Saturday, May 31, 2014

Cantillon and The Night of Great Thirst: Beertrip Day 12

Day 12 of our Beertrip.  Getting close to the finish line here, but we still have some craziness in store!

Due to our previous late night of a Grand Sour Tasting at Moeder Lambic, Sj and I had a late start to the day.  After a somewhat leisurely breakfast and several well-needed cups of coffee, we headed out to wander the streets of Brussels.  We had been here about 2 years ago and had by no means seen all the sights.  So did we go to more museums and see more churches today?  Do not be ridiculous my friends!  No we had bigger game in our sights!

Brussels is known for it's comics (Tintin anyone?) and surprises abound around the city

Not to be sated after the previous night's sours we were headed for the Grand Daddy of all sour beer breweries--Cantillion!  The brewery is a fairly easy walk from the city center, through a predominantly middle eastern neighborhood, of less than beautiful architectural detail.  We arrived before noon at the brewery.  From the outside this is just a yellow painted building with a large barely marked warehouse door.  A smaller door opens into the brewery itself.  Contrary to the popular imaginary picture of lambic breweries opening their ceiling louvres to let in the wild yeast from a bucolic Belgian countryside, this place is smack dab in the middle of an urban neighborhood!  These guys have been brewing sour beers here since around 1900, using the same methods of open spontaneaous fermentation and barrel aging.  They have tried some unusual ingredients over time as well, but the process is very traditional. 

The Night of Great Thirst, a sour beer festival, was to occur this evening and many sour-heads from across the globe had travelled to the area to take part in that.  Like me, these folks wanted to get to Cantillon before hand!  The place was crowded and bustling with beer geeks of all nationalities, while poor brewery workers struggled to wheel palates of bottles past the throng.  They've made some changes in set up since our last trip out and now have a small tasting bar near the entrance where you can sample beers or order full bottles of the rare stuff.  We saw our favorite beer from them (possibly favorite beer ever), the Lou Pepe Kriek, up on the board.  We ordered the bottle and it came to us unlabeled and coated in a fine layer of dust, uncorked and lying at an angle in a long wicker basket. 

Beer geek heaven...

The place was packed and the small seating area was beyond full.  We managed to find one free stool near an old bartop in back, and set up Sj and the beer there.  We met Cody and Angela, some fellow sour-heads from Texas, while sitting there.  They were drinking a bottle of the Rhubarb Zwanse and we ended up doing a mini bottle share with them.  Later, on our way out, we ran into Mark, a fun guy from Chicago who knows more about beer than I ever will!  We had met him on our previous trip (also at Cantillon) and of course he was headed to the festival later that day as well.  This was a busy, but entertaining trip to visit the holy land of sour beer production.  Most of the rare beers for sale at the shop were long gone by the time we showed up, but we did end up getting a few bottles of the Kriek, Geueze and Rose de Gambrinus for smuggling back home in our luggage.  We'll always have Belgium, my Lou Pepe Kriek...

Moeder Lambic!

The route back home conveniently took us past Moeder Lambic's second location and we stopped there for a not-so-quick lunch of quiche for Sj and a meat and bread plate for me.  There I tried the Band of Brothers, a hoppy Belgian style IPA made by Brasserie de la Senne in collaboration with Moeder Lambic.  This was a very hoppy beer that I liked, since I hadn't had a really hoppy beer in almost 2 weeks, but may have pushed the limits for me.  Since it took a while to get our check, I ended up ordering a second beer, the Cantillion Iris Grand Cru on tap, which was much more mellow than the regular version.  I love this beer bar!

2 Cantillon twins at Moeder Lambic

Next we walked briskly back to the hotel to meet up with our tour group again before the festival.  We took a quick tour of Delerium Cafe, where three levels and uncountable beers waited for thirsty tourists.  Mike bought us a couple of cool beers including a bottle of Deus--the Champagne of Beer.

It was really dark down in the basement, but I was able to lighten up the picture a bit

We gathered all the ducklings in tow and ended up exactly where we had just left from: Moeder Lambic.  Oh the horror!  Back to the best beer bar in Brussels, oh no!  What were we to do?  Why order another beer of course!  Most of our group ordered food, but since Sj and I had just had a very late lunch we didn't need much more.  Mike shared a rare bottle of Italian IPA that was as good as most anything in the USA.  I was conserving my strength at this point, and just trying other people's beers.  Drinking a ton of beers just prior to a beer festival is a recipe for hurling later.  I may speak from past experience.

We finished our quick second lunch and beers and headed to the bus stop just a block away.  We caught a very crowded bus with no AC and were all shortly roasting in our own juices. Mark from Cantillon was with us on this trip and pointed out various functional and defunct Belgian breweries as we passed them.  The festival itself was held quite a bit outside town, about 30-45 minutes by sweltering bus-ride.  We actually ended up missing our stop and overshooting a bit.  Surprisingly this is the only time such a thing happened on the entire trip so I can't complain too much.  A few of our group were possibly a bit cranky about it, but we all rolled with it as best we could.  Other than Mark, I was probably the most excited about the sour beers, but hey stuff happens.  We waited on the other side of the highway about 35 minutes before the next bus going back picked us up and shortly dropped us at our missed stop. 

