Picturesque Lier, Belgium

A Koninklijke Moedige Bootvissers tour boat on the River Nete in Lier

Pretty Lier, Belgium, is only a 10-minute train ride from our local Antwerpen-Berchem station and it was top on my day trip wish list for our current cat- and house-sitting stay in Antwerp. (The trip is another 5 minutes or so if you leave from Antwerpen-Centraal, the architectural gem that is the only other train station in Antwerp.) With our sights on weekend-only boat tours of Lier, we took advantage of our first gorgeous October Saturday to make the short trip. Our Belgian Rail weekend fare tickets cost €4.40 apiece, round trip. (Choose the “weekend ticket internet” option when given a choice for the half-price weekend fare. Print your ticket and show it to the agent on board the train when asked.)

It’s about a 10-minute walk from the train station to Lier’s lovely Grote Markt (main square) dominated by the stadhuis (city hall) and it’s attached UNESCO-designated belfry dating to 1369. On this sunny Saturday, the square was filled with market stalls selling everything from clothing to cheese, produce, meats and more.

Lier’s Saturday market with the 1369 UNESCO-designated belfry and stathuis in the background

As always, high on our list of to-dos in a new Belgium town is to try the local beer. Lier, which rhymes with “beer,” is known for beer and has 6 such brews. We ordered two with our light lunch at ‘t Goemerke, a market-side café on the main square with a simple menu. I opted for the unique Caves (pronounced more or less like “cah fess”) and found it to be an enjoyable if somewhat sweet sour along the lines of a Rodenbach Grand Cru. David chose the Sint Gummarus Tripel, a crisp version of the Belgian classic. We’ll do a separate write-up on Lier beers in an upcoming post, so I won’t go into more detail here.

With an hour between the end of lunch at the boat tour, we figured we had time to take in the Breugelland exhibit at the modestly-sized Stedelijk Museum Wuyts-Van Campen en Baron. These paintings are on loan from the long-closed-for-rennovations Koninklijk Museum Voor Schone Kunsten (Fine Arts Museum) in Antwerp so we were glad for the chance to see them. This is apparently the seventh and last such collaboration between the two museums (although the Antwerp Fine Arts Museum is not set to reopen until 2019).

We finished up the art museum with just enough time to walk to the riverside starting point for the boat tours put on by Koninklijke Moedige Bootvissers (Royal Brave Boat Fishermen). We spent 45 minutes gliding through Lier in a converted eel-fishing boat (with a non-stop Dutch commentary that our companions–all Dutch-speaking–found very amusing). While we would have liked to have learned more/anything from our guide, we really enjoyed the boat ride and the perspective of Lier from the River Nete. Boat tours are offered Saturdays, Sundays and holidays April 1 – October 31, 2-6 p.m. Prices are €3.50 for adults, €2 for children.

View of Lier from a tour boat
Old lock house, end of the river for the tour boats

After our boat ride, we wandered charming cobbled streets of the adjacent begijnhof (“beguinage” in French). There are begijnhofs in many Belgian towns and I think all of them are UNESCO-listed. I like to describe beguines as “almost-nuns.” They were religious ladies who lived in these communities and took vows, but these vows did not include forsaking marriage or vows of poverty. The Lier begijnhof is particularly picturesque and the begijnhof church is really spectacular (and a far cry from the tiny chapel in the Antwerp begijnhof). We had the church to ourselves save for an older man playing magical music on the organ. Lovely!

A cobbled begijnhof street. The arch at the end of the lane leads to the tree-shaded riverside walk and park that circles the city.
Begijnhof church in Lier

We exited the beginjof onto the tree-shaded riverside walk and park that circles the city. We shared the path with other walkers, families and couples, bicycles and baby carriages. This area was part of a walk through town laid out by the nice man in the tourist office in the stadhuis. The downstairs of the stadhuis is open to the public and is worth a look just for the elegant architecture and painted walls and ceilings:

Curved staircase in the stadhuis foyer
Lier Tourist Office in the stadhuis. Maps and lots of brochures (mostly in Dutch) are available along with friendly English-speaking help at the desk.

Back in town, we headed to Sint-Gummaruskerk, Lier’s main church. As we approached, the bells began ringing madly, an at-first-charming call to vespers that continued for 30 minutes, including our quick exploration of the church and our escape to the nearby Sint-Pieterskapel, an unremarkable old chapel save for its painted ceiling. Back outside the chapel, the clanging of the bells of Sint-Gummarus continued to echo off the surrounding buildings and the otherwise-quiet and immaculate residential neighborhoods, a racket that must get old if you live nearby. Enough already!

