In Bruges

YiB-12Thursday was the one day that Chris and I had to explore Bruges. We love the movie In Bruges and we wanted to look for the locations of some of our favorite scenes. But first, we went on a tour of the only brewery left in Bruges, Halve Maan. The tour guide accommodated the decent sized group of English speakers, the large group of Dutch speakers, and the two French speakers all during the same tour. Chris and I weren’t sure if it was her command of English or her delivery, but the guide had a hugely dry sense of humor. I’m not sure we saw her crack a smile, even when telling her funniest jokes.

One of the best parts of the tour was when she explained the use of hops in the brewing process. She explained that hops is related to marijuana and that is why it gives us the ‘kick’ in beer. Each time she said ‘kick’, she did this gesture with her hands indicating brightened eyes. Again, a dry delivery, but very funny.

Next we stopped for some lunch at a place called Dickie’s. Dickie is the dachshund after whom the place is named and the primary reason we went there. They also have a great beer selection.

Children here, as in many parts of Europe, come home from school for lunch. When we arrived, the family was having lunch with their daughter and Dickie greeted us with a hugely deep bark. We couldn’t see him, but the deep bark told us that he was a standard wiener. Chris moved in for a closer look at Dickie, but was politely told to stand back because otherwise he will never stop barking. A bit later, Dickie made his appearance at our table before lying by the fire with his family.

Lots of beer with little physical activity can take its toll after a week, so we decided to head to the Bell Tower. We climbed the 200+ stairs to the top and yes, the stairs get very tight toward the top. As we were going in, a man told us in between his huffing and puffing that it wasn’t worth it. I thought it to be the rantings of someone exhausted from all the climbing. However, I did find the top a little disappointing. It was so high that you could not look down into the square. Chris wanted me to jump off the tower like in the movie, but there was a screen to prevent such re-enactments. Don’t worry, I had no intention of doing it anyway.

One of the churches in town has a Michaelangelo statue of the Madonna holding Jesus. Apparently, it was purchased and brought to Bruges during his lifetime, which made it one of the few Michaelangelo’s located outside of Italy at the time. We looked at it, shrugged, and moved on.

I also wanted to find the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Supposedly during the second Crusade a vial of Jesus’s blood was brought back. Once in the church, we actually weren’t sure where the blood was supposed to be. The primary problem was that it didn’t seem to look like the movie and so we got thrown off. After consulting the Rick Steve’s book several times, we determined that the vial was inside of this huge silver tabernacle on a side altar. On Fridays and other special days, the tabernacle is opened and everyone can peer in to see the vial. I guess we’ll try and go on a Friday next time.

Because we didn’t get to try quite all the beers, we went back to Brugs Beertje. Unfortunately Daisy wasn’t there. It was her day off we were told. I was happy that we got to see the famous publican when we were there on Tuesday night. It really made the experience (and not only because she gave me a stuffed bear). We had a great time this time, too, trying more new beers. One of the guys from the other night was working, so he helped us out with recommendations. He had a very good American English accent and it turns out he had a girlfriend in Maryland. He also spoke 4 other languages! Sometimes I can barely manage to master the one language I know fluently.

Zolder is the name of a cellar bar that was mentioned in the Good Beer Guide to Belgium, so we wanted to check it out. It was very cool and had a good beer selection. There was a recent change in ownership, the previous owners retired, and now a young couple, she Irish and he Belgian, are making a go of it. It seemed a bit slow on the night we were there, but cozy and we enjoyed listening to John Lee Hooker. It was a refreshing change from the DJ-matic playing cheesy pop songs. That is a tough thing to do, taking over a business in the off season, so we really wish them luck. Be sure to stop in there the next time you’re in Bruges. We had a beer and a ham and cheese toastie before moving on.

We finished off our night with a walk back to our hotel. But along the way we stopped to watch some outdoor ice skating. Well, no one was actually skating, just one of the workers was fooling around on the ice. Chris wanted to skate, but as it turns out, it was closed for the night. We had our Belgian waffles with caramel sauce and went to bed.

