Belgium is formally divided into three regions, Dutch speaking Flanders in the north, French speaking Wallonia in the south, and bilingual Brussels lying roughly in the middle. Setting the capital territory aside, the other two regions are separated by more than just language. Each has its own parliament, political parties, religious preferences, and of course breweries. I have zero expertise in Belgian politics and no interest in stirring things up, so we’ll stick to beer. Wallonia is best known for saisons, Flanders for their hazy wit beers and sour red and brown ales. The Belgian Trappist breweries are split evenly, with three in each region (plus two in the Netherlands). In my last post I described visits to La Trappe and Westmalle while in route from Amsterdam to Brussels. The Belgian capital is full of amazing beer destinations, including the Lambic brewers of the Senne valley. Rest assured I will return to that story, but for now let’s continue on the Trappist Ale Trail, heading south into Wallonia.
After two amazing nights in Brussels we packed up and headed southeast into Wallonia. One tends to think of Belgium as flat and densely populated, but southeastern Wallonia is neither. Rivers cut meandering paths through tree lined hills of the Ardennes Forest, and the countryside is dotted with small villages. The landscape reminds me very much of the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio, albeit with more castles. Our base of operations for the next two days was the small village of La-Roche-en-Ardennes. We spent the weekend at the Villa le Monde B & B, a small quirky establishment where each room in decorated in its own theme. We were booked into the Cat Stevens Father and Son room, which was curiously decorated with pictures of people and landscapes from somewhere in South America. The connection between Peru and the British-born musician who later converted to Islam is lost on me, but I’m probably overthinking it. This is Belgium after all, where artistry and creativity trump categorization and logic. From the terrace of the hillside B & B you can see the medieval castle that overlooks the town and hear the gurgle of the river Ourthe as it carves a path through these ancient hills. Perhaps best of all the refrigerator in the common room is stocked with a good selection of Rochefort and La Chouffe beers.
After Sunday breakfast we drove 30 km or so south to the Bastogne War Museum. The museum tells the story of the Battle of Bulge, a German counteroffensive launched in the winter of 1944-1945 as the Allied forces moved eastward toward Germany. The allies assumed the Ardennes were unassailable because of the rugged terrain, which is precisely why the Nazi’s struck there hoping to push the front back to the port of Antwerp. People tend to think that once the allies prevailed in Normandy it was a cake walk. The reality is that more people died in the 40-day long Battle of the Bulge than perished on D-Day. If you’re a history buff, it would be a travesty to come to Eastern Wallonia without visiting this moving museum.
Orval – A concise history
After leaving the museum it was time for one of the more anticipated stops on the journey, Abbey d’Orval. Orval produces a singular beer that is unlike anything else in the Trappist catalog. Before the modern craft brewing scene took off, you could have plausibly made the claim that it was unlike any other beer in the world. A pale ale made with a splash of liquid candy sugar, prodigiously dry hopped (by Belgian standards), fermented initially with a saison-type yeast, then subjected to a secondary fermentation in the bottle with Brettanomyces. It’s a mash up of brewing influences from various parts of Europe, and yet all the parts come together beautifully to make one of the world’s truly special beers.
Any description of Orval starts with the obligatory story of the countess and the trout. Here’s the concise version taken directly from Orval’s website:
Matilde was a widow and her wedding-ring had accidentally fallen into the fountain. She prayed to the Lord and at once a trout rose to the surface with the precious ring in its mouth. Matilde exclaimed, “Truly this place is a Val d’Or!” In gratitude she decided to establish a monastery on the site.
I realize that legends from the middle ages are full of strange happenings. If the Lady of the Lake can rise out of the water to present Excalibur to Arthur, why not a magical Belgian trout. Yet unlike the symbolism of the Arthurian legend, the whole thing has a practicality to it that makes me think it could contain a grain of truth. I guess we’ll never know, but you can’t deny that the image of a trout with a ring in its mouth makes for a distinctive logo.
