By Tony Forder
Airport departure, The first hellos and beer share, Slow off the tarmac
Like anything good, Takes time to build momentum, What's to come that counts
We hit the ground running in Amsterdam after the overnight flight – Thank you Peter and Tim for opening Cause Beer Loves Food special for us to meet and greet. The breakfast buffet was really good, once we figured where to sit, Cause our 36 filled the place up! The beers were already great, nicely blackboarded by style, IPAs and Double, Impy Stouts and Barrel-Aged, Pales and Lagers – mostly Dutch. We found out that the Netherlands now has more breweries than Belgium - watch out!
The walking tour was challenging (I heard, Cause I opted for the next pub, Arendnest, the Eagle's Nest, also owned by Peter van de Arend, his first, another story, sidebar, yeah, that's it!), amidst cold rain showers, but I bet you they saw a lot. Meeting up again at the institutional Inde Wildeman...your choice of beers from all over. They had a copy of current Ale Street News – one of their followers, recently returned from New York, had grabbed one – sweet!
Streets of Amsterdam, Rain-spattered cobblestones, Beer beats the jet lag
Back on the bus, no rest for the weary! Dinner at De Molen brewery on the way to Rotterdam – "Brewing in a Windmill in Young Amsterdam". If you don't know it you should. Rare in the US, it is imported by Shelton Bros, well-established as one of the top new wave European brewers with a lot of barrel-aged with names like Hamer & Sikkel (porter) and Hel & Veromemenis (Heaven & Hell imperial stout). We ate in the old brewpub with full tour or self guided of the windmill. Their production brewery is down the street. Finally to sleep at the Marriott in Rotterdam.
Recharged, we had a non-early departure from R-Dam, an hour-plus drive to Koeningshoeven Abbey, home of the La Trappe beers. For our pilgrims that hadn't been there before, it is spectacular. For half the crew that had been there before – still spectacular. We had Tony (not me) for the second time – a wonderful tour guide. He makes it personal with every group, and funny! And he does several tours a day. He makes a big deal about the secondary refermentation in the bottle that all the beers go through, and emphasizes both the social and environmental consciousness of the Trappist monks. Lunch is served in the spacious cafeteria/visitor center – fresh white asparagus soup with delicious monastery bread, salad charcuterie, cheese – but first, a taste of La Trappe's barrel-aged quad, thank you Artisanal Imports. Also on the board were Blonde (gold medal winner at the 2016 World Beer Cup in the Belgian-style blond/pale category); Witte; Bock; Purr (organic, dry hopped); Isid'or (with some wheat malt, brewed in honor of La Trappe's first brewer on their 125th anniversary); and of course, Dubbel, Tripel and Quad. I especially enjoyed a special batch of Witte brewed with Mandarina Bavaria hops for King Wilhelm-Alexander's 50th birthday. More info and great food and beer pairing recipes here, www.latrappetrappist.com.
La Trappe delivers, Delectable food and brew, Tasting the Silence
On the way back into R-Dam, we stopped into The Fenix Food Factory, a repurposed warehouse featuring various artisanal purveyors – charcuterie, cheese, spirits (Calvados!) – and the de Kaapse brewers. They brew occasionally on their funky-looking in-house brewery but more often it seems collaborations with other brewers; it was a worthy stop. Modern, picturesque Rotterdam they say is now stealing some of the tourist trade from Amsterdam.
The last time we visited Ronald and Monique at de Dochter van de Korenaar (The Miller's Daughter) we squeezed into their tiny tasting room (adjacent to their living room), tasted some wonderful beers and sang happy birthday to Monique. Four years later they have moved into an impressive new purpose-built facility and have an even greater range of impressive beers. This time it was not the exact date of Monique's birthday, but we sang Happy Birthday anyway. Barrels are still Ron's passion and he's tinkering with some IPAs. When I asked him if he thought it was still possible to create something that hasn't already been done in the style, "Oh, yes," was his emphatic response. The location of DvandeK in Baarle Hertog is unique in that it is a small Belgian enclave that extends into and is surrounded by the Netherlands.
