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Brews in Bruges

May’s article consists of another traveling tale brought to you by yours truly! Only this time we’re embarking upon Bruges, Belgium. What brought me to Bruges was the opportunity to visit one of my best friends from high school, Laurel, as she had married a Belgian man and was now living overseas. She and her husband Bram made sure to cater to my beer-adventurer side and they certainly did not disappoint! I traveled there at the tail-end of November 2019, just prior to Covid.

This 53.44 square mile-sized city is found in the northwestern part of the country and (according to a 2008 census) has a total population of 117,073 people with approximately 20,000 living in the city center. The primary language is Dutch. It is a distinguished UNESCO World Heritage Site showcasing a vast amount of beautiful, well-preserved medieval architecture, including the world’s second highest brick tower and building, the Church of Our Lady, with its brick spire reaching a height of 379.27 feet. Likely the most famous landmark in Bruges is the 13th-century Belfry of Bruges with its 47 bells rising up from the city center. Bruges is known for its handmade bobbin lace, chocolate, art from the likes of Hans Memling and Jan van Eyck, and of course, beer.

The three of us traversed the city fully on foot during my full-day adventure in Bruges. We viewed numerous paintings (I am a sucker for museums), Saints’ relics (including bones, skin, hair, and teeth!), saw a ceremony with a presumed vial of the Blood of Christ dating back to the time of the Crusades when it was bestowed upon a church in Bruges, visited the outdoor Christmas markets – even watching a massive group of small children losing their minds over a visit by Sinterklaas (the Belgian version of Santa Claus) and took in all the fairytale medieval architecture that we obviously can’t ever experience back here in the states! I am also a bit of a foodie in addition to my love of craft beer and I sampled Belgian chocolates, Belgian fries (don’t call them French fries!) that are double fried and served with mayonnaise (SO good!!) or curry ketchup, Belgian waffles (dusted with a caramelized sugar, not served with syrup and held in your hand to eat!) and Glühwein (spiced hot wine, also very tasty).

Beer really is synonymous with Bruges. There are breweries, beer bars and beer culture at every turn down its cobblestoned and canal-lined streets, and the vast array of beers to sample is enough to make even the most manliest of beer-drinkers giggle like a schoolgirl with delight. There are Trappist ales, Abbey ales, Belgian Dubbels, Tripels, and Quadrupels, Witbiers, Lambics, Flanders red, and Guezes. AND, if that weren’t enough, Bruges has its very own beer pipeline running underneath the city streets pumping approximately 4,000 liters of beer per hour.

The 500-year-old De Halve Maan brewery, located in the heart of the city, had logistical issues with being able to bottle their beer several years ago. Initially they had to utilize large tanker trucks from the brewery and transport the beer to their bottling facility approximately 3 kilometers away, and it began to be unsustainable. The “simple solution” to expand their brewery was impossible due to the brewery being deemed part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which preserves current architecture and prohibits new construction on these protected sites. So, they sought an alternative solution. Inspired by construction workers laying cable and internet lines underneath the streets of the city, De Halve Maan’s CEO Xavier Vanneste, began to ponder whether he could run a beer pipeline! After 3 years of planning, 4.5 million dollars, a successful crowdfunding campaign and wading through all the government red-tape, the dream became reality and today there are two high-density polyethylene beer pipelines, 3,276 meters long, running underground from the brewery to the bottling plant.

One of the most unique places in Bruges is what I like to call the-never-ending-wall-of-Belgian-beer, or as the locals simply call it, The Beer Wall. This 30-meter-long, glass-encased wall is actually the main entrance to a beer bar and store called 2be. The wall contains 1,250 different bottles of beer, in alphabetical order, with their accompanying glassware. It is completely free to visit the wall. To note, glassware is VERY important when it comes to drinking different varieties of Belgian beers, and you will find that depending on what style/type of beer you order, the glasses will always be different shapes and sizes as each particular type of glass is utilized to highlight the different and unique aspects akin to the type of beer being sampled. The bar/store itself is also extensive in what it has to offer visitors. There are over 500 different beer products that are sold along with souvenirs and other tchotchkes in addition to being able to sample different beers while sitting outside on their patio along a section of the canals meandering through the city.

