Peter and I met my mom at the airport on Thursday morning, picked up the rental car, and made our way back to Couthuin. The entire way, my mom kept saying, “There’s no way I would’ve found this by myself.” Belgium may be small, but it's very easy to get lost. I’ve never felt more thankful for smartphones with GPS.
That afternoon when we arrived at the brewery, Tanguy asked Peter and I to experiment with various spices, including grains of paradise, cardamom, ground ginger, coriander, woodruff, and orange peel for a new beer. This new brew, called Timber, will be a darker, more full-bodied beer compared to Leopold 7 Classic. With this in mind, Peter and I took six different spices and infused them in three different temperatures of water: cold, boil for 1 minute, and boil for 10 minutes, to extract the same flavors as the actual boil of the brewing process.
Friday morning, Peter, my mom, and I embarked on a busy weekend where we visited Bruges and several incredible breweries along the way. In this post, I will discuss each brewery in detail, and dedicate my next post to Bruges.
During this ceremony, individuals who have made significant strides to the brewing profession, especially with Belgian beer, were “knighted.” On her plane ride over, my mom sat next to the husband of a woman who was receiving her knighthood status, so that’s how we learned about this ceremony in the first place. Hopefully, we’ll be able to return to Brussels another year to experience the Belgian Beer Weekend.
Location: 30 minute north of Brussels by car (between Brussels and Antwerp)
Tour: The tour was approximately 1 hour and another hour was allotted for tasting. The tasting consisted of two full pours of a wide selection of beers in the Duvel Moortgat family & cheese.
Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and began the tour with a short video and then by explaining the brewing process in depth. He then led us through the brewery where we got to look inside the kettles and awe in the glory of the large fermentation tanks. I found the bottling system the most impressive part of the brewery, as I am accustomed to Brasserie de Marsinne’s small set-up, Duvel devoted an entire room at least 8 times the size of Marsinne alone solely to bottling. I was especially surprised to find that Duvel also reuses their bottles. (Turns out, basically all Belgian breweries reuse their bottles).
Visiting Duvel was not my favorite tour, but not my least favorite, either. I am partially bias because I love the charm of smaller breweries, and Duvel was, by far, the largest brewery that we toured. Peter, on the other hand, loved the tour and confidently states that this stop was his favorite. I believe this visit offered a nice contrast to the other smaller breweries in Belgium.
Location: Directly south of Ghent; about 1 hour from Brussels by car
Tour: The tour lasts about 1 hour tour and 1 hour is alloted for a tasting of three beers & cheese made with Moinette blonde.
Our tour guide was a charming young woman from Namur who led us through the quaint brewery. I was surprised to see how small the brewery was, considering their production is 21,000 hectoliters a year (that’s 7 times the size of Brasserie de Marsinne). The brewery was split into many rooms, as multiple rooms were dedicated to fermenters and brewing kettles. Some of the rooms had very low ceilings- I noticed some of the taller men in the group having to duck their heads to avoid hitting the ceiling!
I fell in love with the story behind Dupont. In a nutshell, the brewery has been family owned since 1920, and the family intends to keep it that way. Each year, they honor their cleints with a bottle of Bons Voeux (Good Wishes) and also have a line of organic beers. In addition, as most breweries keep their yeast at a university, they store their yeast at the brewery and propagate it as needed. Another fun fact about the yeast they use: it ferments at 34 degrees Celsius (compared to most ale yeasts that ferment between 20-22 degrees Celsius). That’s a pretty special fungus.
Beer: I tried Bon Voeux, Saison Dupont Biologique, and Biere de Mel. I loved all three and was surpsied to notice a difference between the organic and non-organic version of Saison Dupont. I am not sure exactly what imparts this flavor difference, if it is the grain, the hops, or some other part of the process, but I think I preferred the non-organic version.
We all had a great time and purchased many fun items in the gift shop (at really good prices, too- a shirt was only 8 euros!). I ended up getting a shirt, a sweatshirt, and glassware because we were having that good of a time.
Before leaving, we were presented with our “discovery pack” that included six bottles of their most popular beers. Yummy!
Location: 20 minute drive southeast of Ghent (in a cute little village called Melle)
Tour: The tour lasts about 1 hour and the time allowed for tasting seemed unlimited. Our tour guide, an older man who volunteers his time to give tours of the brewery, told us that he dedicates his time as a way to get free beer. Smart man, as there’s plenty of beer to go around at Brouwerij Huyghe.
The tour started out with an information video, and then our tour guide led us around the brewery. We started in the milling room, and made our way all the way through bottling and storage of the beer. Visiting this brewery was a sharp contrast to Brasserie Dupont, as Huyghe produces over 43,000 hectoliters of beer each year. All in all, the tour was pretty standard, except for the large pink elephants plastered on the walls of almost every room.
Overall Experience: The tour was mediocre, but the tastings were excellent. It was very nice that our tour guide gave everyone the opportunity to taste all the beers. They also had a small, but well-stocked gift shop where we purchased some glassware and shirts. Who doesn’t love the pink elephant?
Location: St. Bernardus is located about an hour southwest of Bruges by car (very near the border of France). As we approached the brewery, we spotted acres of hop vines and knew we must be in the right place. September is hop-harvesting season, and these hop vines looked full and ready for harvest. Turns out, harvest would begin the following day.
Tour: The tour itself lasts 45 minutes, plus about 45 minutes for tasting. Overall, the tour was comprehensive and thorough. Our tour guide gave us all of the interesting and relevant information regarding the brewery, she wasted no time with sales pitches or useless facts – my type of tour.
She also explained the connection between St. Bernardus and the Sint Sixtus Abbey of Westvleteren that brews the famous Westvleteren XII, which is regarded as the “best beer in the world.” From 1946 to 1992, St. Bernardus had the license to brew under the Sint Sixtus name. Since 1992, St. Bernardus has continued to brew under their own name, using the same recipes, only a different yeast strain. Basically, the only difference between St. Bernardus’s Abt 12 and Westvleteren XII is the yeast strain.
Location: Westvleteren is only about 20 minutes from St. Bernardus, so, of course, we stopped by to try the “best beer in the world.” There are only two points of legal sale of Westvleteren beers: the café called In de Vrede and the monestary itself (if you make an appointment weeks in advance). However, resale does happen, as at most of the larger markets or beer shops sell Westvleteren beers, for a markup of at least 400 percent. I’ll admit, Peter and I did pick up a couple of these Trappist bottles at a store in Brussels.
Driving out to Westvleteren requires a journey on several small, one-lane roads. On our way out there, I constantly made sure we were on the right path as it seemed that we were in the middle of nowhere- and we were. Then all of a sudden, we arrived at the Abbey and across the street there was a packed parking lot and signs to In de Vrede. We struggled to find a table inside and we soon discovered that this was the local watering hole as the café was mainly packed with older people speaking Dutch.
Tour: None available
Overall Experience: In de Vrede does not offer a full menu, but does have a nice selection of snacks. Peter and I tried the pâté and cheese made with Westvleteren beers, and my mom enjoyed an ice cream sundae. It was the perfect complement to our beers.
My next post will discuss Bruges and beyond. Many consider Bruges the most beautiful city in Belgium, with cobblestone pathways and meandering canals. We had a fabulous time exploring this lovely historical town and experience Belgian culture in another part of the country.