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  • Writer's pictureLimetree

Belgium, Back in Beer Paradise

Tony's Travels – Having ingratiated myself with the pirates, it was up to me to escape from Tortuga and continue my quest to link up with our band of beer followers...somewhere in Belgium.

I did not give myself good odds of making my flight to Brussels on the post-Pirate morning, awaking later than planned, hungover (ok I've been worse), and with an iffy stomach. After searching and cursing for teabags in Alex' kitchen I hit the road, cuppa and luggage in hand. I was soon cursing myself for the forced 2-hour drive – I should've booked a car! But despite a couple of necessary petrol and bathroom stops, there were no delays, traffic was light, GPS accurate, and Fiat 500 cooperating, my odds seemed to improve, although I knew I had no extra minutes.

At the car rental – I had made the mistake of booking an el cheapo outfit called Drivalia, who ripped me off for insurance (almost as much as the car) but that's another story – it was busy, I ran into the employees restroom, and pulled my luggage from the car. I told the check-in attendant I had to run for the airport. He said leave the paperwork in the car. I did not wait for the Hotel Hopper which was the arrival mode for this rental, opting for an Uber. Told the driver I was in a hurry. "So you don't mind if I speed?" he said. "Please do," I replied. I was able to check my suitcase (required) 45 minutes before takeoff and head for security and the gate, pausing only for a half pint of Fullers ESB which I downed in 2 minutes.

As it turned out boarding the Brussels Airlines aircraft was a fairly lengthy affair, but I was still amazed that my ambitious connection plan was still intact. All I had to do now was find my band of wandering troubadours in Belgium. The itin had them at a farm about an hour south of Brussels. We were originally scheduled for the BXL beerfest until they moved the date on us. Tour operator Greg had found an alternate event, Festivan, a sort of nomad lifestyle festival, made palatable for our folks by the fact that there was a brewery, Bertinchamps, on the farm.

However, my flight arrived a few minutes late and after customs I figured I would have only an hour there at most. I could just take a train to Liege and meet up with the group that evening, I reasoned, but my conscience and allegiance to the group as the official host got the better of me.   

Have you ever taken an Uber out of Brussels airport? I think airport employees are instructed to tell people that Uber is not allowed to come to the airport...which may be true...but they do pick up in the parking garage which is where I found mine.

Greg told me the group was experiencing some difficulties. Because of so many parked cars on the farm road, the closest the bus could get was a half hour walk. He gave me the busses location but my driver and his GPs were already zeroed in on the farm which we passed. I saw some of our tour group walking and asked the driver if we could pick them up. It was ok for a while but he became a little agitated when the undercarriage of his mint Audi hit a few bumps on the rutted road and they had to get out. I waived from the back seat as we passed a few more of our group who gave me the middle finger return waive. They were not happy about this unscheduled hike after flying overnight, and neither was Greg, but at least some had brought Bertinchamps beer back to the bus, which soothed the trip to Liege.

2 tables at Brasserie C, Liege – Our happy family of beer travelers.

One of our tour regulars, the illustrious Jeannine Marois, president of Montreal's Mondial de la Biere festival, had been in touch with the owners of Brasserie C in Liege so we invited tour members to join us for an optional bite and beer. Just about everyone took us up on it, and Julien and his hopsitable staff gave us a good ending to the day.

First stop next day, after our favorite driver Hans demonstrated his skill maneuvering the narrow streets of Liege, the beautiful abbey of Val Dieu. Our guide who I thought might be a little stiff to start turned out to be a lot of fun. She did everything from history to religion to pouring the beers, even doing a charade-like impression of beer bottles going through the cleaning machine.

Down toward the Ardennnes, Brasserie Minnes. We knew Philippe and Cartherine from their previous venture, Bastogne brewing. They kept the wild boar logo from their La Trouffete range but turned into Super Sanglier in their new location with its futuristic exterior design. They offer a wide range of avant-garde beers, many imperial stouts and barrel-aged concoctions as well as their wild range.

Arriving in the sleepy town of Houffalize only a Monday evening, choices for dinner were few; our hotel, La Commerce seemed like the easiest choice for many. We chose H as our base because of its proximity to Brasserie d'Achouffe and even stayed in this hotel on our first visit in 2000. This time we did not break the elevator. D'Achouffe has grown many fold since then, and since friend and founder Christian Bauweraerts sold the brewery to Duvel Moortgat in 2005. The latest addition is a massive new packaging facility which features the biggest 1.5 liter bottling capacity in Belgium. Chris is now retired but remains a behind-the-scenes puppet master.

The pastoral scene at Brasserie d'Achouffe and Founder Christian Bauweraerts.