The bell tower of Sint-Gummaruskerk in the background
Interior of Sint-Gummaruskerk
Painted ceiling of Sint-Pieterskapel

After wandering a further stretch of the riverside park circling the town, we strolled back to the Grote Markt, now empty of the market and glowing in the afternoon sun. Clearly, this was prime time for a couple more local beers at café het Moment. I opted for the Pallieter tripel (a true Lier beer) while David had the Kempisch Vuur (an abbey tripel from Brewery Pirlot in nearby Zandhoven). Again, we found both to be really good, and better than their Rate Beer reviews, especially mine. More details on the beers in a later post.

Afternoon beers on the Grote Markt

Somewhat full from the beer and accompanying snacks, we opted for a light dinner on Zimmersplein, a narrow plaza lined with restaurants and bracketed on one end by the town’s iconic astronomical clock tower, the Zimmertoren, and on the other by the “Prisoner’s Gate” an old jail and part of the long-gone medieval city wall.

Zimmersplein

We snagged another prime outdoor seat, this time just in front of the complicated clock tower in a restaurant aptly-named Café Refuge. We ordered a couple of beers and quiche and salad, not expecting anything remarkable from the food. Happily, both the quiches (one pumpkin and chevre, and one broccoli and nuts) and salads (made with mixed greens, herbs, raisins, grapes, apple, strawberries, cucumbers and tomatoes) were atypical and excellent. A just-right end to a delightful, low-key day!

Zimmertoren  astronomical clock
Quiche and salad at Café Refuge by the Zimmertoren astronomical clock

Find out more about Lier (in English, Dutch, French and German) at the Visit Lier website.

Back in Antwerp for 6 weeks and a preview of travels to come

David and I are happily back in Antwerp, Belgium, for 6 weeks once again cat- and house-sitting for some of our favorite people and cats in one of our favorite cities. As always when in Belgium, we’ll be exploring this beautiful country and scouting great beer. We’ll spend a month in Paris when we leave here, just to touch base in my old home and enjoy the holiday season before heading back stateside.

Coming up in the spring [March-June]: Another Korean Air First Class mega-flight from DFW to Seoul to Singapore(!), a few weeks in Indonesia (Bali, Java, etc.), then back to Singapore to catch a month cruise to Europe (via Sri Lanka, India (Cochin, Goa, Mumbai), Oman, UAE (Dubai, Abu Dhabi), Suez Canal, Jordan (Petra), Greece, Italy). When we get off the ship in Italy, we’ll spend a couple of weeks in Umbria (in an agrotourism farm) and Tuscany (at a small-town apartment) before flying from Florence back to Antwerp.

If any of these interest you, check back in. I’m also always open to suggestions!

Mechelen, Belgium: Why is this place not on tourist radar?? (And how awesome that it’s not!)

Grote Markt (Grand Plaza) in Mechelen

Located a mere 15-minute train ride from Antwerp’s Centraal Station and 15-25 minutes from Brussels, Mechelen, Belgium, is an overlooked gem. I’ve seen several lists of “Most Beautiful Towns in Belgium” (Beauty definitely abounds in Belgium.), but none mentioning Mechelen. Old Town Mechelen is delightfully reminiscent of Bruges and Ghent and lesser “most beautifuls,” but without the mobs of tourists. Mechelen is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites: the medieval St. Rumbold’s Tower that soars above the magnificent St. Rumbold’s Cathedral and the Large Beguinage, a complex that once housed a religious sisterhood similar to nuns, but adhering to less strict vows. (Other beguinages can be found in other Belgian cities, including Antwerp.) With the weather forecast calling for bluebird skies and a high in the low 70F’s, David and I hopped the train yesterday (a mere 13 minutes from our local Antwerpen-Berchem station) to spend a gorgeous Sunday wandering the picturesque cobblestone streets and plazas of Mechelen.

St. Rumbold’s Tower soars above Mechelen

Mechelen offers a wealth of cafes and restaurants, chocolatiers, and shops and boutiques of every variety. Tour boats ply the Dyle that runs through the city, there’s a toy museum just across from Mechelen’s Nekkerspoel train station, and eight historical churches to explore. Het Anker (“The Anchor”) Brewery, located a short way from the Old Town center near the beguinage, offers 2-hour tours as well as tour-free visits to their tasting room and brasserie. The brasserie serves all kinds of traditional beer-based and beer-friendly dishes paired with suggested beers. Het Anker brews some world-class beers and is a destination in and of itself, popular with tour groups from Brussels.

