When I got back from Europe, I wrote a lot about the trip in my other blog - with the intention of saving the best beer stuff for this one. After writing the first account, life got the best of me, and I never got around to reporting on one of the best beer vacations of my life. I'm going to try to make up for that now.
Without any further ado: West Flanders Belgium!
Last year, my wife and I traveled to Paris France to attend a wedding for one of her cousins and his new wife. She has a lot of family in Paris, and it was a great way to see the city for the first time - with friendly and welcoming locals! While Paris was a great first leg of the trip, and meeting so many great people from all over the world (france, england, germany, iran, columbia, other US states, etc...) was amazing, there wasn't much to report on the beer front when it comes to the French leg of my trip.
What I can say is that when thirsty in Paris, Academie de la biere and Horse's Tavern are two excellent choices for drinking Belgian beer. Anywhere else in town, and you'll be stuck drinking kronenburg. Oh, and pronounce it like bee-air, or the French will pretend they have no idea what you're talking about.
From our hotel in Paris, we took the bus to the train station. Luckily, I wrote down some train directions I had read on beeradvocate.com, because as it turns out, no one outside of the region (other than a beer geek) knows where Poperinge west flanders is. Putting my fate (and marriage?) blindly in the hands of the beer hunters that came before me, I ordered our tickets for Lille France. In Lille, they also didn't know anything about Poperinge, but they were familiar with the next station I was told to travel to: Kortrijk Belgium. Once in Kortrijk, Poperinge was finally a familiar destination, and we were able to hop our last train, which ran almost entirely through fields of hops in all directions, to the last stop on the line, Poperinge!
Poperinge is a great little town, and the hospitality here really astounded us. Our hotel was a few blocks from the train station, so we carried our bags up the street and checked in. We stayed at Hotel Recour, because when I tried to book a room online a few months before, it was the only place with a website that wasn't already booked. It also turned out to be the most expensive hotel in town, which was more than I wanted to spend, but the room was fantastic, and seeing it in person really seemed to justify the expense. When we entered the lobby, we were immediately greeted by a friendly host who (before we said anything) said "you must be the Kish's from America! Welcome!". She showed us to our room, and never asked for a credit card, ID, or anything else, before setting us free into town. That level of trust and hospitality really struck me at the time. Once in the room, we quickly changed and got ready for our first adventure in Belgium: the Westvleteren brewery and Cafe In De Vrede. From our hotel, we chose to walk to the abbey. The weather was the best we had encountered in Europe, and the scenery along the way made the walk even more enjoyable. Once out of town, the majority of the walk was through agricultural land. Again, mostly hops as well as some barley. This was a real beer destination for sure.
The brewery is one of only seven trappist breweries in the world, and one of six in Belgium. Located in the Abbey de St. Sixtus, the brewery is off-limits to tourists, but Cafe In De Vrede (translated "in peace") lies just across the street, and serves the trappist products to locals and tourists alike. On this day, the cafe was full with what appeared to be mostly locals who had made the 4 mile drive into the countryside from town. We sat outside where we could enjoy the sun, and I immediately ordered a Westvleteren 12; a beer that needs no introduction. My wife ordered a Westvleteren Blond, and we shared a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. The beers were served in branded chalice's, perfectly poured with thick and creamy heads reaching just over the tops of our glasses, yet they were so thick and tight, that they did not overflow. This was the stuff that dreams were made of. I could go on to review the beers, but nothing I could say could give a reader a better idea of what these beers are like fresh from the source. To describe this belgian quad would sound like the description of any quad coming from me, but I do believe this one stands above the rest in a way I'm not articulate enough to explain. After we finished these beers, we moved inside where I bought a few things from the gift shop and then joined my wife again at a table for a few more beers and a delicious local dessert: a hommelpaptart - which was a creamy desert made with hops and other locally grown ingredients. It was delicious! I had another 12, and finished with the Westvleteren 8, before we returned to town, both full and jolly.
Back in town, we checked out a few of the local bars, all of which served an amazing number of Belgian beers, before turning in early to rest up for the following day.