The trout legend aside, Orval has a long history that follows a different path than the other Trappists monasteries on the ale trail. The abbey was started by Benedictine monks from Northern Italy in 1070, three decades before the Cistercian order started in France. For unknown reasons the Bendictines abandoned the abbey after 40 years. A nearby count (Othon of Chiny) whose father had donated the land to the Benedictines recruited a new group of monks to inhabit the grounds and finish building the abbey. Not long thereafterl, in 1132, it became a Cistercian monastery. Given its location near the French border it suffered in many wars. Throw in the occasional fire that inevitably goes with sleep deprived monks doing everything by candlelight, and let’s just say that Orval had to rise from the ashes more than once. The final blow came during the French Revolution, which led to the abandonment of the abbey in 1795. Interestingly, Louis XVI was believed to have been heading for Orval to seek sanctuary when he was captured . When abbeys like Chimay, Westmalle, and Koningshoeven were being established by monks seeking refuge from fanatics in Napoleonic France, Orval was an abandoned ruin. It remained in that state until 1926 when the family that had come to own the land invited monks back to re-establish the abbey. It was only then that commercial brewing was initiated at Orval, beginning in 1931. This makes Orval one of the oldest Trappist abbeys, but one of the younger Trappist breweries.
Brewing at Orval was conducted by lay people from the beginning, which goes a long way to explain why its beer is so different from the other Trappist beers. The original head brewer was a German by the name of Pappenheimer, and he had two Flemish assistant brewers, John Vanhuele and Honoré Van Zande. Vanhuele had lived in England for some time and is credited with the idea to dry hop the beer. The choice to use German and Slovenian hops is likely a nod to Pappenheimer’s influence. It’s not clear where the inspiration for the final piece of the puzzle, secondary fermentation with Brett, originated but it was the stroke of genius that set Orval apart.
It’s late afternoon by the time we reach the Valley of Gold. A long straight road leads up the valley from the two-lane highway toward the abbey. The sides of the hills are heavily wooded, the valley floor is a green meadow, and the sky is crisp blue with a few wispy clouds. We’re not the only ones who’ve chosen this glorious spring day for a visit, most of the parking spots that line the south side of the road are full. A few people are loading cases of beer into their cars. As we make our way toward the abbey shop we pass several more people carrying away boxes of beer. I read somewhere that Orval sells 88% of it’s beer inside Belgium, when you see all of these people coming to the abbey to stock up it starts to make sense.
Orval is made up of two abbeys—the modern abbey built between 1929 and 1936 sits next to the ruins of the abandoned medieval abbey. We’ve been living in the north of England for the past nine months and many a day has been spent visiting the ruins of abbeys that were sacked and plundered during the reign of Henry VIII. In my opinion the ruins of Orval are on par with those at Melrose, Whitby, and Lindisfarne. For a nominal fee (€6 I believe) you can tour the grounds, and it’s worth every penny. You get to see the Matilde spring, visit an art exhibit, stroll through an herb garden, and unlike its counterparts in the UK you can walk through an exhibit on brewing at Orval. It starts with one of the copper kettles from the old brewhouse, followed by a room featuring “cone of silence” like pods that walk you through each step of the brewing process. No substitute for a proper brewery tour, but not bad for a historical ruin. Proper tours of Orval are only given on one weekend in the fall, see their website for details if you happen to find yourself in Wallonia in September. I contemplated summarizing the how the beer is made here, but all of those details can be found on the Orval website for anyone inspired to brew their own version of a beer that’s been called God’s own homebrew.
While you can’t visit the grounds of the new abbey, the buildings are easy to view. Built in the 1930’s financed in part with profits from the brewery, the buildings are made from local sandstone that glows warmly in the rays of the afternoon sun. The design masterfully blends older Romanesque influences with tasteful art-deco design elements. The centerpiece is an impressively large statue of the virgin and child carved into the main chapel.