Bustling cafés on Vismarkt (Fish Market) Square in Mechelen
Walkway along the Dyle in Old Mechelen

There are not a ton of museums and the like in Mechelen and it’s a shame that some of it’s many preserved historical buildings aren’t open more regularly. Although, from March 11–May 21, 2017, the “Contour Biennale 8, “Polyphonic Worlds: Justice as Medium” art project offers the opportunity to visit six such sites. One of the buildings open during the Contour Biennale is the “Hof van Savoye” from which Margaret of Austria ruled the Netherlands and where both her nephew Emperor Charles V and Anne Boleyn spent some of their formative years. We were able to duck inside the lovely courtyard with some of the people taking part in the Contour Biennale.

Courtyard of Hof Van Savoye
Exploring Mechelen on a gorgeous spring day

St. Rumbold’s Tower is open regularly and worth the climb to the top, both for the view and to visit the workings of the tower, including a crane operated by a huge hamster-wheel-like contraption for humans and a carillon, a mechanized device for playing the tower’s enormous bells.

Crane wheel inside St. Rumbold’s Tower
Carillon rotating drum

The hole through which objects were hauled up the tower by the crane provides a unique view down onto the pipes and keyboard of the cathedral’s massive organ.

Looking down on the cathedral organ

The cathedral itself boasts a magnificent altar, an Antoon Van Dyck painting of Christ on the Cross, and a spectacular carved wooden pulpit. A small museum in the ambulatory holds a limited but impressive collection of relics and medieval sculpture and paintings.

St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen

We had lunch outside a café on the main plaza in front of the confection-like old Staadhuis (Town Hall). Basking in the sun, sipping our Het Anker beers and admiring the fairy-tale view, we told our young waitress how much we loved her town.

View from our café: St. Rumbold’s Tower rising above buildings bordering the Grote Markt
Mechelen’s old Staadhuis with its confection-like roof

She credited the mayor, saying “ten years ago none of us liked our town.” Hmm. Since many of the most picturesque buildings go back 300-600 years judging by the “anno” signs visible on facades, I’m not sure what changes have been wrought in the last ten years, but most of the old buildings have been maintained and/or restored well. There are stylish new residences and commercial buildings amongst the old as well, and the Old Town is clean and prosperous-looking and apparently drawing more visitors. Kudos to the mayor of Mechelen!

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There are two train stations in Mechelen near to the Old Town: Mechelen and Mechelen-Nekkerspoel. We chose Mechelen-Nekkerspoel as the most convenient to Old Town and offering the most scenic stroll into the historic center. It’s also the closest (by a minute or two) to Antwerp. Mechelen Station is also within walking distance of Old Town, just a bit farther. As always, Google Map is your friend for these kind of decisions. Train tickets are available via Belgian Rail and are half-price on weekends. For more information on what the town has to offer, check out Visit Mechelen.

Kulminator, legendary Antwerp beer bar

One of the privileges of our frequent extended stays in Antwerp, Belgium, is the ability to walk to legendary beer bar De Kulminator whenever the mood hits us. Kulminator has been named the best and one of the best beer bars in the world. Of course, “best” is as subjective as it gets, but it is a place true lovers of Belgian beer should try to visit at least once. When it comes to aged beers, it really is difficult to imagine a better beer bar. Hardly swank, Kulminator is a cluttered, cozy little dive on a street that’s not the most picturesque in Antwerp, but its cellars hold a treasure trove of everything from rare old beers to rising stars. This is the place to try vintage Belgian beers. Beers from other countries are also on offer, and Kulminator’s collection spans an 81-page menu. The day’s specials are posted on a board and the offerings on tap are always interesting, but there’s something awe-inspiring about having that special dusty bottle, just fetched from the cellar, set in front of you. And the nose and flavor of a fine, well-aged, decades-old beer is something that needs to be experienced to understand.

