordon Finest Gold Blond (10%) had a pretty good, malty, phenolic aroma and flavor. The can said it was brewed in Benelux for N.V. John Martin (Benelux is an acronym for Belgium/Netherlands/Luxembourg).
The three guys got drunk while Michelle drove and we all talked about old times until we arrived in Brugge, meandered our way through the confusing maze of one-way streets, and found the Hotel Botianek around 10 p.m. just as the sun was setting. We checked in and then walked along the cobblestone streets to a place called The Hobbit, which had a nice wood and brick interior. We had all-u-can-eat ribs, which were kind of salty but good. We also got several beers. Leffe Blonde (Abbaye de Leffe), on draught, had a good, slightly sweet, fairly light flavor. Straffe Hendrik Blond (De Halve Maan), also on draught, was good, clean and light. Brugge Tripel (De Gouden Boom; 8.2%) was good, malty, and somewhat estery. Duvel (Moortgat; 8.5%) had a nice, clean, slightly tart aroma and flavor. Westmalle Tripel (Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle; 9.5%) was very good, full-bodied but not thick, malty and estery, with ample hops.
After dinner we went across the street to a bar called ’t Brugs Beertje (’t is Flemish for “the”). My friends Pat and Janet had told me to go there and to ask for Daisy. Well, Daisy happened to be our server, so I said hello and told her that we were interested in visiting some of the local breweries I had read about. According to her, De Brugs Bierkaai is no longer in business and Regenboog is a very small operation that doesn’t take visitors. However, she pointed out where De Gouden Boom (which has a brewery museum) and De Halve Maan were on our tourist map. We ordered some of the 300 beers that this place boasts offering. Brugs Blond (De Gouden Boom; 6%) was good, clean and light. ’t Smisje Tripel (Regenboog; 9%) had a nice estery, malty, sweet, somewhat fruity/phenolic aroma and flavor. Lindemans Kriek (Lindemans; 3.5%) was a great cherry-flavored lambic. Guido (Regenboog; 8%), which has raisins and honey in the recipe, was a nice fruity, slightly tart, light-bodied, sweet beer. We returned to the hotel and crashed after 2 a.m.
Saturday May 29th. Marty walked around town in the early morning while the rest of us slept in until 10:30. Finally, just after noon, the four of us hit the town together. It was very pretty and quaint, and packed with tourists. A Catholic holiday was coming up on Monday, making this a busy holiday weekend. The weather was great: about 70 degrees and partly sunny. We picked up some food and beer (in Belgium it is okay to walk around and drink). Watou Tripel (Sint-Bernardus; 7%) was good, smooth, malty and sweet with mild to moderate esters. Steenbrugge Dubbel Bruin (De Gouden Boom; 6.5%) was a good, semi-roasty brown ale.
We took a boat ride through the canals of Brugge. Ivy and other plants grew on the sides of buildings. There were swans and ducks. Michelle thought it was at least as nice as Venice. The driver gave a tour in several languages. There are 43 bridges in Brugge (some were low enough for us to touch as we passed underneath). They are arched bridges made of brick. There are also 19 Catholic churches. Lots of buildings have false fronts that are taller than the buildings themselves; they look like staircases on each side. Most of the town was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. Commerce from the North Sea, made possible by the canals, made it a thriving city. Eventually the North Sea receded, the canals dried up, and the town was mostly dead until they enlarged the canals 150 years ago in order to bring trade back. We very much enjoyed our tour, and I even got to practice my French with a tourist sitting next to me. If you ever go to Brugge, you simply must take a boat tour.
After disembarking we walked to a beautiful park with an old, gnarly, almost dead catalpa tree with a few artificial supports. Ducks and their ducklings let us walk right up to them. One duck was jumping for food that a tourist held at chest level; I had never seen a duck jump before.
There is a good deal of religious influence in Brugge’s architecture, with church steeples, gargoyles, and the occasional Mary-on-the-half-shell.
We rented bikes, which had one speed and no kickstand, and rode to the De Halve Maan brewpub. The place was packed. We sat outside in the beer garden with a couple from Barcelona and spoke Spanish with them. The pub served only one kind of beer outside: their Spring Brugs Lentebier (7%), on tap. It had medium body and was slightly sweet with some esters – tasty yet refreshing. Inside the bar they had hundreds of different beer bottles on shelves high on the wall, and most of them were full!
After lunch we got a tour of the brewery. Their Blonde (6%) is their flagship beer. They also make a Brune (8.5%). Their beers, which contain maize and coriander, are brewed there but are aged at another brewery outside of town. Only a fraction of their product is shipped to other towns. Spent grain is taken by a farmer who feeds it to his cows. They buy their hops from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Russia.
The tour started on the ground floor where the mash and boil kettles are. We then went up a floor to the mill and the container that hops, maize and coriander are added from. Another floor up is where the malt sacks are stored (they use Dingemans, which comes from a village near Antwerp called Stabroek). We also saw old bottles in old wooden boxes, and a bunch of old equipment such as odd-sized kegs, kettles, tap towers, and a metal bottle tree. They also had a bunch of different bar towels on display. We went up another floor to an old malting room, which was used until just before WWII. Another room had hundreds of different beer glasses and cans. Then we went up another floor and out to the roof. We got a nice view of much of the town. Almost all the roofs are rust-colored. We were led back down the several floors via another route, and we got to see an old wort chiller that had been used from 1937-1965. Another room had old maturing tanks. Young men used to clean them out, and the alcohol fumes could make them pass out from lack of oxygen. They often whistled while they worked so that workers outside the tanks would be alerted if someone fainted. Another room had old wooden kegs, tools, etc. Another room had thousands of different beer coasters and scores of different 5-liter kegs. I took pleasure in the rustic look of the old brick building.
Afterwards everyone in the tour group got a beer. We sat with the Barcelona couple again, and we talked with the tour guide. She said she has been drinking beer since she was four years old. Beer is part of the culture in Belgium (and in much of Europe). Young kids are started out on “table beer” which is about 2% ABV. It’s interesting to note that while drinking is encouraged, the legal BAC level for Belgian drivers is only 0.05%, which is lower than it is in most states. The penalties are different too. In Belgium, driving drunk can get your license suspended or taken away, whereas in Massachusetts the penalty for drunk driving is re-election to the Senate.
We rode our bikes northeast out of Brugge along the Noorweegse canal. Much of it was lined with big beautiful trees. The scenery was picturesque: farmland, pasture, buttercups, old windmills, and old quaint houses with beautiful hedges and gardens. There were also lots of horses, cows and sheep. I hadn’t seen so many farm animals since my last fraternity party.
We stopped in Damme, which is another nice cobblestoned town. There were several cafés with people eating outside. We ate outside at a place called Ter Kloffe. They specialize in crêpes. I got a wonderful chicken/rice curry crêpe. We ordered beers of course. Uilenspiegelbier (Van Steenberge; 8%) was full-bodied, dark, a bit plummy and raisiny, smooth and pretty good. Maerlant Damse Tripel (Van Steenberge; 9%) was pretty good but not very flavorful for a tripel. Belle-Vue Kriek Primeur 2004 (Belle-Vue; 5.1%) was a good cherry-flavored beer (but could not compete with Lindemans). Duchesse De Bourgogne (Verhaeghe; 6.2%) was dark and clear, with a sweet fruity flavor and a nice dab of tartness/horsiness that made it a nice complex beer. It tasted stronger than 6.2%. Ter Kloffe, like many other places, doesn’t bring you the bottle from the beer you order; they pour it into a glass with the brewery/beer name on it. I had to ask the waitress to bring the bottles so I could get the beers’ brewery and ABV information. Just one more way in which I’m an anal-retentive pest.
Next we rode past more great scenery to the town of Hoeke and sat outside at Hotel Welkom. Brugs Blond (De Gouden Boom; 6%) had a good, somewhat sweet flavor. Maredsous 10 Tripel (Moortgat; 10%) was good, sweet and alcoholic with a frothy head. Chimay Tripel (Abbey de Notre-Dame de Scourmont; 8%) had a nice malty, hoppy, estery flavor.
We rode back to Ter Kloffe hoping to get a few more orders of that chicken/rice curry crêpe, but it was well after 9:00 p.m. and they had turned the crêpe maker off. So we headed out and made it back to Brugge a little after 10 p.m. as the sun set.
