This is a guest blog post from Memphis homebrewer, craft beer enthusiast and beer traveler Charlie Patrick.
To help you get through the doldrums of winter, we bring you a tale of better, livelier times.
This summer, we went on a trip to the wine country of France, spending most of our time in the Burgundy and Champagne regions. Although we intended to, of course, try some wine, we also took a few days to try the beers of Belgium, many of which are world-renowned. There was also time to take in some of the beers of France, and during a rather uneventful layover, time to take in a little bit of Canada’s beers via Montreal.
Let’s first mention that Brussels, Belgium, is a pretty unique place. Many different cultures and languages are well represented. There are many sites to see, including the Manneken Pis (the “Peeing Boy” fountain), and also your typical tourist traps.
There is a “chocolate museum” and a “beer museum,” but, in all honesty, I might recommend you skip the beer museum and head straight to the bars. One area we would recommend you check out is the area known as “Delirium Village.” As the name suggests, the village is associated with Brouwerij Huyghe, known primarily for its flagship offering, Delirium Tremens. The village is a series of bars and cafes, all somewhat stand-alone facilities that are also interconnected.
We spent some time at the Delirium Tap House, which is dedicated to carrying not only the “Delirium family” of beers but also features guest taps. During our time there various beers were featured on tap and we were able to sample quite a bit.
First off, we had the Delirium Red (or Delirium Rouge, depending on your nation of origin). It was a slightly tart, fruity entry, smelling of “Smarties” candy. The mouthfeel was medium, tasting significantly of cherries and lingering on the palate just enough with some strawberry hints. It was a “Flanders Light,” if you will, with a good balance of sweet and sour.
Next up was the Bersalis Tripel by Brouwerij Oud Beersel, which was a sort of sweetish tripel both with regard to the nose and the taste, although it lacked some of the spicy and drying character you might expect in a tripel. On the other hand, there was La Rulles Blonde by Brasserie Artisanale de Rulles. This beer was extremely phenolic on the nose and in its taste. There was not much fruit at all, and it had a drying finish.
While on the subject of this brewery, let us discuss La Grande 10. This Belgian Strong Pale Ale had an interesting spicy and phenolic yeast character on the nose, which carried over into the taste with some sweetness and fruity notes. A little hot alcohol, however, detracted from an otherwise satisfying beer.
Somewhat similar was the Dominus Vobiscum Saison of Microbrasserie Charlevoix, a beer from a guest brewery from “out of state,” specifically Quebec, Canada. This one compares well to La Grande 10 with its similar yeast character, but it was less fruity and sweet. Indeed, it tasted darker than it was (the beer had a darker orange sort of hue) with big phenols and some smoky, grilled notes. It was an interesting, complex beer that clocked in at about 10% alcohol by volume, although many online sources suggest a lower alcohol content. Of course, a trip to the Delirium Tap House would not be complete without having the piece de resistance.
Delirium Tremens was available and had, as is typical, a nice aroma with fruity undertones. It was incredibly smooth, particularly “in person” with some extra sweetness and honey notes.
While sampling Delirium products, we also had to consider the Delirium Guillotine Bitter. It had a nice fruity, yet “soapy” nose and was drier and less fruity than other Delirium entries in taste. The phenolics of the yeast were well balanced with the malt character.
After aperitifs, it was imperative that dinner be had!
In this respect, we wondered upon Chez Leon, which is off the main square in Brussels near the Brussels Town Hall and the aforementioned Peeing Boy fountain. If you ever go there, order mussels, beer, and nothing else.
They had a “house” beer called Le Leon, or Biere Leon, to be exact. Made by Heineken, this Belgian pale came off more like a light blonde ale.
There was also Heineken’s Maes Pils, which is basically a Bud/PBR-type German/Belgian Pilsner with very little funk, spice, or other character in general. I must admit it was not a favorite of anyone at our table. However, the restaurant, like several places in Belgium and France, offered further (and better) libations by this specific brewery that you might find surprisingly good.
Specifically, we tried the Grimbergen Brune, which was a nice, malty brown ale with some light Belgian “funk;” it was easy drinking, yet satisfying. Of similar quality was the Brugs, a really nice witbier that was light and refreshing while being rightly spiced and maintaining a good balance.