The Nacht van de Grote Dorst, or Night of Great Thirst, is a beer festival focusing entirely on sour beers, specifically traditional lambic, geueze, kriek, and other fruited lambics.  12 beer producers bring several of their beers, and they will usually host 1-3 foreign sour beer producers as well.  This festival is run very differently to any I have been to in the states so here is a little info I wish I had had prior to going.  Entrance to the festival is free, so there are no tickets, etc.  This results in a large amount of people showing up and no great way to limit attendance.  The place was a zoo!  They sell tokens for the beers at a separate area, as well as the tasting glass for sampling the beers.  Unlike most beer festivals, you actually buy a whole bottle of beer (instead of a small sample) with your tokens and take it out of the main tent.  The bottle cost ran from 14 tokens (Cantillon Fou Foune 750 ml) to 2 tokens (Timmermans Retro Kriek 10 oz).  So if you have fancy tastes you will burn through your tokens fast and end up with only two I did.  The party was in full swing by the time we arrived and some beers were already sold out (see above Fou Foune).  Sorry... I teared up a little bit there.  Ideally, for this type of event you have a big group of folks together and each get a couple bottles to share.

After our mishap getting to the fest and finding it a bit confusing and crowded three of our group decided they were over it and just wanted to head back to explore Brussels.  The extreme sour beer tasting we had the previous night may have been enough for them!  As a result we ended up with a smaller group than expected for our bottle sharing.  There were not many tables available, so we wandered around wielding our full bottles of beer for a while until we managed to take over a corner of a larger table.  Another, quite large, tour group had staked out that table for themselves and had quite a spread of bottles there already.  We ended up sharing our beers with a few of them, especially a nice couple from California.   

Festival goers before things got really crowded...

Later I learned that most of the breweries were serving small pours of unblended lambics and Krieks for 1 token, so Hassan and I went foraging for some of those.  While the results were not as amazing or complex as the finished products, this was a rare chance to taste the "young" versions of these famous beers.  Interestingly, the Lindemans and Timmermans versions were quite tart and sour--way better than the back sweetened cloyingly sweet final beers they sell.  By the time we figured out about these little gems, the main tent was packed wall to wall with increasingly boisterous folks.  Entering at the same time, Hassan and I were swept away from each other in the merciless tide of humanity like flotsam from a wrecked ship caught in a tidal wave.  In line in front of me to try the pours of Girardin Kriekenlambic were a duo of big drunk guys in Italian rugby jerseys.  When it was my turn to get a pour, a third--even bigger and drunker--guy pushed me out of the way and snaked the last pour.  I was angry, but not about to lose teeth in a fight with most of an Italian rugby team!

Eventually the Belgian Beer Me tour group had to leave and left several partially full bottles behind at our shared table.  So we folk took over and tried them.  Thanks guys!  We invited a really pleasant couple from Sweden to share in our ill-gotten spoils as well and hung out a while longer. 

Honestly, we tried probably 30 sour beers that night.  Everything by Cantillion was amazing.  Most of the beers from Boon, 3 Fontainen, Hanssens, De Cam, and Girardin were very good.  Newcomer Tilquin was very popular and they had a special beer made with plums that was impressive.  Some of the breweries were not as impressive, but when we were low on tokens we were able to get more bottles of these for cheap: Timmermans, Lindemans, De Troch, Mort Subite.  Most of the ones we didn't like were overly back sweetened--maybe more popular internationally, but not at a sour beer festival!  I was very excited to get to try Allagash Coolship Red and Cerise at this event.  It took me going to another country to get to try one of America's finest sour breweries!  Both of those were on a par with almost anything at the festival. 

We eventually ran out of tokens and most of the beers were gone, so it was time to head home on a crowded bus full of drunk folk.  A large group of guys boarded after us, their bags full of unopened bottles clinking with motion.  Probably all full of my treasured Fou Foune.  I really enjoyed this festival, but I think they may be getting to popular (big) to keep running it in quite the same way.  They could certainly not allow folks to take home bottles to avoid all of the stands selling out of the cool stuff so early.  I actually preferred the bottle sharing method of events back home such as Where The Wild Beers Are where you donate one or more rare sour beers to gain entry to the event and get first crack at tasting the beer you brought when they open it. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

