The first time I visited Belgium was December 2011. We flew from Turino to Brussels and spent two days exploring this enchanting European city. Others had explained Belgium as one of Europe’s most understated countries, sometimes going as far as to call it bland or without its own character. After two visits, most recently through eastern Belgium via Frankfurt, I have to disagree. Further I can’t wait to return and explore the western part of the Country. It’s a land full of wonderful people with great food and drink culture, but most importantly their beers! This is the first of a 3 (maybe 4) part session on my recent travels & experiences in Belgium – tasting beer.
After arriving from Frankfurt and meeting up with my travel companion, Mike from Fork & Bottle, we hit the road towards Brouwerij Wilderen in the small town of Wilderen. The cafe opened at 1PM and we were the first to arrive on a particularly sunny & warm day in the Belgian countryside. The goal was to grab lunch and sample Wilderen’s beers – Wilderen Goud, Kanunnik Triple and Wilderen Kriek
The brewery itself dates as far back as 1642, which is what initially intrigued me. The capacity is 25 hectolitres (2500 litres) and the total storage capacity in the 5 tanks is 250 hectolitres. Their brewing hall can produce up to 15,000 hectolitres per year.
Sad to say, there is no lunch at the cafe, BUT you can get a half loaf of bread, wheel of cheese and various types of Pâté served with condiments.
Goud: A golden blonde Belgian beer. A young beer, thirst quenching. Exactly what it should be – this was an excellent way to start the trip.
Triple: a 4 –grain beer brewed according to the original Wilderen kanunnik recipe with barley, wheat, oats and rye; giving this Triple its real character. Sweet and high in alcohol, this beer was sublime when paired with the Pâté.
Kriek: A spontaneously fermented Lambic, slowly matured in large old oak barrels. 25% of the ripest and juiciest cherries were added from local orchards, giving this kriek a striking and beautiful deep red color and very fruity head on the beer.
Frankly, my expectations were well exceeded. Between the sunshine, outdoor patio, friendly service and quality beers – I don’t think I could have chosen a better starting point for our Belgian beer excursion. Now, off further into the countryside – yet still just 30km outside of Brussels and a 15 minutes drive from the university town of Leuven – where we planned to stay the night.
I’d first heard of Hof ten Dormaal from our friends at Stillwater Ales of Baltimore. In fact I received a bottle of their beer as a gift prior to my trip. After sampling Brew #6 from their “Barrel Aged Project” I believed this stop would be the best of them all, and in the end Hof ten Dormaal did not disappoint. 156,000 liters produced annually with 80% of their production heading to the US – this true Farm House Brewery does everything from grain to bottle. We visited the hops, saw the farm lands and even met the pigs that eat the left overs from the brewing process. This has been a functioning farm for 15 years, but a Brewery for only 5.
The popular conception of Belgian beer and Belgian beer makers is that they are old. Dries and Jef, along with their father André Janssens are actually young guys living a seemingly idyllic existence in their 17th century country farm house while brewing beer and tending to their farm. According to Jef, “Small brewers are driven by innovation, not by tradition.”, which I found to be a very good perspective throughout our trip.
Chicory Blonde: Chicory root is readily available from the surrounding farmland. In this case the chicory used in the brewing process changes the color of a traditional blonde beer, giving it a darker hue.
Zure Van Tildonk: Another innovation that I’ve not tasted before with this sour blonde. Zure is Flemish for Sour and it’s a subtle sourness with a blonde color.
Bronze Age: a more traditional style of farmhouse ale, the Bronze Age is a collaboration with Stillwater Ales. With it’s mild bitterness, this easy drinker is not barrel aged.
Taste Labs Beers from the Barrel Aged Project: The next set of beers are part of the innovation that makes Hof ten Dormaal so special.
Brand Van Leuven: During WWII the Germans burnt the town of Leuven, and to remember this a beer was made with elements of the bitterness of the Belgian people, smell of smoke from the fires and the sour feelings of the war’s aftermath. To create the unusual smokiness of this beer the brewers used peat – accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter from bogs and mires. Our friends from Montegiocio in Italy have been known to use peat in their brewers as well.
B-Wine: The second beer brewed as part of the Taste Lab is a Barley Wine aged in Muscato barrels.
Amber: Hof ten Dormaal’s first brew. Despite being 7.5% ABV this Amber is an easy drinker with a light sweetness on the front of your mouth at first taste.
That’s all for now. We’re headed up Leuven for the night, then on to Duvel Moorgat, Brouwerij Bosteels and two nights in Antwerp!