Leaving our bikes at the hotel, we walked to Café Vlissinghe, which has been there since the year 1515. It has a wood interior, pictures on the walls, a courtyard, and lots of board games. We played chess and scrabble as we drank our beers. Hoegaarden Grand Cru (Hoegaarden; 8.5%) tasted good, estery and sweet, and had good body. It was probably better than good, but I was starting to experience palate fatigue. Tripel Karmeliet (Bosteels; 8%) had a nice fruity, estery, alcoholic flavor and fruity aroma. Palm (Palm; 5.2%) was a light beer. Belle-Vue Framboise (Belle-Vue; 5.7%) was a nice raspberry beer. Once again we went to bed at 2 a.m.
Sunday May 30th. It was raining. Marty and Steve had decided to bike to the North Sea, and they would not let the rain deter them. Michelle and I shopped while they went on their manly journey. Now, before you call me a girly man, I must say in my defense that I do not normally enjoy or even go shopping, but on this particular day I was on a quest for chocolate and beer (the former for my wife, the latter for me). We ducked in and out of shops for about four hours. I bought a fair amount of beer and about ten pounds of dark Belgian chocolate. I was amazed at the number of chocolate shops. Sometimes I’d be at one chocolate shop, and there’d be another one a few doors down and yet another one across the street. I bought chocolate at about ten different shops, spending about $150 in the process. I didn’t find any Godiva, which surprised me until I learned that although Godiva started in Brussels in 1926, it is now owned by Campbell’s (the soup company).
We also window-shopped and bought gifts for various loved ones. We learned that witches are considered good luck in Brugge and much of Europe. Witch dolls – complete with pointed hats and brooms and warts and missing teeth – sell like Barbie dolls sell here. I think this is a good thing, as the women don’t have such a high standard of beauty to compete with. In fact, just about every woman, with the possible exception of Linda Tripp, can be prettier than a witch doll.
At one point we had to use the bathroom, and in the place we went, there is a little room for washing that’s separate from the room for doing your “business”, and the “business” room couldn’t have been more than 3 feet square. I now understand where the term “water closet” comes from. It was like taking a dump in a phone booth.
Restaurants on the main streets were pretty expensive, but as soon as we’d turn a corner onto a smaller street, the number of tourists and the restaurant prices dropped dramatically. It’s as though tourists walk with blinders on.
The weather turned nice later in the day. Michelle and I picked up some food, went back to the hotel room, ate, and napped. When we woke up a few hours later Marty and Steve still weren’t back, so we returned our bikes and walked off the beaten path to a restaurant called In’t Nieuw Museum. It’s a nice cozy place where they cook the meats over an old brick fireplace stove that’s in the dining area. Michelle ordered a Palm, which she had liked the night before. I got Malheur 10 (De Landtsheer; 10%), which was a nice horsey, estery, light-colored beer. The atmosphere was festive, and the waitstaff kept bringing out lots of great food. It was pretty crowded for such an out-of-the-way place, but that might be because it was listed in a tourist book. 1960s music (Beatles, Supremes, Righteous Brothers) played through speakers (a lot of restaurants and bars played American music). We ordered salmon with a very nice garlic/mayonnaise sauce, french fries and salad. (Note that “french” is not capitalized. The verb “french” means to cut into thin strips before cooking. Sources report that french fries were invented in Belgium, not France.) For dessert we had a hot fudge sundae called “dame blanche” with fantastic fudge sauce.
Upon returning to the hotel, we found a note from Marty and Steve saying that they had gone to Café Vlissinghe. On our way there we found a beer store that was still open after 11:00 p.m., so we bought 31 bottles. When we got to Café Vlissinghe it was closed (they close early on Sundays). So we walked back toward the hotel, past the beer store, with a box full of 50 pounds of beer and glass. Knowing that Marty and Steve would probably look for another bar, we decided to check the bars along the way, and sure enough we found them at the first place we looked. They were each on about their 10th beer of the day, which shows how lesser of a man I am than they are. They had ridden for more than seven of the ten hours they were gone. The bar had a beautiful wood interior. We met some Americans from Wyoming and Buffalo, New York. Before we left, the bartender gave us two bottles of beer and several glasses with different brewery logos to take with us. Eventually we made it back to the hotel with 53 bottles of beer and some neat glassware. We got to bed early compared to the previous two nights – 1:00 a.m.
Monday May 31. Memorial Day for us, some big Catholic holiday for the natives. We had breakfast at the hotel, packed and left. We picked up sandwiches at a nice, inexpensive shop called t’ Eekhoetje, which I highly recommend and I hope I spelled it right. Michelle and Steve had to get back home because they were going to work the next day, so Marty and I dropped them at the train station. It was sad to part with them, but now that there were only two of us, we could fit a lot more beer in the car.
We drove past beautiful countryside, farms and quaint brick houses to the De Dolle brewery in a town called Esen. We were in luck because they are normally open only on weekends but they had opened it that day for a tourist group (they will open during the week only for large groups). Furthermore, they were scheduled to close at 1:00 p.m. and we got there at 12:30. We walked around the old, musty place and found old bottles of their product and big wooden casks. There was a brick patio outside. We went to the bar and tried two of their beers (they do make more, but they only had two on tap). Oerbier (7.5%) was brown, fruity, alcoholic, smooth and nice. Arabier (6%) was blonde, hoppy, a little sweet, and good. I told the brewer, Kris Herteleer, that I’m a homebrewer, and I gave him a bottle of homebrew. We asked if we could buy some of the old bottles of beer we had found. Kris’s wife, Else, explained that those bottles are not for sale; they keep six of every year’s vintage of every beer in case anyone becomes sick or allergic and they have to analyze the beer. She said that all the artisan brewers do this.
Kris’s 87-year-old mother, who normally gives tours in English on Sundays at 2:00 p.m., gave Marty and me a private impromptu tour. One of the first things she told us was a humorous saying about the difference between a brewer and a customer: The brewer makes beer from water, and the customer makes water from beer. She explained that Oerbier means “ancient beer”, but oer is also Flemish for “prostitute”. So, as a joke, one of the aging vessels has written on it in Flemish: Here lies a prostitute. One aging vessel exploded a few years ago. They brew on Fridays and Saturdays only. They use only barley in the mash, and their 4-hour mashing schedule goes from 42°-72°C (108°-162°F). The equipment is old and grungy, and I’m glad because it shows that you don’t need new, polished equipment to make great beer. In fact, the “dirt” is often what gives beer its soul. This is why it is possible to make excellent homebrew. Anyway, the Arabier and the Still Nacht are dry hopped. The boiled wort is partially cooled in a big, flat vessel, and then it cascades over a chiller where it’s cooled to 20°C (68°F). They do open fermentation in big square vessels. None of their beers are filtered.
The brewery’s beginnings are interesting. Kris, who is also an architect and a watercolor artist, was a homebrewer in the 1970s. He brought his Oerbier to a competition in Brussels and won 1st place. Subsequently he and his brother Joe bought the brewery. Eventually Joe left to work in Bolivia.
They had four kinds of beer for sale: the two we tried, plus their Easter beer called Bos Keun (which means “rabbit of the woods”) and Dulle Teve (“mad bitch”). Kris originally made the latter beer especially for a group in Antwerp, but it became so popular that he now makes it regularly. We bought all four beers – about two cases total. (We tried Bos Keun and Dulle Teve later in our trip, so you’ll eventually read about them.)
We drove along winding country roads to Abdij St-Sixtus in Westvleteren. This is one of only 6 authentic Trappist breweries left in the world, and all of them are in Belgium. The other Trappist breweries are Abbey Notre-Dame Saint Remy (Rochefort), Abbey de Notre-Dame de Scourmont (Chimay), Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle (Westmalle), Abbey de Notre-Dame d’ Orval (Orval), and Achelse Kluis (Achel).
We walked into the wrong building at first. It was a prayer service room, with a big Christ-on-the-cross on the wall. We went in looking for beer, and instead we found a dead guy nailed to a couple of sticks.
You can’t actually see the St-Sixtus brewery. Instead, there’s a café that serves the beer. There were scores of visitors, including several bicyclists. Scores more were outside in the courtyard. They sell three kinds of beer, and we ordered two of them. Westvleteren 6 (5.8%) was estery, phenolic, hoppy and good, with fairly light body. Westvleteren 8 (8%) was plummy, raisiny, alcoholic, smooth, not at all bitter, and quite nice. It actually got better as I approached the bottom of the glass. The bottles have no labels. The reason, we were told, is that the beer is not sold in stores; it is sold only at the café. However, I have heard that it is sold in some stores and bars in small quantities. Unopened beers are distinguishable only by the different caps.
