Friday, April 11, 2014

Belgian road trip autumn 2013

Every September I attend the great Borefts bier festival in Bodegraven, Netherlands, but in 2013 I added a twist by going on a beer road trip in Belgium after Borefts. I was accompanied by two friends and in the span of seven days, in late September and early October, visited breweries and great beer places across Belgium. I've already posted about the visit to Koningshoeven and the tour of Het Anker, so in this post I'll wrap up the rest of the tour which includes stops in Beersel, Ypres, Poperinge, Watou and Hainaut, visiting great beer bars, a hop museum and the breweries Brouwerij St. Bernadus, Brasserie à Vapeur and Brasserie des Légendes.

Taking a stroll in the Zenne valley with Zenne river on the left

Beersel - the heart of lambic
After picking up the rental car in Utrecht we drove south, towards Belgium, making one beer related stop at Onze Lieve Vrouw van Koningshoeven, outside Tilburg, before entering Belgium. In order to get to Beersel we just followed the main highway towards Antwerp and then Brussels. Near Brussels we took off on the E19 which goes around the western outskirts of the city until we were almost due south of it, there the E19 turns south along the Zenne river valley. After a few kilometer you'll see the exit to Beersel which takes you off the highway and onto a winding country road that leads up the hill to the east of the E19.

The town of Beersel is perched on top of a hill, above the Zenne valley, about 15 km south of central Brussels. It's possible to get there by train from Brussels, but I've always gone by car or even taxi (but the latter can be fairly expensive since most cab drivers in Brussels are unfamiliar outside the city and may take a number of wrong turns on the way!).

The main reason for visiting Beersel is related to the valley mentioned above. Zenne, or Senne in French, is the historical area for brewing the spontaneously fermented beers known as lambic or lambiek. The reason for this is probably the many cherry and fruit farms that used to dot the valley, along the small, meandering river of the same name. Just like wine grapes, many fruits carry yeast cells on their skin - yeast that can become airborne and thus trigger spontaneous fermentation if landing in an open tank of cooled wort.

A hundred years ago, every small village in the Zenne valley would sport a lambic brewery to supply the locals with fresh beer. The larger towns, in particular Beersel, would have many. The largest breweries would often sell unfinished or "jonge" lambic to cafés in Brussels or special blenders who would age the lambic for one, two or even three years before making a blend of several vintages to create one of the most popular beers in Belgium in the early 20th century: Geuze. Such a blending businesses, known as a Geuzestekerij, required a skillful master because you had to age each lambic just right and then know how much to blend from each vintage. Some of the blenders also played around with fruits, most commonly sour cherries or raspberries, creating fruit lambics known as kriek and frambozen in Flemish (the latter is probably better known under its French name framboise).

Today only a handful of lambic breweries and geuze blenders exist in Belgium, two of them in Beersel which has remained at the heart of lambic culture in Belgium. Bezoekerscentrum De Lambiek, the official visitor center and museum for all things lambic, opened up at Alsemberg, just outside Beersel, in May 2011. Here visitors can learn about the history of lambic brewing and geuze blending while also tasting authentic, lambic based, sour ales from all 11 members of HORAL - the "HOge Raad voor Ambachtelijke Lambiekbieren" or "High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers" - which was founded to protect and propagate the knowledge of traditional lambic beers. Cantillon is the only lambic brewery that is not a member of HORAL.

I've earlier posted about my visits to 3 Fonteinen, both to the brewery and blending business run by Armand Debelder and the excellent café run by his younger brother Guido Debelder. My most recent visit was during Tour de Geuze 2013, so I won't repeat myself in this post just stress that if you're in Beersel you really must visit the brewery and try their lambic and kriek served on tap at the café. And if you're lucky, the café may still have a bottle of Hommage 2007 left in the cellar.

Hommage 2007 at Café 3 Fonteinen, in 2013

The other lambic producer in Beersel is Oud Beersel. As the name implies this is the oldest one in town, founded as early as 1882. However, about a decade ago Oud Beersel almost came to an end. In its 120th year, owner Danny Draps - who had taken over the reins after his uncle, Henri Vandervelden - decided to retire, and with no heir to succeed him he was forced to close the brewery. Fortunately, Henri Vandervelden was still alive and a vigorous 76 year old, and he refused to see the end of Oud Beersel, so when two young fans of the brewery contacted him he was quick to act. Together with Gert Christiaens and Roland de Bus (who has since left), Vandervelden drew up plans for a revival. In 2005 Oud Beersel was relaunched as a pure geuzestekerij, Christiaens brewing his lambic at Brouwerij Boon in Lembeek but still aging and blending it at Oud Beersel. The first "new" Oude Geuze from Oud Beersel was released in 2007 and today the business is thriving under the sole owner Gert Christiaens.

