Riga, Latvia: Highlights, beer, ballet and practical things

View of Riga from St. Peter’s Church tower

Taking the Airport Bus to Old Town: We arrived in Riga via a 1-hour Belavia flight from Minsk, Belarus. There are two terminals at the Riga Airport and if you arrive, as we did, at the one with no Tourist Info office, walk out the main door and turn right to reach the main terminal. Inside this second terminal you’ll find the Tourist Info office. With the main terminal to your back, walk across the parking lot and in the far right corner, you’ll find the bus stop where Bus 22 and Minibus 222 provide cheap, efficient service to Old Town, the Riga Bus Station, covered markets, etc. Tickets are cheaper (€1.15) via a machine at the stand, but a 222 Minibus arrived just as we walked up and we paid the still-cheap €2 fare to the driver and were on our way. The bus was crowded to the point of standing room only and you’re on your own as far as getting your luggage on and off. It’s about a 30 minute ride to Old Town. [If you prefer a taxi, I read but can’t confirm that they are a fixed €14 and require the purchase of a voucher at the airport.] Read more about bus tickets and other public transportation here.

A bit crowded on Airport Minibus 222

Although the driver spoke little English, he tried to help people search for their stops. Our AirBnB host (a quick substitute after our original hostess canceled) had told me to get off at “Griezinieku station,” but little else. With no bus stop signs in sight, I was lucky when a fellow passenger offered that we were at that very stop, which wasn’t any sort of station. Anyway, for anyone wanting to take Bus 22 or Minibus 222 from the airport to Old Town, get off at the first stop just over the river bridge. (The bus turns right after crossing the bridge.) Walk back in the direction of the bridge and you’ll find a pedestrian underpass to Old Town that crosses under the wide, multi-lane boulevard that separates Old Town from the Daugava River. There’s currently construction going on, but it is open. It’s a very short walk (less than 5 minutes) from the bus stop to Old Town. Using Google Maps, we were at our apartment in no time. When it came time to pick up a rent car at the airport, we took the same pedestrian underpass, just popping up in the middle of the boulevard instead of walking all the way back to the riverside stop.

St. Peter’s Church; the €9 fee to climb to the top of the tower was ridiculous…but we paid it.
Old Town Riga

Old Town: Riga has a pretty, but small Old Town. Both a cruise ship port-of-call and a budget airline destination, it’s become very touristy with lots of souvenir shops, cafés, bars and restaurants. It caters to a younger, drinking crowd, too, and it’s common for bars to be open until 4am or even 6am! I pity the locals who live near the noisy, drunken throngs and pounding music. Cigarette butts and trash are frequently scattered across the sidewalks near bars. Choose your lodging location carefully.

The entrance to our AirBnB apartment was next door to such a dive-y bar, but fortunately faced an interior courtyard. With a fan for white noise, we didn’t have a problem sleeping, but certain neighbors must have. On the bright side, two doors down was a cavernous beer bar and restaurant, Folkklubs ALA, that topped David’s list of places to try local beer. We enjoyed a hearty and reasonably-priced meal of local fare there, too.

Prices have risen with the tourist trade, but we found the Latvian War Museum which encompasses the 14th century Powder Tower in the far NW corner of Old Town to be both surprisingly good and surprisingly free.

Old Town Riga square facing the beautiful House of the Blackheads with the somber Museum of the Occupation of Latvia to the right

We had rain on our first day in Riga, so headed to the famous covered market which is housed in four huge, side-by-side hangars (visible in the top photo of this blog post). This turned out to be one of our favorite stops. Products vary from building to building: produce, pickled goods, meat and cheese, fish, clothing and jewelry, etc. We bought honey and propolis, sausage, jerky and dark sausage bread. Vendors were friendly and quick to offer samples.

A line for the sausage lady’s goods. She also sold cheese, dark sausage bread, and kvass a fermented rye bread-based drink popular throughout the Slavic and Baltic countries and Russia

Beer!: The biggest hit at the market with our beer-loving selves was the Labietis craft beer bar set up near a main entrance (the one facing Old Town) to the produce hall. This bar is a small outpost of their much larger bar across town. We enjoyed visiting with the knowledgeable young woman serving beer that day and the other patrons who’d settled into the seating provided behind the bar. The beers were interesting and based on local ingredients. A particularly unusual brew was a “braggot” (a Welsh term for a honey brewed beverage related to mead) which they claim dates back to bronze age brewing techniques and ingredients. It’s a hazy golden drink with a small white head and fine bubbles. Its nose and taste is spicy with honey and meadow flowers. Sweet red berries and slight caramel round out the taste. We liked Labietis so much we made a point of a return visit when we came back to Riga some weeks later.