Upon leaving the monastery grounds we popped into the abbey shop, which is situated near the entrance to the abbey. The selections are pretty similar to the other Trappist brewing abbeys, beer and cheese made at the monastery, Orval chalices, various religious items. The beer is sold in boxes containing 12 (or is it 10) bottles, that go for €2 per bottle if I remember correctly. I picked up a small box that contained two beers and an Orval chalice for €8.
By this time I’d worked up quite a thirst, so we walked back down the road leading away from the abbey to the café, l’Ange Gardien. We took a table on the rooftop patio to enjoy the view of the valley and abbey as the day turned to evening. This is the only place in the world you can get the low abv patersbier, Petit Orval, so naturally that’s what I ordered first. I know hazy IPAs are the big thing these days, but Continental Europe has stealthily been doing their own take on this approach for ages. The glass of unfiltered Pilsner Urquell you get at the end of the tour in Pilsen is one example, and Petite Orval is another. Hazy, thirst quenching, and redolent with floral, spicy hop character from the dry hopping with Hallertauer and Strisselspalt. Michael Jackson called a diluted version of the original, and maybe that’s true, but something about the way the hops express themselves in this beer make an impression on you.
I can’t leave without trying the signature beer, so I order a bottle to pair with my meal. The waiter asks me if I want an older bottle or a fresh one. I tell him fresh as possible, because I’ve never tried an Orval that was younger than 9 months old. The waiter brings out a bottle filled on January 30, 2018, roughly 2.5 months old. Every Orval is stored for 3-5 weeks for bottle conditioning before it is released, so even at the source it’s scarcely possible to get a bottle that has the freshness people associate with modern IPAs. Not surprisingly it expresses more spicy, floral hop aroma and taste than any Orval I’ve had back in the US, though not as much as the Petit Orval and still relatively tame by modern standards.
Rochefort takes the secluded monastic way of life to a different level. They don’t have a café or a gift shop, so despite the fact that we were staying only 30 minutes from the abbey we didn’t attempt a visit. Nevertheless, while dining at a cheap and cheery Italian restaurant in La-Roche-en-Ardenne I was fortunate to find Rochefort 8 buried among the Stellas and Jupilers on the beer list. It’s got that dark fruit, unrefined brown sugar vibe in spades, similar to Westvleteren or St. Bernardus beers of similar strength. Hops don’t figure much in the Rochefort line of beers, so in my opinion drinking a young beer in Belgium doesn’t add a whole lot to the experience that you can’t get from a bottle back in the US or UK. That fact doesn’t make the sight of this world-class beer served in it’s own chalice any less beautiful.
The primary objective on the fifth day of our journey was to move our base of operations from La-Roche-en-Ardenne to Ghent. The most direct route, through Brussels, is 190 km and according to Googlemaps takes about 2 hours if traffic is moving well. I couldn’t say for sure because we took the long way around to facilitate drive-by stops at Chimay and Dupont. The new route, which cut across the entire length of the Wallonian province of Hainaut, added 100 km and 2 hours to the journey, but since when is a vacation about taking the most direct route.
Scourmont Abbey and the associated brewery lie about 9 km south of the small town of Chimay, very close to the French border. The abbey was first established in 1850 by monks from Saint Sixtus (where Westvleteren beers are made) on a plot of rocky ground not well suited to farming. We’ve left the Ardennes and the land here is rather flat, but this part of Belgium is also quite rural. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say the abbey is located in the middle of nowhere.
Perhaps more than any other country in Europe, Belgium has suffered the ravages of war time and time again, and Scourmont Abbey is no different. It was gutted by the invading German army in WWII. The reestablishment of brewing operations at the Chimay after the war is closely tied with the efforts of one monk, Brother Theodore, who is arguably the most famous of the Trappist brewers, which is to say not very famous (at least outside of Belgium). In the post WWII years, a young Theodore went to Leuven to study brewing with the esteemed scientist Jean De Clerk. Working under De Clerk’s supervision he isolated by hand the distinctive yeast that is still used to make all of Chimay’s beers. He developed the recipe for a dubbel, Chimay Rouge (7.0% abv, red cap), then a strong dark that started off as a Christmas beer and was later dubbed Chimay Grand Reserve (9.0% abv, blue cap) when it was added to the year-round lineup. Much later in 1986, a golden Tripel called Cinq Cents (8.0% abv, white cap) was introduced to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the town of Chimay. Apparently, Father Theodore had been brewing very small pilot batches of the tripel for a couple of decades prior to the release of Cinq Cents to the public .