St-Sixtus is the only brewery where monks actually brew the beer; at all the other Trappist breweries the monks merely supervise. All the Trappist breweries are short on monk labor, for two reasons: 1) they’re getting old (and dying); and 2) very few young people are becoming monks. This is probably why St-Sixtus has limited distribution – the old monks can’t produce enough. The other Trappist breweries would also be unable to meet demand if it weren’t for hired labor.
We bought a 6-pack of each of the three beers, as well as two kinds of cheese. Neither cheese is made at the abbey. The one served at the café is orangish, kind of cheddar-like, and not bad (though not great). The other, which is marinated in their beer and says Abbaye de Belval on the wrapping, smelled like a urine-soaked barn, and didn’t taste much better. Belgium is somewhat known for funky cheeses, but this was ridiculous. We threw it away as soon as possible because it was stinking up the car.
On the road we passed by a brewery called Deca. Unfortunately they are closed Sundays and Mondays, so we ventured onward to the town of Silly. We just had to go because of the name. Actually it’s pronounced see-lee, and it was named after a nearby river called the Sylle. The local brewery called Brasserie de Silly was closed, as were most other places, due to the holiday. We watched a game called “balle pelote” being played in a large parking lot that had lines painted on it specifically for this sport. This was an organized sport, with both teams in uniforms, similar to an American softball league. The game looks like a cross between handball, ping-pong and soccer. Players hit a small ball with a sort of small baseball glove and score points if the other team cannot return it. We went to a nearby bar, sat outside and ordered a couple of Brasserie de Silly beers. Silly Saison, on draught, was disappointingly weak and kind of rank, but I withheld judgment because it was served at a low-class, smoky dive, so the problem could have been dirty beer lines, an old keg, and/or careless pouring. Printemps de Silly (6.5%) was nice, refreshing, somewhat sweet, and slightly estery. The fact that this bottled beer was much better than the draught Saison lent even more suspicion to the bar.
When the game was over, the tiny town cleared out. No players hanging out after the game. We wanted to stay in town so we’d be near the brewery for a visit the next day, but there wasn’t a hotel. We were in Nowhereville. This really was a silly town.
We drove to nearby Enghien and checked into a hotel called La Dodane. Then we walked around. We stopped at a smoky dive. Double Enghien Brune (Brasserie de Silly), on draught, had a semi-sweet aroma and was kind of weak and watery, but once again the questionable establishment that served it kept me from condemning it. Witkap Pater (Slaghmuylder), also on draught, was light in color and body, slightly sweet, with some hops apparent, and crisp, but didn’t have a lot of character. The restroom had urinals and two water closets, one for men and one for women, so women can walk in on men who are peeing. What a great tourist attraction.
For dinner we went to a Chinese restaurant called New China. It was interesting to hear a Chinese waitress speak French. They didn’t have any good beer, so Marty got a Tsingtao. They served excellent food.
Next we drank at our hotel’s bar. Ciney Brune (Alken-Maes; 7%) was good, fruity, sweet and smooth. Kasteel Blonde (Van Honsebrouck; 11%) had a nice alcoholic, estery, somewhat hoppy aroma and flavor. The alcohol dominated. Enghien Noël (Brasserie de Silly; 9%) had a good sweet, mildly estery aroma and flavor with good body. St. Feuillien Blonde (Friart; 7.5%) had a good, sugary sweet aroma and flavor, but it was not very estery and didn’t have much body. We talked with the bartender. He said that Silly beers were not very popular there.
Tuesday June 1st. Showered and dried myself off with a 50-grit towel. Lots of teenagers were walking around outside, I suppose waiting to be bused to school. Many of them were smoking. There was lots of traffic too.
We had breakfast at the hotel. We were the only ones staying there. We talked with the couple that ran it. The woman was from Moscow, so Marty, who speaks five languages, spoke a little Russian with her. I stumbled along with her in French because she didn’t speak English. She grooms dogs as a side business. I gave them a bottle of homebrew before we left.
We drove to Silly and went to the brewery’s office. They had a banner that said Por amour l’art de brasser (“For love of the art of brewing”). We bought seven kinds of their beer (about 42 bottles total) and two glasses. No tours were scheduled for that time, but we walked into the brewery and found a brewer who gave us an impromptu tour. It’s a basic operation. He spoke in French but I gathered that they filter most of their beers. They make nine or ten kinds. We also saw their small museum with some old brewing equipment.
We drove onward and stopped for gas. You think we have it bad here? Gas was $5 a gallon. I paid $103 to fill the tank. Boy, was my ass sore.
Marty and I had visited Brasserie Dupont, which is located in Tourpes, the year before, along with our good friend Mike, whose favorite beer in the world is Saison Dupont. We love several of Dupont’s nine kinds of beer, so we visited again. It was fairly easy to find because Tourpes, like many Belgian towns, has occasional signs pointing the way to the local brewery.
We walked through the old, musty, dirty brewery and met the new brewer, Jerome. I was dying to know what kinds of hops are in Saison Dupont, so I asked. He said Kent Goldings, Styrian Goldings, and Spalt (though he didn’t say which were for bittering and which were for aroma). I gave him a bottle of my home-brewed saison, which was inspired by and tastes a lot like Saison Dupont. The label I put on it has a picture of me and Mike standing in front of Les Caves Dupont, which is a bar across the street. Jerome was so flattered by the gift that he brought us to the tasting room and gave us a cold, 750-ml bottle of Saison Dupont (6.5%). It was earthy, estery, a bit tart, and great.
We didn’t ask for a tour because we had gotten one the year before. If you’re interested, here are the technical notes I picked up on that tour: The mashing schedule starts at 45°C (113°F) and goes up to 72°C (162°F). Then it’s sparged with 75°C (167°F) water. The wort is boiled for 1½ hours, centrifuged, cooled, aerated and fermented. The spent grain is fed to cattle. They use the same yeast for all their beers.
Afterward we went to Les Caves Dupont, which is open every day except Wednesday. They served only a few types of Dupont beers and they didn’t have food. Moinette Blonde (8.5%) was nice, somewhat sweet, a bit tart and earthy, with a little hops apparent. Moinette Brune (8.5%) was sweet, fruity, plummy and smooth with no hops apparent; a good brown ale. The proprietors, Jacques and Nenette, directed us to a restaurant in nearby Leuze called Restaurant la Couronne, so we went, stopping by Dupont’s office first to buy lots of beer and some glasses.
Lunch consisted of salads, french fries, and beers. Chimay Brune (Abbey de Notre-Dame de Scourmont; 7%) was plummy, raisiny, sweet, smooth and good. Vieux Temps (5%) was filtered and not very Belgiany, but for a lawnmower beer it was good: clean and slightly sweet. (The label said it was from Interbrew, which is an importer/exporter, so I don’t know who actually brewed it.)
We drove to nearby Pipaix hoping to find A Vapeur open. Alas, it was Tuesday, and their business hours are Wednesday-Friday 2-7 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. We stopped at a smoky dive in town called Café de la Poste hoping to find A Vapeur beers. They didn’t have any, even though they were only a stone’s throw away from the brewery. However, they did have some beers we had never seen before. Cuvee des Trolls (Dubuisson; 7%) was fairly light, a bit sweet, and just okay. La Dragonne (8.5%) was nice, estery and sweet, with an ever so slightly tart aftertaste (I don’t know who brewed it; all the label said was “Grand Place 25 Mons”).
On the road again, we stumbled upon Dubuisson, but they were closed that day. Marty snapped a few pictures and we were on our way.
Our next stop was Caulier Freres in nearby Péruwelz, which we had visited the year before. Just like on our last visit, the pub was closed but the door was open so we were able to walk around inside. It has a very nice round wooden bar with a copper tap tower. There is an indoor waterfall and a goldfish pond. It is a fairly large place with lots of wooden tables and chairs. All the beers carry the name Bon Secours on the label (Bon Secours is a section of the town). The bottles have Grolsch-type tops. Then, just like the previous year, we went underneath the pub to their warehouse and bought several cases of beer from many different breweries, including a dozen Bon Secours beers in an old wooden box.
