Saturday, October 20, 2012

Belgium Day 6: Trappist Madness

Day six of Belgium, and still going strong.  Our small band of weary but happy travellers gathered in the taxidermied eating hall of our antiquarian hotel for a low-key breakfast and watery coffee.  Most of us really didn't want or need more food at this point: see day 5 post!  We headed off bright and early, (or rather overcast and drizzly,) for our first stop of the day.

A brief word on the driver of our full sized coach.  Johann was an unusual but funny dude, in love with everything American.   This was evidenced by his Warner Bros ties as well as his penchant for playing John Denver, Billy Joel, and the 80's most poppy tunes.  Oh and lots of ABBA, not American, but very very 80's.  John Denver singing Take Me Home Country Road as we drove through the countryside of Belgium was strangely appropriate but also slightly off.

Soon we arrived at our first destination, the Trappist monastery of Orval.  Our tour director had managed to get us a personal tour of the brewery, which is unheard of nowadays.  The brewery is located within the walls of the Orval monastery, though the monks are not actually involved in the brewing process.  The head monk does oversee major decisions relating to the brewery, though, so they are still technically a Trappist product.  The proceeds from sales of the beer keep the monks in food and even pay for other Trappist monasteries.  They have 6 large conical fermenters and are now at capacity.  Our tour guide explained that she spends much of her day dealing with distributors and beer fans who are complaining of difficulty getting the beers.  They cannot expand the brewery as that would extend it beyond the walls of the monastery...though they did dig down below the place to fit more equipment in the past.  The bottles are predominantly recycled and we saw an impressive bottle washing machine and bottling line in action.  Seeing the freshly cleaned bottles go through a sensor that automatically kicked out scratched or nicked ones  was very cool.  Lavern and Shirley would not have a job here...  We saw a huge warehouse filled with aging beer, since they cellar the beers for some time before releasing them.  They only make one beer, based on a recipe from the early 1900's with a small amount of dry hopping based on old English styles. 

The old monastery was destroyed by the invading French back in the 1700's and the ruins still lay strewn about, next to the rebuilt buildings from the early 1900's.  We wandered the ruins and the "new" construction in an early morning clearing of the hazy weather.  The lack of city noise, the muted echo of footfalls on cobbles, and the occasional caw of a crow was peaceful and somewhat otherworldly.   This was a unique experience marred only by the fact that Sj was feeling quite ill at the time and I was worried about her.  She was a trooper though and hung in there for the rest of the day.

From the monastery itself we walked down the drive to have a seat in the modern Guardian Angel tasting room.  This early in the day we were the only patrons.  We had some Orval Trappist cheese and of course Orval beer.  They serve only Orval beer in several ways: old, new, warm, cold.  With several of us here, we were able to taste the differences in serving age and temperature.  I liked the old warm the best, more tartness from the brettanomyces, but more mellow hop flavors from age.  This is also the only place you can get the Orval Green, a lower strength version of the beer, originally brewed for the monks.  I liked this one quite well, and felt it would have fit in at any craft beer bar in the states as a flavorful session beer.  I picked up a special small Orval glass with the Guardian Angel wings on it there.

Back into the coach and feeling relaxed and more awake, (except for Sj who was feeling lousy,) we drove further to the Chimay restaurant.  Chimay is another Trappist brewery, but rarely allow tours anymore.  I had a very tasty lunch of steak in Chimay ale sauce with frites (yes dipped in mayo!)  I also had the Tower of Trappist (my naming, not theirs.)  A small chalice glass of the red cap, a dubbel style ale; another of the white cap, a tripel; one of blue cap, a strong dark; and last of the lighter version of the white cap, the patersbier.  The latter was much the same idea as the Orval green, just not quite as good.  My favorite was the blue, strong and flavorful.  This was the first Trappist and maybe even the first Belgian beer I ever tried back in the ancient history of my beer adventures.  After this we returned to the coach where Rich promptly broke back into the Bink beers from the prior day and the rest of the trip is a bit...blurry.  We did ride into and out of France a few times, where Johann claimed they drive much worse than in Belgium.  I would agree from the limited sample size I saw.

Next stop in the Belgian countryside was a small town that looked almost like any of the small towns I had seen in Ireland, just less sheep.  This is the hometown of Brasserie Dupont.  We were not able to get a tour of the brewery this day, but were able to stop at La Forge bar just down the road which is the official tasting room/cafe of the brewery.  We had the ever fantastic Saison Dupont, the Moinnette,  Avec Les Bons Voeux, and the Bio apple beer.  All very good, but I was feeling a bit over-full after all the beers I'd had that day.  I had small portions.  To take a quick break and get some fresh air, the guys all walked down the road to the actual Dupont building.  The brewery was pretty much closed at this time, and really is in an old, but large farmhouse.  There is a more modern addition, where a couple of attractive ladies with French accents let us in to buy some Dupont signs and glassware.

Then back on the bus, which seemed to have developed the ability to spin around sideways whilst driving forward at warp speed.  There was no more drinking of Bink beers on this leg of the trip.  Most of us were fairly passed out at this time.  An occasional loud comment about French drivers from Johann, and the smooth sounds of John Denver were all that I remember of this time.

My blacksmith friend Martin would love this place!

We arrived in Bruges right around dusk, checking into the very cool old Hotel Erasmus.  We had a comfortable bed with small pillows, (but not made of marble,) and an actual stand-up shower!  Our room had a small (2 by3 foot) look-out over the street with an excellent view of the bell tower on the main square.  Sj and I staggered about in the darkening streets looking for food, and then back to bed for the night.  More on Bruges later...

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