The experience at Chimay paralleled our earlier visit to Westmalle in many ways. Not knowing where to go we initially drove to the impressively large abbey complex that sits amongst wooded fields just north of the French border. Upon arriving we learned to no one’s surprise, that visitors were not welcome. Following a routine that was becoming familiar our next step was to figure out where the café is located. In this case we had already driven past it, so we backtracked 1.5 km to the Hostel Poteaupre Espace Chimay for lunch. Like Westmalle, the clientele was more mature than your average brewery taproom. Unlike Westmalle, the menus here were only available in French, a language that I know just enough of to be dangerous. Croque monsieur sounds rather elegant, in reality it’s just a grilled ham and cheese sandwich on white bread. Suffice to say the meal here didn’t stand up to those I had at La Trappe and Orval. Still the sandwich featured cheese made at the abbey creamery, so it could have been much worse. To experience Chimay cheese in a more flattering light I’d recommend the croquettes that my daughter ordered.
To accompany my ham and cheese sandwich I went for the only Chimay beer I’d not previously tried, Chimay Dorée (4.8% abv, gold cap) or Chimay Gold as it is also called. This is a patersbier or father’s beer, so named because it’s lower abv makes it suitable for the monks. Taking a page out of Pierre Celis’ playbook they use coriander and bitter orange peel to add additional spicy, fruity flavors to the beer. The café serves Chimay Gold on draft in the traditional Trappist chalice. The small cap of white head settles out pretty quickly leaving behind a pale golden, translucent beer. The nose is a mixture of spices, yeasty aromas, bready malts, and the faintest hint of floral hops. The taste follows suit, where the coriander and orange peel are nicely integrated with the distinctive spicy, fruity Chimay yeast flavors. Like most of the Trappist catalog, there’s not much in the way of hop flavor or bitterness. The finish is very dry, very clean. It was a pleasant beer, but it would be stretching things to call it one of the highlights of the trip. Nevertheless, I’m sure it’s a good option when the prospect of 4 am prayers is looming over you.
There’s a small area set aside for a tour called the Chimay Experience. Not a proper brewery tour mind you, but a self-guided exploration through a collection of interactive videos followed by a walk through the Abbey’s garden, church, and cemetery. We still had a lot of ground to cover, so we skipped the tour. There’s a good selection of Chimay beer, cheese, and other goods you can purchase for takeaway in the shop at the front of the café. Like La Trappe, Chimay has started releasing bottles of the Grand Reserve that are aged in spirit barrels, so I picked up a bottle aged in American rum barrels.
If you want to double down on a visit to Chimay there is a small hotel at the café, more of an inn really. Initially I had considered staying there, but I’m glad we didn’t. As I’ve already mentioned the abbey is pretty isolated and the café closes at times ranging from 6 pm to 10 pm, depending on the season and the day of the week. Let’s just say you’ll have a lot of time for quiet contemplation if you spend much time here.
The last stop on our winding road to Ghent took us close enough to the tiny village of Tourpes to take a detour off the Trappist trail for a visit to Brasserie Dupont. Dupont could be considered the mother of all farmhouse breweries, and after visiting Tourpes I can see why. The whole town smells of a farm, no doubt because there are more livestock pastures than businesses. Without the brewery it would just be a small confluence of farmhouses. When we arrived in at 4:15 pm on a Monday afternoon I was disappointed to learn that the small gift shop closed 15 minutes ago. Fortunately, the doors were still open, and they were all too happy to let us look around and make a purchase.