Just like Cantillon in Brussels, Oud Beersel is a working museum that is open to visitors on the first Saturday of every month. In fact, Oud Beersel was the first lambic brewery to establish such a "living" museum, and it was that very same Henri Vandervelden who did so in 1973, five years before Cantillon! So set aside some time for a visit to this historic lambic brewery.

In addition to the two lambic business and the highly rated Café 3 Fonteinen, Beersel has a couple of highly rated pubs that I'd like to say a few words about - but for different reasons.

Centrum Hotel
Centrum Hotel is located just "around the corner" from 3 Fonteinen, at the start of Steenweg op Ukkel, and it was here we decided to stay the night in Beersel. Despite being under heavy restoration works, with parts of the dining room closed, the place turned out really great. Besides being very cheap (€55 for a night) and close to 3 Fonteinen, the bar is by far the best hotel bar I've been to in Belgium. In addition to several decent beers on tap, including Tripel Karmeliet, La Chouffe and Girardin lambic, the bar had an amazing bottle beer menu that would have allowed us to spend many nights there and not exhaust the alternatives. And it didn't hurt that the hotel kitchen served hearty dishes of hot food and that we found the atmosphere of the bar cozy and traditional.

The bar at Centrum Hotel in Beersel

In de Oude Pruim
Located further down Steenweg op Ukkel, In de Oude Pruim was rated very high on RateBeer, second only to Café 3 Fonteinen, when I checked out places to visit. However, it turned out to be anything but great. The old couple running the place had all the time in the world (in itself not a sign of bad quality in Belgium) even if we were alone in the pub. It was so quiet in there that I could hear every raspy cough made by the woman, and the ticking of the old clock seemed so loud it brought back childhood memories from the dentist's waiting room. We didn't care for the pils they had on draught and it took several failed attempts, sending the old man scampering down the cellar - or so it seemed - in an attempt to locate a beer from the menu before we finally ended up with bottles of the regular Rodenbach that I had spotted behind the bar. After quickly finishing the beer we left the place as courteously as circumstances allowed. None of us will ever come back. If you plan to visit Beersel, stick to Café 3 Fonteinen and Centrum Hotel.

If you're staying a night in Beersel I would also recommend a nice morning hike in the Zenne valley, it's about 1 km to walk from the church square down into the valley. Just follow Puttestraat and Lotsestraat downhill, in the direction of the railway station, there you take the pedestrian underpass, below the railway lines, and simply follow the small country road ("Langestraat") through the fields down to the valley floor where you can walk along and even cross the meandering Zenne river. It's a tranquil and fairly scenic walk, with cows grazing along the lush river bank.


Oostvleteren and Ypres - in Flanders fields
After the night in Beersel we followed the highway west towards Ypres in West Flanders, a region that still bears the marks of the bloody battles on the Western Front during World War I. The goal was the small town of Oostvleteren, home to De Struise Brouwers, but we also made a stop in Ypres.

Ypres, usually written Ieper in Dutch, is home to the famous In Flanders Fields war museum which anyone with even the smallest interest in our history should visit. Located in the rebuilt Cloth Hall, right next to Grote Markt, the museum offers visitors a shocking reminder of Europe's recent, violent past. From the museum you can also follow a set of stairs up to the belfry, from 70 meters above ground you'll get a breathtaking view of the city and the surrounding Flanders fields - all the way to Passchendaele.

When we'd had our fill of history and great views it was time to check out a new beer place in Ypres, the Brasserie Kazematten.

Brasserie Kazematten in the old city wall of Ypres

Brasserie Kazematten
Prior to the trip, I had read about a "joint venture" between the breweries Rodenbach and St Bernardus that piqued my interest. Named Brasserie Kazematten and opening up in April 2013, in the Ypres city wall just east of Grote Markt, this was apparently a brewpub, the very first to open up in Ypres.