Another place we remembered from our previous trip was a nearby bar called La Bastille where there was a nice beer selection and the bartender had a gorgeous 19-year-old daughter. Unfortunately they were closed that day, so we drove onward to our next brewery.
Abbaye des Rocs used to be an abbey farm. It has beautiful grounds with nice flowers. A man named Luc gave us a very good tour. It’s a small operation that makes about 3200 hectoliters a year. Nothing is filtered. They make five year-round beers and one Christmas beer. The brewery is in an old musty building and uses old equipment. Both the bottled and the kegged beer are conditioned in a 26°C (79°F) “warm room”. Their kegs are 5-gallon, with one big valve in the center that looks like a very large ball lock valve. They export 70% of their beer to Italy, Australia, Japan, France, the U.S., and a few other places. The owner, Jean-Claude Maréchal, lives in an adjacent house. He started the brewery in 1979 on a bet with his father-in-law. He used to be the brewer, and he turned the job over to his daughter Nathalie around 1994. She also lives in an adjacent house. We got to meet her and her dogs as we tasted beers. The tasting room is old and brick, and has a round wooden bar. Altitude 6 (6%) was a good light estery beer. Nounnette (7.5%), a blond, is their only beer that does not contain any spices. It was good and clean. Blanche des Honnelles (6%) had a good, sweet, spicy flavor with fairly light body. Abbaye des Rocs (9%), which contains five types of malt, was good, fruity, raisiny and alcoholic. We were also treated to their new beer called Nuyts Blanche (6.8%), which had not yet been released and didn’t even have a label designed for it yet. It’s made with currants. It had a nice fruity aroma and a good fruity, slightly tart flavor with no sweetness. It is possible that Marty and I were the first Americans to try this beer.
After we bought a case of beer, Luc told us of a hotel in Thulin called Auberge le XIXe (“The 19th Inn”) that we would probably like. We got lost on the way, so I had Marty pull over at a gas station so I could run in and ask for directions. You see, unlike most guys, I have no pride. You know how the typical guy would rather drive to Guatemala than admit that he’s lost? Not me. I am the first one to ask total strangers for directional help. Too many men are out there driving around aimlessly because the average guy thinks that if he gives even the vaguest hint that he doesn’t know where he’s going, everyone else will think that his penis is the size of a jalapeño pepper. Anyway, a woman in line drew a map to Thulin for me. When we got to Thulin, I ran into a bar to ask where the hotel was, and a patron came outside with me in the rain to point me in the proper direction. These are just a few examples of how nice the Belgian people are.
Auberge le XIXe (also known as Hotel Dix-Neuvième) was a nice place. We checked in. Then we took pisses, which, after five beers, lasted slightly longer than the Pleistocene Era. We went to the hotel restaurant for dinner. The menu was written in French, but our server, who owns the place with his brother, graciously read the menu in English for us. Marty couldn’t decide which beer to order, so our server decided for him: Leffe Radieuse (Abbaye de Leffe; 8.2%), which neither one of us had ever tried before and had a good fruity aroma and flavor. I ordered Trappistes Rochefort 8 (Abbey Notre-Dame Saint Remy; 9.2%), which was similar to Chimay Brune: dark, plummy, not hoppy, a bit cloying, and fairly good. After the main course our server brought us each a dessert tray with small amounts of five kinds of dessert, all of which were great. The food was so terrific here that when Marty asked, “Wanna find a bar and see what beers they have?”, I answered, “I’d rather eat than drink right now.” Think about that statement. I flew across the globe for Belgian beer, and I was actually forgoing it for food. After the dessert samplers we ordered a dame blanche, which was just as great as the one I’d had at In’t Nieuw Museum; and chocolate mousse, which was heavenly. Our server was absolutely wonderful in terms of attitude, service, and willingness to please. The meal was gourmet. Food prices were reasonable, and room prices were even more reasonable. If you’re ever near south central Belgium, I highly recommend Auberge le XIXe.
In our room Marty turned on the TV, and Abbaye des Rocs was being featured on some kind of tourist show. I’ve never seen a microbrewery featured on American television. Most Americans aren’t concerned with the taste of beer; all that typical American beer drinkers want is an ice cold, carbonated liquid that will go right through them so they can drink more of it, which will enable them to get drunk as they watch sports or try to get laid.
Wednesday June 2nd. Another rainy day. We had breakfast at the hotel and drove to Blaughies to see if we could visit Brasserie de Blaughies. We got there at 10 a.m. but they didn’t open for another hour (they’re open Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.). Rather than wait, we pushed onward. At one point we got lost, so we pulled over to study the map. A policeman pulled up, got out of his car, and offered help. As he stood there getting rained on I thought of how I had never heard of this happening in the States. We headed east through part of northern France and got stuck in congestion in Maubeuge. It was a clusterfuck. Eventually we made it back into Belgium and stopped in Erquellines to find a brewery called Brootcoorens. Unfortunately it’s open only on Saturdays. It’s a very small place that looks more like a homebrew shop than a brewery. A lady tenant upstairs saw us and called the brewer to see if he’d come over and let us in. More bad luck: he had just had back surgery and he was recovering. So we went on to Chimay to look for Abbey de Notre-Dame de Scourmont. Well, the place is actually located 22 kilometers outside of Chimay, and it’s difficult to find. We asked for directions several times, jumped through five hoops and said three Hail Marys before we found it, only to discover that they don’t accept visitors to either the abbey or the brewery. So we drove to Baileux, which, according to our Belgian beer map, had a place called Bieres de Chimay. Well, the tiny town didn’t have a single street sign, nobody was to be seen (probably because of the rain), and everything was closed. Undaunted by the day’s string of bad luck, we pushed on once again, past peaceful greenery and quaint stone houses.
We found a place called Brasserie Des Fagnes, which was a clean, modern brewpub that reminded me of some American brewpubs. We tried all six of their beers that they had on tap. Cuvée Junior (1%), made for kids, was caramelly and sweet. Super des Fagnes Brune (7.5%) had a nice fruity, somewhat sweet aroma and flavor. Bière de la Semaine (4.5%), made with apples, was good and apple-y. Super des Fagnes Blonde (7.5%) was good, light, and slightly sweet. Bière du Brasseur (6.5%) had a good fruity aroma but the flavor was a bit roasty and light. Blanche (5.5%) was light and a bit watery. We had lunch there. They make good flat crisp pizza. They’re open every day except Monday.
The brewery sits at one end of the large dining room. A touch screen gives animated virtual tours. The brewer, Luc, happened to be there, although he was not brewing. We met him and talked to him a bit. He uses German and Yugoslavian hops. The water in that region is soft. The pub opened in 1994, and they served Brasserie du Bocq beers until they had their own brewery installed in 1998. They have an area with old brewing equipment and beer signs, so we perused those. We bought a few bottles of their beer. They also make cheese, so we bought some. It was decent.
Next stop: Falmignoul. This town consisting of stone houses is home to Brasserie Caracole. We walked into the centuries-old, musty, stone-and-brick building to hear Def Leppard playing on a boombox. 1980s music seemed out of place in this building that looked more like a cave than a brewery. They weren’t offering beer samples, nor were they giving tours, but we were able to snoop around a bit and ask some questions. The brewery used to be called Brasserie Moussoux until sometime in the 1700s. All their equipment is more than 100 years old. This is the only brewery that still uses wood fire (they didn’t say whether it was the only one in Belgium or the only one in the world). In July and August they are open every day from 1-7 p.m., and as of September 2004 they are open every Saturday from 2-7 p.m. They make 4 kinds of beer, and of course we bought some of each. It was the best non-tour, non-tasting we ever had.
We stopped in the town of Beaulaing at a bar called Taverne le Beaulieu. Ramée Amber (7.5%) had a light-medium body and a nice fruity, alcoholic flavor that reminded me of a homebrew I once made with a little molasses. Achel (Achelse Kluis; 8%) had a nice raisiny, malty flavor and lots of body. Notice that I didn’t assess the aroma of either beer – the bar was too smoky. With my 20-20 hindsight I realize that I should have stepped out of the bar with each beer for olfactory enjoyment. (“Think outside the bar.”)
