Exploring Belgium through beer
It has been said that beer is to Belgians like wine is to the French. In a country the size of Maryland, there are more than 180 breweries and 450 varieties of beer. To experience what Belgium has to offer, explore the country through its famous Trappist beers. You will gain a better appreciation for the country and may never go back to U.S. beers again!
There is something magical about Trappist beers. After the Napoleonic period, Trappist monks fled France, and many settled in Belgium. Scattered throughout the country are monasteries, many of which are connected to beer and brewing. The designation of Trappist beer has only been given to 10 monasteries worldwide — six in Belgium. To have the Trappist classification, beers must be brewed within the walls of the abbey and under direct control of the monks. Equally important, these beers can only be sold to provide financial support for the monastery and charitable causes. Now, let’s take a journey.
Scourmont Abbey (Abbey Notre-Dame de Scourmont), Chimay
Beers: Chimay Rouge, Chimay Triple, Chimay Bleu
With more than 50 percent exported, Chimay has worldwide recognition. Visits to the breweries are not allowed, but it is possible to walk around the abbey and see the exquisite chapel. The grounds are quiet and enchanting, and the smell of hops permeates the air. A short walk through the forest will bring you to the Poteaupré Inn, a lovely restaurant and center with an informative museum. To make the most of the experience, order the mixed tasting menu and enjoy the flavors while sitting on the terrace overlooking the pristine countryside. The tasting consists of each Chimay beer and four Chimay cheeses.
The area around Chimay offers an abundance of touring opportunities. Children will love the Little Tourist Train that departs from the Grand Place of Chimay and travels along a country road to the nearby village of Virelles. Historians will be fascinated with a visit to the Château de Chimay. With more than 1,000 years of history, the impressive chateau has housed the ancestors of the Princes of Chimay.
Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvletern, Westvletern
Beers: Westvleteren Blond, Westvletern 8, Westvletern 12
Westvletern has the enviable reputation of being the “World’s Best Beer.” You will not find this brew at your local pub, and very rarely will you find it for sale on local shelves. The abbey sells its beer weekly from the doors of the monastery to individual buyers through a reservation-only system. If you are lucky enough to get through, you can place an order for a maximum of two cases and must arrive at the appointed time to pick up your “prize.”
World War I history abounds in this region. Beginning from the abbey, follow the 7.5-kilometer path, the Sint Sixtus walk, which will take you to a British Military Cemetery. After your walk, stop in at In der Vrede café located across the street from the abbey. Here, you can get a bite to eat, and if they haven’t sold out, you can purchase up to two six-packs of Westvletern beer. While in the area, visit the small town of Ypres. The town was completely destroyed during World War I and rebuilt during subsequent years. Today, this City of Peace pays homage to the war with its impressive In Flanders Fields Museum and Menin Gate.
Abbey of Rochefort (Abbey of Notre- Dame de Saint-Remy), Rochefort
Beers: Rochefort 6, Rochefort 8, Rochefort 10
In 1229, Lord Rochefort had this abbey built for monks and nuns. While the nuns eventually left, the monks stayed, and in 1595, the first beer was brewed. Though production has not been constant, the abbey produces 22,000 bottles of beer annually. It has been said that Rochefort beers — specifically, Rochefort 10 — can age for five years.
Alas, visits to the abbey are not allowed. However, many of the town’s restaurants serve the abbey’s beers. Travel the short distance to Han sur Lesse and experience the Domain of the Caves of Han. Not only will you “ooh and ahh” over the massive cave system, but be sure to schedule enough time to see the Wildlife Reserve. Travel on foot or via the safari bus and see animals such as wolves, lynx, red deer and even bears in their natural habitat. Want a really unique experience? Rent a trapper’s cabin for an overnight stay within the park.
Abbey of Achel (Saint Benedictus-Abbey), Valkenswaard
Beers: Achel 8 Blond, Achel 8 Bruin and at the abbey, Extra Blond and Extra Bruin
Achel is the only Trappist brewery where the gift shop and café are located within the abbey walls. It is worth a visit to the gift shop, as it carries many of the other Trappist beers at wholesale prices. From the café, you can look into the brewery and see the monks working. The monastery started brewing beer in 1852, but was abandoned during World War I. The monastery was reestablished after World War II, but brewing did not restart until 2001.
The abbey is located in both Belgium and The Netherlands. The grounds around the abbey are dotted with hiking trails, the routes named after each Trappist monastery. The countryside is pristine, and the quaint villages just across the border in Holland are worth a stop — if just to get close to a working windmill.
Abbey of Westmalle, Westmalle
Beers: Westmalle Dubbel, Westmalle Tripel
In 1794, the Bishop of Antwerp gave land to the La Trappe monks who fled France during the French Revolution. However, it was not until 1836 that they began brewing. The first brew was light in alcohol and fairly sweet. By 1856, the monks were selling the first ever Dubbel, a stronger, darker beer, directly from the abbey gates. Today, you can visit the gates only to purchase the abbey’s cheeses. Across the street is Café Trappisten, where you can sample each beer.
The abbey is away from the main road and surrounded by a brick wall, but the facility is impressive. Cyclists will love the 44-kilometer Trappist Route, which starts and finishes from Café Trappisten.
Orval Abbey, Orval
Beers: Orval, Petit Orval
Brewing the first Trappist beer sold nationally in Belgium, Orval Abbey is a secluded space designed for peace, quiet and meditation. It is surrounded by 300 hectares of forest. Within the abbey walls, guests can visit a small but fascinating museum — an exhibition and the ruins of the original 12th century abbey. The restaurant outside the abbey gates is highly recommended and praised for their culinary usage of Orval beers and cheeses.
Belgium’s Trappist monasteries provide an excellent opportunity to savor the country’s fascination with beer and explore the unique landscape. Cheers!