However, upon our visit in early October 2013, the pub was still very much a work in progress - with construction going on both outside and inside - and there was no brewery to be seen. When I asked the bartender, she told me that the brewing would actually take place a couple of blocks away, so Brasserie Kazematten isn't going to be a traditional brewpub, though it will serve its own, unique beers brewed nearby. But Kazematten is still a nice place to visit, the pub offered 8 beers on draught, all from Brouwerij St Bernardus, including their Abt 12, Tripel, Prior, Wit and Tokyo - the last one is specially brewed for the St Bernardus pub in Tokyo, Japan. The hot food was also nice, I went for a tasty meat and pasta dish. If you're in Ypres, definitively check out this place.

Other than Brasserie Kazematten, Ypres doesn't really have any good beer pubs that I know of, so after this pit stop we left for Oostvleteren - about 15 km north west of Ypres.

The town of Oostvleteren is home to one of the most famous craft breweries in Belgium, De Struise Brouwers. Normally it's possible to visit their small brewery, which I did in July 2011, but this time it was closed because of their Borefts attendance a few days earlier. So instead we visited two of the local pubs and stayed the night at a wonderful bed & breakfast.

Walking along Kasteelweg to Vakantiehoeve Schraevenacker

Vakantiehoeve Schraevenacker
The bed & breakfast in question is called Vakantiehoeve Schraevenacker and is part of a working farm, with goats, sheep and horses grazing around. It offers several large rooms on the ground floor, each individually named and with private bathrooms. The owners also operate a restaurant, where you have your breakfast in the morning, but where you can also have dinner or just enjoy a beer outside in the beer garden. Their bottle beer menu was surprisingly good, offering many different De Struise beers - including some rare gems such as Aardmonnik 2008.

Vakantiehoeve Schraevenacker is located in Kasteelweg, about 15 minutes walk after turning off from the N8 highway through Oostvleteren. The reason for mentioning this fact is that both De Struise and two very nice pubs are located around this intersection, so it's just a short walk back to bed after enjoying some good beers at the pub!

't Molenhof
Located on the opposite side of the intersection from De Struise, Het Molenhof was actually recommended to me by Carlo Grootaert before my first visit to De Struise. It's a charming, old place with a wooden windmill right next to it - hence the name - so you really can't miss it. Het Molenhof doubles as a restaurant, but the kitchen closes early so when we got there at 8 o'clock only the pub section was open. But they take pride in their beer menu and you can't really fault a place where you can do vertical tasting of De Struise Black Damnation!

Restaurant and pub 't Molenhof in Oostvleteren

De Sterre
If you crave food and arrive after the kitchen closes at 't Molenhof you can just cross the street to the neighbor pub, De Sterre, they serve a wicked pasta dish and are on friendly terms with 't Molenhof (I even left my bar tab open at the Molenhof while eating at De Sterre - with no credit cards left behind for security!). The beer selection is also decent though a bit smaller than at Molenhof. The couple running De Sterre are quite something, calling them old hippies would not do them justice, but you will not leave the place without a memory for life - I assure you.

Among my many visits to Belgium, this visit to Oostvleteren stands out spectacularly - the two pubs gave me such a good vibe, followed by that peaceful walk back to the bed & breakfast, under a starry night sky, between fields of tall corn and with various animals still up and grazing on patches of open field along the road. It was such a perfect ending to a day of exploring beer and history in Flanders fields.


Poperinge - hop capital of Belgium
After at hearty breakfast at Vakantiehoeve Schraevenacker we left Oostvleteren and headed south into the heart of Belgian hop country - the municipality of Poperinge. The idea was to make a stop in the town by that name before turning west to our main target, Watou.

The town of Poperinge is known as the hop capital of Belgium, surrounding it you will find many hop farms with those characteristic tall poles erected to hold up a system of trellis, to allow hop bines to grow up in a controlled way and to ease the harvesting. You can spot such farms from far away, thanks to the 6-7 meter tall poles erected in the open fields. Thus, it's only fitting that the first thing greeting a visitor, coming by car from the direction of Ypres, is a large, green painted metal hop cone placed in a roundabout on the outskirts of town.