30 Word Thursday: Religion

Ornate iron spirals and spikes
Surround the symbol of Western religion.
Vaulted arches rise above, inspiring a gaze to the Heavens.
A solid gate, denying entry to the casual traveler.
This is my contribution to the 30 Word Thursday Blog Hop hosted by Erin at her Treasures Found Blog.  The idea is simple, use a picture and write a poem/haiku/description in exactly 30 words.  Check this link to see this week's other entries.  My picture this week was from a church in Maastricht, Netherlands.  I wanted to explore this remarkable place, but found my way barred by this beautiful but nonetheless effective gate.  One could enter by paying in Euros and pictures were not allowed inside.  I decided to make the best of it by instead recording the moment in a photo.  Read what you want into this one!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Kerkom, Jandrain-Jandrenouille, Brussels! Beertrip Day 11

Day 11 of our epic beer filled journey across The Netherlands and Belgium:

We awoke early in the morning after a long night of debauchery the evening prior.  We were on the motorcoach by 10 AM and on our way out of Maastricht and back to Belgium. 

Our first stop this morning was the Brouwerij Kerkom.  This is one of the few places that we visited this trip and our visit two years ago.  It was a high point of both trips!  The brewery itself is located in an old coaching inn, and the stone watering troughs for horses still hug the walls of the inner courtyard.  The site used to be a brewery in the past, but because it has not been continually run, it does not qualify for grandfathering out of modern brewery specifications.  Some old family run breweries like Cantillon and Vapeur are able to continue functioning without upgrading all of their equipment.  Mark at Kerkom has been in a battle to get clearance to run a brewery out of this building complex for many years.  He has an unused stainless steel brew system and fermentation tanks sitting in his ancient brick building, just waiting for the go-ahead to get fired up.  For now he has his beers brewed at another nearby brewery under contract. 

Brand new brewhouse gathering dust...

This visit we met with Mark and his wonderful wife in the cozy tasting room.  A large group of bikers arrived around the same time so things were a little busy for the couple.  The bikers stayed out in the courtyard and mostly drank Cokes (really?) so they didn't interfere with our beer enjoyment!  We started with a large stemware glass of Bink Blonde: and amazingly balanced hoppy Belgian pale ale.  This is one of my all time favorite Belgian ales and I sincerely wish we could get it in Minnesota.  We moved on with smaller glasses of all their other Bink beers: Bink Brown, the Spring seasonal Bink Blossom (made with honey and pear syrup), Kerkomse Tripel.  All were fantastic!  They also brew the dry and slightly herbal Adelardus Double, an Abbey style beer brewed with hops, candi sugar and gruit spice mixture.  The Adelardus Tripel was the overall fan favorite from our group, also made with gruit.  We also discovered a new Hop Verdomme (hops be damned!) a hoppy Belgian IPA, made as a better balanced response to American IPA's.  We finished with a wonderfully strong and flavorful "Christmas" beer the Winterkoninkske Grand Cru.  I  have a bottle of this at home waiting for a special occasion! 

Such a great tour group!

For an early lunch we were served gargantuan slices of soft dark bread, cheeses and pates all made with Kerkom beers.  Simple fare but so fulfilling!  Having learned our lessons last trip, we paced ourselves better this visit and did not leave the place reeling drunk!  I love the hospitality, rustic feel and amazing beers at Kerkom.

Can you say "really old farm?"

Our next visit via coach was another farm house brewery, but a much more recent arrival on the scene: Brasserie de Jandrain-Jandrenouille.  This was a walled defensible farmhouse, surrounded by fields and pastures.  Alexandre the brewer was kind enough to meet with us and take us on an extensive tour of his 2006 modern brewhouse.  He actually is an importer of hops into Belgium from the US as his day job, so this jump to brewing on his own wasn't a surprising one!  He does use a fair amount of American hops in his beer, but also uses traditional European varieties.  He was very engaging and full of technical knowledge that made me very happy (and perhaps some of my tour mates to glaze over).

Farmhouse dog looking over his domain
A great brewer shows us around his brewery!

We finished the tour with a tasting of several of his bottled beers in a second story room overlooking the courtyard.  Most of the beers are named after Roman numerals and have very artistic labels from a local painter.  Unsurprisingly all are variations on the Saison/Farmhouse styles.  The wit was much hoppier than I expected, but still quite good.  The others were also all bright, refreshing and very dry.  I was a happy camper after visiting this little gem of a brewery.  I know they are just hitting their stride as a brewery, but I think once the American market catches on to them, they will be very popular...if anyone here can figure out how to pronounce the name…

After the amazing hospitality of two farmhouse breweries in the hinterlands of Belgium we were off the bustling city of Brussels.  We booked into our NH hotel and quickly hit the busy streets to find sustenance.  The hotel is very close to the city center and most of the touristy sites are an easy walk from there.  Some of our group ended up at a streetside mediteranean place for quick pitas.  We met back up shortly after disbanding and headed ended up catching two cabs to our post-dinner appointment with Jean at Moeder Lambic in another region of the city.