A Big Day In Our Beer Travels

YiB-12Yesterday was probably one of the biggest days in all our beer travels. Not only we were visiting the brewery with the most elusive beer in the world, Westvleteren, we were also visiting a nearby brewery that makes one of the most unique beers in the world, Rodenbach. In planning the trip, this was the day I was most excited about.

Unfortunately, health didn’t completely cooperate. The first few Flogging Molly days of the trip, we mingled with a bunch of people who had been sick over the previous weeks. I had been sniffly over the past few days, but yesterday was the first day I felt like crap. And it had nothing to do with all the beers I drank the previous night at ‘t Brugs Beertje.

After conveniently ignoring the wakeup alarm, we finally got on the road an hour late.  Our first stop was the Sint Sixtus Abbey, home to the most sought after beer in the world, Westvleteren. It was a longer drive from Bruges than I imagined, with the last few kilometers down these one-lane country roads being the most frustrating. One the one hand, I felt like shit. But I also had the adrenaline pumping in anticipation of trying supposedly the world’s best beer.

Finally we parked and I rushed up to their cafe/restaurant, In de Vrede, to make sure they were open. All good. We quickly found a table and instead of waiting for the waitress, I rushed over the counter to order two beers.

Before the beers arrived, we decided that we should buy beer to take home to California now. The beers they sell are very limited and can quickly run out. You can still stand in a long line to buy beer from the little window over at the Abbey, but now there is also a more civilized way to buy your beer. There is a little store in In de Vrede. I think the only advantage of buying across the street at the Abbey is that you get the cool wooden tray instead of a paper six-pack holder.

And being the Westvleteren rookie, I tried to buy 8 bottles of Blonde and 12 bottles of  Westvleteren 8, the two beers available for purchase. I placed this request despite having read previously that a person can only buy a six-pack each. I blame the rookie maneuver on the mixture of sickness and adrenaline. In the end, I ended up with 6 bottles of Westvleteren 8. Returning to the table, I sent Merideth over to the little shop and she purchased her six bottles of Westvleteren 8.

With all the beer purchasing settled, it was time to try the beer. We tried all three, Blonde, Westvleteren 8 and Westvleteren 12. I have to say that each are really, really, really good. Westvleteren 12 was still young; it could use years of mellowing. I could see myself sipping the Blonde or Westvleteren 8 all day long.

Are they the best in the world? I would say ‘Yes’ at the moment I tasted them, but that statement is probably tied into the whole journey to get to the point of me actually trying them. I had the same feeling the other day when I drank Orval at their Abbey. In the end, it is the experience that is at the heart of beer travel.

Moving on, we visited the town of Poperinge, the center of hop production in Belgium. Unfortunately, the national hop museum was closed for the season, so we just walked around town for a bit and smiled at town’s numerous hop adornments. We did buy some hop-shaped chocolates.  We also double-checked to see if the recommended beer bars were really closed on Wednesdays. They were.

We finished up our Poperinge with a sobering visit to the city hall. World War I raged in this area, the battlefields of Ypres(Ieper) are just a few kilometers down the road. The nearby countryside is dotted with Commonwealth war graves, the final resting place for soldiers from Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia and the UK.

In the less enlightened times of the years 1914-18, shell shock victims were shot for being cowards. And in the courtyard of the Poperinge city hall, there is the memorial to British soldiers executed here for desertion. Not sure if the post is original but you can also visit the cells where they spent their final hours.

Then it was off to Roeselare and the Rodenbach brewery tour. I have been going through a serious ‘sour’ phase for the past year and Rodenbach’s Grand Cru is a chief reason for it. I was determined to visit Rodenbach while we here.

