When you say Belgian beer, you’ve said it all
I’m spinning a delicate logical thread here, so bear with me. As a reader of No Depression, I assume that you (the reader) and I share a commitment to quality music. Sure, we may disagree about the specifics, but we both feel that music, and specifically alternative country (whatever that is), is worthy of active discourse and involvement. Naturally, this aesthetic discernment extends into my (and presumably your) other interests as well: film, literature, travel, food…and beer.
Yes, beer. For a music purportedly born and reared in America’s bars and honky tonks, we pay scant attention to the quaffables that function as the liquid accompaniment to our live music — Budweiser, Miller…whatever. But wouldn’t the experience be improved, even enriched, if your favorite musical venue offered a fresh German hefeweizen or a distinctive British pale ale or perhaps a quality domestic like Celis White or Wild Goose IPA? I’m imagining a sweaty, energy-packed Waco’s show and my surprise upon discovering a Belgian tripel (deceptively strong yet refreshing) perched unassumingly among the standard premiums behind the bar.
Which brings us (after much wrangling) to the topic at hand. Despite its modest proportions (roughly the size of New Jersey), Belgium, for those in the know, is the beer capital of the world. Boasting over 100 breweries and at least 300 brands, the country’s beers are so distinctive and so well-crafted that one could claim, with the merest hint of hyperbole, that each beer is a style unto itself. From the lacy, citrus-tinged goldens, to the increasingly complex and potent dubbels and tripels, to the incomparable breadth and range of the Trappists (yes, monastic breweries), the vast Belgian brewing terrain offers a veritable amusement park for the discerning palate.
So, with Malcolm Cowley’s “Lost Generation” chronicle Exile’s Return and a handful of tapes (trip faves: Bragg & Wilco II, Mary J. Blige’s Mary) in tow, my wife and I (joined at key junctures by Grant Alden and his better half), spent several weeks this summer touring Belgium. Believing, quite reasonably, that a nation as dedicated to the craft of brewing as Belgium must also boast countless other equally civilized qualities, we were nonetheless delighted by the country’s old-world charm and easy, friendly manner. Traveling from the coastal dunes and rural flatlands of Dutch-speaking West Flanders to the thickly wooded, rolling hillsides of the French-speaking Ardennes region, we accrued a vast collection of rich and varied memories along the way.
That said, it’s my belief that human recall doesn’t easily hew to the confines of narrative; rather, it’s constructed from the disparate flotsam and jetsam of experience — anecdotes, one-offs, brief epiphanies, mental tchotchkes. So, with a nod to Greil Marcus’ regular column, “What We Did On Our Holidays” or a Real Life Belgian Top Ten.
1. Rochefort: Unofficial west Ardennes transport hub and, more importantly (for our purposes), home of Abbaye St. Remy, quite possibly the best brewery in the world. The deep, malty Trappistes Rochefort 8 or “Green Cap” is their staple, but I prefer the 10 or “Blue Cap” with its daunting yet well-integrated 11.3% ABV (alcohol by volume). The Beverage Testing Institute’s tasting notes read, “Pure liquid bread…Sensual, viscous mouthfeel has a soft, fluffy character and a big warming kick through the finish.” If by which they mean beer’s Platonic ideal, I heartily agree. Though technically unavailable in the U.S., sightings have been rumored along the East Coast as well as in San Francisco. If you find a stash, exult in your discovery and savor the moment…and, if you think of it, save me a bottle.
2. CAMRA: U.K. champion of “real ale” and publisher of several first-rate beer books, including The Good Beer Guide To Belgium And Holland. Besides its most obvious strength, The Good Beer Guide serves as a valuable general travel book, providing helpful insight into the many towns and villages that fall outside the limited scope of Frommer’s and Fodor’s. In fact, the dining recommendations are often inspired. The guide even tipped us to one of our favorite restaurants, Hommelhof (in Watou, located along the French border), a genuine showplace for cuisine a la bier. And before you snigger, they did things with a leg of ham that would be illegal in the States.