Moeder Lambic has been a beer bar for 25 years, changing hands a few times over the years.  Currently it is owned by Jean Hummler and since 2006 has been increasingly devoted to craft beers and lambics in particular.  Jean has close ties with many of the local craft and small brewers, even with some brewers in Italy, Spain and the US.  Last time we were there, Jean Van Roy from Cantillon stopped by with a hand delivered shipment.  This is THE place to be for serious beer geeks in Brussels.  They have a newer separate location near the city center as well.  We ended up in the brick and old wood lined basement for this tasting.  There is a large oaken table and bench style chairs in the center of this dimly lit cave.  The walls around you are lined with hundreds of well organized bottles of mostly Belgian beers.  No Stella here my friends!  The dripping of distant water, the flap of cobwebs in the limited breeze, all added to the ambiance of something unique and special we were to embark upon.

This evening we had possibly the most epic and impressive sour beer tasting I have ever taken part in (except for Quintessence at Cantillon last time we were in Brussels.)  Our group was adventurous but many had never really had much experience with sours and this was a serious "throw them into the deep end and see if they sink or swim" type of experience.  For me this was a true Beer Nirvana.  Jean is incredibly passionate about beer, and especially the local lambics and sour beers.  In between beers he was able to lecture and discuss the history and mechanics of sour beer production, local politics, brewer anecdotes, and much more.  He is a treasure trove of knowledge. 

We had some stinky cheeses and meats to pair with our beers, but I am very glad we had wolfed down some real food prior to coming--something we learned the hard way last time we did this!  Our tasting started around 7 PM and I think we left the place after midnight. Epic!

We started out with Biere Darbyste from Brasserie de Blaugies.  This is a lower alcohol beer brewed with figs.  We first tried the 1 year old version that was bright and saison-like with a distinct mild fig flavor to it.   Then we tried the 20 year old bottle that Jean had discovered, making us guinea pigs of sorts.  The first beer was one of the best I had tried so far this trip, but the 1994 version was insane!  It had definite brettanomyces funk to it, and the fruit had faded quite a bit, but the complexity in such a light beer was astounding!  This was similar to trying young and old Orval, but much more impressive.  That and trying a beer from before I was legal to drink was a feat in itself!

We tried a couple of Oud Bruins and Flanders reds to ease us into the more sour beers to come.  The Brouwers Verzet is a newer brewery putting out that style of beer and the taste was great, but much of our bottles foamed all over the place!  The Rodenbach Caractere Rouge Batch 1 was a crazy sour Flanders Red with cherry and cranberries and well worth a try.  I was excited to try the Rodenbach Vin de Cereal 2004 but it was like a sour barleywine with way too hot of an alcohol burn.  We all dumped that it.  To give Jean credit, he didn't want to serve that one to us, but we wanted to try it anyway! 

We moved to Tilquin Geueze for a newer classic style Brussels sour, and that was very pleasant.  I will be looking for this one! 

Next we did an amazing side by side tasting of three Krieks.  The 3 Fontainen Intense Red from 2012 was (as expected) intense with the cherry flavor, but sweeter and not as tart as some.  This is actually made with regular cherries, but in massive amounts.  The 3 Fontainen Shaerbeekse Kriek is made with only the rare tart cherries from Belgium and was very tart and well rounded with a strong sourness.  To finish this trio was the Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek from 2008.  This is also made with the Shaerbeekse cherries and is one of the most sought after sour beers in the world.  And rightly so!  This one blew our minds, taking the sourness and incredible cherry flavor to new levels.  The undisputed winner by far.  Prior to our tasting Jean had already done two other beer events and wasn't really drinking along with us, just making sure the beer was good before serving to us.  The Lou Pepe, however, he served to himself as well.  No one is going miss tasting that beer!  One of my top 5 beers of all time for sure.

Kriek Trifecta!

By this time my cohorts were starting to get soured out.  And sleepy.  But Jean had pulled out a couple other rare beers and I was NOT going to home without tasting those crazy treats!  We tried herbal and tart wonder that is elderflower infused Cantillion Mamouche.  We marched boldy on and sampled the remarkable Cantillion Zwanze 2012 which is fermented with rhubarb.  And our final beer on this forced march to sour beer Mecca was Cantillon 50 Degrees N - 4 Degrees E.  This is a very unusual beer from Cantillon in that it is aged in a cognac barrel.  There is a lemony note to it up front, and pretty mellow compared to some of the sours they do, but has an interesting boozy finish that is subtle.  We actually took this bottle upstairs to the main bar with us to wait for cabs home.  Hassan and I finished it off while the rest of our crew took naps.  We ran into the young brewer for Tilquin at that point and knowing he would appreciate it I made sure he got a sample of our beer.

We were back at our hotel by 1 AM.  This was an amazing night that shall remain in my memory for years to come.  And if I forget I can read this post again!