A new brewery, same folks quality brew, Happy Birthday two
From there we made a relatively quick lunch stop at one of our favorite watering holes, the Cafe Trappisten. Hearty sandwiches, monastery cheese and spicy mustard washed down with Trappist Westmalle Dubbel and Tripel – and back on the bus. For a change of pace, we pulled into the Van der Schueren Genever distillery in Aalst. US importer Felipe Wouters was on hand to explain the intricacies of the original gin. Named after the Van der Schueren family, VDS produces many different labels of genever including Cockneys (recently of Ghent) as well as several liqueurs and aperitifs. While the gin was impressive, we also discovered some great tonic - Fever Tree. We coasted into Bruges, our longest bus day, and found our comfortable lodgings at the classic Grand Hotel Casselbergh.
Original gin, Hidden secret of Belgium, Genever likes us
The cool weather stayed with us as we day-tripped south to Tourpes and the Brasserie Dupont. This brewery has been on our bucket list for a while. I happened to run into 7th generation brewer Olivier Dedeycker in New York last fall. He was launching Dupont's first-ever US collab brewed with Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey. Our young guide, Florence is a student doctor who studied for a semester in Minnesota; Dupont opened their new tasting room this year, so are once again welcoming groups. Their bread and butter has always been Moinette (Blonde, Amber and Brown) not the beer that is famous in the US – Saison Dupont. But the brewers do dabble - including the dry hopped Saison Dupont that is not exported. They also specialize in organic brewing and make organic version of Moinette and Saison (called Foret in the US) as well as a honey beer and Triomf, brewed with a little peat-smoked malt.
Finally Dupont, The Source of Saison and more, It's well worth the wait
A quick lunch stop in Roeselare, home of Rodenbach (I had a Grand Cru), then on to De Dolle, the Mad Brewers. We reprised our bowties (from a turn-of-the-century visit) and waltzed in to visit with Kris and Els. The brewery is much the same, museum-style, as are the beers – the hoppy Arabier; Ourbier brown ale; Extra Stout, one of the first funky Belgian stouts; Dulle Teve (Mad Bitch) tripel; Boskeun the Easter beer brewed with honey; and – a special treat – Stille Nacht from the cellar. Thank you B. United importers! The evening's highlight was a performance by tour members Holly Roberts (piano) and Warren Monteiro (vocals) at the Kaffee de Passage in Bruges (and of course the obligatory beer at The Little Bruges Bear).
Sporting our bowties, Kris and Els behind the bar, Mad Brewers again
Saturday was festival day, the world-famous Zythos, Belgium's biggest artisanal beer fest. We've been going for years. Originating as the 24-Hour beer fest in Antwerp it moved to St. Nicklaas, west of Brussels, it now opens its doors in Leuven, coincidentally the home of the Stella Artois brand. (See related story below). Aiming for the noon opening time, we paused at the edge of Brussels to whet our whistles at Cantillon, shrine of Lambic producers. Their extremely sour beers may not be to everyone's taste – especially in mid-morning – but we did our best with Gueuze, Framboise, Lou Pepe Kriek, Iris (dry hopped), Fou Foune (with apricots), Saint Lamvinus (merlot grapes), and even raw lambics. Thank you father and son Jean and Jean-Pierre.
Post-fest Brussels Center is our night playground – the lit-up Grand Place, Delirium (choose from the beer cafe, draft room or Trappist or Absinthe bars, classic a la Mort Subite, newer Moeder Lambic (lots of Cantillon on draft) or Aux Bonne Vieux Temps (Good Old Times, where you can almost always get a Westvleteren 12 (15 Euros).