One of the neat things about the town of Poperinge is how universal the town's pride is in it's beers and hop production. I like to think that Portland is a great town for the percentage of it's residents that appreciate a well made beer, but it's nothing compared to a town like Poperinge. The sidewalks are marked with brass plaques in the shape of a ripe hop cone. There are flags hanging over the streets with hops on them. In the town square, there is a hop museum. Going to a bar or restaurant in town with an extensive list of local beers isn't special, it's what's expected.
The next morning, when we got up, we looked outside to discover that there was a farmers market going on outside in the square. We walked around the market for a bit, buying some locally made belgian chocolates to bring back, before stopping in one of the local cafes for breakfast. The first thing that struck me about the cafe was that all the locals were drinking beer already! "When in Rome!" I thought, and started my morning with another quad. The sun was shining and I had a full itinerary planned, so I felt this was a good start to another great day.
From the square, we walked west out of town towards our first stop of the day, Cafe Helleketel. One of the neat things about seeing the sights outside of Poperinge, is that once you reach each destination, it's generally one of the only buildings you can see in any direction, except for the steeples of each of the three churches in town, which serve as beacons over the hop fields and trees, guiding you back to town. Helleketel (the witches cauldron) is no exception. When we approached the cafe, we weren't sure if it was open. A small building that looked to be more than 100 years old, the cafe was nestled amongst fields of barley, next to a large swath of very dark and eerie forest that my wife was uncomfortable walking past. Indeed, the whole experience reminded me much of the scene in An American Werewolf in London, where the tourists are kicked out of the pub to walk through the mores alone, at night, where the beast lurked, looking for prey!
The fact that the place was named after an instrument of witchcraft further fueled the fire, and we were almost relieved when it appeared to be closed. Then the top half of the heavy wooden door swung open, and we were beckoned inside but an older woman who would have looked comfortable stirring a cauldron herself. We entered the building, and the woman closed (and locked!) the door behind us. The entire inside of the pub was full of antique paintings, carvings, and other witch related ornaments. Besides the witch, there were some local farmers at one table, and another couple, who looked more urban, who were enjoying a couple of glasses of beer along with their two dogs, a giant doberman, and his mini-me, a min-pin.
Cafe De Helleketel has three house beers that are brewed for them by the Van Eecke brewery, each with a great label that alludes to it's contents. My favorite was a beer that was brewed with honey, that shows a drunk bee keeper passed out by his apiary with a jug in his hand. During our stay at this pub, our apprehensions were relieved both by the beer, but also by the extension of the same type of friendly and hospitable service we came to expect closer to town. The proprietor was hardly a witch, and we realized she played the part with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek. We also got to talking with the younger couple who turned out to be owners of a beer bar in Brugge, where they enthusiastically invited us to visit if we made our way east to their city. I explained that I had never seen a doberman with a long tail and floppy ears, and they explained that it's illegal to alter animals in Belgium, where they see the practice as a very cruel one. I must say, with the ears and tail, this huge doberman was hardly menacing, and I really appreciated their stance on cropping and docking; although it made me feel like I came from a pretty barbaric place.
From Helleketel, we walked to the St. Bernardus brewery. The brewery was closed, but we took some time to wander the grounds of the attached bed and breakfast, which was really fantastic. We were hoping we could see the inside of the building, and when we walked to the front door, we found that is was locked, but the key was in it. We let ourselves in and immediately entered into the St. Bernardus gift shop. There was a note on the counter explaining that no one was there, but if we needed anything, to call the attached phone number, and someone could be there in 20 minutes. Again, we were really amazed by the level of trust that people had in one another in this part of the world. We used the restroom and continued on our way, this time to the south, to a bottle shop I was dying to see.
To get to Noel Cuvelier, we walked south from St. Bernardus, across the border into France, and then east, back into Belgium, to the small border town of Abele. The store is located in one of the buildings of an active farm and farm supply store. Walking onto the property, we were surrounded by ducks and geese and chickens, and I was unsure if we had come to the right place. Once we entered the barn-like building though, I was sure of it - and there was no where else I would have rather been. The store carries several hundred Belgian beers, neatly displayed on old wooden shelves, and generally costing on 1-2 euro per bottle. I was a bit overwhelmed, and unsure about what to buy, but managed to collect a very heavy pack full of things to bring back to the states. After we checked out, I loaded the beer into my pack, and realized I had about 5 miles and two countries to walk through, with at least 40 or 50 pounds of beer, before I would be back to our hotel. It was a dreadful thought, but not one I was unwilling to face to secure my prize. Luckily, there was one more stop along the way, which turned out to be the best in all of my experiences in Europe.