Lots on tap at the Labietis bar at the Riga Market
Enjoying a Labietis brew

Back in Old Town on another day, we tried local beers at Beer House No. 1, which boasts 70 beers on tap, both local and international. They’ve got a wide selection of Belgian beers, but having just spent 6 weeks in Belgium, we weren’t interested in that. I tried a Mežpils Saules EILS, a deep gold ale with a strong aroma and taste of butterscotch, rich, but with something crisper than expected that cuts through at the end. It was unusual, but I liked it at first. As it warmed, though, it developed a fake butterscotch taste that really put me off. I found myself unable/unwilling to finish it.

Beer House No. 1 in Old Town Riga
An odd butterscotch-y ale

Beyond Old Town: A short walk from Old Town Riga took us to the golden-domed Nativity of Christ Cathedral, a local icon. Just behind it across a small park sits the Latvian National Museum of Art. Walking from the cathedral past the museum a couple of blocks, we arrived at the famous Art Nouveau district of Riga. It’s a pleasant place to stroll, but it didn’t hold our attention for too long. For those more interested, the Riga Art Nouveau Museum is a long block further on.

Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral
Art Nouveau buildings in Riga

Beautiful Ballet in a gorgeous Opera House: Some months before our arrival in Riga, I’d bought two of the few remaining tickets online to “On the Blue Danube,” a ballet I’d never heard of based on Johann Strauss music. The ballet turned out to be the true highlight of our stay in Riga. The Latvian National Opera House is a gorgeous gem of a venue and the ballet was spectacular. Mikhail Baryshnikov began dancing in his hometown of Riga and the tradition of fine ballet lives on with the Latvian National Ballet. In addition, the costuming was beautiful, mixing ballgowns and a formal menswear on waltzing, supporting dancers with classic ballet costumes on the ballet dancers in their midst…and all of this to Strauss music. Wonderful!

The Latvian National Opera House
Inside the Latvian National Opera House
Post-performance

At €10 each, our box seats were a steal even though they were not front row.  (See view from our seats above.) By the time we got to Riga, the performance was sold out for the coming 4 months, so book early if you’re interested. A pretty café offers drinks, hors d’oeuvres and desserts.

Café in the Latvian National Opera House

 

Kaunas, Lithuania: Ninth Fort and Old Town

 

The enormous Ninth Fort memorial to the more than 30,000 Nazi victims killed there. David is standing substantially in front of it, so the scale is not immediately obvious.

Now that we’re back from our Baltic ramble, I’ll be catching up on Wanderwiles. We were just too busy and too much on the move for me to want to spend much time live-blogging. – Tamara

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Our second day trip out of Vilnius was to Kaunas, the second largest town in Lithuania. It’s an easy 1h 15m drive on the E85, a well-maintained highway between the two cities. The main attraction for me was the Ninth Fort, one of a chain of a Lithuanian defensive forts that had been commandeered by both Soviets and Nazis over the years. The Nazis used it as a prison and deportation camp as well as a site of execution. There’s an enormous memorial there (see above) to the more than 30,000 victims of fascism who died there as well as a museum. At least 10,000 Jews were taken from Kaunas by the Nazis and executed there in what became known as the Kaunas Massacre.

Approaching Kaunas on the E85 from Vilnius

The weather wasn’t looking too good, but we decided to go for it anyway. Despite some rain on the drive over, our luck was good and we got sunshine when we most needed it at our outdoor explore of the Ninth Fort.

Ninth Fort

The mammoth memorial is visible from the highway. Be advised that Google Maps directed us directly to the memorial (rather than the museum) and the road in that direction spans a pretty intense, but short, stretch of serious potholes. There is a small parking lot at the end of that road which is located perfectly for visiting the memorial and walking directly to the fort. Tickets are required for access to the fort’s interior, though, and those need to be purchased at the museum . [€3 for adults; €1.5 for students and seniors; children under 6 are free. There are also guided tours available for an additional fee.] Access to the memorial and the exterior portions of the fort and its extensive grounds is free.