Inside Kulminator. We were the first in the door that day, so had the place to ourselves for a short while

Service has been notoriously slow for as long as we’ve been visiting Kulminator. The bar is owned and run by a married couple, Dirk Van Dyck and Leen Boudewijn, who founded Kulminator in 1979. [The bar is named after a favorite beer of his and with the dual intent that the bar reflect a culmination of the beer brewing and drinking experience.] She does her friendly, dogged best to keep up with orders and he fetches bottles from the cellar. The problem is that he’s had some health issues and it can be a long wait before those dusty bottles arrive. We try to get our next order in a little early when we catch her eye to avoid dry spells, and they’re currently encouraging patrons to “pre-order” their next rounds. She speaks a little English and I couldn’t tell you about him; he often stays behind a piled-high table when not retrieving beer.

De Kulminator owner Dirk Van Dyck in a rare moment out in the open

Thankfully, Dutch-speaking friends (of the variety it’s easy to make for an evening in Kulminator) explained to us nearly a year ago that Dirk was having back/knee trouble and that they were even considering selling the bar. (No idea if this last is accurate.) On our most recent visits, there’s been an addition to the voluminous menu explaining that Dirk is post-knee surgery and asking for understanding if service is slow and hours are irregular.

New advisory that Kulminator is working on “half power” while owner Dirk recovers from knee surgery

The menu also explains that some of their stock may be temporarily out-of-reach in their cellar(s)–an Ali Baba’s cave of beer treasures I’d absolutely love to see! To simplify, they’ve bolded certain items on the menu that are definitely accessible.

A page from Kulminator’s thick menu; vertical flights of a given beer (spanning several years) are fun to try. Note the bolded option indicating that it is definitely within reach of the temporarily mobility-restricted owner.

Kulminator is small and sharing a table with strangers is common. Fortunately for us, English is widely-spoken and my French often fills in any gaps so we’ve never had trouble drifting into beer chat with table mates and neighbors. We even met a couple from Philadelphia who’d come to Antwerp and booked a hotel near Kulminator for the sole purpose of checking off a bucket list item of visiting this renowned beer mecca! There is a narrow covered courtyard area in the back, too, that’s especially nice in warmer months. Look for the cat that likes to bask in the sun atop the roof. This is not a restaurant, but you can order plates of Trappist cheese cubes, either young or aged (and small servings of Chimay cheese come gratis with every Chimay beer).

Sediment in the bottom of an aged beer…and sleeping cat on the roof of Kulminator’s courtyard

Kulminator is located at Vleminckveld 32, Antwerp 2000, Belgium. Opening dates and times are currently subject to change due to the owner’s convalescence (They’re advising they might close early if Dirk’s knee is acting up, business is slow, etc.) although we’ve found them to be open as usual. Opening times are officially 4pm-midnight, Tuesdays – Saturdays; 4pm-8pm on Mondays; and, Kulminator is closed on Sundays and holidays. The current note indicates they may close the Rosier street cellar/warehouse an hour earlier and close up shop a half-hour early. They’re also operating on a cash-only basis and note that the nearby bank closes at 11pm for cash withdrawals. Despite the current adjustments, Kulminator was doing a lively business on a visit last week.

Update March 29, 2017

We stopped off at Kulminator yesterday afternoon and found the place bustling with tourists and locals. Although service was slow as usual (but no more so), they were fetching lots of interesting things from the cellar, including bottles not included in their highlighted, easy-to-reach selections. David had a 30-year old Oerbier (a Belgian strong ale) from La Dolle, a highlighted choice on the menu. We’d had a new Oerbier at Beer Lovers Bar last week, so wanted to compare. The aged strong ale had a nose like a barleywine with hints of fig. The taste was also barleywine-ish, reminiscent of a good sherry, slightly tart, fruity and with a hint of something that always reminds me of Christmas trunks in the attic.

A 1987 Oerbier from De Dolle

I had a 2010 unfiltered gueuze from Timmerman that was not nearly sour enough for my tastes (unlike the usual Timmerman offerings I find at Kulminator). A pair of Massachusetts long-time homebrewers and beer afficianados at a nearby table had a 1977 Chimay, a brand new Westvleteren 12, a 2011 Pannepot from De Struise, among others. We were soon sharing beer talk and sips with them and a documentary filmmaker from New York who had an aged Loterbol tripel, a Stillenacht from De Dolle, and a vertical flight of Orvals.

