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Tapping the Essence of Belgium

Initially, I thought the story was a satire, something pulled from The Onion by an unwitting intern and republished by a credible news source. It was sometime in 2007 and I was casually browsing the Internet when I spotted an article describing the imminent collapse of Belgium. I paused. And snickered. Belgium? On the verge of implosion? I spent the next hour dutifully fact-checking. Sure enough, Belgium’s two main regions, Flanders and Wallonia, were at loggerheads. Flemish-speaking politicians from the north were threatening to secede. They accused their French-speaking compatriots in Wallonia of being lazy, a drain on the economy of more prosperous Flanders. Belgium, a founding member of NATO and home base to the European Union, was supposed to be a symbol of European unity. Yet here was a crisis threatening to tear it asunder. In February 2010, the country set a record by failing to form a coalition government in 250 days after holding elections, beating out the previous mark set by postwar Iraq.

Then the true gravity of the situation dawned on me. If Belgium crumbled, what would happen to my favorite beers?

I tasted my first Belgian beer about eight years ago, when I was working at a brewery in Chicago. The beer was remarkably smooth, a tad spicy, and inhumanly strong. My obsession kindled, I made a point of getting chummy with the local high-end beer merchants. I learned about obscure bottles and seasonal releases; I even brewed a couple of batches of Belgian-style beer at home. I plunged headfirst into the gastronomical world of dubbels and tripels, gueuzes and krieks, saisons and wits. Thus, as I read more about Belgium’s impending demise, I knew I would need to investigate further.

My plan was to intrepidly traverse Belgium, seek out the artisans who make the world’s finest beers, and find out whether Belgian beer, like the Belgian state, was also teetering on an existential ledge. And, as a disciplined researcher, I knew that would entail drinking a beer or two or three along the way. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make.

It was a sunless, dreary morning, but that would not deter me from my plan: to go to church and drink. I hopped on a bus in Antwerp, a city in northern Belgium, and rode 45 minutes northeast, until the driver stopped in front of the abbey at Westmalle. Westmalle is one of six Trappist monasteries that brew beer in Belgium. This one and two others are located in Flanders, the other three in Wallonia. (There is another Trappist brewery in the Netherlands and dozens of nonbrewing Trappist monasteries around the world.)

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Trappist monks at Westmalle make beer as part of the life of prayer and work prescribed by Saint Benedict.

A green lawn the size of several football fields spread out before the abbey walls. I walked up a narrow brick road lined with oak trees that resembled plucked grape stems. The morning fog dampened the sound of my footfalls. I reached the gate, which was tucked behind another row of skeletal trees, and rang the doorbell. Marleen Hurdak, a cheery woman with shoulder-length dark-blonde hair who works in the sales division at Westmalle, greeted me and ushered me inside.

A wall separates the brewery from the area where the monks live and pray. Visitors are rarely granted access to the brewery at all and are almost never allowed on the other side of the wall. But Hurdak let me get a glimpse. She escorted me through a door into a courtyard that encircled a Hogwarts-esque monastery replete with stained glass and dark brick. I felt as though I were on a bird-watching expedition, except that I was on the lookout for monks. “Is that one?” I whispered. A man in a blue jumpsuit crossed the grounds pushing a wheelbarrow. Hurdak nodded.

Westmalle is Belgium’s second-largest Trappist brewery, after Chimay. The Westmalle monks have been brewing beer since 1836 and selling it to the public since 1856. Revenues from the brewery so far exceed the monks’ expenses that they use the surplus to support monasteries around the world and a foundation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—after which they still have money left over for charity. (Perhaps the Girl Scouts of America should consider making cognac in lieu of Thin Mints.) Westmalle brews two beers for sale: a golden, moderately sweet tripel and a dark, nutty dubbel. The monks drink a bitter “Extra” brewed exclusively for them.

After we had walked the grounds, Hurdak and I retired to the tasting room, where one wall was adorned with donated steins and glassware, and the windows were hung with red-and-white-checked curtains. She poured out a glass of the tripel. The beer’s slight caramel finish paired perfectly with the plate of monk-made cheese and mustard that Hurdak served.

We talked politics for a few minutes, and I gathered from Hurdak that the abbots at this medieval compound wouldn’t care one way or another if Belgium ceased to exist. Their loyalties were to the Big Guy first, their monastic order second, and the rest, well, it didn’t much matter to them. Perhaps my worries about secessionist brewers were unfounded after all.