Situated about 2 miles away, and another 3 miles from town, is Wally's Farm. We walked down the long driveway to find a 15' tall replica of the statue of liberty; surreal to say the least. Behind lady liberty where rows and rows of hops, which obscured view of the old farmhouse itself. We walked down the hop rows to the building, and let ourselves in the front door. We were earlier than their posted hours, but we were welcomed in and shown a table regardless. What a great place! The entire inside of the converted farmhouse was filled with 50's american rock music memorabilia, as well as hop vines wrapped around everything, and a good share of antique farming equipment. Near the door was a large brick fireplace and stacks of cut and seasoned logs. We were given menus, and I immediate looked over the beers. About 6 taps, and 60-80 bottles. The house beer was Wally's beer, brewed for him by the de bie brewery nearby. I ordered us drinks, and asked the server (who turned out to be Wally's wife, Patty) to help me translate the menu. It turned out to be pretty simple: pork, pork sausage, or the pork and pork sausage combo plate. We got the combo plate, and took in the sights and sounds of this really special place. Soon, several logs were on the fire, and Patty was raking the hot coals under an iron grate, where our pork chops and sausages were cooked in front of us over the smoke and wood fueled flames. Around this time, a lot of locals began slowly filling the rest of the building and ordering food and drink. When the room was full, a large movie screen dropped down from the ceiling and a reel of footage of Wally performing Elvis songs all over the world, on TV, and in movies began to warm up the crowd. Wally emerged shortly after, with rosy cheeks and a glass of red wine in his hand. He worked the room, talking to everyone at each table, making sure everyone was happy and enjoying themselves. When he got to our table, he was thrilled we were American, and was very excited to learn more about us.
We were tired, but I really wanted to see Wally perform, so we agreed to stay long enough to see a few songs. He took the stage, and we all cheered, and he began singing Elvis, and Carl Perkins, and Willy Nelson, and several other American rock acts. It was a lot of fun, but I had all that beer I was carrying, it was getting dark, and we still had a long way to go, so eventually, we decided it was time to leave.... but Wally had different plans for us!
When we stood to leave, Wally stopped singing and said "You can't leave, we didn't drink together yet!" I tried to explain to him about the beer, and the walk and everything, but he wouldn't have it. "You stay, we drink together, I'll show you a private tour of my hop museum, and then I'll drive you back to your hotel!" How could we refuse! We sat once more and Wally shouted to the bar "two more beers and some wine!"
We spent the rest of the next hour or two drinking free beer that Wally kept buying us while he sang and drank his wine. He chatted our ears off, gave us a proper introduction to his wife Patty, and when he was done entertaining the crowd, took us to see his hop museum as promised. Wally explained that he was the latest in a long line of men in his family that grew hops for a living. His museum was actually a collection of all the hop farming equipment that was passed down through the years, as well as a collection of hop plants that were being grown by different methods, each demonstrating how his family would have grown them during a different period in time, explaining: "this is how we grew the hops in the eighteen hundred and fifties, this is how we grew the hops in the nineteen hundreds, this is how we grew the hops in the nineteen hundred and fifties", etc...) He showed us how to make hop growing anchors on a jig out front (and gave me one as a souvenir), he showed us how the hops were sprayed and how they were harvested. He showed us the building they used to dry the hops, and how it was done (with a coal fire that had to be watched for 48 hours straight). He showed us the cot him and his father slept on when he was a boy during the harvest/drying season. I could go on and on. To be shown something this special, by such an amazing (and drunk!) man, in the middle of the night, on a farm, in a town that no one in neighboring France could even find on a map... WOW.
Afterward, Wally kept his word, and we piled into his truck, and he drove us into town. We slept good that night, and the next morning, we packed up all of our things and hopped the train to Munich!