In years past Sunday has meant a sad morning departure from Beer Paradise, but this year, due to our East Monday departure, we had an extra day to play. Lunch took us outside of the capital to De Kroon where Freddy Delvaux is an exemplary host. A former head brewer at Stella Artois and a longtime professor at the Beer Institute in Leuven, Freddy is one of the most knowledgeable (and passionate) beer people in Belgium. He's formulated recipes for several breweries, and now his son continues the yeast research and consulting work. Freddy showed us around the old brewery, now a museum and the small test brewery where they make beers for the restaurant including three staples: Super Kroon, a 6.8% pale ale; Delvaux, an 8.5% blond ale; and Job (Freddy's nickname), an unfiltered 6% blond.
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ZYTHOS - Put on Your Drinking Cap
By Warren "BeerSensei" Monteiro
The apex of the ASN Belgian Beer Paradise Tour featured, quite naturally, most of the great beers of Belgium. Zythos, the premier national festival, gathers nearly 100 breweries and contract brewers in Leuven under the long local shadow of multi-national Stella Artois, the largest brewery in Europe.
All in all, it's a great celebration of beers Belgian. Originally it was 24 Hours of Beer held in Antwerp. Now it's morphed into 21 hours of Saturday and Sunday pouring of strictly Belgian damn good beers. Five hours turns out to be enough for us, allowing an extra 5 minutes to stagger out to the bus. Zythos - the European Beer Consumers Union - is more like CAMRA than our Brewers Association, made up of drinkers rather than brewers. It produces a series of events each year and also publish a quarterly magazine dealing with new product, history and opinions. Sadly, though, we need a translation program from Dutch.
So a busload of intrepid ASN beer travelers assaulted the ramparts of the Brabanthal. We started with a fistful of tokens, hijacked a long communal table and took it from there. There were over 500 beers pouring, but with our time-honored custom of sharing tastes, we made quite a dent. (So what if we all had a cold the next week.) There were some strange delights pouring in those stalls. And speaking of stalls, the toilets were free this year. No lines.
Both bottles and draught were poured into generous tasters, mostly at a token apiece. The program (which is essential) lists brewers by booth. Each beer is efficiently described as follows: name, style, abv, color, aroma, taste, aftertaste. Not too hard to build a drinking plan if you keep your presence of mind. Dolefully missing was last year's big hitter, Dochter van de Korenaar. Brewer-Owner Ronald Mengerink had already warned us he was too busy to hit the deadline. This actually gave brewers and drinkers a break from last year's logjam at his booth. Also missing in action, less obviously since they weren't here last year either, were crowd-pleasers de Struise and Alvinne. But consolation was there in spades at the 88 booths filling the Brabanthal.
The Old Guard was well represented. Boon offered Black Label Oude Geuze to compare with their Yonge Geuze from a new foeder. Duvel Moortgat came up with test brews: Mint the Chocolate and a deep, dank Russian Imperial Stout (licorice, coffee and dark chocolate notes). There were saisons and wittes and dubbels and tripels and quads. There was an 1894 historic blond. There were big brews flavored with barbera grapes, funky rhubarb, lychees, rye, coffee and tea. Ales came out of barrels previously harboring armagnac, whisky, cognac, sherry and grand marnier. Dried fruit and sour notes issued from experimental beers from Kappitel and Roman breweries. There was a white grapefruit tripel. US hops were all over the place: citra, chinook, simcoe, mosaic, cascade and relatively new palisade.
And we found... Floris Cactus – it was green and laced with tequila. Some mean looking Russian Imperial Stouts emerged. Accents of coffee, cookie spices, licorice, orange, burnt sugar and smoke teased and sometimes downright assaulted the palate. My favorite was Brouwerie Het Nest's Dead Man's Hand, a 10% RIS awakened from its sleep in a whisky barrel. And then Brasserie du Brabant offered two US-influenced tasty monsters: Plato's Cave DIPA and Perfect Day Hop Bursted Imperial Pilsner.
Our hands were getting heavy and so were the pours. Time to beat a leisurely retreat. No straight paths, please. We'll get to the bus eventually. Then back to Brussels for a late evening of... what else? Beer!