That afternoon, I headed 20 miles southwest of Antwerp to the town of Buggenhout, home to a small brewery called Malheur that has earned a reputation for making strong, eccentric beers. A driver from Malheur picked me up at the train station and drove me to the outskirts of town, where I met Manu De Landtsheer, the owner. De Landtsheer is a towering man with brown hair swept back from his forehead and bifocals that rest on the tip of his nose. He is a genuine bon vivant who presides over Belgium’s largest Cuban-cigar smokers’ club and sips beer like a wine connoisseur, aerating it through his lips to release its flavors. Malheur, he told me, means “a positive accident.” “Like when your teenage daughter gets pregnant,” he chuckled. “That’s malheur!”

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While politicians squabble over national identity, brewers like Manu De Landtsheer ensure that "Belgian beer" remains synonymous with the world's best.

De Landtsheer walked me through the brewery. To one side, a 20-foot-high, cylindrical fermentation vat bubbled with Malheur 6, a variety of blond beer. To the other, a half dozen American oak barrels were aging an experimental batch of one of De Landtsheer’s brut biers, strong, bubbly brews with a production process that mirrors that of champagne.

Sitting in the tasting room overlooking the brewery, De Landtsheer popped the cork and poured us each a glass of his lighter brut. The beer surprised me with its effervescence, which then mellowed into the taste of green apples with a touch of lemon and a dash of pepper. I asked him about the incredible variety of Belgian beers. “There’s a historical explanation. One of the most important borders in Europe was this street,” De Landtsheer said, pointing out the window at the road running adjacent to the brewery. Dusk had begun smudging the day away. In the Middle Ages, according to De Landtsheer, one side of the road was French territory ruled from Paris, and the other was German land ruled from Cologne. The Germans prohibited the use of spices in their beers; the French prohibited the use of German hops in theirs. But brewers in border towns like this one—and much of Flanders, for that matter—“ignored the rules and used whatever hops and spices they wanted.”

De Landtsheer’s eyes twinkled with an unmistakable disdain for such political silliness. He granted that today’s Flemish and Walloon nationalists had inflated their grievances into a crisis, but he scoffed at them. De Landtsheer is Flemish, but he’s not ready to secede. “My passport is Belgian, and I do not support any extremist,” he said. “I will never sell Flemish beer. It would make no sense. Our style of beer is Belgian.”

The beers perhaps most closely tied to the place where they are made are Belgium’s lambics. These are brewed exclusively in a narrow strip of territory along the Zenne River, which flows through Brussels. It is believed that the specific yeasts of this region help give lambics their distinctive flavor.

Read “The Right Glass for the Right Beer.” 

Fermentation is normally a tightly controlled process in which brewers in sterile suits pour measured vials of yeast into vats of hoppy sugar water and then monitor the organic process by which the yeast converts sugar into alcohol. But with lambics, it’s a free-for-all. Whatever wild yeast happens to be floating in the air miraculously converts tubs of sugar water into beer. If we didn’t know better, we’d call it magic. Would lambic brewers be more loyal to their magical corner of the country than to Belgium as a whole?

I visited Jean Van Roy, the unofficial high priest of the lambic world, at his brewery, Cantillon. Most breweries are spotless. At Cantillon, dust coated rows of aging bottles and stacks of wooden pallets. Some of the cobwebs seemed large enough to double as hammocks. “What is special is the brewery itself,” Van Roy said. “What’s on the floors, what’s on the walls. You have a special atmosphere inside here.”

Van Roy, 41, has a taut face with faint eyebrows and intense blue eyes. He wore jeans with a brown Cantillon hoodie and a gray fleece scarf; the chilly temperatures inside added to the romance Van Roy cultivates. He revels in tradition. “I am working here the way my great-grandfather did,” he said.

Thanks to the international commercial success of Lindemans, a larger-scale lambic brewery located a few miles southwest of Brussels, public interest in gueuzes (blended lambics), krieks (cherry lambics), and framboises (raspberry lambics) has grown. One might assume that Van Roy would be psyched. Instead he sees their makers as a cast of sellouts. “Lambics cannot be sweet,” he proclaimed. “But 99 per- cent of gueuzes are sweet. Why? Because the masses want it. And it’s too expensive for industrial gueuze makers to do it right.” He shook his head in disgust. “We are the fundamentalists of the lambic world. We have a rapport with our beer. It’s a feeling. We speak with our beer. No other brewer can say the same thing.”