The visit to the shop impressed two points on me. Firstly, Dupont makes a wide range of beers that go far beyond their world-famous saison—pilsners, stouts, brown beers and golden strongs among others. In fact, Moinette seems to be the star attraction in Belgium. The other thing that gets your attention is the prices. A 750 mL bottle of Saison Dupont will only set you back €2.20, and the prices of the other beers are similar! Knowing that I could only bring home one suitcase of beer from the entire trip I struggled to choose just a few gems from the wide range of choices. When I walked up to the counter with only three 12 oz bottles—Moinette, Saison Dupont Bio (made with all-organic ingredients), and a recently introduced amber saison called Hirond Ale—the friendly man behind the counter gave me a slightly incredulous look. He gestured to the wall of beer behind me and said something that was far beyond my rudimentary grasp of the French language. Were I to hazard a guess at the translation, it was probably something along the lines of “you foolish American, why did you cross the ocean and drive out to this tiny town that smells of elderberries and cows just to spend €3.45 on such a puny amount of beer.” Though perhaps he was warning me about the croque monsieur at Chimay, who can say for sure. I gave him a shrug with my palms upturned. He just smiled, gave me something like three dozen Dupont coasters, and wished us a bon voyage. Nice people at Dupont, despite the language barrier.
I wanted to taste a Dupont beer before leaving Wallonia, but if there is anyplace to do that in Tourpes they weren’t open on a Monday afternoon. Not to be deterred we drove to the nearby town of Leuze-en-Hainaut, found an upscale bistro called Le Jadin and promptly ordered a 750 mL bottle of Moinette Blond. It pours with the most amazing soft creamy snow-white head, that hangs around for an inordinate amount of time atop the hazy, translucent golden beer underneath. Similar in taste to their iconic saison, but more refined. The spicy phenolics are not quite as prominent, the finish not quite as dry, both of which allow the malt flavors to shine through. Strange as it sounds the calling card for this beer might be the über smooth, creamy mouthfeel. It goes down so easy that it’s hard to believe this is an 8.5% abv beer. Like Duvel you need to approach this beer with caution lest you end up face down in a field getting to know the farms of Hainaut more intimately than intended. I don’t understand why Moinette is not more widely available in the US, I guess the Belgians want to keep a few gems to themselves.
If you want to see some great pictures of Brasserie Dupont check out this 2016 post by Michael Kiser of Good Beer Hunting.
That’s wrap on the second post from my Belgian beer travels. In part 3 we’ll cross over to Flanders to visit the oak foeders of Rodenbach and head out to Westvleteren for my last stop on the Trappist Ale Trail. If you’ve got an immediate hankering for more rambling on Belgian beer, you can check out my earlier posts in the series.
 Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium, Brewers Publications, Boulder, CO (2011).
 Caroline Wallace, Sarah Wood, Jessica Deahl, Trappist Beer Travels: Inside the Breweries of the Monasteries, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA (2017).
I’ll end with a few more photos from Orval that are too good not to share.
Thanks for the shout out.
Fantastic read, just fantastic. What an amazing experience! You captured it well. I am deeply envious!
Thank you for the kind words. This vacation was long in the planning and my expectations were very high, but experiencing Belgium in person was everything I had hoped and then some.
Great post. Only in Belgium could there be a b&b with a Cat Stevens room that features South American pictures. There is a very funny book full of anecdotes like that called Tall Man in a Low Land by Harry Pearson.
As an aside relating to an earlier post I was very surprised to find Tre Fontane on draught in a bar in Sicily last week. Such an odd beer!
Interesting you say that about Tre Fontane. I’m back in the US for a few days and I had to a double take when I saw bottles of the Italian Trappist beer on the shelves in Columbus. I certainly didn’t see that in Rome! The eucalyptus makes for an unusual taste that’s for sure. If you can get past notions of cough medicine one might be able to acquire a taste for it.
I’ll keep an eye open for the book. Also I’m going to be in Glasgow next week with a friend from the US. There will be time to visit a pub or two this time around.