The Kerstbierfestival

YiB-12Our trip to Belgium finished with our first ever visit to the Kerstbierfestival, a Christmas beer festival in Essen, Belgium. The Kerstbierfestival was an event I targeted pretty early in creating the Year in Beer schedule because it seemed unique. Belgium in December drinking Christmas beers seemed like a good way to close out our year.

Saturday, day one of the festival, was the coldest day of our trip. We hopped off the train in Essen and started on a brisk 1.85km walk to the Heuvalhal, site of the festival. Easily finding the hall, a gym actually, we took our place in the queue.

We have made this statement before and risking crying wolf one too many times, we had really no idea about what to expect from the Kerstbierfestival. There were over 100 beers and most were unknown to us. As we found our seats within the hall, we reached that crucial point in the day. What beers do we try?

I should step back a bit and explain how the festival works. The Kertbierfestival is a token fest. One token cost 1.50 euro or 11 for 15 euros. Most beers were one token but rare or special beers could be two or three tokens. The pour was 15cl. Whole bottles could also be purchased. For example, the Rochefort 8 Cuvée 2007 would set you back 20 tokens.

Armed with the festival guide which had extensive notes in English, I picked out beers that sounded interesting. The first three beers I sampled, I didn’t really care for. After these first duds, I honed my strategy and concentrated on the special and rare beers, the ones that were two or three tokens. Here is where I found all my festival favorites, such as:

  • Rochefort 8 Cuvée 2007
  • Fra… Till… from Mikkeller
  • Santa’s Little Helper from Mikkeller
  • Bush des Nuits from Dubuisson
  • Malheur Bière Brut

In the end, I tried somewhere around 22 beers, give or take a few that I forgot to record. Most of them fell in the ‘pretty darn good’ category.

We were kind of shocked, at first, by the civility of the fest. A better word than civilized might be dignified. Most festivals in the States degenerate into drunk fests, but the Kerstbierfestival seemed different. There was no whooping nor hollering. No one tried to get the crowd to do the wave. Rather, the festival goers talked with friends, drank their beers and sometimes took notes. Even the 32 person stag party who were pounding cans of Jupiler (a Belgian macro-lager) in the queue to get in behaved in this manner.

Most pleasing to me was there was no blasting music, though at one point a gentleman busted out an accordion and people started singing.

I don’t think every festival needs to be this way, but it was nice to be at one where beer, friends and conversation seemed to be the focal points.

The crowd was mostly Belgian and Dutch, but there were also a number of Brits and Americans in attendance.

One American we ran into on Saturday was Tom Peters of Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia. We had met Tom earlier this year on the press junket to Philly Beer Week as he had hosted our first night events. It was nice running into Tom again. If there is one person to talk beer with at a Belgian beer fest, it would be Tom.

We returned to the festival on Sunday, but our festival day was short as we needed to get to Brussels to see some friends. So we shot the last of the video we needed, tried a few more beers and just basked in the moment. The Year in Beer was over.

As we left the hall mid-Sunday afternoon, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit of sadness that the Year is Beer was complete. The year went so fast, just yesterday it seemed like we were landing in Anchorage.

But thinking back on all the great trips, the people we met, the friends we made, the beers we drank, the places we visited, I cannot help to feel a great sense of accomplishment. We did it.


We Reached Our Goals… almost…

YiB-12We had two main goals for this trip; to visit all seven Trappist breweries and to both reach 450 on our list of breweries. Well, I am happy to report that we reached 75% of our goals.

The part we fell short on was that while I reached 450 breweries, it looks like we will return to the States on Monday with Merideth stuck on 448. Some conspiracy theorists will think I did this on purpose, but the blame all rests on the shoulders of Brasseries Caracole and Bouillion for having messed up winter hours. It was always in the master plan for both of us to reach 450.

We left Bruges Friday mid-morning driving east across foggy Belgium headed to the largest of the Trappist breweries, Westmalle. They are famous for having developed the Dubbel and Tripel styles of beer. Merideth successfully navigated us around Antwerp and to the door of Westmalle’s very fancy brewery tap, Cafe Trappisten, only 12 minutes behind schedule. We would have been only nine minutes behind schedule if we hadn’t wasted those precious three minutes driving around the Abbey even though we had read that the Trappisten was across the street.

Westmalle was my #450 so I was pretty excited. We quickly found a seat in the massive dining area and ordered two beers, Dubbels.  They also have a weaker beer called Extra that is brewed for the brothers. Only rarely does it make an appearance in the brewery tap and today was not one of those times. So we stuck with the Dubbel and Tripel and resisted the temptation of adding grenadine for an extra 30 euro cents.

The Trappist breweries also usually make cheese so on each occasion when there was an opportunity to try the cheese, we took advantage. The Westmalle cheese came with mustard that was super hot, just the way we like it. Unfortunately, it didn’t come with celery salt, also how we like it.

Having had our fill of monk beer and cheese for the moment, it was time to move on. I was concerned about the time as we had only a small window of time visit the seventh and final Trappist, Koenigshoeven. Their winter tasting hours were a scant three hours in the afternoon.  So leaving Westmalle, we drove the 50 or so kilometers across the Dutch border and easily found the Abbey Koenigshoeven in the outskirts of Tilburg.

Unexpectedly, we saw the biggest crowds at the Trappist breweries that we had seen on the whole trip. Two different tour groups of 20 or so arrived and battled with our peace and quiet for supremacy. We also had some filming to do so the din of a tour group is never good.

Known as La Trappe in Europe, they had six beers beers to try. I noticed that the one loud group was getting taster sets, which was perfect for us. So, I asked for one. And the beers came in these cute little 25cl glasses.

We tried their Witte, Blonde, Dubbel, Tripel, Bock and Quadrupel. And of course we got an assortment of their cheese, too. While their beer cheese might have been our favorite Trappist cheese of the trip, their beers were my least favorite of the Trappists. They were good, but I guess I am just a Belgo-phile now. If it isn’t Orval, it is crap!

So, that was it… we visited all seven Trappists and added six of them to the “the list”. Now, we return the car and get ready for the last phase of our trip, the Kerstbierfest.


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!