By MATT GOULDING and MATT BEAN
Published: January 14, 2011
ON a fog-dense spring afternoon in the Belgian countryside beer connoisseurs had flocked to Westvleteren, a far-flung town in the southwest corner of West Flanders, to sample what many of them consider to be the best beer in the world.
Times Topic: Beer
Jock Fistick for The New York Times
The nectar in question was Westvleteren 12, a rich, brown-hued brew that has double the alcohol of most beers and a reputation to match, and that can be bought only at the In De Vrede cafe and across the street at the St. Sixtus Abbey. Cyclists in Spandex clattered about in cleats as Belgian families quietly nibbled on cheese plates and pâté. The only party missing was the monks who brewed the hallowed beer.
Nestled in this province’s verdant farmlands, the St. Sixtus Abbey houses one of six official Trappist breweries in Belgium. The monks have perfected their craft over more than 160 years, and despite closing the brewery to visitors, shunning advertising, retail outlets and even labels, their beer has taken top honors from enthusiast sites like RateBeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com. (The only sure way to bring home the brew — save the black market — is by calling the Abbey’s “beerphone” to reserve a case for pick-up. And even then the monks will supply only one case a person, a month; no resales allowed.)
For the bona fide beer geek, the lure of this brewery and its beer might be motivation enough for a long-distance journey to Belgium. But St. Sixtus and the other Trappist temples are only part of the draw. Joining these cloistered few outposts scattered about the country in recent years are a crop of cutting-edge breweries and welcoming beer bars supplementing the old guard. There’s never been a better time for the thirsty traveler to turn a short trip to Belgium into the best beer-centric study-abroad program one could hope for, rivaling an oenophile’s romp through Bordeaux.
Brussels was once the heart of the brewing industry, with more than 100 active brewers. And while output has waned significantly — it’s now down to two brewers, and until December was down to one — it has spawned a thriving beer cafe culture, on display one recent night at the west-side outpost of the beer bar Moeder Lambic.
“They say that Belgium is the country of beers, but 99 percent of the beers people drink here are bad ones,” said Jean Hummler, one of the bar’s owners, commanding nods from a table that had grown crowded with bottles, glasses and guests, including Yvan De Bates, the founder of De La Senne brewery.
In 2007, shortly after opening the first Moeder Lambic bar south of Brussels in the St. Gilles region, Mr. Hummler and his partner, Nassim Dessicy, fought the brewing giant Duvel to void a contract signed by the previous owners stipulating that his taps include several offerings from the mega-brewer. Now the two Moeder Lambic bars (this one opened in 2009) stand as bastions of good brewing, offering one of the most unique selections in Brussels.
“We’re fighting for the small brewers,” Mr. Hummler said. “Every day, I’m fighting for Cantillon, I’m fighting for De La Senne. If we don’t do it, nobody will.”
Mr. Hummler summoned flight after flight from the bar’s 300-odd selections, proffering exotic, acidic gueuze made across town, and a pour from the most expensive beer there, the 200-euro-a-bottle crianza (about $255, at $1.31 to the euro) from Mr. De Bates’s brewery, which opened in December and specializes in blending old techniques and styles with new ingredients.
“We are at the beginning of a new era,” Mr. De Bates said. “Tradition and experimentation are equally important. Belgium is a wonderful place to appreciate that it’s not about a brewery being old or new — it’s about the brewer’s values and ideas and respect for the beer. If you visit enough breweries, you’ll see that we’re all talking the exact same language."
In other words, hit the road.
In a squat warehouse across town is Brussels’ other brewery, Brasserie Cantillon, a working museum of Belgian beer history. Not much at Cantillon has changed since it opened in 1900: giant grain movers are strung with leather belts; casks seem fit for the days of Columbus; and spider webs are left alone to help foster the ambient terroir. The beers, too, are as traditional as you’ll find, from sour, funky lambic and gueuze beers to variations aged with cherries, raspberries and apricots.
“We never manipulate our beers to make an easy product,” said Julie Van Roy, who runs the brewery with her brother Jean, removing a cheesecloth covering from a clay jar filled with Faro, a sweetened lambic so effervescent it defies bottling. “Some brewers, instead of taking three years, they do it in three weeks. Instead of using real fruit, they use juice.”
Ms. Van Roy fills a pair of glasses. The rough-hewn nectar is a refreshing, barnyard-and-candy cap on the Cantillon visit — another lesson in the diversity of brewing methods.
That lesson continues in Bruges, a two-hour train ride west of Brussels, at ’t Brugs Beertje, or the Bruges Bear. Since opening in 1983, the Bruges Bear has amassed a thick binder featuring rare brews and old standbys among the more than 300 Belgian selections. But the real draw is its owner, Daisy Claeys, a patient steward steeped in stories behind each brew she serves. Her favorite beer is Oerbier, from the De Dolle brewers. And as capable as she’d be of telling you about it, she’d rather you drive the 25 miles south to Esen, to the brewery itself.
Over at De Dolle, a 2 p.m. Sunday tour, in English, is led by Anna Hertleer, the mother of De Dolle’s two founders. One of them, Kris, is head brewer whose passion for experimentation helped fuel the revival of Belgian beers in the 1980s.
“We have only one aim: to make a completely natural product,” Ms. Hertleer said as she climbed up a steep steel staircase. “They have kidnapped Mr. Heineken, they have kidnapped Ms. Guinness, but they won’t kidnap us.”
Leading visitors through musty rooms filled with copper kettles, Ms. Hertleer peppered her description of the brewing process with strong opinions on everything from the health benefits of the whole hops used in some of the beers to the Trappist mystique.
The tour ends with a tasting: there’s the fruit-and-spice pale ale Bos Keun, the full-throttle 12 percent Stile Nacht and Oerbier, which balances a complex, raisin-like sweetness with a tart, bracing finish. In the United States, a 12-ounce bottle is $10. Here Oerbier is $2 a goblet, poured by Kris Hertleer himself.
From De Dolle, you’re close to Westvleteren and the monks of St. Sixtus, but it’s best to rest first at the Brouwershuis, a converted bed-and-breakfast owned by the St. Bernardus brewery. Rooms at the Brouwershuis, in the heart of West Belgium hops country, start at 75 euros a night. This includes breakfast and a tour of the neighboring brewery, which produced Westvleteren 12 under contract until 1992.
The hostess, Jacky Cockheyt, will leave you the key and free rein of the Brouwershuis, including the two refrigerators stocked with St. Bernardus’s beers, from the rare Grottenbier to the St. Bernardus 12. The beer is included in the price.
The next day is an opportunity for another adventure. You’ll find a fleet of bicycles behind the Brouwershuis’s residences, all tagged for road duty.
Do you take a left at the town square in Westvleteren to visit the avant-garde De Struisse brewers in Oostvleteren?
Or do you take a right, rolling toward In De Vrede for the pleasure of sampling what many consider the best beer in the world?
Perhaps you’ll make time for both.
IF YOU GO
In de Vrede (Donkerstraat 13, Westvleteren; 32-57-40-03-77; indevrede.be)
Moeder Lambic (Place Fontainas 8, Brussels; 32-25-03-60-68; moederlambic.be)
Cantillon (Rue Gheude Straat 56, Brussels; 32-25-21-49-28; cantillon.be)
’t Brugs Beerje (Kemelstraat 5, Bruges; 32-50-33-96-16; brugsbeertje.be)
De Dolle Brouwers (Roeselarestraat 12B, Esen; 32-51-50-27-81; dedollebrouwers.be)
Brouwershuis (Trappistenweg 23A, Watou; 32-57-38-88-60; brouwershuis.com)