Bins of fresh hop cones with the new "beer wall" to the left
- at Hopmuseum Poperinge in October 2013

Hopmuseum Poperinge
For a beer tourist, the town of Poperinge may not offer a world class beer bar to visit, but its museum dedicated to the history, farming and use of humulus lupulus - aka hops - is outstanding. The Hopmuseum Poperinge is located in Gaasthuisstraat 71, about 500 meter west of Grote Markt, in a remarkable 4-storey building known as "Stadsschaal" or Municipal Scales. This building was used for weighing, drying and storing hops until the mid 20th century. Visitors can rent a very informative audio tour guide that will guide them through four floors of hop history and culture, from the labor intensive hop farming of yesteryear to the mechanized modern farming methods.

The museum also presents statistics showing that hop farming in Poperinge (and the rest of Belgium) has declined dramatically over the past one hundred years. In 1909, there were 665 hop growers with 1.100 ha land in Poperinge, producing around 50% of the hops in Belgium. In 2010 only 32 hop growers operated on 185 ha land in Poperinge, they produced just 285 tons of hops but that still accounted for 95% of the entire Belgian production! Thus, Poperinge isn't only the hop capital of Belgium it is almost the only remaining hop growing region in the country (the remaining 5% of hop production is in Aalst).

On my most recent visit, the museum had just completed its "beer wall", similar to the one in Bruges, which showcases the regular beers brewed in Belgium - about 1,400! The museum is also host to an annual hop competition, where the best hop farmer in Poperinge is chosen by a jury that sniffs fresh hop cones from every farm in the region. We were so fortunate to visit the day before this competition, so we got to smell the fresh hops, neatly sorted into a hundred different numbered bins. Oh heavens!

In a mild hop induced euphoria we got back into our car and headed west ... to Watou.


Watou - abbey beers
Any person with even the slightest interest in abbey beers should visit Watou, this small village lies at the heart of a great region of full bodied and rich abbey beers; Van Eecke brews the excellent Het Kapittel beers in Watou while Brouwerij St Bernardus is located just 3 km outside Watou, along the appropriately named Trappistenweg. Trappist abbey St. Sixtus, home to the world famous Westvleteren 12 - which is available at Café In de Vrede next to the abbey, is located 14 km east of Watou, just past the town of Poperinge. You get my drift?

Taking a stroll along Trappistenweg in Watou
- notice the hop field in the background?

If you plan to stay in or near Watou, I highly recommend contacting Brouwerij St. Bernardus to ask for a room at their bed & breakfast, right next to the brewery. This 2-storey house complex, hidden from the road by a vine covered wall and gate, offers half a dozen large guest rooms, with private bathrooms, and a large terrace covered by glass so that you stay warm and dry while enjoying breakfast on cold or rainy days. On my October 2013 visit I paid just €35 for my own room, which isn't bad when you get to live next door to one of the best family breweries in Belgium!

The hostess, Jackie, will welcome you with a big smile and can help you get a tour of the St Bernardus brewery. More importantly, Jackie makes sure that the refrigerators in the living room are full of fresh St Bernardus beer, so that guests don't have to worry about the lack of pubs nearby. The closest pubs are in the village of Watou, some 3 km or 30 minutes walk away. Unfortunately, poor business seems to have taken its toll on Watou between my 2011 and 2013 visits, since many of the pubs and restaurants closed early or even stayed closed many days of the week. On my last visit, the village square was virtually deserted after 6 pm on a Wednesday!

Because most restaurants in Watou were closed the two nights we were there in October 2013, we ended up eating at De Strooyen Hen a bit outside Watou. Situated exactly midway between Poperinge and Watou, in Watouseweg 54, this restaurant also functions as the neighborhood pub and festival hall, hosting weddings and parties. The kitchen makes really tasty dishes, I enjoyed a delicious rack of lamb, and the menu offers good local beer from both Van Eecke, located down the road towards Watou, and St Bernardus. But beware that De Strooyen Hen, like many rural establishments in Flanders, is closed on Mondays.

Distances to many interesting places are short from St Bernardus bed & breakfast, which makes it such a great place stay. Places such as Ypres, Poperinge, Watou and Westvleteren are within easy biking distance or 5-10 minutes of driving. You can even borrow bikes for free at the bed & breakfast, if you don't bring your own and would like to ride through the flat landscape of West Flanders.