Next we drove to Bouillon, which is a charming little town built around a river in a valley surrounded by beautiful mountains and an old stone castle. Pretty stone bridges cross the river. We went to Le Marché de Nathalie, which houses Brasserie de Bouillon (which we had visited the previous year), but they were closed (their hours were Thursday-Saturday 9 a.m. – noon and 2 – 6:30 p.m., and Sundays 10 a.m. – noon and 2:30 – 6:30 p.m.). We checked into a hotel and then climbed stairs and a steep hill to the top of the town and looked out across the valley. Then we descended and had dinner at a sandwich shop called the Tea Room that sold sandwiches for only €2.25 each (€ is the symbol for euro). Tourtel Blonde (Alken-Maes; 0.4%) turned out to be non-alcoholic swill. Godefroy Rousse (Brasserie de Bouillon; 6%) was a pretty good, somewhat sweet, medium-bodied beer.
After dinner we went to our hotel room and drank warm beer while watching American TV shows with French dubbing or subtitles. The first two bottles were Abbey Notre-Dame Saint Remy beers that we had bought at Caulier Freres and that did not have labels for some reason. The one with a red cap was an okay beer with light color and not much flavor. The one with a green cap was dark, plummy, fruity, a bit too sweet, and fairly good (this was probably Trappistes Rochefort 8; 9.2%). Grimbergen Optimo Bruno (Alken-Maes; 10%) had a nice alcoholic, fruity, plummy aroma and a nice fruity, alcoholic, slightly plummy flavor. We also had a Saison Dupont. Then Marty went out to see The Day After Tomorrow while I stayed in the room and wrote. The tap water tasted good here; it was crappy everywhere else.
Thursday June 3. Left our room a little after 10 a.m. We hadn’t given our name or anything at the front desk, so we could’ve skipped out. Such is the honest, trusting nature of this place. We had breakfast at the hotel, paid and left.
We walked to Le Marché de Nathalie to visit Brasserie de Bouillon. We were in luck: brewer Jacques Poogin was brewing that morning. He had recently taken a two-week class at Abbey de Notre-Dame d’Orval, which makes one of our favorite beers, so naturally I pumped him for information.
Orval uses two kinds of yeast. The primary fermentation strain is nothing out of the ordinary for Belgian yeast (this is the strain that Jacques uses in all of his beers). The secondary strain, which is of the Brettanomyces genus, is what gives Orval its signature tart, earthy flavor. Both of these yeasts exist in the finished product, so you can culture it and make your own Orval clone without having to buy any special yeast. (I found this out by trial and error last brewing season: I cultured some Orval slurry and brewed two batches with it. I bought and added Brettanomyces bruxellensis to one of them, and they turned out identical.) The grist contains about 13% 50-EBC crystal. It is step mashed at 62°C (144°F), then 71°C (160°F), and finally 78°C (172°F) for mashout (yes, I know the alpha temperature seems kind of high; I’m just reporting what I was told). Pellet hops are used for bittering, and whole hops are used for dry hopping. He said that Orval plans to use only Styrian Goldings in the future. OG is 13.75 Plato (1.055). Fermentation starts at 15°C (59°F) and is not allowed to rise any higher than 24°C (75°F). So go ahead, homebrewers – make your own Orval clone!
The boiling wort made the place smell great. I gave Jacques a couple of bottles of homebrew. Then he gave us a few bottles of his two newest beers (a white and an amber). He also showed us the 4th Chimay. (For those of you who don’t know, there are three commercial Chimay beers: Brune [red label], Tripel [white label], and Grande Reserve [blue label].) There is a Chimay beer that’s made especially for the monks. The bottle has a black label, which raises the question: why even have labels when the beer isn’t for sale? Jacques could not give me a bottle because he had only one, but he said that I’m not missing anything because it’s somewhat watery. According to him, Orval also has a monks-only beer.
Among the many beers from other breweries for sale in the store was Celis White, and I commented on how I was surprised to see an American beer for sale in Belgium. Jacques corrected me on this. While there is an American-brewed Celis White, there is also one brewed in Belgium (at a brewery called Van Steenberge), and this is the one sold at Jacques’ store. The label has a picture of a cowboy on a horse, which of course is meant to impress Belgians with the American look and feel. As for the American version of Celis White, it was brewed several years ago in Texas until owner Pierre Celis, a Belgian who lives in the U.S. but spends his summers in Belgium, sold the Celis brewery to Miller Brewing (which is kind of like selling Ruth’s Chris Steak House to McDonalds). Now Miller brews Celis White in Chicago.
After buying several cases of beer, we walked around the old castle and looked out over the lush green valley. Bouillon is a nice town, and I recommend it even if you don’t like beer.
As we headed to the southeast corner of Belgium, we opened up a warm bottle of St. Benoit Brune (Brasserie du Bocq; 6.5%). It had a nice plummy, fruity aroma and a nice fruity, plummy flavor balanced with either hops or roasted malt. (This shows how fatigued my palate was getting – I couldn’t tell the difference between hops and malt!) We arrived in Etalle and had lunch at a great little restaurant called La Chrysalide, which is located at Hotel de la Semois. We had eaten there on our previous year’s trip and gotten the best seafood salads of our lives. We ordered the same thing, and we weren’t disappointed. We also ordered a bottle of Orval. We could tell that it had the tart, earthy flavor it was supposed to have, but our palates were so beered out that we just couldn’t enjoy it very much. If you’ve ever bought Orval in the States, you know how expensive it is. Well, in southeastern Belgium it’s a local beer, so it wasn’t expensive at all. In fact, we paid more for a bottle of water than we did for Orval.
A short drive later we were in Rulles at the first Belgian brewery we had ever visited: Artisanale de Rulles. It was the first stop on our previous year’s excursion, and although there were only two of us this time (Mike was slaving away at his job and hatin’ life), brewer Gregory Verhelst and his assistant Olivier remembered us. I gave them a couple of bottles of homebrew that I had made with yeast cultured from a bottle of their Tripel. The four of us went into the small tasting house across the street from the brewery, where Gregory put the homebrews in the fridge and opened a new beer he had brewed to celebrate the brewery’s 4th anniversary: Cuvée du 4ème Anniversaire (5.2%). It was a nice light, refreshing, hoppy, estery beer. We had obtained our Belgian beer maps here the previous year, so we picked up a few more. Gregory said that he was going to start exporting his beers to 40 U.S. states by fall 2004. The first would be his Tripel (which is my favorite Rulles beer).
Every year they have an anniversary celebration party on the first Saturday in June. It was two days prior, and the tent was delivered. Marty and I helped unload the hardware. The truck driver said it would take about two hours to assemble, and I figured this would be enough time for Marty and me to go to Orval and then come back. So that’s what we did.
The beautiful tree-lined roads and great weather made for a pleasant half-hour drive from Rulles to Orval. The monastery is like a big stone castle, except it’s not very tall. Visitors were arriving by the busload. We bought 48 bottles of beer and several kilos of cheese. They make two kinds of cheese, called simply “new” and “old”. The “old” cheese is harder and tastier than the new, but they’re both fantastic. We sat outside the monastery drinking the beer and eating the cheese, still unable to get the full effect of the beer but thoroughly enjoying the cheese. The tall grassy field had some dark-colored animals that looked like either sheep or goats.
When we got back to Rulles they were still setting up the tent. We helped them finish, then we all went back to the tasting house. We drank the homebrew, which was thicker and sweeter than their Tripel because I didn’t find out the original gravity last time so I overshot it. This time Gregory told me: it’s 18.25 Plato (1.073). He uses Styrian Golding and Hallertau hops. Orval yeast is used in all his beers, and he gets a fresh culture every six months (I assume it’s the same yeast used at Brasserie de Bouillon, but then again, maybe Orval has a yeast bank with strains that aren’t in its beer). Anyway, the labels I put on the homebrew bottles were made from pictures of our last trip there. One showed the outside of the brewery; and the other showed Marty, Mike and me drinking inside the tasting house. Gregory loved them, and he put them up on the tasting house mantle for display. As far as I know they’re still there.
Remember the smelly cheese we got in Westvleteren? Well, the Rulles guys got several wheels of another kind of cheese for their upcoming 4th anniversary celebration, and that stuff stunk! How a group of people that drinks such great beer can enjoy such fetid cheese is beyond me.