Of course, it wasn’t my plan to just spend time in Brussels. There were plans to seek out some of the great beers of the world, specifically, the Trappist kind. With some careful planning and mapping skills, we were able to make our way to three different Trappist breweries in Southern Belgium on our way to France.
First, we stopped off in the humble town of Rochefort to seek out the wares of Abbey Nortre-Dame de Saint-Remy, one of the few Trappist breweries that actually lacks a café or other “official” place to sample their beers.
Note potential traveler: the Hotel Malle Place Bar, which is stated to be an “unofficial” home for the abbey’s beers and reliable place information about brewery, no longer exists. Let me just say, basically, no one in this very small (and very French town) actually knew where the abbey was located. In fact, most people the city were more interested in a grand prix that we happened upon.
At the very least, however, we were determined to have some beers in the heart of the town. Ultimately, we were able to achieve this modest goal, finding several bars serving the beers.
We started off with the Rochefort 6, of course, the most like a “normal” beer of the series. In person, there is, of course, the caramel and chocolate nose you expect, but the taste is a little more distinct. Sure, there is the Tootsie Roll aspect to the flavor, but there is also a slightly crisp hop character, and a drying finish.
Next, there was the Rochefort 8, the Jan Brady of this abbey’s beers. It was sweeter than Rochefort 6 but with less hop character. Nonetheless, there remained good balance between malt and hops.
Finally, there was the Rochefort 12, the showpiece of the series and the best of the bunch. This one smelled of cherries, and it had some earthy notes. It had rich caramel malt character with hops only providing some light, necessary bitterness. There was an evident warming sensation, but it was not overly heavy.
Of course, I’ll have you know we ultimately located the grounds of the abbey. In the near silence, it would have been great to enjoy a brew!
Our next stop along the road was Brasserie d’Orval. We couldn’t help but feel welcome immediately.
This place was actually quite the site to visit. Beyond just the beer, there is a museum on-site within the ruins of the original abbey. Of course, you’ll get a bit of beer education along the way.
Additionally, they make cheese that is available commercially and at their café. Of course, I had to visit the café and have a plain, old Orval. It had clean malt character and the larger hop character that was expected, and these characteristics were on further display in the fresh beer. There was the additional characteristic funk, of course.
I also tried the Orval “Veili” from their menu, which is described as Orval cellared for at least one year. Mine had been sitting since February of 2012. The beer was more yeasty and malty, almost like a more “traditional” abbey ale. In all honesty, the beer seemed to lose some of its more vibrant, distinct characteristics.
Last but not least, not in any way, was the Petit Orval or patersbier. This monks’ table beer, which was served from a keg, was less than 5% ABV and it smelled almost American in hop character. There was also an even more distinct hoppy taste than the original Orval. Basically, it came off as Belgian Pale Ale but with “traditional” hop character. Quite frankly, this would probably do well in the United States, but alas…
Our final stop of the Trappist tour was the Abbaye Notre Dame de Scourmont, or, the home of Chimay. After visiting the grounds, which were, quite frankly, the most beautiful, we made our way to the café where I helped myself to a rather generous sampling of the fine “house” beers.
I would note that Chimay’s café has a complete menu as opposed to the more limited offerings of Orval. Also, the most exciting part of my beer sampler was the Chimay Doree, which is Chimay’s patersbier. It’s unique because it is their only offering that is all malt. It is also spiced with coriander and curacao. It was a really good beer, at least as good as the Chimay Rouge or “Premiere,” i.e., “Chimay Red,” although I would note that this entry was also different fresh from the source. It had a bigger malt character with more caramel, and it even looked a little “red” in the sun.
The “Chimay White” a/k/a Chimay Blanche or “Cinq Cents” was excellent. It was a little hoppier than I expected “in person” and a little spicier. Of course, I must say I also particularly enjoyed the bottle service.
Of course, I could not leave out “Chimay Blue,” which is more appropriately, of course, Chimay “Grande Reserve.” The beer honestly had a greater natural spice character with bigger fig and prune-type notes.