3. Erasmus: A winningly understated tavern and inn graced by the visage of the noted Dutch theologian and humanist. Located in the heart of picturesque Bruges, Erasmus is a beer lover’s haven, boasting a well-selected bottle list (every Belgian Trappist!) and regularly rotated tap offerings. The menu is simple but well-executed (rabbit in cherry beer sauce!), and the rooms are comfortable, with several offering a stunning canal view. But the inn’s true strength is its owner/manager, Tom Allewaert. He radiates a friendly, easy warmth that transforms Erasmus from a notable layover into a welcome second home.
4. Westvleteren: Remote West Flanders farm community and locus of yet another Trappist brewery. The beer is top-notch — their Extra 8 or “Blue Cap” is among the finest I’ve sampled — but that’s only half the story. Located a mere stone’s throw from the monastery’s gates, Vrede, the “Inn of Peace,” functions as the brewery’s unofficial tasting room. At first glance, the tavern appears about as inviting as a hospital cafeteria, but there’s something about the place, a certain je ne sais quoi. On our first visit, we drank to the strains of Johnny & June’s “Jackson”. On our second, the hangar-like space was packed with sixty-somethings. On a Tuesday. At 2:30 in the afternoon.
5. Produce: strawberries, blackberries, melon, kiwi, brie, chevre, Trappist cheeses, salami, smoked ham, pate, rabbit, salmon, breads — all of incomparable quality and flavor. And the preparation — simply put, French food without the pretension. But worth special note are the raspberries; as big as Stateside strawberries, they boast a sweetness and taste that renders the Kroger-bought variety faintly obscene.
6. Centrum: An always-welcome street sign, leading inevitably to the heart of community life, the town square. We passed many blissful hours seated in market cafes enjoying hoppy, aromatic golden ales while observing the life of the town transpire about us. If, like me, you believe that the best way to understand a place is by absorbing its living culture and customs, an hour or two’s streetside dalliance serves as a valuable break from the American tourist’s usual site-spotting scavenger hunt.
7. Ypres: Among the most impressive of West Flanders’ town centers, the city was effectively destroyed in a series of devastating World War I battles. Undaunted, the town’s citizenry rebuilt the Grote Markt and its surrounding medieval structures brick-by-brick according to the city’s preserved original plans. The results of their efforts are breathtaking and somewhat humbling, especially the recrafted majesty of St. Martin’s Cathedral. Every night beneath the Menen Gate, the town’s citizenry honors the fallen with a silver bugle salute — a testament to the permanence of memory and a people’s unstinting faith in the future.
8. Pommes: As in Nashville, the Belgian potato is afforded full vegetable status, but any further similarities are merely coincidental. Whether luxuriating in a creamy white beer sauce or twice fried (the ubiquitous frite) with a side of homemade mayo (trust me, it works), the Benelux spud is treated with a dignity and grace befitting an ancient and treasured sacrament.
9. Bouillon Castle: Sprawling, massive structure running along a steep ridge overlooking the charming city of Bouillon. With written notice dating as far back as 988, the castle is remarkably well-kept. Once home to Godefroy de Bouillon, the building changed hands often over the ensuing centuries. The remaining edifice reflects a Borgesian crazy-quilt of cross-purposes played out over time; suggestive of vaguely mysterious import, corridors hewn into solid rock end abruptly in stone walls erected centuries later. Below, in the castle’s shadow along the Semois, we enjoyed our finest mussel repast of the trip — thus guaranteeing the structure’s inclusion herein.
10. Al Pele: Listed more for a moment than for the restaurant’s admittedly fine cuisine. Located just outside of St. Hubert, the museum-attached eatery has the feel of an untrammeled, closely guarded secret. Enjoying our matouffe, a regional flour-and-egg dish, while lingering over a final Rochefort, we gazed from the balcony upon a reflecting pond surrounded by a jungle of flowering hibiscus. A lovely, soothing lunchtime respite from the unseasonable summer heat and roar of weekend motorcyclists. As our final Belgian day-trip, it lingers as a cherished memory. And after all, isn’t that why we travel?
Addendum: A week after completing this piece, while visiting friends in Chicago, I stumbled upon a happy discovery. My favorite Windy City bar, the Map Room, had a healthy selection of Rochefort and Westvleteren in stock. And the beers definitely held up — nice to know my memory wasn’t clouded by nostalgia (or alcohol). Even brought a few bottles back to Nashville for my at-home delectation. As they say, good things come to those who drink.