We were back and forth to the brewery a couple of times – a lunch at one of the restaurants, La Petite Fontaine, the tour of course and an evening at the tavern, Melomalt, partaking of the various Chouffes – the original La Chouffe, McChouffe scotch ale, Cherry, Soleil (summer), even the new alcohol free Chouffe (yes, the gnomes keep up with the times). And let's not forget N'Ice Chouffe for the hearty.

Elsewhere we visited the magical monastery of Orval. Although we have been invited inside the brewery before, public access has been curtailed since Covid. But the grounds have been significantly updated and a self-guided tour, absorbing the peace of Orval can be quite rewarding, not to mention several installations including an educational brewery setup.

And lunch at the monastery's nearby cafe, A l'Ange Gardien is spectacular. 4 choices of beer – Orval regular and the lighter Orval green, served either fresh or 6 months old.

Lucky with the weather, end of August and not too hot. Time to pause for a beer in Bastogne square, Sherman tank reminder of WW II's Battle of the Bulge and an airborne beer at the Nuts cafe.

Outside of Houffalize we stop in to see Jean-Michel at his backyard brewery Comte Hener. JM worked at d'Achouffe for several years and it was at Christian's behest that he accepted our visit, his first ever busload of beerhounds. Comte Hener is a play on Container – he has one converted shipping container for the brewery and another for the tasting room, although we were seated outside in late afternoon sun while JM and his wife Cat presented some very good beers.

Brewer Valéry regales the group at Brasserie Atrium.

Backtracking a little further north, another nice surprise was Brasserie Atrium, recommended by Belgian beer guide author Tim Webb. It might be termed a new wave brewery, Belgian husband, Valéry, and Brazilian wife, Paula, team serve plenty of Ipas at their pub-style bar. And they shared with us their last two bottles of a special imperial stout.

Heading back to Brussels, we had a date at the Maredsous Abbey...with a bottle of legendary Samuel Adams Utopias, brought along by Loretta "Chickee" Aigner. She wanted to offer a

group toast to her departed brother Ed who had joined us on many a trip. Being a man of the cloth I knew he particularly enjoyed our last visit to Maredsous. Chickee said he acquired the Utopias at a silent auction but never had a chance to open it. I think we did bottle and man  justice.

Inside the building, Abbey owners, Duvel Moortgat, had recently installed a 20-hecto microbrewery for onsite beers to supplement the classic Maredsous Dubbel and Tripel. We tasted a nice hoppy summer ale.

Semi-retired Frank Boon joined us on the tour of his impressive lambic brewery. One of the saviors of the lambic style has left staggering amounts of liquid in huge oak barrels to keep his two sons busy as they take over the reins. The Kriek (cherry) Marriage Parfait never disappoints.

Delirium Tremens is everywhere. The famous pink elephant label has a whole block in Brussels, not to mention a couple of dozen franchise locations around the world. But it is not so much the marketing muscle you see when you visit this brewery in Melle, in between Brussels and Ghent. Here the history is emphasized dating back to the 17th century, but revamped in the early 1900s by the De Laet family. Fourth generation Alain De Laet, as current grandmaster of the Belgian Brewers Federation, is leading a charge to reestablish Belgian beer's reputation around the world (more about that later).

While the visiting center is part museum, the brewery is among the most modern – witness the packaging robots! The strong golden Delirium is deliciously fresh, but there are a slew of other labels to choose from.

We hadn't really planned it this way but as it turned out Liefmans in Oudenarde was the third Duvel-Moortgat owned brewery on this trip. Brought back from bankruptcy, Goudenband, Oud Bruin and Kriek are going strong. Our visit was arranged by Olav Blanquaert, whose mother Madame Rose was the embodiment of Liefmans in its heyday. She passed away early last year at the age of 99.

Back in Brussels, Belgian Beer Weekend was underway Friday evening. The Grand Place turns into a big beer festival for the weekend as the red-robed Knights of the Brewers Paddle celebrate their heritage. I received the knighthood  in 2022; this year it was the turn of Jeannine Marois.

The Grand Place, Brussels, decked out for Belgian Beer Weekend. Jeannine Marois joins the Knighthood of the Brewers Paddle.

The Belgian brewers are on a mission to put Belgian beer back on the map. Last year they traveled en masse to the US hosting promotions in Florida and Washington DC, where they conducted a knighting ceremony at the Belgian Consul General's residence.

This year they have accepted an invitation by the newly-knighted Marois to take the spotlight at the 30th anniversary of her Mondial de la Biere festival in Montreal. The Belgian Pavilion will feature specially imported beers from two dozen Belgian Brewers and Belgian Beer Week Canada will feature several related events in Toronto and Montreal.



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