If you are ever in the neighborhood, I would suggest you stop by and maybe even stay the night as they do have an inn. Of course, don’t forget to bring the kids.
Because we could not make it to all of the great breweries of Belgium in person, I made it a point to seek out a bottle shop. At de Bier Tempel in Brussels, I was able to find a few things to bring back with me.
From this fine establishment, I was able to procure a few beers from Brouwerij der Sint-Benedictusabdij de Achelse Kluis or, more simply put, Achel. First, there was the Achel 8 Blonde. This beer had a really pronounced phenolic character and some antiseptic notes on the nose. However, there was a distinctly sweet malt taste with a drying finish. Always present was great Belgian yeast throughout. I also procured a bottle of the Achel 8 Bruin. This beer had really impressive layered hop, malt, and yeast character in both the aroma and flavor. It was similar to the Blonde, but better.
I also may have had another stowaway or two that made their way back to the States. Alas, that may be another story (or two) for another day… also, we eventually had to make our way to France.
Crossing the border, we found that the French and we Americans may have more in common then we realize. Look! A trailer park:
Not to worry, my “drinkation” continued in the land of wine and cheese. Some of the beers we imbibed were not necessarily the best, but at least they were interesting. We sampled the Pelforth Brune, which is actually, once again, made by our good friends at Heineken. It was styled as a brown ale “with the richness of double malt.” There was not much aroma to speak of. It was a quite sweet brown ale with a somewhat substantive alcohol content (6.5%ABV). In all fairness, it seemed it was built for a higher alcohol content and not much else.
A bit better was the Valmy Blonde made by Brasserie d’Orgemont, which I understand originates from the Champagne-Ardennes area. It styles itself a biere de garde, and it had light phenols in the nose and in the flavor, mixing with malty sweetness. All in all, it was light, but flavorful.
We also had the opportunity to try what was a semi-local beer while traveling around France. We found a cool little English pub (no joke) in the heart of Beaune, France, called Pickwick’s that served, amongst other things, Biere De Bourgogne made by Thomas Becket. It was a slightly hoppy and sweet-smelling beer that was also sweetish in taste with some almost Belgian-esque, funky notes. However, it was still on the lighter side. While there I also got to have a Murphy’s Irish Stout and celebrate our nation’s independence with a shot of Jack Daniel’s and Johnny Cash playing in the bar.
While in France, we also had the opportunity to partake of what is essentially their version of a summer shandy, or panache as it’s known there. Basically, although there are different variations on the theme, the panache we had consisted of Ginger Ale and Kronenbourg 1664. In case you are not familiar with Kronenbourg 1664, it is basically a Budweiser-esque beer brewed by the same folks that make Carlsberg. It’s very popular in France and readily available in the States, as well.
On a similar note, while overseas, we also had to try a Heineken while we could get it a little closer to the source. The rumors of Heineken being better over there are not untrue. A tall boy was purchased while waiting in line for the Eiffel Tower. All that needs to be said is there was more malt and less skunk!
On a related but more adventurous front, we revisited Grimbergen a few times while in France, including having the Grimbergen Cuvee Blanche. This very nice entry (again by Heineken) was smooth, somewhat sweetish, but very well balanced.
Quite frankly, after our limited time in Belgium and France, I was exhausted. However, I still felt like I closed out the trip on a high note, including a Kronenbourg 1664 out of the VENDING MACHINE in my hotel’s lobby that went nicely with my … wait for it … Royale with Cheese. Thank you, Vincent Vega.
I suppose I might as well mention that I had a layover in Canada on my way back to the U-S-of-A, but that’s quite frankly another story for another day. Having said that, maybe we’ll just skip that one. Let’s just say that Canadians are great people, but I do not think there will be many people making efforts to travel there for the sake of beer alone.
At the end of the trip, I can truly say I gained not only a greater appreciation for the beers of our overseas brethren (and, of course, the larger world around us), but I also in some way gained a greater appreciation for the beer I enjoy at home.
Nowhere over there did I find the variety of beers readily available to us here in the States, and, sometimes, I think we take that for granted. Sure, our beer is not always world-class, but we certainly have our own beer world here that’s worthy of exploration.