Beer! Bière! Bier!

The first beer I actually enjoyed was a mega-corporation-posing-as-a-craft beer‘s take on Belgian witbier. (I was a teenager, don’t judge me.  Besides we all liked it.) After that, outside of some other American craft brewery versions of Belgian ale, my main acquaintance with Belgian beer was Monkish brewery, a fantastic brewery owned and operated by a dude who also studied theology in Scotland. Then earlier this year while we are in Scotland I read on article on monastic brewing that reminded me of the the mythical Trappist brewers, and how Belgium is not only home to them, but some of the best beer in the world. I immediately told Hayley I wanted to visit Belgium if we got the chance, but since we already had most of our traveling planned I didn’t really think to mention it again. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA However, as soon as we found out we’d be spending a month in Paris I declared to the heavens that we’d be making a pilgrimage to the holy land of artisan beer. I imagined walking through these antiquarian abbeys sipping some of the best ale with the monks who make it. Unfortunately, as soon as I began researching our trip I realized immediately that beer tourism is not a conducive part of the monastic way of life, and as such these world famous breweries do not offer tours. Yet, I remained undaunted and hopeful. I may not get to tour the breweries but I’d get to see the grounds of a few abbeys and try the beer, even some of the most difficult beer in the world to get a hold of. IMG_6296 Finally, last weekend the dream came true. Hayley and I hopped in the car with our good friends Laura and Logan Isaac and drove up to Brugge. We stopped at Westvleteren abbey on the way, hoping to visit the abbey’s brew shop in the few hours a day they are open to the public, and have drink at the visitors center across the street. Unfortunately, neither were open on Fridays, so we had our first Belgian ales at a pub next to the train station. I had a St. Bernardus Abt 12, which is supposedly the same exact recipe as the Westveterern 12. I never did a side by side comparison, but it was amazing. A fantastic introduction to Belgium. IMG_6286 IMG_6290 Once we meandered up the coast to Brugge we settled into our spiffy hostel, and set out into the medieval town to find food. We ended up a touristy place with decently albeit overpriced food with an incredible view. Hayley made friends with an American couple who live in Saudi Arabia, because of course she did. I had a La Chouffe which paired well with my muscles au gratin and flemmish rabbit stew. (Yes I just wrote that sentence) After dinner we headed over to a small pub that I was almost as excited for as the abbeys. Staminee De Garre isa  tiny little rustic pub hidden in an alley in the heart of the town. It’s mentioned in pretty much every beer nerd blog and review of Brugge. It’s also the only place in the world to get their famous house trippel. It was amazing, and it came with cheese. At this point I was completely situated in beer heaven. IMG_6305The next day was included Belgian waffles, chocolate, the strangest Saturday market I’ve ever seen, German bratwurst, frites with artechoke maynoise, Hayley bumping into a highschool friend’s little brother and a tour of De Haalve Maan brewery before we drove back to Westvleteren. De Haalve Maan was super rad, and included probably the best brewery tour I’ve ever been on. They are super proud of their heritage, and they are the only brewery still in the city center. The tour included a taste of their flagship beer Brugse Zot. Unsurprisingly, it was a fantastic light and crisp blond ale with plenty of flavor.  IMG_6344The rest of the evening involved the capstone of the weekend. Westvleteren 12 is consistently ranked one of, and usually the, best beer in the world, and it is also incredibly difficult to get your hands on. So we were obviously excited to try the beer, but before we left for the abbey Logon suggested we see if we could attend their compline service. Compline is the last service of the day in monastic life. Hayley and I enjoyed going to a service on Thursday nights in St Andrews that was modeled on the compline service. After trying the deservedly hyped ale at the restaurant/visitor’s center across the street we went and knocked on the door of the abbey and was warmly invited to attend the service with the 25 monks in the abbey and about five other local Westvleterens. It was a beautiful and intimate service that made me think about the commitment to faith and work these men have committed themselves to. The quality of their beer is an expression of their devotion to worship God in the quality of their work. Of course, after speaking with one of the monks (who I am convinced is the brewmaster because he said he was named after St Arnold the patron saint of brewers) we headed back to the visitors center to enjoy the fruits of their labor again. IMG_6355The next day we sadly had to had back to Paris (never thought I was write that), but on the way, or actually out of our way, we made sure to stop by another Trappist abbey for good measure. Chimay, because it is also a working monastic abbey, does not give tours, but they do have a more robust visitor center, as well as a whole production and distribution organization that employs over 200 employees. I had the red labeled beer, which they also call Première because it was their original recipe. We also tried the patersbier which is only for the monks themselves and the vistor’s center. At this point in the blog post it should go without saying. Both were absolutely incredible. IMG_6379Thus ended the best beer weekend of my life.  We also did other cool things that involved stuff like Renaissance art that was stolen by Nazis during WWII. Also I could say more about Trappists monastic life and what makes Trappist ale special in the first place, or Westvleteren’s insane distribution, or lack thereof, system. But since this has already been a long blog post I will simply end by saying Belgium delivered in a major way.IMG_8488IMG_6301IMG_6334IMG_6372

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