Exploring the exterior of the Ninth Fort

Interior courtyard of the Ninth Fort
Tribute to a group of prisoners who escaped the Ninth Fort and were able to bear witness to Nazi atrocities there
Ninth Fort grounds. If you’ll look closely at the memorial in the background you’ll see a young man standing atop it. (One of a group of young Spaniards we met, not displaying the best of judgment.) Anyway, he gives an idea of the scale of the monument.

After the Ninth Fort, we headed to Kaunas’ Old Town for lunch and a little explore. The weather quickly changed on us and we waited out a sudden snow/hail flurry in a parking space before walking to Avilys, a restaurant and brewery on the main street of Old Town that we’d read about. Avilys boasts vaulted brick ceiling and walls, copper beer tuns and a varied menu. It’s a cosy restaurant and we enjoyed excellent food and good beer brewed on site. Arriving late on a weekday, we had the place to ourselves for lunch until another party arrived mid-way through. Brewery tours are available. Avilys is located at Vilniaus g. 34, Kaunas 44287, and is open 7 days a week from noon. +370 655 02626

Interior of Avilys gastropub in Old Town Kaunas

By the time we finished lunch, the sun was out again. We wandered down the main street, stopping to visit the Kaunas Cathedral Basilica before heading to the main square.

After lunch, the sun was back out in Kaunas Old Town
Interior of the Kaunas Cathedral Basilica
Main square in Kaunas Old Town with the Kaunas City Museum in the white former town hall

Old Town Kaunas is charmingly restored with many shops, cafés and restaurants. It’s definitely worth the stop and offers a restorative break after the grimness of the Ninth Fort which is only a 15 minute drive away. Pay for street parking permits at meters scattered around Old Town.

 

Chimay Blue 2017 vs. Westvleteren 12: a surprise

Maybe it was the little plastic glasses??

David decided it was time to do our side-by-side tasting of Chimay Blue 2017 and one of the Westvleteren 12’s we picked up a few weeks ago at the abbey. While we’d had absolutely no trouble distinguishing a St. Bernardus Abt 12 (in either bottle or tap) from the Westy, we were stunned to find the Chimay Blue 2017 to be startlingly similar to the Westvleteren 12. We went into this side-by-side expecting to taste two extraordinary beers, but not expecting them to be nearly indistinguishable when first opened and served cold. Wow. We were so startled by the similarities that we fetched two new glasses and did a blind side-by-side. (We’d started with four plastic Leffe tasting chalices, knowing we were being slightly sacrilegious, but liking the idea of four identical small glasses.) The differences became more apparent as the beers warmed, but still. The Chimay Blue 2017 is really an exceptional beer…and so much easier to come by than the Westvleteren 12. Thankfully we’ve got 3+ cases of Westy 12 to work our way through (and will do our best to score two more when we’re back in Belgium in the fall), but we know that’s a rare privilege, so it’s good to know the Chimay Blue 2017 is out there.

I’ve already blogged my tasting notes on the Westvleteren 12, so I’ll focus on the Chimay Blue 2017. The color is a warm red brown with a dense light tan head. (The Chimay beer is ever so slightly darker than the Westvleteren 12 but the head is slightly lighter.) I get predominantly rootbeer on the nose with raisin. The taste is full with more of that rootbeer and raisin. It’s a tad sweeter than the Westy, bitter on the back end (in a good way) and with a bit less of the barny-ness that I love in the Westvleteren beers, but still rich, delicious and undeniably Belgian Trappist. The Chimay is effervescent on the tongue and a real pleasure to drink. I’ll say it again: Wow!

I feel kind of hesitant to put this post up. I’ve never seen these two beers described as particularly similar. It’s always the myth of the St. B Abt 12 and Westy 12 being the “same.” Maybe it’s just the 2017 Chimay Blue and this year’s Westvleteren 12. I don’t know, but I know what we experienced. I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s tried this.