De Kulminator owner Leen Boudewijn pouring David’s 1987 Oerbier

 

Gollem, a favorite Antwerp beer pub

Located just off the beautiful Grote Markt in Old Antwerp, Gollem was the first beer bar in Antwerp to pull us in. Gollem (and former bartender and our first “beer sensei,” Sam) launched our love of quality beer, and it’s still our most frequent destination when we’re in town. Although located in a touristy area, Gollem is the real deal when it comes to beer: 30 beers on tap and an extensive menu of bottled beers as well. The service is always friendly, knowledgeable and fluently multi-lingual. The inside is cozy on a cold winter day, cool in the summer and the outdoor seating has some of the best people-watching around (although they don’t get afternoon sun–a plus or a minus depending on the season).

There’s a modest menu of sandwiches, burgers, croquettes and cheeses. Their atypical “croque monsieur,” while nothing like the traditional French staple, makes for a surprisingly satisfying lunch and is my favorite Gollem meal. Ham and cheese is rolled in thin bread and skillet fried in butter, then sliced and served with mayo and ketchup and a side of shredded, slaw-like salad.

Gollem’s version of a croque monsieur

On our most recent visit, we tried a St. Bernardus Abt 12 on tap and a Swedish “New England IPA” from Stigbergets Bryggeri. We’ve had St. Bernardus in bottle, of course, but it was our first opportunity to try it on tap. We detected no big difference between the tap and bottled version and found the beer to be a bit boring and somewhat of a disappointment. Still, it was worth a try. St. Bernardus Abt 12 gets a lot of mileage out of a reputation for being very similar to Westvleteren 12*. For a while after World War II, the monks of St. Sixtus at Westvleteren licensed their recipe to the nearby St. Bernardus brewery so the claim is that now St. Bernardus makes an unofficial version of Westy 12 that is the “same”. Yeah, I don’t think so. St. Bernardus is a reasonably good beer, but it’s too sweet for me and it’s no Westvleteren 12. Not really even close, IMHO, although I know people who will disagree. If I’m going to pick up a Trappist or Trappist-style beer in a (Belgian) grocery store, I’ll take a Chimay Blue or a Rochefort 10 any day over a St. Bernardus Abt 12. To each his or her own, though. There’s a beer out there for everyone. And no question, St. Bernardus is much, much easier to come by than Westvleteren 12. [Writing this led to David and me doing a blind side-by-side taste test of Westvleteren 12 and St. Bernardus Abt 12…and then adding a Rochefort 10. I’ll write that up in another post.]

*If you’re interested in getting the real deal, see my post on scoring two cases of elusive Westvleteren 12

A St. Bernardus Abt 12 on tap (nowhere in the league of Westvleteren 12 despite the claims) and a surprisingly grapefruity-delicious “New England IPA” called Muddle from Sweden’s Stigbergets Bryggeri.

The second beer we had, Muddle, really was exceptional. The grapefruit nose hit us the minute the glass arrived. The head was tall and slowly gave way to a marshmallow-shaped, meringue-like center that lasted on and on. It was so cloudy it looked more like peach or apricot juice than beer. Served very cold, the flavor was crisp, bold and refreshing, full of American hops. This is a beer we’ll gladly have again.

To wrap things up, David ordered a final “maple coconut toast David Strachan Imperial Porter” named Lorelei that tasted more to us like a chocolate stout. It’s the product of a collaboration between Siren from the UK and Omnipollo from Sweden who based this beer on submissions from home brewers, the winner in this case being David Strachan. This oily, black confection was super rich, smooth and chocolatey, almost begging to be eaten with a spoon. The dense head was the darkest tan I’ve seen on a beer. Really a special dessert beer, this is another one we’re likely to get again.

Lorelei, a “maple coconut toast Imperial Stout” based on a home brewer’s recipe. Delicious!

Gollem is located at Suikerrui 28, 2000 Antwerpen, Belgium (on the road just to the left of the Stadhuis/City Hall as you face it that leads from the Grote Markt to the River Schelde). It’s open seven days a week: 11am until 1am, Sunday – Thursday; 11am until 3am, Friday and Saturday.  http://www.gollem.be

+32 (0)3 689 49 89

 

Westvleteren 12: Scoring Two Cases of the Elusive “Best Beer in the World”

Fruits of a successful beer pilgrimage: David and our first crates of Westvleteren 12…and a 6-pack and glasses. It was hard not to get greedy!