We are not normally into organized brewery tours, but that was the only way we could see the oak barrels, the secret behind the unique Rodenbach beer. I contacted the brewery several weeks ago and luckily there was a English language tour happening yesterday. Luckily, I say because English tours are rare at Rodenbach and we have done brewery tours in a language we can’t understand before and they are kind of boring.

Our group primarily consisted of people from NATO. There were about 20 of them and the 2 of us. After watching a short video on the family history while sipping regular Rodenbach, we set off on the tour of the brewery. We were shown the brewhouse, from the outside, and the old malting facility from the time when Rodenbach did their own malting.

But the real star of the show are the oak barrels. There are 294 of these massive vessels some as much as 150 years old. Walking through room after room of the Grand Cru in the making, I only wished that I had one of the keys that worked the sampling spigot.

Rodenbach employs two coopers to keep them in working order and maintenance includes being ‘scraped’ every 12 years.

It is in these barrels that Grand Cru gets its magic. After two years of aging, the beer from different barrels is blended to create the final product.

We finished off our day by tasting Grand Cru. And what a day is was… visiting two gems of the brewing world… the rarest and maybe the most unique.

You Say It’s Your Birthday…

…well, it’s my birthday, too! And Fritz Maytag’s. And Donny Osmond’s. And my Facebook friend Craig Chan’s.

I must say that Tuesday was one of my all time best birthdays! I always try to keep in mind what a charmed and blessed life I live and Tuesday I had to keep pinching myself.

Yib-12We started the day off with a drive out to Chimay in Scourmont. There is a town nearby called Chimay, but that’s not where the abbey, brewery, or the official tavern (Auberge de Poteaupré) is.

The highlight of the visit to Chimay was having the Spéciale Poteaupré. A 4.5% golden colored beer, it is served only and exclusively drawn from the cask at the Auberge de Poteaupré.

The weather on Tuesday became decidedly colder, which added to the fun the of day. By the time we finished our Chimay beer and cheese pairings, it was snowing. Very romantic and much better than rain. Although for Chris, driving in snow in a foreign country in a car that he isn’t used to probably is not even remotely romantic.

Yib-12We then made a quick stop to the farm brewery of Dupont. We went to their official tavern across the street, which was a little awkward. Clearly we were from out of town. The local farmer guy didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak French. He got a kick out of us doing a tad bit of filming and  I think he offered to film/take a picture of us. I somewhat mistook this and decided to get him in the video. In a rare moment of forwardness,  I went up to him with my beer, said “cheers!” and toasted him. I’m not sure he knew what hit him. I haven’t seen the video, but Chris said that it is kind of out of place, so probably won’t make the final cut. I tried to give Farmer Henri his 15 minutes, but Chris is the editor. I’m just the on air talent.

From there we moved on to Brasserie Dubuisson and I enjoyed my Cuvee de Trolls. For a quick moment we thought they had ‘Prestige’ in bottles. According to our bible of the trip (Good Beer Guide to Belgium), Prestige is an oak aged version of Dubuisson’s Ambrée and apparently somewhat rare. Our excitement was short lived, however, as they actually did not have it. But this disappointment in no way ruined the visit.

Yib-12Despite my limited French, I read on the menu that if you go there on your birthday, you get a free taster set. I pulled out my passport and “voila!”, I had a free taster set! I thought the server would act somewhat surprised and at least tell me “Happy Birthday”, but he didn’t. I was tickled, but admit that it was delivered somewhat unceremoniously.

The final leg of our day was getting to Bruges. We didn’t get lost per se, but we were both a bit tired and it was dark. We eventually got to our hotel, Hotel Erasmus, a beer focused accomodation, and regrouped. Then it was off to the world famous beer cafe ‘t Brugs Beertje, the Little Bruges Bear. Amazing is all I can say!

The beer list was overwhelming, but the owner Daisy was a fantastic help in recommending beers. Again, in a moment of forwardness not in my usual nature, I told her it was my birthday and asked if I could take a picture with her behind the bar. She agreed because it was my birthday. Another patron got into the act and we got a picture of both Chris and I with Daisy, as well. As we were leaving, she gave me a stuffed little brown bear. A beer lover’s birthday dream!