Gregory has lived in the same building that houses the brewery since 1997. The brewery started in 2000, and by using the mathematical powers I gained in public school I can deduce that he lived there for three years before opening the brewery. What a lucky guy: he gets to run a brewery basically from his house, whereas if I want to open a brewery I’ll have to buy or rent commercial space, which makes it prohibitively expensive. Thanks a lot, Uncle Sam.
We bought a few cases of Rulles beer, said good-bye, and drove to Athus, which is located on the southeastern tip of Belgium where it meets Luxembourg and France. This little town has a brewpub called Les 3 Brasseurs, which doesn’t open until 4 p.m. (we found this out the hard way the previous year when we arrived there at lunchtime).
As you walk in there is half of a large copper kettle on each side of you, the cut sides against the walls and the outer edges facing you. There are also several old wooden barrels. A sign, written in French, in front of the brewing equipment said that they make 800 liters per batch. We each got a beer sampler that had the four house brews. Blonde had light body, slightly sweet flavor, and slightly noticeable hops. It was good for a light beer. Blanche was even lighter than the Blonde, and didn’t have much flavor. Amber was a good, clean, semi-malty beer. Scotch was a tiny bit caramelly, roasty, and not very good. We ate very good, flat, crunchy pizza. For dessert we had a nice dame blanche, although it was difficult to enjoy it through all the cigarette smoke. We bought several bottles of their beer and hit the road.
It was about 9 p.m. and we had a 4½-hour ride ahead of us. That’s a long time to go without beer, so at midnight we opened a warm bottle of Brigand (Van Honsebrouck; 9%), which had a good malty, sweet aroma and a pretty good malty, alcoholic flavor. We arrived at Marty and Michelle’s home in Stuttgart at 1:30 a.m., unloaded about ten cases of Belgian beer and all our other stuff, and went to bed after 2 a.m.
Friday June 4th. I woke up at 10:15 just as Marty was returning from the gym. How he could get up early and work out after a week of traveling and drinking and staying up late is beyond me. Maybe it’s because he’s younger than I am: I’m 42, and he’s only 41½.
I spent the rest of the morning writing while Marty loaded the 600 digital pictures he had taken in Belgium into his computer and sorted them into directories (“Ben Drinking”, “Marty Drinking”, “Ben and Marty Drinking”, etc). I did not get out of bed except to pinch a loaf until after noon.
We spent the afternoon unpacking and sorting beers. We had 173 different kinds of Belgian beer, which was quite possibly the largest selection anywhere in Germany. We put one bottle of each on the dining room table and took pictures, drinking a bottle of Orval in celebration.
That night we partied at the home of Marty and Michelle’s friends Ray and Pam and tried several of our Belgian booty. Arabier (De Dolle; 6%) was good, spicy and hoppy. Nostradamus (Caracole; 9.5%) had a good, malty, sweet aroma and flavor. Vapeur Cochonne (A Vapeur; 9%) was tart, fruity, and just okay. We snuck in a French beer called Telenn Du (Brasserie Lancelot; 4.5%) that Marty had picked up in Normandy on another trip. It was a pretty good beer with a slightly roasty flavor and medium body. We also tried all seven of our Brasserie de Silly beers. Super 64 (5.2%) was light, a little sweet, and just okay. Silly Saison (5%) was somewhat sweet and pretty good (certainly better than the mishandled draught version that was inflicted on us at that Silly dive). Double Enghien Blonde (7.5%) was good, light, semi-sweet, and smooth. Scotch Silly (8%) was pretty good: malty and sweet, yet not heavy. La Divine (9.5%) was also pretty good: smooth and somewhat sweet with fairly light body. Titje (5%), a witbier, wasn’t bad but it was light in flavor and kind of thin. Printemps de Silly (6.5%), one of the few unfiltered Silly beers, was a nice semi-sweet, slightly estery beer with light-medium body. We finished up with Saison Dupont. Most of the other people there were pounding German beers in addition to the Belgian beers we were tasting, which shows what a wimp I am. We got to bed at 1:30 a.m.
Saturday June 5th. Went to the gym with Marty. Lifted weights and played basketball after more than a solid week of drinking and no exercise. During our basketball game my lungs were burning and Marty was taking frequent rests by collapsing prostrate on the floor. What exemplary physical specimens we are; we ought to donate our bodies to science fiction. We came back to the house and rested our weary bones. Just as well – it was too rainy and cool for outdoor fun. Later in the day we visited some more of Marty and Michelle’s friends and tasted more beer. La Vieille Bon Secours Blonde (Caulier Freres; 7.5%) had a great estery, sweet, slightly horsey flavor and aroma with nice body. Vondel (Riva; 8.5%) was a brown ale with a nice malty aroma; a good malty, fruity, alcoholic flavor; and a nice velvety mouthfeel. Hoegaarden Grand Cru (Hoegaarden; 8.5%) had a nice estery, sweet, slightly horsey aroma and flavor. Hercule Stout (Ellezelloise; 8.4%) had a good somewhat fruity aroma; a good fruity, slightly roasty flavor; and nice medium body. Forbidden Fruit (Hoegaarden; 8.8%) had good fruity aroma and flavor and nice mouthfeel. We also tried three French beers from Brasserie Lancelot. Blanche Hermine (4%) had a pretty good witbier-like flavor and aroma but was a bit thin. Duchess Anne (6.5%) had a good sweet, estery aroma and a nice estery, somewhat sweet flavor. Lancelot (6%) was like a witbier but could use a bit more flavor. We returned to the house and had dinner. Artevelde (Huyghe; 5.7%) was an okay, fairly light beer with some malt, like an oktoberfest.
Sunday June 6th. Marty and I had a Ben Brew, then went with Michelle on a day trip. We drove past beautiful countryside and gorgeous evergreens, and through part of the Black Forest. We walked around a little town called Altensteig. Lots of motorcycles were on the road, some with sidecars. We visited Altes Schloss Hohenbaden, an old castle located in Baden-Baden that was built in the 12th century. It’s one of many old castle remains that are sprinkled throughout Europe. We ate lunch at the restaurant that’s built into it. As usual in German restaurants, the only beer offered was German. We got Ulmer Weissbier, a dunkelweizen with a good aroma and a marginal roasty flavor. After lunch we walked through the castle remains. It was fairly large. We climbed steps, walked through dark rooms, and went to the top where we got some great scenic views. The weather was nice too. My only regret was that we had neglected to bring Belgian beer with us. A lot of work went into that castle: cutting, carrying and placing stones. Of course, this was in the days before government bureaucracy.
We came back to the house late in the afternoon, and then some people came over for socializing and beer. Celis White (Van Steenberge; 5%) had a great estery, slightly tart aroma; but its tart, estery flavor was merely okay. Rulles Triple (Artisanale de Rulles; 8.4%) had a nice estery, somewhat horsey aroma and flavor. After a homebrew we had Petrus Old Dark (Bavik; 5.5%), which had a pretty good fruity aroma and tart, fruity flavor. St. Bernardus Prior 8 (Sint-Bernardus; 8%) was brown, a bit roasty, with light-medium body, and not very good. Abbaye des Rocs (Abbaye des Rocs; 9%) had a pretty good malty, sweet aroma and flavor. Maredsous Brune 8 (Moortgat; 8%) had a somewhat malty, slightly roasty aroma; a slightly roasty flavor; and fairly light body. I didn’t like it. Dulle Teve [Mad Bitch] (De Dolle; 10%) had a nice spicy aroma and a nice spicy, estery, sweet, alcoholic flavor. Westvleteren 12 (Abdij St-Sixtus; 10.2%) had a good malty, plummy aroma; a nice malty, fruity, plummy, alcoholic flavor; and substantial body. Golden Dragon (Van Steenberge; 10.5%) had a good malty aroma and a good malty, somewhat estery flavor with fairly thick body. It could use more hops or esters. Cistercienne (La Binchoise; 6.5%) had a nice estery, fruity aroma and a good estery flavor. It was like a witbier but a little on the thin side. Saison Dupont (Brasserie Dupont; 6.5%), as usual, had a nice mixture of esters, tartness and hops. Saison Dupont Biologique (Brasserie Dupont; 5.5%), an organic version of Saison Dupont, had basically the same flavor and aroma but was thinner so it was a bit watery. It was a good lawnmower beer. Bons Voeux (Brasserie Dupont; 9.5%) had a good estery aroma and a very good estery, hoppy, slightly alcoholic, slightly tart flavor. It was like a strong version of Saison Dupont. Lindemans Framboise (Lindemans; 2.5%) was a great raspberry-flavored lambic.