Up Next:  Cantillon and the Night of Great Thirst!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Maastricht! Beertrip day 10

Beertrip day 10! 

Maastricht central square is bustling with churches

Back in The Netherlands, in the beautiful city of Maastricht, we began with a sunny and wonderful day.  Gone were to overcast skies and spitting rain of the previous day.  We gathered for a light breakfast in our hotel's main building and met up with our group for a 10:30 AM walking tour of the old city.  Our tour guide was a very put-together middle aged lady who really knew her local history.  She pointed out many small details around us that we never would have noticed or known the meaning of.  She showed us inscriptions on walls, decorative lintels, metal stumbling blocks to commemorate the dead from Nazi death camps, and much more.  She took us into a large hotel that had discovered Roman ruins in the basement when they tried to renovate.  The ruins have been preserved into a little in-situ museum in an unexpected place!  Several of the old churches in the city have been de-sanctified and turned into cafes and even a huge bookstore, making shopping here an even more enticing prospect.

World's coolest bookstore!  Sj is in heaven here...

Creepy much?  Inside the Red Church

When our official tour was over, our group was hungry and thirsty.  I know you are shocked by that!  We ended up at the Café De Zwaan (Swan) sitting outside along one of the main squares in the city.  We had some local frites (not as good as Belgian) and then a beer at the café.  I had a Witkap Tripel that was one of my favorite tripels of the visit.  A street market was set up in the square and we wandered around looking at produce, flowers, arts, crafts and other items for a time.  The sun was high and riotous colors abounded around us. 


Sj and I split up on our own for some more aimless wandering.  We visited several large and intricate churches, taking pictures when it wasn't rude to do so.  We paid a small fee to climb the 70 meter tall tower of St. John's Church (or Red Church as it is commonly known).  This was a tight and twisty climb, but not as insane as the Bell Tower in Bruges.  We randomly met up with Chris and Hassan at the top, after taking in the great views of the city below us.  I am deathly afraid of heights, but this was still very cool.  As long as I clutched the red wall next to me with a death grip! 

Optical illusion in sidewalk chalk, seen from the roof of the Red Church

We walked back to the hotel for a quick change--that climb and subsequent walk across the city had been a good work-out!  From there we walked over the old stone bridge across the River Maas and took in the sights on the other side of town.  On the way back we crossed the river again, but this time on a very large and modern pedestrian bridge.  While I feel slightly badly that we didn't go visit museums or anything especially cultural, we did get a very good feel for the city sights and enjoyed the sunny day to its fullest.

Modern pedestrian bridge over the River Maas

Café Frape!  550 beers from around the world!

To reward ourselves for our day of walking, we settled into some chairs in front of the Café Frape, looking out at the river with a great view of the sparkling water and the stone bridge.  The owner was an older fellow who was very attentive to us when we arrived.  He handed us a list of over a hundred beers, including many Belgian, Netherlands and even some American craft beers.  Sj and I were having a hard time deciding and he was more than happy to make a decision for us.  With a couple of questions to see what type of beer we were in the mood for, he left and then promptly returned with some beery treasures!  Since I told him I wanted something dark and maybe roasty, he brought me De Ranke Noir De Dottignies--a very tasty and flavorful Belgian style strong stout. 

For Sj, who wanted a sour, he brought the wonderfully tart and refreshing Tilquin Geueze.  Eventually our tour-mate Arthur wandered by and joined us for another round.  We all watched the bikers zipping past us on the path, taking advantage of the warm and rainless weather.  I ended up also trying an Emelisse Espresso Stout--a very American style beer from a small craft brewery in Holland. 

Fully relaxed, for possibly the first time in a week, we all headed across the river again to a an Indonesian restaurant.  The meal was served family style with large bowls of rice and noodles and multiple small dishes to share.  The flavors were all unusual and fun to try, and this was a perfect dinner for an adventurous group like ours. 

For those dog lovers out there!

We had hoped to end our night at Take One, a famous beer bar just down the road, but it was closed that particular day.  We ended up a nearby bar, the Tapperij de Pashoorm, sitting outside in the gathering dusk.  We shared a few more beers amongst the group, including a couple decent Herkenrode beers and a Tripel Moine.

Dusk falls over beer travelers!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

30 Word Thursday: Thorns

A monolithic stone wall defended the ancient city.
Now coiled iron thorns protect this rocky eminence.
Time and man have not been gentle.
Life and beauty persist and thrive here.

