West and French Flanders: July 2005

Click here for pictures of the trip, including all four brewery visits

Day One: Monday 18 July 2005

Breweries visited: Thiriez; Rodenbach and Van Eecke

Blasting through London before 6am, Mark and I were soon over in sunny Beckenham picking up Fiona, which gave us a direct and fairly handy route to the A20 and then the M20, straight to Folkestone. We made such good time that we were early enough to get the 07.58 shuttle instead of the one we had booked on, the 08.28. The very pleasant outcome of this was that, having negotiated a massive thunderstorm in northern France, we were knocking on the door of Brasserie Thiriez in Esquelbecq in French Flanders before 10.15am!

We knew that Daniel wasn’t around as he is on holiday, but we had arranged to meet his assistant at 11am, so while we were waiting for him to finish washing the brewery floor, we tucked into draught Blonde and draught Maline, which was once again magnificent. While sipping our beers, we all agreed that this was a splendid way to start the week and that more Monday mornings should be like this.

We then had the tour: well, actually we were shown the one room of the tiny brewery. Its all very modern, clean and impressive, set within a classic farmhouse or at least a classic old building, in the middle of a very pretty and typical French village. After another beer – this time the Rouge Flamande – we said our goodbyes and set off over the border, through Watou and over to Poperinge, where we were booked in for lunch in the Palace Hotel dining room. Over bottles of superb Girardin Black Label Gueuze and Drie Fonteinen Gueuze, we tucked into starters of beer soup, then I had a pork dish cooked in beer and served with potato croquettes. It was all very enjoyable and as usual, the welcome from Guy and Beatrijs was first class.

Bang on schedule at 13.45 we set off for our second brewery visit of the day, at Rodenbach over in nearby Roeselare. Here we were tagging along with a local group who were getting a tour which was obviously in Flemish, but at least we could understand the subtitles on the two films that were shown as part of the visit. Anyway, the place is great to visit and the 294 giant oak tuns are extremely visually impressive. Also very impressive is the gleaming new 250hl brewhouse, which was built in 2002. There was a distinct smell of recent brewing in the air, though no actual brewing was in progress that day: we were told that this was due to the short week this week – Belgian National holiday on Thursday 21st…..

We saw a control room/lab place which was in full pelt and we left feeling reasonably convinced that there is current brewing activity on this site. The tour ended in traditional fashion with a beer, but as they only offered regular Rodenbach, we hotfooted it over to the Grote Markt and De Zalm, where we had the beer of the trip: hand pulled Rodenbach Foederbier (the aged stuff direct from the tuns). This was every bit as stunning as you may imagine it to be and is well worth going out of your way to seek out. Why they don’t serve this at the actual brewery is beyond me, but full marks to De Zalm for doing it.

Other interesting snippets from the Rodenbach tour: we learned that without the Rodenbach family there would have been no Roeselare; and later we found that without the Rodenbach family there would have been no Belgium! Heady stuff indeed. I had no idea they were so important.

We had an important appointment in Watou, so no time to loiter, and we made it just in time for Fiona’s interview with Stefaan at 18.15. When we met him, he said he’d just had a call from Van Eecke, and the good news was that our tour had been set up just in the nick of time, so while Fiona was chatting to Stefaan, Mark and I legged it over to the brewery for what turned out to be a highly informative and very enjoyable visit.

We were shown round by brewery employee Michel Russe, who was charming and helpful. The good news is that we saw conclusive evidence of recent brewing and I left in no doubt about this. We saw beer in the tanks, sacks of malt and hops, and signs of fairly recent brewing on some of the equipment. The brewery is very compact with some new and some quite old equipment – its certainly one of the more fascinating breweries to poke around. I asked if any of the Van Eecke beers are brewed at Br Leroy, the sister brewery, in nearby Boezinge. Michel said that draught Het Kapittel beers for Spain, Italy and Portugal are brewed at Leroy, but that everything else is brewed in Watou. On the basis of this, any suspicions that some of the beers may have a Leroy influence are therefore unfounded. We also asked about the approximate production levels of each beer: the answer was that approximately 35% of production is Hommelbier, 35% Watou Wit, and the other 30% is the Het Kapittel range. Bottling always occurs in Boezinge, where Hommel and Abt are dry hopped. We were told that there has been no change in recipe in any of the beers in the recent past (defined as the time Michel has been working at the brewery – i.e. 25 years).