After the guests left we watched Saving Private Ryan in honor of D-Day. We also had a French beer called Cervoise Guédelon (Brasserie du Chant; 6%). It was tart, fairly light in body, highly carbonated, and not very good. Figures. We lose thousands of soldiers saving the French, and this is how they repay us.
Monday June 7th. A gorgeous, sunny, dry, 70-degree day. Marty went to the gym and let me sleep. I took a walk with Frosty, a spitz that Marty and Michelle were dog-sitting. The neighborhood had beautiful trees, bushes and flowers. It reminded me of California. Packed my remaining valise (the one that didn’t explode) with Belgian beer wrapped in old clothes. Then took another walk with Frosty and spent a lazy afternoon enjoying the weather. It was nice to finally have some “me” time. I was on vacation, after all.
We had a few beers before going out to dinner. Zulte (Alken-Maes; 4.7%) had a nice estery, slightly tart aroma, and a pretty good somewhat tart flavor. Saison Regal (Brasserie du Bocq; 5.5%) had a good fruity, plummy aroma and a good plummy, slightly bitter flavor. We met some of Marty and Michelle’s friends for dinner at a great restaurant called Sommerhof. It’s located in a town called Sindelfingen, which I think is an odd name even by German standards. It sounds like a kind of Swedish pastry. Anyway, we sat outside on a nice awning-covered patio. I got a dish that had both crocodile and emu. I also got to sample the dinners of other people who couldn’t finish theirs. Okay, so I’m a pig.
After dinner we returned to the house and sampled some more beer. Dentergems Wit Bier (Riva; 5%) had a nice estery aroma, light color and body, and a somewhat estery, somewhat tart flavor that wasn’t bad but I would prefer more body and esters. We compared Chimay Brune (Abbey de Notre-Dame de Scourmont; 7%) with my homebrewed Chimay clone, which I brewed with yeast that I cultured from a bottle of Chimay Brune. The Chimay had a good malty, sweet aroma and a pretty good somewhat malty flavor with ample body. My clone had a nice estery, somewhat tart aroma and flavor with nice slightly-above-medium body. I liked it better than Chimay. We also put Moinette Blonde (Brasserie Dupont; 8.5%) and Moinette Biologique (Brasserie Dupont; 7.5%) to a side-by-side test. The former had a good estery, sweet aroma and a nice estery, semi-sweet flavor with some bitterness. The latter, which is an organic version of the former, had a good estery aroma and a fairly good estery, slightly tart flavor. Its aroma and flavor were both less sweet than those of the former, and I liked the former better.
Tuesday June 8th. Another gorgeous day. Somehow I woke up at 7 a.m. Went to the gym with Marty and lifted weights, ran sprints, played basketball, and took a nice hot sauna. Bought an old suitcase at a thrift shop to replace the one that died on the flight. Also bought bubble wrap and packing tape. Went to Marty’s daughter’s school to hear her class read stories they had written. You see, I’m not just a beer-drinking Neanderthal. I get involved in community activities. I give a shit.
Upon returning home we carbo-loaded. Blanche de Hainaut Biologique (Brasserie Dupont; 5.5%), a witbier, had a nice estery, spicy aroma; a good estery, spicy flavor; and light body. It was nice on this very warm day. Passendale Blond Amberbier (Moortgat; 6%) was rather bland and unremarkable. So unremarkable, in fact, that I had to remark on it. Maredsous 6 (Moortgat; 6%) had a pretty good somewhat sweet aroma and a decent slightly sweet flavor with fairly light body. St. Paul’s Triple (Sterkens; 7.6%) had very little character for a triple. It was also filtered. It was in a green bottle with Chinese writing on the side. They probably export this beer to China, which would explain the green bottle, the filtration, and the lack of flavor. Bos Keun (De Dolle; 7%) had a nice estery aroma and a nice estery, spicy flavor with great body and mouthfeel. This was one of my favorite beers of the trip.
The five of us (Marty, Michelle, their daughters and I) met a bunch of people in Vaihingen for dinner and a movie. We ate at a Chinese restaurant called Orchidee. We had Malteser Weissbier, which was a good hefeweizen. Then all thirteen of us went to see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The place was packed, and this shows that Europeans like more than just our music. The movie was good but I didn’t like it as much as the first two. I think it’s time to stop making Harry Potter movies. Those kids are shaving, for chrissake, and yet Hollywood keeps pumping these movies out. One day they’re gonna make Harry Potter and the Enlarged Prostate.
After the movie we had ice cream. I got something that had booze in it, thereby combining the artery-clogging properties of ice cream with the liver-destroying properties of alcohol. Mmmmmmm.
We came home for a nightcap. Delirium Tremens (Huyghe; 9%) had a nice estery, somewhat sweet, slightly tart aroma and flavor. We threw in a Saison Dupont for good measure. Artevelde Grand Cru (Huyghe; 7.3%) had a good caramelly, fruity, alcoholic aroma; and a fairly good, somewhat malty, slightly roasty, slightly tart flavor. Trappistes Rochefort 10 (Abbaye St-Remy; 11.3%) was a dark beer with a good malty, sweet aroma; and a malty, caramelly flavor that was pretty good but not estery enough for me. Postel Tripel (Affligem; 8.5%) had a good somewhat estery, somewhat sweet aroma; a big head; and a pretty good estery, somewhat sweet flavor. Val-Dieu Triple (Abbaye du Val-Dieu; 9%) had a fairly good estery, earthy aroma; a pretty good earthy, estery, somewhat alcoholic flavor; and fairly light body. That was enough to send us happily to sleep at midnight.
Wednesday June 9th. Still great weather. Marty and I did a 5K volksmarch with his daughters’ school. It was sunny and fairly hot but not humid. Then we lifted weights, and I was feeling sore. Middle age is like underwear – it creeps up on you. We went back to the house and took a bike ride. Despite being tired I enjoyed sweating in the heat as we rode by pretty fields and forests. After the ride we replenished our fluids. St. Bernardus Pater 6 (Sint-Bernardus; 6.7%) had a pretty good malty, sweet, slightly caramelly flavor and aroma. Cervoise (Brasserie Lancelot; 6%), a French beer, had a pretty good clean aroma and flavor. Then we went to an award ceremony for the kids at the school, because we’re such upright citizens (except when we’re passed out).
Back at the house I packed my thrift store suitcase with Belgian beer wrapped in bubble wrap. I was able to fit considerably more beer in this one than in the one that bit the dust. Then I took a much-needed shower and nap.
That night we went to visit Marty and Michelle’s friends Tom and Marga for dinner. They weren’t home when we got there, so we burgled our way in, put our beer in the fridge, and drank on the patio. We started with a French beer so that things could only improve. Bonnets Rouges (Brasserie Lancelot; 5.5%) had a good plummy, fruity aroma; but the fruity, slightly tart flavor was marginal. Saison de Mai (Saint Monon; 8.3%) didn’t have much aroma but it had a nice nutty, somewhat estery flavor and nice body. Affligem Tripel (Affligem; 8.5%) had a slight aroma and a good smooth flavor. A good crossover beer (i.e., a craft brew that can help convert swill drinkers to good stuff because it doesn’t hit them with too much flavor). Eventually our hosts showed up, and we had a great outdoor dinner with excellent food, fabulous weather, and stimulating conversation. And let’s not forget the beer, which flowed like a river of ... of ... beer. Ename Tripel (Roman; 8.5%) had a good sweet aroma and flavor. St. Maurice (Brasserie de Bouillon; 6.5%) wasn’t very flavorful. Quintine (Ellezelloise; 8.5%) had a good estery aroma and a good estery, somewhat sweet flavor. Souvenirs du Terroir Tripel (De Landtsheer; 9%) had a nice estery aroma and a nice estery, somewhat alcoholic flavor. It edged out Saison de Mai for best beer of the evening. Cuvée Ermesinde (Saint Monon; 8%) had a pretty good estery, somewhat sweet aroma and flavor.
We took a break from the beers with some Spanish wine. Paternina Crianza 1999, from Rioja, Spain, was fairly good. Then we had some Del Pino Oloroso, which our hosts had in a wooden cask in their kitchen because Marga’s parents own the Del Pino winery. It had a light amber color; a nice aroma reminiscent of amaretto and honey; and a semi-sweet, alcoholic flavor. The ABV is 18% because grain alcohol is added after fermentation.
