Planing our recent European drive-about we quickly realized we really did not want to revisit Paris, in fact we wanted to avoid all big cities, inundated by the summer crowds, and get off the beaten path. Instead of planing our itinerary around big tourist attractions we figured we could hit some big wine producing regions instead and drink our way through Europe. We would not shy away from any other drinks of course, but gleefully enjoy the human ingenuity that has figured out long ago how to turn everything from fruit and hops to plain old potatoes into an alcoholic beverage. Pair this with some good food, beautiful European landscapes and small town and village architecture and of course meeting some interesting local producers and you get a unique, delectable and most enjoyable summer ever. Bonus: many old friends and family to visit and see on the way!
While my husband and I agree on most important issues of the day and life, there is one thing we have never been able to see eye to eye – beer! While my husband has grown up on hectoliters of Czech lager, (no surprise, beer is still cheaper than water in Czech Republic) I only grew to enjoy beer once I discovered the interesting diversity of American microbrews. Our “discussions” about beer to this day quickly turn into jabs like “Your beer looks like morning piss!” Or “How can you even call this beer, when it tastes of apricots?” Hey, don’t diss my Pyramid Apricot Ale or Vanilla Porter or Hefeweizen!
If you are a serious beer drinker, and you are not Czech, you will probably agree that Belgium beer is the best in Europe if not in the world. The young bold brewers are building on the strong, centuries old tradition of Trappist monks brewing their classic and very tasty and very, very strong beer. Trying to educate and persuade my husband I dragged him to a number of breweries in Belgium.
We visited for a few days with my cousin and her fiancé on the outskirts of Brussels and they advised us to head to Leuven if we wanted to experience a real Belgium town without the tourists. The city was just waking up and it was too early to start beer tasting but beer was everywhere. Mirek was much more interested in the ladiesand even more in the food. Oh, the cheese stores are just overflowing with delicacies. Even the locals have hard time to choose. And then there is chocolate…but wait, what is this…a little store with something really, really , special. OMG, famous matjes, first herring of the season. Of course we have to go into this family owned store named de Walvis. There we are warmly welcomed and indulged with answers to every possible question and then treated to a special tasting of the best. Mirek is in heaven and even I who am a bit on the squeamish side when it comes to raw seafood have to admit it is absolutely melt on your tongue delicious. Wouldn’t a glass of beer go perfectly with that?
“Maybe if it was Stella Artois,” said Mirek. “But that is just your regular lager,” I protested. “No, it is Stella!”
So off we went to find Stella… (Cue Brando yelling Stella in the play Streetcar Named Desire!)
When we finally found the factory we were thwarted in our efforts by the security officer who told us of weekend only tours, but at least if Mirek couldn’t get a glass of, at least he got a photo with the glass.
When my cousin heard about the fiasco she quickly arranged for a lovely lunch accompanied with the probably most iconic Belgian beer–Westmalle.
Her fiancé was quite sure it will be easy to book a visit to one of the Trappist breweries. After hours and hours of internet research we were empty handed and concluded that the Trappist monks keep their secrets close. There are only 11 breweries allowed to display the Authentic Trappist Product logo, and you don’t have to travel all the way to Belgium to find one. Surprisingly there is one in the US, at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. Of course one would expect that to deserve a label the brewing Abbey must follow specific rules. There are actually only three: the beer must be brewed in a monastery by monks or under their supervision, it must not be the secondary activity of the monastery and the profits can only be used for the monks upkeep or charity.
Note that a Trappist beer can only be drunk from a chalice or a goblet, certainly not a stein!
The only brewery tour we could find at the last moment was to De Halve Maan in Brugge. A good excuse to drive to Brugge, even if everyone says it will be (too) crowded by tourists. Of course, we have to take a short boat ride on the canals, too!
While some others take the bikes…The tour was great, no big secrets withheld, still I can’t give you the low down on the process, it is bloody complicated with lots of tanks and fermentation processes. Just to make sure we are all on the same page here, the basic premise is combining simple ingredients of water, malt, hops and yeast. Malt comes from malting barley (and/or wheat) and it determines the color and the flavor of the beer the most.
But I can certainly share some fun facts. For example the Halve Maan’s beer travels through a unique pipeline, connecting the brewery in the inner city to the bottling plant, over a distance of 3.2 km. It was build with the help of crowdsourcing beer enthusiasts.
While tasting their beers and reading their notes I realized In my next life instead of a poet I should love to be a poetic beer note writer. How poetic is that: “…Brugse Zot double has a ruby red-brown color and has a rich aroma composed of bitter notes…”
Wait, what’s that about being made from Czech Saaz hop from Zatec? Weren’t we just there, dear?
Of course, dear, I told you the best beer in the world is Czech beer!
Ugh, I can’t win!
While Czech beer strives to be uniformly the same (read the best), Belgian beer strives to each be distinct. With Mirek at the wheel I get to enjoy tastings galore.
Truth be told our trip to the North is not based on beer but for a very special occasion – the birth of our Dutch friend Ylvie’s baby. I am honored with the invitation to lend moral support to her as I am a big proponent of home birth and Ylvie plans the same for her little daughter.
We cross over to the Netherlands and spend nearly a week hanging out in the Dutch countryside close to our friend’s horse farm.
And who shows up but our home-born baby Naya? She brings along California sunshine.While we wait for the baby to make up her mind, we enjoy rides to the beach and iconic sights.
We even visit with a son of my old schoolmate in Rotterdam where we toast to the old times and new friendships with what else – Belgian Beer. Mirek is driving, so no Dutch Heineken for him!
Baby Nikka arrives healthy, strong and beautiful one sunny morning.
Her parents are ecstatic and so are we! How often does one get to hold a newborn in one’s arms? Tears are shed, blessings counted. These special moments will surely be the highlight of our Year of Travel.
In all our excitement we forget to open the bottle of champagne to toast to Nikka’s health and bright future.
No, worries. There is always another glass of good beer on the way back.
Proost! To new babies and to new travels! The world is indeed a beautiful place! As Louis Armstrong sang the message so clearly:
I see trees of green…….. Red roses too
I see em bloom….. For me and for you
And I think to myself…. What a wonderful world.
I see skies of blue….. Clouds of white
Bright blessed days…. Dark sacred nights
And I think to myself….. What a wonderful world.
The colors of a rainbow….. So pretty.. In the sky
Are also on the faces….. Of people.. Going by
I see friends shaking hands….. Sayin.. How do you do
They’re really sayin…… I love you.
I hear babies cry…… I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more….. Than I’ll never know
And I think to myself….. What a wonderful world
And what is your favorite beer? Let us know in comments bellow!