After the tour, Michel took us to ‘t Brouwershof, the brewery tap next door, where we had a Hommel which was very tasty and pretty much spot on. We thoroughly enjoyed the visit and appreciate the effort that Michel put in, and the time he gave up, to show us round on a Monday evening.

Then it was over to ‘t Hommelhof where we met up with Fiona again who by then had finished her interview with Stefaan. Dinner was superb: I had fish soup, then mussels, then my main course of steak with delicious sauce of mushrooms and other vegetables. We had many beers through the course of the evening: draught Watou Wit; draught Het Kapittel Prior; bottled Het Kapittel Prior (best before May 04 – delicious, and miles better than the draught version); St Bernardus Prior – wonderful, as were all the St B products; St Bernardus Abt; Het Kapittel Abt; Hommelbier – bottled – something odd about this one); and finally, Stefaan and Sabine produced a 75cl of Cuvee ‘t Hommelhof, which is a mix of Watou Wit and Het Kapittel Abt. And jolly good it was too.

After ages spent chatting with Stefaan and Sabine, we called it a day and went next door to the B & B, Tussen Dag en Morgen. What a great day, and that was only day one…...

Day Two: Tuesday 19 July 2005

St Bernardus and Brugge

The B & B is very comfortable and well appointed, but its best feature is probably its location, right beside the Hommelhof and with views overlooking the square. Waking up on a summer Tuesday morning and having a view over Watou’s Markt is certainly highly recommended.

We weren’t due at St Bernardus until 10.30am, so we had plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast, which is served in the Korenbloem café on the Kleine Markt just round the corner.

Our St Bernardus visit was superb: what a great place to visit. The whole place was a hive of activity: there were extra staff in packing up a huge order of 75cl Grottenbiers for dispatch to Denmark; brewing was in full swing and the whole place was very very busy.

We were shown round by Hans Depypere, the General Manager, and Marco Passarella, the Sales and Marketing Manager. Both were extremely helpful and welcoming, and spent ages answering all our questions and showing us round. The actual brewery is very compact and housed in a very old building – getting round it involves many stairs, twists and turns. They have a 130hl capacity with overall production at around 11000hl per annum at present. Beer brewed today won’t be ready to sell for 4 months, hence unless they shorten this period – which they are reluctant to do - or install more tanks, production won’t be increasing hugely. All large bottles are filled at either Rodenbach or Lefebvre. Blond Grottenbier has been ‘almost perfected’ but due to other commitments they won’t be starting full scale production of it in the very near future. There is a visitor centre/museum place planned in the next few years, but for now they don’t really do many visits, at least partly due to the difficulty of navigating groups round such a compact brew house.

After the tour we went into the office next door and had a Tripel and an Abt and more chat with Hans, then after a quick chat with Bernadette we were on our way.

Next stop, Brugge: heaving as you would expect in the height of summer. Such a contrast with our usual January visit when its always empty. We arrived in time for a late lunch at Erasmus. Tom welcomed us warmly and we quickly ordered a selection from his excellent line up of draught beers: Liefmans unfiltered kriek; Dupont Cervesia, and Brugse Zot – the new brew from Halve Maan in Brugge. The Liefmans and the Dupont were both superb; and I was pleasantly surprised by the Brugse Zot, which I also thoroughly enjoyed.

After more Kriek – it really was sublime - Tom then served up an aged 75cl bottle of Cantillon Brouscella Grand Cru, which was unbelievably good. We also had a De Dolle 21, the Erasmus anniversary brew, which is still interesting but which is now past its best.

Ah yes, lunch: I had cheese croquettes, then lamb stew cooked in Floreffe la Meilleure. All the dishes served up were excellent. Tom’s focus on beer cuisine is certainly producing some great food.

After a quick wander round the (chocolate) shops and the main central area of town, we grabbed time for a quick final beer at De Garre, before setting off for Calais at the end of a superb two days.


July 2005

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