This week's 30 Word Thursday entry pic was taken along the old city wall in Maastrict, Netherlands.  The wall and it's wildlife are protected from human predation now, but not a lot is left of it.  I saw many wild flowers, land snails, even wild arugula forming a small but unusual ecosystem in the center of the city!  Check out this week's other 30 Word Thursday entries at Erin's Blog Hop Here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rulles, Val-Dieu, Maastrict! Beertrip Day 9

Our trip across Belgium and back into The Netherlands continues:

Day 9 of our trip began with a short motorcoach ride from our hotel in the Ardennes to the small town brewery of La Rulles.  At around 10:30 AM our tour group met with Olivier at the brewery and he gave us an extensive tour.  We started with the new expanded brewery, a more modern brewhouse and packaging facility that has only been open for a short time.  This looked pretty much like any modern stainless steel brewhouse, and several employees were working on bottling up a batch while we were there.  Interestingly, the brewery only uses American hops, and we saw boxes upon boxes of them in the cold room. 

La Rulles

After our tour of the new brewhouse we entered the old brewery building (and I do mean old!) where we all settled down at a rough picnic table for some tasting.  It was a bit damp and chilly there and also fairly early in the morning to be drinking strong Belgian ales, but hey we were troopers!

Modern brewhouse at La Rulles

We began with the La Rulles Blonde, a 7% ABV beer with a notable hoppy citrus nose and flavor.  This one reminded me a lot of the Bink Blonde.  I would love to find more of these hoppy blonde Belgian ales in the states but most don't make to our shores.  I guess I'm going to have to brew on myself!  The 6.5% ABV La Rulles Brune was up next and had a pleasant slightly chocolate character and enough hop to keep this interesting.  A lot different from the other browns I had in Belgium.  The Tripel was next and also somewhat hoppy for the style, but sweeter than the previous beers.  We finished with the Estivale--a lower gravity hoppy beer that was very bright and refreshing.  I would love to drink that beer on my deck in the summertime!

Lovely beers, tasted in a cold dark room!

This was a great tour and I really enjoyed all of the beers.  These guys are certainly taking some risks with using American hops in a noble hop growing region of the world, but I think they are making fantastic beer.  A few of our tour group were hop haters (Carol, Kevin and Sj) and were not as thrilled as I with these beers.

Now that it was getting toward lunch time and we had all been drinking for the past hour, we stopped in Bastogne for some food.  This area is notorious for being the site of the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge in World War 2.  The city has several monuments to the soldiers who died here including a full sized tank in the central square and the 101st Airborne Museum.  My Grampy Ted was infantry in WW2, stationed not far from there in the Ardennes, and seeing these things really brought a swell of pride and sadness to me.  He never talked much about the war, but in later life he had reconnected with some of his old collegues from The Pathfinders.  I miss him greatly.  I think we in America have moved on, but being in a city like this, where monuments have been built to commemorate being liberated from Nazi control, you realize how recent and frightening that really was. 

We ended up in La Brasseries Lamborelle, a very small pub boasting over 100 beers.  They have a special beer contract brewed for them called Airborne that is served in a ceramic mug shaped like an upside down combat helmet.  Our traveling companion Arthur was the brave soul who ordered this specialty--the beer wasn't great but the presentation was excellent.  We had a very nice lunch of Italian specialties and a few great beers.  I had the always pleasant Chimay Blue since I had tried all the other Trappist beers by this time in our trip.  I was again blown away by the fact that so many of these tiny pubs had unexpectedly good kitchens putting out fancy restaurant quality meals.  The treacherous stairs down to the bathrooms in this place were so narrow and twisting that it was almost a spiral ladder rather than a stairway.  I figured this was just the bar's way of weeding out the drunk or overly large patrons.

After brief stop in Bostogne, we headed for Val-Dieu.  This is a brewery that is located in an old Cistercian Abbey founded in 1216.  Yeah, 1216.  Pretty mind boggling how old things are over in Europe!  Apparently the valley was called The Valley of the Devil by locals, but was renamed the Valley of God (or Val-Dieu) by the monks.  This was the only Belgian abbey that wasn't sacked during the French revolution.  The beer is not brewed by monks and this is not considered a Trappist brewery, but the beer is really brewed on the grounds of the abbey.  Supposedly the beers are based off of old recipes from when the monks really did brew their own beer.  The brewing water used comes from springs that supply many of the bottled water companies in Belgium, and we drank plenty of that on our trip!


We stopped for some gratuitous lamb photography out in front of the Abbey, then wandered around the grounds of the Basilica, park and courtyard.  Unfortunatly the weather was getting overcast and spitting rain off and on so pictures turned out a bit dark.  We were able to get a few peeks into active brewing areas.  It was quite odd to see a modern stainless steel fermentation tank sitting right next to or within a building that was hundreds of years old.

The enormous gears in the mill building

We eventually found ourselves in an old mill building that has been converted into a taproom/restaurant and were able to try all of the beers.  The mill equipment and the external water wheel have all been preserved and this was a cool space to drink!  There was also an outdoor patio out back for nicer weather drinking.  In short succession we shared the Val-Dieu beers amongst our group.  The Blonde, Bruin and Tripel were all very clean and ended dry and refreshing for increasingly higher alcohol content.  The overwhelming winner was the Grand Cru though, with deep complexity but still maintaining a dry finish.  This was actually one of the overall best breweries we visited for overall beer quality.