Needless to say, I slept very well that night. Happy birthday to me!


And the Beer God Said, “Let There Be Light Unto You”

YiB-12Our days have definitely slowed down, but have been very exciting! After filling up on a great breakfast at our hotel, we were ready to face our Sunday. The biggest goal for the day was to visit Orval, our third Trappist. Chris was a little unsure of the hours and wondered if they would even be open at all. So with some apprehension and crossed fingers we set off on the half hour drive. Lucky for us, the heavens were on our side. The official tavern next to the abbey was open, the abbey grounds were open to visitors, and to top it off, the sun was so bright it hurt my eyes. It was the first time we had seen the sun on the whole trip.

We have been to numerous abbeys, churches, cathedrals, etc. and rarely go to them anymore because they are all beautiful and impressive, but one starts to look like all the others. However, nothing could have prepared us for l’Abbaye Notre Dame d’Orval. Well, except for the pictures in our beer books, but pictures barely do the abbey justice.

The Orval abbey was truly a sight to behold. As we turned down the road, the abbey loomed in the valley, seeming to reach the heavens themselves. As we got closer, we could make out the huge Virgin Mary relief looking benevolently upon us. To our right was an equally large Jesus on the cross relief. The sight of them either fills one with an overwhelming sense of spirituality or PTSD symptoms from Catholic school, depending on your point of view.

We were just relieved that the tavern, A l’Ange Gardien, was open. I suggested that we go in to have a beer before they had a chance to close. Sounds paranoid, I know, but it’s from past experience that I have such concerns. We started off with Petit Orval. A 3.2% diluted version of the regular Orval, Petit Orval is found only at the abbey and is created especially for the brothers. Using my usual descriptor, it was ‘good’. One could even say it was a true session beer from God.

Only after we secured Orval on our brewery list did we venture over to the abbey. The ruins of the old abbey were open to visitors, but the main part of the newer active abbey was not. The visitor center/gift shop did have signs telling where to enquire about personal retreats and prayer services with the brothers. I thought it too extreme a method to see rest of the property.

We did get to see Mathilde’s Fountain, the water of which comes from the same source as that used in both the beer and cheese. The story goes that Mathilde, a member of royalty, was looking in the pond and her wedding ring fell into the water. She reportedly prayed at the abbey for its return. Within days, a fish appeared at the surface with her ring in its mouth. Hence, Orval’s logo of a fish with a ring in its mouth. In good royal fashion, she donated a lot of money to the abbey after that.

We returned to the tavern for more beer and food before moving on. When we walked back in, a couple who were there on our first pass noticed that we came back and got a good chuckle out of our return for seconds.

Caracole was another brewery we wanted to visit. The original plan had been to visit on Saturday, but we didn’t make it. After Orval, we decided to drive another half hour to see if it was open. Much to our disappointment (but not surprise), it was closed. The only day it is open to the public is Saturdays 2pm-7pm, the time we were originally going to be there. We missed our chance.

We drove further on to Le Pichet in the town of Hastiere. Mentioned in the Good Beer Guide to Belgium, its claim to fame is not only a fantastic beer list, but also that the meats are cooked on an open wood fire. They didn’t speak English and our French pronunciation leaves a lot to be desired, but we pointed and mangled the language. Then we watched our jambonneau and sauciss cook on the grill as we drank Achel and Rodenbach. We were kept further occupied by a scruffy Benji-type dog that begged at our table and nipped at the local children as they harassed him. From what we can gather, his name was “Puppy”.

The problem with beer travel this time of year is that it gets dark very early. We decided to call it a night and drive the 40 minutes back to our hotel in the dark. Despite the day not going exactly according to plan, we were happy we made the leap of faith and kept driving. The beer God was definitely shining upon us, and the resulting adventure was well worth it.