Our next stop was the Duvelorium! Everyone knows Duvel. We are able to get this Belgian brand beer right here at our local Wegmans, but the Duvelorium Grand Beer Café offers SO much more! The beer is fresher, tastier, with more and different selections than are available to us in the US, it also offers local and regional selections as well. It is the world’s ONLY Duvel-themed café and located in the beautiful Historium in Market Square at the city center. I ordered the Tripel D’Anvers, a Belgian Tripel, by Brouwerij De Koninck (Antwerp, Vlaanderen Belgium, 8% ABV), with a creamy mouthfeel, hints of caramel and biscuit from the malts, mixed with vanilla and herbs. We sat on the upper level, outdoor stone terrace of the Duvelorium that offered sweeping views of immediate city square and all of her beautiful architecture, along with prime visualization of the Belfry. It was perfection!

We ended our Bruges-day-out with a trip to Bierbrasserie Cambrinus. “Cambrinus” is noted to be The King of Beer in traditional folklore throughout Belgium and other European nations. Living up to its namesake, this tavern boasts a literal bound BOOK of over 400 beer choices to choose from! I initially settled on Framboise, a Lambic, by Oud Beersel (Beersel, Vlaanderen Belgium, 5% ABV) a pink-hued, raspberry brew aged in oak barrels. Reminiscent of a rosé wine on the nose and throughout, complex, tart, dry and just really lovely. The second beer I chose was Trappistes Rochefort 8, a Belgian Strong Dark Ale, by Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy (Rochefort, Wallonie Belgium, 9.2% ABV) an amber-colored ale with notes of several dark fruits, slightly spiced with an earthy base. Both accompanied my dinner and an exceptional dessert of Crème Brûlée made with the dark Abbey beer of Ename. A simply fantastic dining experience!

The next day my friends decided to surprise me with a small excursion in the countryside town of Vleteren, close to Bruges and on the way to Lille, France to catch my train to London. They brought me to Trappist Westvleteren, a 19th-century Saint-Sixtus Abbey, one of only six Belgian breweries (the others being Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, and Westmalle) that can use the name Trappist on their beers. The “Trappist beer” trademark is legally protected and can only be used if the production of the beer itself occurs within monastery walls under the direct supervision of monks. The proceeds of said beer are intended for the livelihood of the monks and for maintenance of the monastery. The remainder of the profits are then spent on development projects and works of charity.

At this brewery in particular, there are only 3 beers that the monks brew and they are not labeled on the glass bottles themselves: Westvleteren Blonde (5.8% ABV and noted by its green cap), Westvleteren 8 (a Belgian Dubbel at 8% ABV and noted by its blue cap), and Westvleteren 12 (a Belgian Quad at 10.2% ABV and noted by its yellow cap). The 8 and 12 are considered to have an extended shelf life and can be stored for several years. The beer is not sold to distributers or stores and sales are only extended to private consumers. One can only purchase a very limited amount of beer and only on specific days, and with a reservation! Not all beer is offered on all days either, and you must pick up at the brewery (or have a Belgian address for them to ship beer to you, but the waiting list is currently several months long). As well, they take down your vehicle information when you pick up beer at the monastery as there is a waiting period before you’re able to purchase again because they believe that everyone should be able to get a fair shake at purchasing their beer. It may sound complicated but the rules are in place due to the low supply, high demand issue at hand.

The beer itself is extremely popular and for good reason; Westvleteren 12, a Belgian Quad, has been named the Best Beer in the World over the course of several years and continues to be held in high regard year after year. I had only ever dreamed of visiting this gem and sampling the Westvleteren 12 but Laurel and Bram made this a reality for me. The monastery has a small café on site named In de Vrede, where one can have a small bite to eat and consume their brews. I obviously opted to try the Westvleteren 12, and was NOT disappointed. This Belgian Quadrupel is smooth, slightly sweet, and chock-full of rich dark fruits and fresh caramel maltiness. Luckily, we were able to purchase a 6-pack and I was able to transport a couple of bottles back to the US in my checked baggage and it was very special to be able to share this exceptionally rare brew with friends back home.

The whirlwind tour of Bruges and the unexpected trip to Westvleteren ended up being an absolute treat, made even more memorable by the company and friendship of Laurel and Bram. I truly hope to one day soon get back to Belgium and I hope the readers of this article consider a trip as well! Belgium is a great country, filled with friendly folks, and Bruges is a magical little city, and of course THE BEER!

Proost! Skål! Cheers!

Kristin Merritt
Just your average craft-brew loving gal slinging your monthly pour of beer education and the low-down on all things beer related in the immediate CNY area and beyond. Along the way I hope to give a few recommendations for your grocery list, events to attend, and local hotspots to hit-up for shenanigans with friends, ideas for date night, or at the very least enlighten you with a bit of random knowledge to use towards trivia night or simply give you and your teammates a suggestion on what to drink at the bar! Cheers!