Side-by-side blind taste test: St. Bernardus Abt 12 vs. Westvleteren 12 (and a Rochefort 10)

After the reveal: St. Bernardus Abt 12 and Westvleteren 12

So after making my somewhat disparaging comments about St. Bernardus Abt 12 in my review of brewpub Gollem, I decided we should do a side-by-side taste test with Westvleteren 12, just to be sure I wasn’t being a delusional, obnoxious beer snob. (And to learn that about myself if I was.) David was all for the idea and set up a “blind” taste test for me before I returned the favor for him. I’m writing this as we finish off the open bottles. [By way of background, if you’re unfamiliar with these beers and/or missed my earlier post, St. Bernardus brewery was at one time licensed to brew beer using the Westvleteren abbey recipe and some people claim St. Bernardus Abt 12 is the “same” as the renowned and hard-to-come-by Westvleteren 12 Trappist beer.]

Our “blind” test was not blindfolded, just two beers poured in non-representative glasses, side-by-side, so we did evaluate appearance, although that wasn’t the decisive difference. Westvleteren 12 and St. Bernardus Abt 12 are very similar in color although the St. B is cloudier. (We bought our Westvleteren 12 last week at the abbey. We bought the St. Bernardus Abt 12 yesterday at our local Antwerp grocery store.)

Cloudier St. Bernardus Abt 12 on the left and the Westy 12 on the right

All it took for both of us was a sniff of each beer to know which was which. There really is no comparison. Unlike David, I find the St. Bernardus to be downright off-putting. There’s something reminiscent of green olives in the nose that I actively dislike. I don’t really get olive on the taste, however. Thank God. There’s a little rootbeer in the nose of the St. B, too, that does show up in the taste, kind of a salty rootbeer, that’s also too sweet for me. There’s a little Belgium barniness on the back end, but overall the St. B just doesn’t work for me. David thinks the St. B is average for a Trappist quad and says he wouldn’t order it out, given other options.

I’ve already reviewed Westvleteren 12 in my post on our most recent trip to the abbey at Westvleteren to pick up a couple of cases of W12 and our visit to In De Vrede café. Suffice it to say I love the beer, and you can read my previous post if you want actual tasting notes. David says Westvelteren 12 is his favorite Trappist beer, “hands down.”

As far as a blind side-by-side test, David and I both had to acknowledge simple familiarity played some role for us. We drink a lot of Westvleteren 12, so we know it. There’s no mistaking it for the St. Bernardus Abt 12 or any other beer for us. We’ve admittedly developed a taste for it, so that has to be a factor in our side-by-side comparison.

Since we had the Westy 12 and St. B Abt 12 open, we decided to open a Rochefort 10 (a stellar Trappist beer) as well since we’d never tried one in direct comparison to either of the others. The R10 is darker than the other two and completely different in taste. Its rich, molasses-y nose is echoed in the taste which also features prune and Belgium barn-y yeast. Delicious. I’d still go for the Westvleteren 12, given the choice, but a Rochefort 10 is undoubtedly a lovely beer.

Rochefort 10, St. Bernardus Abt 12, Westvleteren 12

After all’s said and done, though, “favorite” is an entirely personal thing. If you love St. Bernardus Abt 12, “Cheers!” Drink what you want, eat what you like, spend your time on the planet as you see fit. There are actually people who prefer white chocolate to dark. <shaking head> To each their own. Just give me my Westy 12 and my dark chocolate.

David now says we should have opened a Chimay Blue to compare. Too much beer for an impromptu afternoon tasting today. Soon, though. We have a new mission!

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 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 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.]

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.

Siem Reap Brewpub

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I’ve not had time to review restaurants, lodging, etc. much, wanting to experience the trip rather than spend too much time writing. But, since I’ve got a day on the river, I thought I’d take some time to write up 1 or 2 of my favorites. Besides, it’s fun to sit at my little “desk” with David on a daybed in front of me, watching the banks of the Mekong slip by.

Since we had an evening flight out of Siem Reap, David was eager to use that time to try the new brewpub Eddie (the founder of Kompangkhleang.org and the Bridge to Life School) had told us about. With its combination of good beers with local flair, lovely atmosphere, friendly service and fantastic food, the Siem Reap Brewpub may be my favorite brewpub yet!