A Trappist, Ghosties, and Heroes

We left Flemish-speaking Belgium Saturday morning and headed south into French-speaking Belgium. The main target of the day was the Abbey Notre Dame de St. Remy, home of the Trappist brewery Rochefort. Before Rochefort, we were going to stop at Fantôme followed by Caracole.

YiB-12Fantôme holds an important place in my beer education. It was their beer that started me appreciating Belgian beers. Fantôme was not my first Belgian, but before Fantôme, I didn’t really think twice about them. Post tasting Fantôme, I knew I needed to explore the uniqueness that is Belgian brewing.

Arriving at Fantôme around noon, I went to the door only to have the owner/brewer inform me in a combination of French and sign language that they wouldn’t be open until 2pm. This would force a change in plans. We decided to return to Fantôme after Rochefort  instead of going on to Caracole. We didn’t have time to do both.

We drove on to the town of Rochefort and after a wrong turn and a bit of hunting and searching we found the abbey. Besides the wrong turn, it took some time as the abbey is not signposted until the you find the road it is on, plus we entered the side of town opposite of the abbey.

Rochefort is unique among the Trappist breweries in that it is the only one that doesn’t have their own brewery tap. Though this is bad news for our brewery list, it did count toward our goal of visiting all 7 Trappist breweries. We walked up to the gate, peered in, shot some video and took some pictures.

We still needed to try the beer so we drove 2km up the road to the unofficial brewery tap, Le Relais St. Remy. As we walked up, there was, of course, that anxious moment as to whether they were open or not. Much to our glee, we noticed an older couple enjoying a meal, so all was good.

Rochefort has three beers 6 (7.5% ABV), 8 (9.2% ABV), and 10 (11.3% ABV). Since we didn’t need an 11% beer, we both tried the 6 and then I had an 8. Later that evening, I had the 10 with dinner. All are dark, delicious and quite easy drinking even as you go up the scale in ABV. We also enjoyed a nice meal of ham and leek quiche with a salad.

YiB-12Then it was the 26km drive back to Fantôme, which was much shorter this time because we didn’t take the wrong turn. The brewery and adjoining tasting room is located on the main road that runs through the small town of Soy.

If there are words to describe the brewery tasting room, they would funky and rustic. There are ghosts and even some laminated pictures of dried ham hanging on a beam. While we were there, another couple came in to buy beer to go. Besides them, the only people in the bar area were the owner/brewer and two women who we took to be his mother and grandmother. See Grandma in the picture below.

YiB-12Funky could also describe the beers. We tried the regular Fantôme, which can only be described as an apple bomb. This was the beer that first awoke me to the uniqueness of Belgians. They also had the Brune, which according to CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide to Belgium, is a rare occurrence. So, we savored the Brune, which had a strong raspberry flavor. There was a chocolate version, too, but not available for tasting, so Merideth bought a bottle of that to take with her.

I am not sure the Fantôme beers are for everyone, but I really enjoy them. With quirkiness like this, they just exude a passion for brewing.

It was time to head further south almost to France to the town of Bouillion, our home for the night. But on the way we stopped at a war cemetery Merideth spotted. War cemeteries are our favorite historical places to visit in Europe mainly because they are the most poignant and thought provoking monuments in Europe.

The cemetery, located in the town of Hotton, was for UK and Commonwealth soldiers, airmen and even a 53 year old war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. Walking down the rows and reading the headstones, you see the person’s name, date of birth, the day they died, where home was… From this you get a sense of connection to the people who made the ultimate sacrifice that all the books and movies cannot provide. Most graves we visit are bare, but some have flowers or occasionally a picture.

These cemeteries are dotted all over Western Europe and are usually signposted from the main road.

Merideth signed the guest book before we left the cemetery and then we continued our journey south to our final destination. It is a good travel day when we can indulge both our love of beer and history.