Brouwerij St Bernardus located on Trappistenweg in Watou

If you feel extra adventurous it's only a couple of kilometers to the French border, from St Bernardus you can actually see the mountain of Mont des Cats, also known as Katzberg, on the opposite side of the border. Going there makes for a nice daytrip on a bike, though the road up the small mountain can be taxing if you don't have a bike with low gears. Near the top you'll find Trappist Abbaye du Mont des Cats, which commands great views of Flanders. The abbey is worth a visit in itself but also for beer historical reasons - it is the mother house of two important Trappist abbeys that still brew Trappistenbier: St Sixtus, founded by monks from Mont des Cats in 1831, and Koningshoeven, founded 1881. The abbey shop sells a Mont des Cats abbey beer, but it's not an authentic Trappist beer since it is brewed at Chimay and not locally - but it's still worth picking up a bottle if you visit the abbey.


Hainaut - old and modern breweries
On the way back from West Flanders to Brussels, at the end of the week, we drove through the province of Hainaut, in the French speaking Walloon region of Belgium. The reason for this small detour was to attempt a couple of brewery visits, even though we had no prior appointment. The two breweries are run very differently, one of them is a steam powered, old style mechanical brewery while the other is a shiny modern brewery, but both are independent and brew high quality, unique beers.

Brasserie à Vapeur
Our first stop was at Rue du Maréchal 1 in the small village of Pipaix, which is about 3 km east of the Dubuisson brewery and 9 km west of Brasserie Dupont, in other words smack in the middle of Waloon beer country! The reason for stopping at this address is that this is where you'll find a small but very old brewery which has changed name and owners several times over the centuries, until acquiring its current name, Brasserie à Vapeur, in 1984.

That year a young couple, Sittelle and Jean-Louis Dits, heard that the Biset brewery was up for sale. This was an old steam powered brewery, founded in 1785. The couple wanted to keep the old brewery and its history alive, so they bought it, renamed it Brasserie à Vapeur which is French for "Steam Brewery", but changed very little else. They've spent the last thirty years maintaining status quo but brewing a great line-up of beers with weird and funny names and often weirder and funnier label artwork. Since 1992, the artwork has been created for them by Belgian cartoonist Louis-Michel Carpentier.

19th century mash tun and malt mill at Brasserie à Vapeur

When we arrived at the brewery on a Thursday afternoon we were initially told that they didn't do tours that day, the small brewery usually allows visitors on Sundays only - to watch the brewing process. But after praising them on the well kept old brick buildings we were allowed inside on a short tour of the old brewery. For those of you who have been to the Cantillon brewery in Brussels, Brasserie à Vapeur will seem similar but even older (which it is, by a hundred years!).

Walking into the Vapeur brewery is like walking back in time; the wet and well worn cobblestone floor looks like it has been there for hundreds of years, the mechanical malt mill, the mash tun below and the old steam engine, connected by belts and steam pipes, gives an impression of early industrial era. Even the smell is old, of damp stones and iron with hints of wort, lingering in the air from the last brewing session. My mind started racing and it struck me that if the brewer from 150 years ago had suddenly woken up and returned to his old brewery he would not have noticed any changes  - this is a genuine, 19th century, steam powered brewery.

After the brief tour we thanked the lady profusely, returned to the bright daylight and started up the car, driving east towards our next and final stop that I'll mention in this post.

Brasserie des Légendes
About 17 km east of Pipaix, on the outskirts of Ath, there's an old castle named Irchonwelz which has given name to the small village nearby. These days the old castle is home to a modern brewery, founded as recently as 2006 when two smaller breweries - Brasserie des Géants and Brasserie Ellezelloise - merged to create Brasserie des Légendes.

Unlike the brewery we had just visited, Brasserie des Légendes is a modern high tech wonder of a brewery with a shiny new brewhouse in the courtyard of the former castle. You enter through the main gate of the castle, from a large gravel covered parking lot outside, facing the brewery straight ahead and the shop / tasting room up the stairs to your left.

There were no brewery tours that day, but the large main door to the brewery was open so I quickly took a peek inside before joining the others for a beer tasting session at the brewery shop which doubles as a tasting room. Because the shop / tasting room has no beers on tap you'll either have to buy some bottles and bring them home or find someone to share the bottles with. Fortunately, I had several people to share with and we managed to get through the entire selection of Goliath beers on offer in the shop.

View inside the modern brewery of Brasserie des Légendes

I appologize if this post seems a bit all over the place, which in a sense it had to be given the nature of the trip through so much of Belgium, but I hope it inspires you to do a beer road trip of your own through this small but still so varied beer country.

For more photos from this trip, check these Flickr sets: Ypres, Oostvleteren, Poperinge and the rest.

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