His self-righteousness aside, Van Roy was right. His rivals’ brews often taste like liquid Jolly Ranchers. A Cantillon, on the other hand, is a taste like no other. Van Roy handed me a banquet-style wine glass and poured a gueuze. It sparkled on my tongue like vinegar without a trace of typical beer bitterness. It was delicious, sour, and pungent as an old gym sock, with a flavor so bemusing—and compelling—that I had to go back to the rustic tasting table for another round.

Listening to Van Roy, I got the sense that whatever happened in Belgian politics, his beer would survive. He was so devoted to his craft that Martians could invade and all he would care about was whether the aliens’ first sip of gueuze was properly sour.

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Het Anker Brewery in Mechelen.

Some brewers, however, insist on the importance of maintaining a unified national identity. Charles Leclef is the owner of Het Anker, a brewery, like Van Roy’s, that has long been a family affair; Leclef’s great-great-grandfather founded the brewery in 1872. Four years ago Leclef helped found the Belgium Family Brewers association to help small breweries like his reach a wider audience and to foster an appreciation for their authentic brewing methods. He now oversees a compound in the historic city of Mechelen, 13 miles northeast of Brussels, that includes the brewery, a whisky distillery, a modest hotel, and an upscale pub and restaurant. After my visit with Van Roy, I headed to Mechelen and met Leclef at his restaurant.

Leclef and I sat at a table in the pub to enjoy a glass of his tripel. A server carried a steaming plate of beef stew past us, and I had to restrain myself from reaching out for a big spoonful. Leclef acknowledged that the hysteria surrounding talk of secession had grown serious, but he held out hope that beer could save the day. “The breweries will fight against separation because brewers are one of the only national federations. We know that, outside of Belgium, if you talk of Flemish beer, no one will listen.” Belgium, as Leclef saw it, was more than the sum of its Flemish and Wallonian parts. Absent “Belgium,” the beers would still exist, but the chic—and profitable—international marketability of “Belgian beers” would not. As separate states, he said, “we would be nothing.”

Back in Antwerp, I ventured out into the rain in search of Kulminator, rated by beer geeks as the best beer bar in the world. When I found it, the bar itself was a cramped, underwhelming space. There were six tables, six bar stools, and walls of dark wood. Chamber music played in the background. I took a stool at the bar. Then the menu arrived. It was a veritable phone book of beers, with page after page of offerings from even the most obscure Belgian breweries. But I had something particular in mind.

I was looking for Westvleteren, brewed at the smallest of the Trappist monasteries. And while it is distributed only at the abbey and a nearby café, Kulminator had stashed away “vintages” dating several years back. One of the owners of the bar, Leen Boudewijn, a short, rosy-cheeked woman of grandmotherly age, recommended I try the 2004. So along with a plate of sausage and cheese, I ordered an ABT 12, the darkest and strongest variety, which has been called the world’s finest beer.

Boudewijn repaired to a back room, then returned with a bottle in one hand and a chalice in the other, the latter marked only by the Westvleteren logo. I poured about half the beer into the glass, then closed my eyes and lifted it to my lips. My nose picked up rich, spicy aromas. As I tasted the beer, I detected flavors of raisins and dates. Hints of anise and licorice followed. I set the beer back down on the bar, my chest warm, as if I’d been sipping brandy. The ABT 12 measured in at a shade over 10 percent alcohol. I’ve had stronger beers, but I’ve never enjoyed one with such marvelous complexity, with the kind of tastes that I wanted to savor, chew on, and contemplate at length.

In the midst of my Westvleteren-induced haze, I struck up a conversation with Boudewijn. I asked if she had any opinions about beer’s place in Belgium’s national identity crisis. “It’s simple,” she said. “We have good Flemish beers and they have good beers in Wallonia. But the beers are different. Everything is different.” Boudewijn called it “a pity” that Flanders was forced to subsidize Wallonia.

As I savored the Westvleteren, I had a hard time concerning myself with anything at all, let alone whether I was in Flanders or Wallonia or where my beer came from. All I could focus on was sifting through my mental spice cabinet to pinpoint the complex flavors washing over my palate. My impression of Kulminator had shifted: Now it was so incredibly “Belgian”— cozy, quirky, small—that I couldn’t have imagined a more appropriate spot to sip the finest beer on earth.

I wondered, if there were no such thing as “Belgium,” and thus no such thing as “Belgian beer,” would I ever have experienced this sublime moment? Probably not.

It was enough to make me believe that a united Belgium was good for the world—at least the beer-drinking portion of it. I’m sure the politicians can work something out. My advice? Meet over a beer. A

Photographs by Andrea Wyner. This story appeared in the November/December 2011 issue.