Friday, July 18, 2008


Peaceful Pilgrimage

"In Flanders Fields the poppies blow".

In the western corner of Vlaanderen, De Westhoek, not only poppies, but also hops grow. The area is home to some of the best brewers in the world, notably the Sint-Sixtusabdij at Westvleteren and De Struise Brouwers, who brew at Deca brewery in nearby Woesten-Vleteren.

The former is already a beer tourist pilgrimage destination, and the ostrich farm of the latter may well gain popularity with the opening of a brewery shop there.

The abbey of Sint-Sixtus itself, including its brewhouse, is beyond reach, and the brewery outlet also has more limited availability these days. It is open only from 2-5 pm, closed on Fridays and Sundays, and beers can only be bought (in crates of 24 bottles) with a reservation. The new restrictions seem to have relieved the surrounding area of the traffic jam that arose after the great publicity around the Westvleteren beers being rated as the world's best.

The most likely source for beers to take away may well be the little shop in a corner of the café and visitors centre, In de Vrede (The Peace). It is just across the street ("in the shadow of the Sint-Sixtus abbey"), owned by the abbey and open every day except Friday, the day of the crucifiction. The beer is sold in nice-looking sixpacks.

On the day of my visit, only the Extra was available from the shop. Judging from the best-before date, which is 3 years after the bottling date for all the Westvleteren beers (a mere formality, of course, since at least the 8 and 12 will improve for years beyond that if stored correctly), the beer had just been released from the warm room. There it is conditioned at 26 degrees Celcius for 10 days, according to Chuck Cook, one of the anointed few to get granted a visit behind the abbey walls.

As can be seen from the picture, the monks recommend that their beer be served and stored somewhat cooler than that; to be kept at 12-18 degrees C and served at 12-16 degrees is their recommendation.

Served at correct temperature and in great condition are all the three beers in the café proper, where one quarter of the total production ends up. In addition to the beer, the café serves up lighter meals such as a hommelpaptaart - hop porridge tart- that actually does not feature any hops in its recipe. Indirectly it certainly does, as it is made with the hoppy Poperings Hommelbier from local brewer Van Eecke. The ice cream, however, is made with Westvleteren Extra/ Westvleteren Blauw (the blue cap)/ Westvleteren 8- a dear child is known by many names. As always, for all you want to know about Abdij Sint-Sixtus and In de Vrede few web sites are as thorough as the one of the late John White.

Though spacious, In de Vrede fills up quickly in summer; many of the tables may already have been reserved. Judging from my observations, the combination of quiet country roads and world-class beer is appearantly not a good recruiting ground for a Bob- the term for a designated driver in the Low Countries.

My Bob was the belbus, the De Lijn mini bus on call, which leaves once an hour (if needed) and must be booked two hours in advance. For out-of-towners it is worth noting that the timetable seems to correspond well with the hourly train from the terminus of Poperinge. It is not unlikely, however, that the likeable little West-Vlaanderen town of Poperinge, famous for its hops and hop festival, may lure you to stay a little longer. There is a hop museum and a couple of decent bars. Among them is another café dedicated to peace, Café de la Paix.

The café names cannot disguise the fact that De Westhoek will forever be associated with The Great War rather than peace. After Poperinge the train calls at Ieper, the end of the line for a generation of men some ninety years ago, where the evidence of WWI is everywhere, but few places as strongly as at the Menenpoort with its 54,900 names of men lost and where the Last Post is played every evening.

The Flanders Fields have some chilling reminders of the horrors mankind can create. On the other hand, their brewers also prove what greatness can be achieved.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008


Domestic in Diest: Ons te Huis

The doors have closed for the last time for many Belgian beer cafés over the last few years, especially those off the beaten track. As the Belgians are drinking less beer, their beer cafés are becoming more dependent on beer tourists from abroad.

I was lucky enough to visit both Kaffee Barbier and Café 206, but never came around to blog about the latter, situated in the Antwerpen village of Sint-Katelijne-Waver, before it was too late. I regret not making it to Eglantier in Sint-Truiden or De Oude Speye in Damme. The best remaining beer cafés in rural Belgium are mostly weekend-only establishments, where the owners are making a living outside the less lucrative café business during the week. Examples of the latter are 't Kroegske and De Gans.

On the tourist trail the story is quite the opposite. The beer scenes in Brussels, Brugge and Gent are booming. The best beer selection these days is found at Delirium Café in Brussels and at Bierbrasserie Cambrinus in Brugge, cafés that have seen the light of day only during the last few years.

So it was with curiosity and delight that I approached a great "new" beer café in the less-visited, northeastern corner of Flemish Brabant, specifically in the little town of Diest. Ons te Huis, which translates as At our Home, has been around for some years, but this year their beer selection trebled as they started combining as a beer store. The deal is that the 170 beers in the yellow section of the menu are available cool and served in their correct glasswares. The 350 beers in the green section of the menu are from the beer store, but if you want them served in the café, just let the barman (or woman) know half an hour before, and he will have the bottle cooled for you.

The café may look quite plain, not unlike the bars found across the border in the Netherlands, but the service is unparallelled (the barman even helped me remove the beer labels for my collection). Winand and Moncy, the couple running the place, make sure that Diestenaars and others who find their way to Diest, are faced with an open door 7 days a week from early morning till late at night (the only exception being Mondays, when their home opens at 4 pm). Many of the beers are hard to hit elsewhere, and they are without exception sold at very democratic prices.

Indeed, my wish is that the locals vote with their feet and take advantage of the hospitality offered by Ons te Huis. It may not be the closest to the big sights, but in my opinion the rich beer culture of Belgium is dependent on locals like this to stay open.

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