What the monks drink: Belgium’s dizzying array of beer

There’s a tipple for every taste in Belgium but none as good as the Trappist beer.

Written by Amrita Das | Published:August 6, 2017 12:00 am
Hitting the high notes in Belgium: Belgium offers a dizzying array of beer. (Source: Amrita Das)

If you drink a Trappist, you do charity,” says Karel, my guide and a jazz musician, as we clink our beer glasses. Until now, Trappist beer and I were complete strangers. But this is the finest beer I have drunk in my life.

I am in Ghent, popularly tagged  “Belgium’s best kept secret.” A Trappist is also the world’s best-kept beer. It comes with three rules. First, all production has to be inside the walls of an abbey; second, a monk has to be in charge of production; and third, all profits can only go to charity or channeled towards sustaining the abbey.

There are 11 Trappist beers in the world, of which six are in Belgium. The three in Flanders, northern Belgium, are Westmalle, Achel and the elusive Westvleteren. The French-speaking part of the country houses the others — Rochefort, Orval and Chimay.

After World War II, hesitant to spend on copper stills, Westvleteren turned to a brewery in Watou, West Flanders, for its production. This brewery was a Trappist abbey, now owned by a family close to the monks, and was called St Bernardus. From 1947 to 1990s, all the Westvleteren beers were produced by this brewery. But, in the early 1990s, when the quality labels were formed, they pulled back the official production inside the walls of the Westvleteren abbey. However, the brewery in Watou continued producing the beer under the name of St Bernardus — the commercial name of Westvleteren. In my glass, I am sampling the full flavour of St Bernardus Abt 12.

As Karel and I step out of the bar, ‘t Einde der Beschaving (The End of Civilisation) on Saint Veerleplein, I curiously ask if there were other alcohol variants to get enamoured by in Belgium, other than beer. He smirks at me and we walk a hundred metres across to ‘t Dreupelkot. This old, cosy bar is home to the classic Dutch gin called jenever. It houses more than 200 varieties of the drink. The bartender pulls out a bottle of Belegen Graanjenever and fills my shot glass. Traditionally, we take the first sip of the spirit without holding the glass — by bending to the table and placing our mouth directly to the glass. Dull golden and potent, this one resembles vodka infused with herbs and flowers.

The following day, I continue my quest for the ‘other’ Belgian liquors. After an elaborate walking trail in Ghent, I stop by Groot Vleeshuis, an aged meat house, also called the Great Butcher’s Hall, for a break. I see Ghent’s Ganda hams hang from the high roof. It dates back to the 15th century when it was used as an indoor, wholesale meat market.

A Trappist Brewery. (Source: Amrita Das)

I sit with an assorted platter of meat, cheese and savouries but there’s nothing to quench my thirst. Upon enquiring, I am served a glass of sparkling, clear Belgium produce — the refreshing golden drink called RoomeR. Commonly drank as an aperitif, RoomeR is prepared by infusing elderflower blossoms and originates in Belgium. It is served chilled and even though the beverage contains 15 per cent alcohol, I feel none of its effects.

I pedal from Bruges to Damme next, a small touristy village about seven kilometres from Bruges’ city centre. The sun adds to the picture perfect frames of the Belgium countryside. As Tom and I park our bikes outside De Uilenspiegel (The Owl Mirror) restaurant for lunch, I am already thinking of what drink to pair with my steak. Tom encourages me to try the locally brewed Maerlant Damse Tripel beer but warns me against its heaviness. The beer is a produce of Van Steenberge Brewery in Ertvelde, about 40 kilometres east of Damme and is available only in Damme.

Owing to its exclusivity, I give in. Indulging in a chilled glass of the beer, I understand that developing a stamina for it would have helped. Nonetheless, I did manage to ride 12 kilometres back to Bruges, without sleeping on the two-wheels.

In Antwerp I find myself in a tight spot. Tempted to indulge in Duvel beer, I cautiously pick the Dutch variation of Negroni from the bar menu of Horta Grand Cafe. I wonder if I made a mistake by choosing a popular cocktail over a local brew. But as I study the drink beside me, I feel like the bond was meant to be. The bright red colour of the gin cocktail is diluted by chunky ice cubes and the hint of orange peel adds a contrasting aroma. Giving it a gentle shake, I sip to know I have made the right decision.

On my last day in Antwerp, I chance upon a traditional pub in the Grote Markt (Great Market Square). Café Den Engel is an example of Antwerp’s bruine kroeg (brown pub). The guild house establishment is believed to date back to the 14th century. The crowd here are seniors, each sitting with a glass of beer in front of them. I ask the friendly bar hostess about the dark amber-coloured beer in most glasses and she points me towards the tap. No questions asked, I request for De Koninck from the tap. This beer has been locally brewed in Antwerp since 1833. It is fondly called bolleke De Koninck, where bolleke refers to the iconic shape of the glass it is served in. I grow infatuated with its sweet and very lightly spiced taste. As the drizzle eases outside, I pay €2.30 for my beer and walk out happily dizzy.

As I pack for my flight back from Brussels, I lay the diverse Belgian liquors on my bed. From RoomeR’s rounded bottle to a variety of St. Bernardus’ Trappist beers, I knew I couldn’t take better souvenirs back home.

Amrita Das is a travel writer based in Kolkata.

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