Year after year, Westvleteren 12, a Belgian quadrupel beer brewed by Trappist monks in a rural Flanders abbey has been named the “Best Beer in the World” by the major beer rating sites. While I’m the first to say that claiming any food or drink to be the “best” of its kind is always going to be a subjective exercise, “Westy 12″ is undoubtedly an outstanding beer. It’s also really hard to come by. I’ve read that only five monks brew the beer and another five help when it comes time to bottle. I’m not sure how accurate those numbers are, but I am sure that the Westvleteren Abbey is a small beer-making operation with no signs that it cares to be anything larger. The monks’ primary focus is on being monks, not brewers. The reputation and mystique around Westvleteren 12 has led to a mad and highly competitive scramble to buy this elusive beer.

A Little Background on Trappist Beers
Trappist beer is brewed by Trappist monasteries. As of today, only 11 monasteries produce beer officially recognized by the International Trappist Association: six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands and one each in Austria, Italy, the United States (New Jersey). Many of these are very old breweries with recipes going back to medieval times, but one in the Netherlands and those in Austria, Italy and the U.S. are recent entries, only being recognized in the years since 2012. Some are tiny, like Westvleteren (producing only 4050 US bbl/year), while others are substantial producers, the largest by volume being La Trappe in the Netherlands which produces 124,000 US bbl/year. To be able to designate their beer as Authorized Trappist Product and display a special logo, these beers must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, the brewing should be secondary to and in keeping with the monastic way of life, and the brewery should not be a profit-making enterprise, but rather to support the monastery and the monastic lifestyle.

Westvleteren 12 and Our Beer Journey
I first heard of Westvleteren 12 in reading about Belgian beers prior to the first housesit David and I did in Antwerp. When we discovered our favorite local beerpub, Gollem, and attached ourselves to our favorite bartender/beer sensei there, Sam, I asked about this then-unpronounceable beer. Sam informed us they had it–at a very steep price since, except at the abbey, it’s a gray-market product. We balked then, but soon went for it at our second favorite Antwerp beerpub, the legendary Kulminator. We were total beer newbies at the time with no real way to evaluate except to say, “Hey, this beer is really good!” Sigh. We’ve come a long way.

Since then, David and I have done an awful lot of beer tasting, reading and even brewed our first batch of homebrew. David became so obsessed with The Beer Bible, a Christmas gift from my elder son, that he read it every night for over a year and lugged the tome with us around the world. (Thankfully, we’ve got it on Kindle version now, so can read up on iPad or cellphone…even sitting in a pub.) You can get your own addictive copy of The Beer Bible on Amazon.

Buying Our First 6-Packs of Westies at the Abbey Café
So, of course, as part of our beer odyssey, we wanted to try Westvleteren again at the abbey. When my younger son, Dillon, arrived to spend a week with us in Antwerp in August 2015, we used the opportunity to drive the hour and 40 minutes into rural Flanders where the St. Sixtus Abbey sits amid fields of crops and sheep.

Flanders fields on the road to the St. Sixtus Abbey

A modern and spacious abbey-owned café called “In De Vrede” (“In Peace”) lies across the road from the main abbey building.

In De Vrede, the St. Sixtus Abbey café in Westvleteren, Belgium

The three Trappist beers brewed at the abbey are always available to drink on-site at the café. These are Westvleteren 12, Westvleteren 8 (a tripel) and the Westvleteren Blonde. At random times 6-packs of whatever beer the abbey happens to provide are sold at the café shop. On that first trip, we were thrilled to learn that 8’s and blondes would be available in the café shop after 2pm, but disappointed that none of the top-of-the-top 12’s were available for take-away. Oh well, we consoled ourselves with breakfast Westy 12’s before showing Dillon some of our favorite World War I museums and sites until it was time to return for the afternoon beer sale. Back at In De Vrede, we happily joined a long line and bought the maximum two 6-packs/person of the unlabeled brown bottles. [The sum total of packaging information on a Westy bottle comes on the cap and in the simple molded glass collar on the bottle that reads “TRAPPISTENBIER.”]

Lining up in In De Vrede for 6-packs to go

Buying Cases of Westvleteren: The “Beer Hotline”
The only way to get more than those random 6-packs at the abbey is to make an appointment to pick up cases of beer. To do this, you have to consult the abbey’s website and click through until you get to their beer page. There you’ll find a page displaying a 2-week schedule: On the left is the current week with times blocked off when the “beer hotline” will be open for the abbey to receive calls from those wanting to place an order for beer. (Only calls from identifiable numbers, land or mobile, will be accepted.) On the right is a schedule for the following week showing the dates and times when the maximum 2 cases/car is available to pick up and which beer (12, 8 or blonde) will be available. David and I have done this twice now.  The first time, it took us over 400 calls, using three phones to get through to a monk. Usually, you are required to give a license plate number, but the monk very kindly agreed to take our name instead since we planned to rent a car to pick up the beer.

A screenshot of the Abbey web page described above with the 2-week schedule for reservation calls (on the left) and beer pick-up times the following week (on the right). For the coming week, the beer hotline will be open on Tuesday and Wednesday at the times shown. You can request 12’s on either day at the given times and Blonde on Wednesday from 10-12. Pick up days for the 12’s are the following M-Th. The only pick-up day for the Blondes is Saturday April 9.

The second time (this past week) it took us over 1100 calls to get through, again using three phones. Since the hotline opened at 8am that day, we started dialing in bed, getting busy signal after busy signal. Three times, we thought we’d gotten through only to have a Dutch-language recording of a female voice (apparently from the phone company) give way to yet another busy signal. Hungry and discouraged, we went downstairs to make breakfast, but kept doggedly dialing in the process. Finally, the recording gave way to an actual dialing and finally, a monk. This time we had a license plate to give (thanks to the friends for whom we housesit), chose one of the available dates the following week, and were done. Victory!

Part of the reason the monks ask for a license plate or identification is that the same vehicle or person cannot buy cases of beer from them again for 60 days. You must also agree not to resell their beer. This is a widely ignored prohibition and an active gray market exists in Belgium and elsewhere for the beer. We, on the other hand, buy for our own consumption, to cellar and to give away. Besides, there’s just something about lying to nice monks that just wouldn’t sit right!

Both times we’ve bought cases of Westvleteren beer, we’ve had a 1pm pick-up time. We drive over from Antwerp, arriving in time for lunch at In De Vrede (which I’ll review later) before picking up our cases. The iconic wooden crates are available at a small drive-through loop adjacent to the abbey.

The drive-through loop for beer pick-up at the St. Sixtus Abbey at Westvleteren

A lone monk mans the stacks of cases and will help load if need be, although he’s fine with you loading yourself.

Loading up crates of Westvleteren Trappist 12 beer

Once we have our beer, we pull forward to pay by credit card. (The monks don’t accept cash.) Although a single bottle of Westy 12 can run €13-20 on the gray market, at the abbey a case of Westvleteren 12 costs €42, a case of 8 is €37, and a case of Blonde costs €32. In addition, there’s a €12/case deposit that you can get back if you return the case and empty bottles to the abbey.

So What Does it Taste Like?
Now that we’re a little past “Hey, this is really good beer!”, how would we describe the taste of Westvleteren 12? Well, first, for the appearance: It’s a medium dark beer with a warm red-brown color and a dense tan head. It pours clear, but there’s often lots of sediment in the bottom of the bottle. The nose is rich, molasses-y, fig-sweet with that wonderful Belgian “barny” yeast smell that conjures for me images of horses and the green pastures of Flanders. The taste is fig, prune, toffee/molasses, yeasty “barniness” and warm spices. (So, now we had to go open a bottle to double check our perceptions and report them in real-time. It’s a tough job, but we’re willing to go that extra mile!) Westvleteren 12 is well-carbonated, effervescent with tiny bubbles that foam in the mouth. At 10.2% alcohol, it’s a substantial beer, but the alcohol is not too forward. It’s wonderfully easy to drink.

A Westvleteren 12 and a Westvleteren Blonde at In De Vrede

I also really like the Westvleteren 8 and love the Blonde, which is harder to come by and needs to be drunk fairly quickly, not being amenable to cellaring like the 12 and 8.

And finally, how to get it home?
We’ve discovered that a wooden case of Westvleteren beer fits perfectly into the reinforced “medium-extra strong” cardboard moving box sold by Shurgard in Belgium (a branch of which in Antwerp is particularly handy to us) for €3.50. We wrap each bottle in bubble wrap to wedge it securely into the case. Then, we line the bottom of the box with foam pads and/or styrofoam peanuts, set the whole case inside, pour in more peanuts and tape like crazy, being sure to reinforce the corners. Packed like this, each case becomes our 2nd piece of luggage on our international flight home. It’s within airline size and weight limits, so there’s no charge. On our last flight home, our beer arrived perfectly, with no breakage or leaking. This time, we brought a light-weight duffel bag full of the recycled peanuts and bubble wrap to repeat the process. We’ll just fold up the duffel and stash it in a suitcase for the return.

