A Story of Immense Failure and Incredible Beers
By Jessica Masterson
Last fall I visited Belgium, a country with a long history of brewing world-renowned beers. I was going to take it all in, tour some of their historical breweries, and drink all of the beer. I went in with a naïve optimism. I should have known it would be no easy feat when this fella greeted me at the first stop:
Actually, my first hint came earlier, when a friend who had been to Belgium delivered the dire warning, “Jessica, you’re going to be hurting,” before laughing his way into the night. “No,” I thought, “I know how to pace myself. I am a responsible drinker.”
Six breweries later I finally understood the weight of his warning.
We arrived in the tiny town of Purnode, Belgium on a rainy afternoon. We’d spent the previous two nights in Germany, getting an introduction to what jet lag, lack of sleep, and an overabundance of beer can do to a person. Taking my friend’s warning to heart, I’d turned in early and was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the bus ride to Brasserie du Bocq. Not everyone on the LippeBus felt as chipper as I did…
Brasserie du Bocq in Purnode has been producing quality brews since 1949. Though relatively new in comparison to some of the Trappist breweries we visited, Brasserie du Bocq had more varieties than any other, and we tried them all. The most familiar to me is one that we have readily available here in Kentucky: Blanche de Namur. This is a true Belgian witbier made from barley malt, unmalted wheat, hops, coriander, and bitter orange peel. We learned that this beer is named after Blanche of Namur who became the queen of Sweden and Norway when she married King Magnus IV. Blanche was said to be sweet, delicate, and beautiful, and the brewers at Brasserie du Bocq felt their beer also exemplified these qualities.
After spending a few hours touring the facility and trying everything they put in front of us, we made our way back to the LippeBus and headed for Florenville. There, I learned that in Belgium, they don’t rush through much of anything. We had the longest dinner of our lives, with multiple courses, drinks to accompany each, and the most beautiful dessert I have ever had. Dinner didn’t wrap up until 11:45 PM, leaving only a few hours before we needed to be back on the LippeBus at 7:00 AM sharp… my plans to turn in early and preserve my stamina on this trip were already out the window.
The following day we visited two of the most highly regarded Trappist breweries in the world, Orval and Rochefort. From the moment we stepped on the grounds of Orval, we were overcome with a sense of reverence. Everything there is done with intention: the Cistercian Monks who live and work at the Orval Abbey only make one beer, and they make it really well. Orval is bottle-fermented, meaning that at the end of bottling before the cap is sealed on the bottle, a small amount of yeast is added to begin a second fermentation that adds carbon dioxide to the brew and small amount of additional alcohol. Orval that is imported to the US has a different label with a slightly higher ABV than the Orval that is sold in Europe. This is because the imported Orval is in the bottle longer and the second fermentation can produce a touch more alcohol than the more freshly consumed European bottle
Before we moved on, we were served lunch at Café À l’Ange Gardien and were given the opportunity to try Green Orval. Green Orval is the younger, lower ABV version of the original that has not gone through the second fermentation. This is the beer that the monks drink at the Abbey. Café À l’Ange Gardien is the only place in the world to try Green Orval.
Next, we were on our way to the Trappist abbey of Rochefort. Before we began our tour of the brewery, we were allowed to sit in on one of the monks’ daily prayer services. We were then given a tour of the brewery and had the opportunity to share a few beers with Brother Michael, one of the monks who lives and works at the Abbey. At Rochefort, they produce three beers, Rochefort 6, Rochefort 8, and Rochefort 10, each increasing in ABV. Like Orval, Rochefort is bottled-conditioned, but it’s darker and more full-bodied.
The following morning, we headed across the border and into the Netherlands to visit the Trappist monks at Zundert. While this is a Belgian beer blog, but I hope no one minds if I take a moment to talk about the magical experience we had in Zundert. The monks in Zundert brew only four days out of the month. They produce approximately 3000 barrels a year, which is just enough to cover their living expenses and help the needy in their community. (As a rule, none of the Trappist abbeys brew for profit, and all the revenue they produce goes to cover their living expenses and charity.) Zundert Brewery was founded in 2011 when the aging monks there decided they could no longer sustain themselves by raising cattle, and is the newest of the 12 official Trappist Breweries.
Zundert imports only one beer to the US, Zundert 8. It’s top-fermented and bottle-conditioned, with a golden color and notes of coriander and citrus. I immediately fell in love with this unruly Trappist ale.
Only 18 miles from Zundert, we found ourselves back in Belgium at the utopian-like Abbey of Westmalle. There, we learned that Westmalle was the birthplace of two traditional Trappist beer styles: dubbel and tripel. Dubbel was conceived when the monks wanted to produce a higher ABV beer, so they took a time-tested recipe and tried doubling it. When the dubbel turned out well, they went one step further and tripled the ingredients, resulting in an even higher ABV. Thus, we have dubbel and tripel, straightforward, and delicious. In addition to brewing beer, the Monks at Westmalle make cheese, bake bread, and raise cattle, sheep, chickens, pigs, goats, and about 40 cats. I wanted to stay for a week… but they sent us on our way to enjoy an evening in Ghent.
The day had begun with drinking tripels in the forest with the monks at Zundert and ended in the wee hours of the morning with a few locals who wanted to show us their beautiful city. We hit up several local drinking holes including the famed Bierhuis, pictured below. Ghent is a city full of history, architecture, culture, and lots of beer. It does not disappoint.
Just about 4 hours after this photo was taken, we were on our way to Lindemans Brewery and my friend’s prophecy had come true—I was hurting.
However joyful I was the night before, I was the exact opposite the following morning.
Since we were on a brewery trip, I had to rally, and we went off to visit the magnificent, wild yeast, open-air fermentation brewery of Lindemans.
The Lindemans family has been brewing in the quiet Belgian town of Vlezenbeek since 1822. They are famous for their spontaneously fermented Lambics and Gueuze, two styles that come from the Senne River Valley, a region in Belgium about 15 miles by 75 miles. In this area, mysterious yeasts exist in the air that turns wort into our beloved beverages with a funky twang. Below, I’m pictured with Lindemans’ head brewer Peter Renders. (Remember how I told you I was hurting? The pain is evident.)
Here is the entire group with 6th-generation brewery owners Dirk and Geer Lindemans. (If you look closely enough, you can still see my pain.)
After leaving Lindemans, we spent the next three days in the United Kingdom (visiting even more breweries). I learned my lesson after our night in Ghent, though, and made sure to get plenty of sleep and drink lots of water. So, that’s my story about the time I tried to drink all the beer in Belgium, failed miserably, but had the time of my life trying. This was an incredible trip that I will remember for the rest of my days… but when we got home, my husband and I decided to take a month-long break from drinking.