Wish my luggage was bigger...

Once we had our fix of fine Abbey beers, we rolled back into the motorcoach for a short jaunt to our final destination of Maastricht.  Right as we were being dropped off from the coach, the rains really pounded us, drenching all of us on our mad dash to the hotel a block away.  We eventually finished the checking in process and split up to find our rooms.  The hotel was actually several larger suites of rooms scattered over a few different buildings, and our room was quite large, more like a one room apartment.  The rain had stopped by now and we headed back outside to find dinner.  Most of our group ended up right next door at the Grand Café d'Artagnon, a small pub with a Dutch or German feel to it's aged wood and décor.  They didn't have a great beer list but had a couple of decent local Hertog Jan lagers on tap that were lower in alcohol and went well with our dinners.  I had another excellent and upscale meal that one would never expect to be served in such a place.  We need to step up our game in the States--no more sliders and fries in our shady bars!

I want the Smurf flavored Gelato!

With many of our group separated out to eat or sleep, Mike, Chris, Hassan, Sj and I all ended up at another local beer bar for a nightcap.  The Café 't Pothuiske was close to our hotel and had about 50-100 different beers to choose from.  I ended up with a Boon Oude Geueze for a little sour finish to the day.  Sj won that round by getting the paper wrapped Flanders red Liefman's Guodenband.  What a day!  Off to bed for now.

A nightcap!

Coming Up:  Maastricht by day and more beers!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

To Rochefort! Beertrip Day 8

Day 8 of our trip was a travel day, so we were fed, packed and on the motor coach  at 10 AM.  Our first stop was the town of Rochefort, home of the illustrious Trappist monastery and brewery.  We jumped off the bus and headed into a somewhat upscale French style café called La Gourmandise for an early lunch.  No one in the restaurant spoke much English so we had a bit of a time figuring out the menus.  Sj and I ended up sharing a Trio of Duck, with preparations of duck confit, foie gras and carpaccio.  That dish was very small but intensely flavorful.  We also shared a charcuterie plate of local hams, pate made with Rochefort 8, questionable meat jello, and some greens.  This was actually one of my favorite meals on the trip.  I'm a sucker for cured meats and duck!

Meat and Beer, a match made in Heaven!

We paired this wonderfully meaty repast with Rochefort 6, 8, and 10.  For those who haven't tried these beers, you should go buy one of each and drink them in that order.  The 6 is a lighter dry brown ale that is very refreshing and goes well with many foods.  The 8 is a bit stronger and corresponds to the dry end of a Belgian Dubbel.  The 10 is a complex quadruple with tons of dark fruit, candy sugar and maltiness.  I have had 10's aged 8-10 years and they only get better with time.  There is certainly something to drinking a Trappist ale knowing you are only a mile from the place it is monks!  I tried to ask our waitress where I could find a Rochefort beer sign in town and she indicated a place  few blocks down the street.  Later, when I went upstairs to visit the bathroom, I discovered a little shop upstairs that was selling signs, glasses and bottles of beer hiding up there!  So I bought a sign for my basement bar to go with the Chimay and Orval signs I already have.

We had a few minutes to wander the cute little town before we met up with our motor coach again.  Just a short jaunt and we were at the Rochefort Abbey.  This particular day it was the Monday after Easter, a big holiday in Belgium, and the place was virtually abandoned.  We took advantage of the silent and nearly empty grounds to peek around and sneak some pictures.  We were able to briefly infiltrate the church and look around as well but didn't want to bother any of the monks so took off fairly quickly.  This was a truly  beautiful and relaxing place.

Brewhouse at Rochefort?

Next we traveled to over rolling hills and into forested areas to Chiny, a tiny pastoral resort town in the Ardennes.  Our hotel Comtes De Chiny, was an old resort hotel nestled right on the bank of the sparkling Semios river.  We checked in and happily found our rooms to be fairly recently updated.  We all split up to unpack and explore the environs.  There wasn't much going on in the town, but there were several paths along the river and into the forest which Sj and I ended up hiking.  At one point along the river trail I was able to spot a very large trout jumping entirely out of the water!  I was hoping the trout would have a ring in its mouth like in the legend of Orval, but no such luck.  I camped out with my camera, waiting for a repeat performance but to no avail.  There was also a photogenic hotel cat that was quite excited to follow around hotel guests.

Our hotel on the river!

Our dinner was at the hotel restaurant that evening.  I am always a bit hesitant about hotel restaurants, and the kitchen for this place looked pretty small, but the meal was remarkable!  They paired full bottles of beer with the courses and we were all quickly full and happy.  The first course was a salad with shaved local ham, perfectly roasted squab, shaved carrot and shaved asparagus.  This was paired with a Hotteuse Grand Cru, a dry and mellow tripel that paired very well with the complex flavors in the salad.  The second course was a roasted and sliced duck breast that rivaled any I have ever had in my life.  A Rochefort 8 was flavorful enough to stand up to the duck and dry enough to clear the palate after the rich meat.  Next they served up a gargantuan cheese board of various local delicacies that my lactose intolerant body was unable to fully partake in.  The bretty aged 2011 Orval (back to the trout!) was wonderful with these tiny tastes of cheeses and I would recommend it for pairing with most cheese.  Desert was a rich but thankfully small dome of chocolate mouse paired with the slightly too sweet Duchess de Borgogne.  For a finisher the staff brought us their last bottle of La Safranaise to share.  This was an incredible artisanal Belgian ale brewed with saffron flowers and had a subtle yellow color and saffron flavor without being a gimmick beer.

So good!

So after such an outstanding meal and great beers we were all half asleep and very full!  We didn't have far to go, but those stairs are steep!

Bonus Hotel Cat picture!

Next Up:  Rulles, Bastogne, Val Dieu, Maastricht!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Castles, Gruits, and Trolls!: Beertrip Day 7

Continuing the epic journey across Belgium to find great beer:

Castle Gravensteen

Defensible walls!

Our final day in Ghent was a free day on the tour.  We did spend much of it with our 5 tour mates and guide though.  We explored the grounds of the 1180 AD Castle Gravensteen in the morning, checking out the decorative and utilitarian ancient weapons and the disturbing torture devices within its dark halls. 

I need this!  Where is my blacksmith friend Marty when I need him!

After our brief lives reliving the Crusades (OK it was built after that time period) we separated up for some individual wandering.  Sj and I walked the canal and the back streets, also getting a better look at Mad Meg the enormous red cannon.  There has to be a children's book in that somewhere…

Mad Meg!

We ended up at a street side café listening to a street busker play some sort of weird brass drum contraption.  I enjoyed a complex and dark St. Bernardus 12, paired with a Belgian waffle for lunch.  This light lunch was followed by more aimless wandering.  While I enjoy having destinations and scheduled visits, there is certainly something exciting about stumbling upon something wonderful while walking about the streets of such a historic city.

At two in the afternoon we met up with our group at the only Ghent brewery, Gruut.  I had seen this on line and been intrigued, so this was my contribution to the beer events in Ghent.  The brewery is in a building right along one of the canals, but a bit off the beaten track.  The building itself was a strange mix of the old (pictures, old tiles, antediluvian brew system,) and the new (an actual stream water feature running right through the building and along the floor tile, and urinals shaped like mouths.)  Interestingly, the fermenters were sideways tanks and they had actually built a raised seating area over them to make better use of the building space.

We ordered some meat and cheese trays to go with our drinks.  With the exception of the Inferno, all of their beers are brewed without hops, according to the medieval way of doing things--using a mixture of herbs to bitter instead.  I've had several commercial and homebrewed versions of gruits in the past and only Tim Roets' version from Byggvir's Big Beer Cup a few years back was balanced well.  Most tend to be somewhat disgusting and over spiced.  The beers from Gruut were so drinkable that I would not have known they were unhopped beers! 

Gruit beers all in a row!

The do offer samplers of the beers so I got to try them all without getting trashed.  The Wit was pretty classic for the style with strong coriander and orange peel flavors--this was the most "gruity" of their beers.  The Blonde was pale in color and had a slightly herbal note, but easy to drink.  The brown was actually brewed with nuts and some of that nutty tannic character came across in the beer.  The amber was a bit buttery and I did not love it.  The Inferno was their version of a Duvel and did have some hops in it--very smooth but very high in alcohol.  Not a bad place to visit at all! 

Thirsty trolls peer from all around you...

After visiting a medieval castle, in a medieval city, and drinking medieval beer, we headed to another unusual beer destination looking for trolls:  De Trollenkelder!  This was yet another small and ancient pub in a land of such, but stands out for their décor and impressive beer list.  They actually have a newspaper style beer list that includes history and taxonomy of trolls, beer reviews and interviews, something that I would love to see at our beer bars here in the states!  We ended up sitting on the street, trading sips of many fine beers that afternoon, with frizzy haired trolls looking down upon us from the windows above.  I first tried one of the few tap beers: the bright and somewhat hoppy Easter beer from Chouffe called Soleil.  That one was pretty good, but I had to finish with a Cantillon Geueze...because it was there!

After all of this Sj and I split up from the group to do our own thing for dinner and ended up having a most awful experience at an Italian pizza place next to our hotel called Le Mystic.  With terrible service, lost orders, burnt food and a serious resistance by the waitress to make it better, this was for sure the worst eating experience we had in Belgium.  This is the last time I decide to go against the wishes of the group!  With a poor end to the day we went to bed fairly early this evening, eager to start a new day.