A crate of Westvleteren 12 safely back in Texas

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Follow up to our latest transport of Westy 12’s back to the States, 5/2017: Our latest two cases (plus a few extras) made it home on British Airways in perfect condition; no leaks, no breakage. The handles on the cardboard boxes had started to tear despite our reinforcement, though, and we’re considering having the boxes plastic wrapped at the airport next time. (It would be best if the handle holes weren’t used at all.) There was also a small hole in the bottom of one of the boxes, but it was a non-issue given the protection afforded by the wooden crate and the layer of styrofoam on the bottom. We saved the styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap in the duffel and stored it away for repeat duty on our next trip to Belgium in the fall.

Mid-packing in Antwerp, before adding the final layer of styrofoam and sealing.
Both cases safely in Dallas with the worst damage to the boxes being at the handle holes.

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The St. Sixtus Abbey website is: http://sintsixtus.be/ It’s in Dutch for the most part, but hover over “Gasten en bezoekers” at the top then click on “Bierverkoop” to get to the information about buying beer. There you’ll have an option to choose “English” (or French or German) which will pull up a screen with the beer hotline number as well as the method and rules for buying their beer. Once read, close that window then click on the big green button that says “Bierverkoop, Ventes de Bières, Beer Sales, Bierabsatz”. This will take you to the screen with the 2-week schedule for calls and pick-up times described above.

A Michelin-starred chef’s “french fry restaurant”

Belgians love their french fries (and are the probable originators despite the name), although here they’re called “frites” in the French-speaking part of the country and “friet” in the Dutch-speaking regions. In Antwerp, our not-infrequent home-base, fries are sold at little shops called “frituur”, literally “frying pan.” Traditionally served with mayonnaise, they also come with a variety of toppings beloved by the Belgians.

Recently, there’s a new, upscale arrival on the frituur scene, an upstart from the Netherlands called “Frites Atelier Amsterdam” that’s teamed with Michelin-starred chef Sergio Herman. [Herman, formerly of Oud Sluis, is currently chef at Antwerp’s posh The Jane restaurant.] In addition to three locations in Holland (The Hague, Utrecht and Arnhem), there’s a beautiful little shop Korte Gasthuisstraat 32 in Antwerp. Yesterday, David and I couldn’t resist dropping in for a fresh-from-the-fryer box of crispy goodness. So, of course, I had to share our experience.

First off, the location itself is a gem. On a popular pedestrian street next to the wonderful old Dutch step-roofed building that houses chocolatier Mary and across from renowned bakery Goossens, Frites Atelier Amsterdam occupies a charmingly decorated space. Uniformed “waiters” and “waitresses” greet guests, explain the set-up and take your order.

Then, you wait to hear your name called by the fry chefs behind a back counter. You can choose your own seat at one of several small tables inside or out or take-away your treat.

The “menu” is strictly fries and toppings. A simple box of fries like we opted for costs €3.50 and you’re offered your choice of two out of five homemade sauces available in ceramic self-serve vats: andalouse, classic, basil, bernaise and truffle. In addition to basic fries, there’s a chef’s Seasonal Special (currently an Asian creation with kimchi, crunchy wonton, sriracha, Greek yoghurt, furikake and curry mayonnaise) for €6.50, a Flemish Beef Stew (a take on traditional “stooflees”, beef stewed with brown beer and served at the Atelier with cress and mustard) for €8.75 with mayo, Indo Peanut (peanut crunch of fried onions, peanuts, rempejek and lime zest) for €6.50 with mayo, all three, of course, served over fries. Beer, wine, bottled water and homemade teas are also on offer.

Vats of housemade sauce at Frites Atelier Amsterdam

Our fries came out piping hot and they were very good although I’m not so sure I got anything extra from the vaunted Zeeland potatoes and samphire salt. In truth, what’s not to like about fresh, hot, perfectly fried, skin-on French fries, whatever the variety of potato or salt?

We chose the andalouse and bearnaise sauces and found both to be good, if not particularly remarkable. The andalouse sauce is made with tomatoes and peppers and is mildly spicy. The bearnaise is rich and tasty. In the end, though, we both would have liked plain mayo or ketchup. All in all, it was a fun stop. Service was quick and friendly and the prices fair. Still, we won’t be forsaking our other favorite frituurs for an exclusive future with Frites Atelier Amsterdam.