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Entrance to Siem Reap Brewpub

The Siem Reap Brewpub offers 6 beers, all its own brews: a blonde ale, golden ale, honey weiss wheat beer, saison, IPA and a dark ale. We tried them all. This is made easy by a $3 4-beer flight. Each beer is $3 a full-size glass. Bargain combinations with “snacks” are offered, too, and a flight counts as “1 beer” for these packages. “Snacks” go way beyond peanuts (which come with your beer anyway). The grilled curried shrimp were so good we had two orders. We also tried fresh spring rolls with minced pork, beer batter calamari and crispy fish rolls with mango salsa. Heftier meal items are also available.

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Crispy fish balls with mango salsa
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Beer battered calamari
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Fresh rolls and grilled curry shrimp

The beer flights arrive in a nifty tray kept cool with ice water in the bottom compartment. (Although, the base of the glasses lifted them a tad too high for the ice to do as much good as it might.) Local ingredients make the beers really unique and we found them all interesting. Even the lighter ones were not of the so-boring lager variety. The honey weiss wheat beer, brewed with “100% local organic Wild Honey from Mondulkiri” was surprisingly honey-forward, reminding me of a mead or honey wine. The saison, made with rye and local lemongrass and green peppercorn was delicious, unique, and David’s choice for a full glass. The IPA was well-brewed and hoppy-good with a flavor reminiscent of American IPA’s. The dark ale, made with Cambodian palm sugar, was bitter and rich and was a shoe-in for my second flight.

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The brewpub is located downtown and occupies a pretty outdoor courtyard centered around a fountain. Big umbrellas shield you from sun or rain while fans keep a nice breeze going. Delightful!

Address: Corner of Street 05 & Shinta Mani, Phum Mondul II, Sangkat Svay Dong Kom, Siem Reap City , Cambodia, 05 Street 05, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Phone: +855 80 888 555

Norvegian Rat Saloon [Dutch Harbor, Alaska]

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Yes, the Norvegian Rat Saloon spells its name with a “v” rather than a “w.” Sometimes. The sign on the low-slung waterfront building uses a “v,” but their menu has both spellings on the cover and we saw an ad with the “w” spelling, so who knows? Sitting just across the road from the Safeway, a local landmark, the Norvegian Rat Saloon offers a casual setting: a walk-up bar, wooden tables for diners, 2 pool tables and shuffle board table, a scruffy outdoor seating area on the water, complete with a WWII bunker, crab pots fire pit and an uninviting little “smoking area” shack.

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20160907_144305 20160907_144439 20160907_144451  The selection of draft beers, while not large, is surprisingly good and we were going to stay the minute David saw the taps. Two cold Arrogant Bastards later ($6 each) and we were happily seated next to a shipmate. We hadn’t planned to eat, but were really impressed with her fish and chips ($13) and the huge Hog Island pulled-pork sandwich ($12.50) of the guy sitting next to us. When we heard a fresh batch of off-menu red king crab was in the works, we put in our order. (I believe the crab was a special targeted at the cruise ship crowd. Lucky us!)

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Fish and chips

In 10 minutes, we had a plate of two large crab legs and a body section, all full of perfectly-cooked, perfectly fresh chunks of meat. The crab was served with nothing but a dipping bowl of small butter and a shell tool. Delicious! Crab: $19.50.

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Norvegian Rat Saloon
1906 Airport Bech Rd.
(907) 581-4455
M-Sat. 11am-2am
Sun. 12pm-10pm

Dubrovnik beer bar: Glam Café

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A sign on Stradun points the way to Glam Café

Glam Café is an interesting place. We went for the beer–twice, but it’s also a coffee shop. I hear the coffee is good, but I wouldn’t know; like I said, we went for the beer. Glam Café is a great place in Dubrovnik for craft beers from all over Croatia. The bar staff is super friendly and knowledgeable. The place is small, but stylish and immaculate and there’s outdoor seating as well along the narrow alley. If anyone in your party prefers wine, Glam Café is fine with you buying wine across the way and D’Vino (see my earlier post) and bringing it back to a Glam table.

Bottled beers ran 25-34 kuna ($3.75-$5).

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Palmoticeva 5
Dubrovnik 20000
+385 91 151 8257
You can find them on Facebook as well.