Okay, enough wining. We had a few beers to finish. St. Idesbald Triple (Huyghe; 9%) had a good sweet, somewhat estery aroma and flavor. Triple Moine (Brasserie du Bocq; 7.3%) had a good estery, fruity, but not strong aroma and flavor with light body. The temperature of the fresh night air remained absolutely perfect until our midnight departure.
Thursday June 10th. Marty and I got professional massages at the gym and lifted weights. Then I jogged and saunaed. We came home and walked down to a nearby stream with his daughters and a friend of one of his daughters. It was nice being in a natural setting with trees and tall grass. The only downside was the lack of beer.
That night a bunch of Marty and Michelle’s friends came over for a final blowout before I left the next day. As part of the festivities we held a grand Belgian beer tasting. Floreffe Brune (Levebvre; 8%) had a somewhat sweet, somewhat malty, somewhat fruity aroma and flavor. I enjoyed it only mildly but some other people liked it a lot. Such is the diversity of people’s tastes. And the large variety of Belgian beer flavors means that there is bound to be something for everyone. Julius (Hoegaarden; 8.8%) was light in color and had a good semi-estery aroma and flavor with a bit of hops in the finish. Montagnarde (Abbaye des Rocs; 9%) had a good sweet, malty aroma and flavor but could use more esters or hops for balance. Saxo (Caracole; 8%) had a light color, not much aroma, and a good estery, slightly tart flavor. La Binchoise Blonde (La Binchoise; 6.5%) had light color, aroma and flavor. La Binchoise Brune (La Binchoise; 8.2%) had a decent, somewhat malty, slightly roasty aroma and flavor. Sainte Hélène Blonde (Sainte Hélène; 6.5%) had light color and flavor. Moeder Overste (Levebvre; 8%) had some aroma and a good estery, somewhat sweet, ever so slightly roasty flavor. Rulles Blonde (Artisanale de Rulles; 7%) had a pretty good, somewhat light, somewhat estery, somewhat sweet aroma and flavor. La Gauloise Blonde (Brasserie du Bocq; 6.3%) wasn’t bad but it was light in flavor and aroma. Augustijn Grand Cru (Van Steenberge; 9%) had a pretty good fruity, tart aroma and flavor. We then had five of my homebrews, which people liked as much as the Belgian beers. Spring Brugs Lentebier (De Halve Maan; 7%) had a good, somewhat sweet, somewhat estery aroma and flavor. Hotteuse Grand Cru (8%) had a pretty good estery, somewhat sweet aroma and flavor. Affligem Dubbel (Affligem; 6.8%) was an okay beer with light body and a slightly roasty aroma and flavor. St. Bernardus Abt 12 (Sint-Bernardus; 10%) had a pretty good sweet aroma and flavor with a fairly thick body. Grisette Blonde (Friart; 4.5%) was clean and light. St. Sebastiaan Dark (Sterkens; 6.9%) had an okay, somewhat malty, slightly roasty flavor. St. Benoit Brune (Brasserie du Bocq; 6.5%) had a pretty good fruity, slightly caramelly/roasty aroma and flavor (a comparison with my tasting notes for the same beer several paragraphs ago will show how having many beers in a row changes the palate). La Guillotine (Huyghe; 9%) had a nice estery, somewhat sweet aroma and flavor. Rochefortoise Brune (Rochefortoise; 10%) had a good malty, sweet, fruity aroma; and a pretty good malty, sweet, fruity flavor. Saint-Monon Brune (Saint Monon; 7.5%) had a fairly good somewhat malty aroma and flavor. Caracole (Caracole; 8%) had a nice estery, somewhat sweet aroma and flavor. Bon Secours Framboise (Caulier; 7%) had a pretty good fruity, tart aroma and flavor. Bon Secours Myrtille (Caulier Freres; 7%), made with blueberries, was very similar to Bon Secours Framboise. St. Arnoldus Triple (Riva; 7.5%) had a pretty good sweet aroma and flavor. Floreffe Double (Lefebvre; 6.3%), a dark beer, had a pretty good malty, slightly caramelly aroma and flavor. Blanche de Bruxelles (Levebvre; 4.5%), a witbier, was light in body but had a pretty good aroma and flavor. A good lawnmower beer. La Gauloise Ambrée (Du Bocq; 5.5%) had fairly light body and a fairly good slightly tart aroma and flavor. Bon Secours Blonde (Caulier; 7%) had a very good estery, earthy, somewhat sweet aroma and flavor (I suppose it’s the same beer as the La Vieille Bon Secours Blonde I described earlier; they just had different labels). Steendonk Brabants Witbier (Moortgat; 4.8%) had a good “witty” aroma and a fairly good “witty” flavor but it was light and thin. Satan Red (De Block; 8%) was a pretty good light beer with some malt and hops. Bornem Trippel (Van Steenberge; 9%) had a pretty good sweet, estery, tart aroma and flavor. It was light in color and seemed to be filtered. La Spéciale Fêtes (Bouillon; 8.5%) didn’t have much character. Val-Dieu Triple (Abbaye de Val-Dieu; 9%) had a good estery, sweet aroma and flavor, and light color. La Marquise Pont d’Oye (Sainte Hélène; 6%) was an okay beer with somewhat dark color and a slightly roasty flavor. Grottenbier (Sint-Bernardus; 6.5%) was dark and had a pretty good sweet, slightly caramelly aroma and flavor. Mort Subite Framboise (De Keersmaeker; 4.5%) was a nice raspberry-flavored, somewhat tart lambic. Liefmans Gluhkriek (Liefmans; 6%), a “Belgian hot cherry beer flavored with spices”, had a nice cherry, horsey aroma and flavor and fairly low carbonation. Floris Fraises (Huyghe; 3%) had a good fruity aroma and flavor. It was similar to a wine cooler. Affligem Blond (Affligem; 6.8%) was an okay, light beer with some esters. We finished this beerfest with Lindemans Kriek (Lindemans; 3.5%), a great cherry-flavored lambic.
I went to bed around 1:00 a.m. At least that’s when I think I went to bed. I can’t be sure because I was sloshed.
The evening’s tasting brought my two-week beer sampling total to 157 different Belgian brews, 7 different French brews, 2 different German brews, and 8 different homebrews. Plus there were about 10 repeats.
Friday June 11. The dreaded final packing, signifying the end of a great trip. My suitcases were loaded with more than two cases of beer. I had 10 pounds of chocolate and 11 pounds of cheese to bring as carry-on. The airline tells us to limit carry-ons to 6 kilos (13.2 pounds), but no one does. Still, 21 pounds of food in addition to more than a dozen pounds of clothing and souvenir glasses wouldn’t cut it, so I stuffed most of the cheese into my jacket pockets.
Marty and I made the two-hour drive to Frankfurt airport. Walking to the terminal with all that cheese in my jacket made me feel like a terrorist strapped with explosives. Icelandair allows two checked bags totaling 64 kilos (140.8 pounds), and mine totaled 57.5 kilos (126.5 pounds). Do you know what that means? It means that I could have packed another half a case of beer! What the hell was I thinking?
Both legs of my flight went by quickly because I was busy writing. And reading. And having naughty fantasies about the gorgeous young Scandinavian woman who sat next to me on the second leg. (Honey, if you’re reading this, change that last sentence to: I sat next to a homely nun.)
When I got my luggage, I found that my other yard sale valise had broken. No beer deaths associated with it. However, there were two fatalities in the thrift store briefcase because it was soft-sided. Well, that’s an acceptable casualty rate: less than 5%.
Interestingly, I had no problem with customs. X-rays showed the large number of bottles of spirits, and I did not have to leave any of them behind or pay any duties or taxes.
My wife greeted me at the airport. We loaded my bags full of fat, sugar and alcohol into the minivan and went home. She was ecstatic about the quantity and quality of chocolate I brought her, and she loved the Orval cheese. So we spent a nice evening eating chocolate and cutting the cheese.
Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Below are some random observations that I couldn’t fit into the report. You might want to read them if you’re still awake.
In case you’re interested, here is a list of my 20 favorite Belgian beers (so far). They’re not necessarily in exact order. My palate changes with my moods, so sometimes I’ll prefer one beer and other times I’ll prefer another.
My 5 favorite breweries (so far), in order: