Time for another guest post from my good friend Ken Hilton, who just returned from a beer and biking trip in Belgium. Enjoy!
Now, I have always loved to take my vacations by bicycle. And, I dearly love to explore all the lovely beverages along the way. So……why not Belgian Beer by Bike!!
You are probably wondering what the 9.95mpb stands for. Skip the engineering formulas, the economic quotients, the liver tests…….9.95 MILES PER BEER. Of course there is one statistic must be included in the formula…….all beers must be Belgian and repeat performances cannot be included to inflate the number.
Brussels was a great start. Flew all night, lugged the bike boxes onto the train, the Metro (subway), the bus to our B&B. Time was getting late, so screw putting the bikes together….let’s go drink some beer. Brussels started with a tour of the Lambic Museum at Cantillon. This is an absolute must for sour beer lovers. The tour is self-guided and really gives you some history on the spontaneous fermentation used….the coolships, the open fermenters, the wooden attic with louvered windows…..what the Belgians call “terroir”.
Next, the Grand Platz searching for Le Because….a local pub serving slightly sweetened gueze in earthenware crocks. Absolutely fantastic!!! Brussels is known for their gueze and lambic. Dinner was the national dish….mussels and frites…..and one of the only let-down Belgian beers….Jupiler (sorta like having a Bud and hot dog at a ballgame). The mussels were outasight.
David, my cycling buddy, is a new home-brewer and has gotten into Belgian beers, so I had to indulge him to the subtle nuances of tasting Belgians…..went straight for the gueze, lambics, and then a Rochefort 10 nightcap.Yum!
Next day, we put the bikes together….major chore with a hangover….and cycled to Gent to meet K.T., another cycling buddy who has been to Ireland and Estonia with me, who had flown into Amsterdam and cycled down to join us. After our first 70-mile day, we found our hostel and headed out for pasta and more beer. The most interesting was a local beer…a Gruut Ambree served in a glass with a mirror on the side. What daa???? When you put the glass on the 2 coasters….yes, two…joined side by side, a picture of a nude dancing woman magically appears in the mirror. Belgians!! Love their beer!!
You probably noticed that the first day was 70 miles…..gotta start doing the math on the beer consumption.
Roselaere was next on the agenda. Rodenbach is here……one of my all-time favorites has been Alexander Rodenbach….which sadly is no longer brewed. But, we did manage a Roselaere Vlaams….an oud-brune sourish beer. Now, for those yeasty people out there….when you buy Roselaere yeast in the slap pack, you are getting this yeast. Really funky, barn-yard, wet horsey, etc. I am not sure that this yeast is what you get in other Rodenbach beers….it is so different in sourness character. So, if you want the cleaner sour of the Grand Cru, you might just be SOL. Of course, the next offering was the Grand Cru….distinct cherry color, sharp lactic sourness, clean, intense. Wow!!! David was about to have an orgasm during the Grand Cru experience, so I ordered him a Roseslaere Foederbier Special Reserve. Heck, one for me too. Never heard of one. Super WOW….double WOW. This is most intensely sour beer is have ever grace my palate with. The first couple of sips was sorta like turning up a vinegar bottle, but one with Belgian class. Then it grew on you. Gloriously over the top sour beer….the Grand Cru of Grand Cru’s.
On the way out of Roselaere, we stopped by the Rodenbach Brewery….closed to tours, but we wandered aroung the grounds…..amazing antiquity blended with glass and stainless steel….sorta like their beers.
From Roselaere, we all rode to Ieper (Ypres in French) to tour the WWI battlefields and cemeteries. What lovely countryside…..which has been decimated in numerous wars. Napolean, WWI, WWII…and others. In Ieper, we found a quaint hotel on the Grand Platz with a restaurant and outside cafe. And, we found several beers that I had never heard of….Poperinge Hommelbier (hop beer)…a light dubbel with 3 local hops, a Patersbier (Father’s Beer for the monks to consume on a daily basis), and Abst…a tripel from Kapitel Brewing. Of course, more mussels in a beer and curry broth for me and mussels in a wine and creme sauce for David.
Poperinge was just 10 clicks down the road. Poperinge is the hop growing area of Belgium. There is a hop museum that is a must-see for brewers. Captivating experience…one of the best museums I have ever been to. We also lucked onto the hop harvest season….passed a farmhouse and smelled an unmistakable aroma….Saazer. We pulled in and watched the harvest in progress…wagons full of cut hop vines loaded manually into a picked which gently pulled the cones and discarded the stems. We also learned that the 3 hops used in Westvleteren 12 are grown here…..Northern Brewer, Styrian Goldings, and Hallertauer….along with Saaz, Strisselspalt, and a few others.
10 clicks from Poperinge is the Abbey de St. Sixtus in Westvleteren where the best beer in the world is made….Westvleteren 12….a plain brown bottle with a yellow cap….simply the world’s best. The only way to get Westy 12 is to make a reservation weeks in advance, drive up at your schedule appointment time, and, if they have any, pick up 2 cases. In de Vrede is the monastery cafe across the street where you can lunch and have one with your meal….and pick up a six-pack. When we got there, cars were lined up and the cafe was closed. No Westvleteren 12 on this trip!!
Finishing this day out to Oostende was lovely and BRUTAL!!! We headed down canal paths toward the North Sea and turned into 30-40 mph winds. The last 10 miles were along the beach road with sand drifting across the road and pelting us with stinging wind driven projectiles. We had sand in our shoes, up our noses, in our ears, in our crotches….miserable. But…one must make the best of a hard day….reward ourselves with….more Belgian beer. After a few generics to wash the sand away…like Grimbergen Blonde, Palm, Leffe Brune, we discovered a Scotch Gordon misplaced in the Belgian section. Curious, we order some and found out that Scotch Gordon is a 80-shilling/Wee Heavy type that is made in Belgium. And, the glass was the prettiest of the trip so far.
Collecting Belgian beer glasses is as much fun as drinking the beer. Every beer, not every brewery, every beer has its own glass style.
Along another canal from Oostende to Brugge we stopped for our first beer during the cycling day….yes, we normally do not drink and cycle….not a safe combination. We wait until we get to our next destination. But today, we spotted a cafe with a bunch of bikes next to the canal path. Savored a Gueze Boon and then went to pay the bill. To our amazement, the proprietor just happened to have some Westy 12 squirreled away…and be bought a couple of bottles. Then, he offered up a 750ml of a blend of the best guezes from ALL of the remaining gueze makers in Belgium. It now graces the top shelf in the wine cabinet….yes, I drink wine, too…..when I can’t find a good beer. Don’t ask how much this one bottle cost. He also gave us 7 beer glasses for free.
Brugge…..a beer destination in its own right…and the loveliest medieval city in all of Belgium. One could spend a 2-week vacation here and be content. The 3 places of note…..de Garre…a small cafe down a tiny back alley to get the best tripel in the world; Brugs Beertje…a beer cafe extraordinaire, with over 400 Belgian beers on the menu. Met a guy from England who has been coming over for 14 straight years, doing the cafe every night, and he has yet to finish the menu. We had Rochefort 10, Duchess de Bourgogne, Echte Kriek, Vichtenaar, Brugse Zot, and a few I cannot remember; then to the oldest cafe in Brugge….dating back to 1515….had a Bruge Tripel, a Straffe Hendrik tripel. Of course, we did the de Halve Maan brewery tour sampling several of their offerings, did a canal boat tour of the city, had dinner at an outdoor cafe delighted by Flemish stew and gueze, and marveled at the Grand Platz….stunning architecture. We spent 2 days in Brugge, opting for a train back to Brussels.
Last day in Brussels….but one of the most memorable.After stopping at La Mort Subite for yet another gueze, we happened to hit a Belgian Folk Festival at the Grand Platz….with costumes, food, dancing, beer. We sampled a few, and then stumbled on the Order de Faro booth. This organization is attempting to save/revive the dying beer sytle Faro….a sweetened gueze that takes 4 years to make and only lasts 2 weeks. It is made by blending one, two, and three year old lambics, and then is sweetened with Belgian dark candy sugar. If not consumed in 2 weeks, it goes sour again. We met the head of the organization and the brewer….who bought us a couple of glasses of the finest beverage I have ever put in my mouth. It rates up there with and maybe slightly above the St. Sixtus Westvleteren 12. It is only made once a year for the festival in very small quantities.
On the airplane back home, I started recapping the beer styles and cycling mileages on the trip….and did the math. 9.95 MILES PER BEER.
I Shall Return!