In Flanders Fields – Visiting Rodenbach and Westvleteren

Welcome to the third installment of my Belgian beer adventure.  Those who have been following along at home may remember that part two ended on a Monday afternoon at Brasserie Dupont in the tiny village of Tourpes.  After leaving Dupont we crossed back into Flanders and made our way to the beautiful city of Ghent, which would be the base of operations for the next three days.  Ghent is a city of canals, more vibrant and less touristy than Bruges, with architecture and a link to the past that Amsterdam can’t match.  We were fortunate to find a centuries old loft apartment through Air BnB, centrally located near the Friday Market (Vrijdamarkt) square.   If you visit this part of Ghent I’d recommend a visit to Trollkelder, a classic dark wood pub that attracts locals and tourists alike.

I could have, probably should have, spent my Tuesday roaming the streets and alleys of Ghent, but instead we made for the Belgian coast. After enjoying a lunch of moules frites in de Panne, washed down with a refreshing wit beer, we crossed over the border into France to see the museum and beaches of Dunkirk.  The wide sandy beaches that slope gently into the North Sea are just as you would expect if you’ve watched the recent movie, not a surprising observation since the movie was presumably filmed there.  The museum that describes Britain’s finest military retreat is decent, but no match for the War Museum of Bastogne we had visited two days earlier.  Though I must admit my attention was somewhat diverted by anticipation for the day’s main event, an evening tour of the historic Rodenbach Brewery in the city of Roeselare.

St Baafskathedral
St. Baafskathedraal in Ghent.

Rodenbach

Let’s face it, most brewery tours are variations on a familiar theme—hear the basic story of how beer is made, gaze at stainless steel tanks of various sizes and shapes, nibble on some malts, smell some hops, maybe see a bottling/canning facility.  If you’re lucky the brewery might be housed in an interesting building, perhaps a former church, funeral home, or airplane hangar, but usually it’s a nondescript light industrial space.  Once you’ve experienced a few brewery tours, who could blame you for looking ahead to the tasting at the end of the tour.

The tour at Rodenbach is an altogether different beast.  While it contains some elements that you could get on any tour—a video (albeit in Dutch with English subtitles) and a visit to the shiny modern brewhouse installed when Palm acquired the brewery in the late 1990s—those are just appetizers.  The visit to the now retired brick malting kiln is something you don’t experience every day.  The tiled ceramic depiction of St. George slaying a dragon is a feature few breweries can boast.  Apparently, George freelances as the patron saint of Rodenbach when not fulfilling similar duties for England.  Then there’s the historic significance of the 19th century red brick brewing complex. Those features alone would be enough to elevate a Rodenbach tour to something out of the ordinary, but it’s only when you enter the cellars that house the giant oak foeders that you come to understand that you’re onto something truly special.

rodenbach malt house filter
The malting kiln at Rodenbach as viewed from the entrance gates.

A foeder is a large wooden barrel used for maturation and slow secondary fermentation of wine or beer, but calling the foeders at Rodenbach large barrels does tend to understate their grandeur.  There are 294 foeders in total, with volumes ranging from 12,000 to 65,000 L (3,000 to 17,000 US gallons).  Some have been in use for more than 150 years, which is a mind-blowing thing once you stop to consider it.  The oldest ones date back to the reign of Queen Victoria, and have survived two world wars fought on Belgian soil, though just barely.  Rodenbach was spared the pillaging of the German army that destroyed many breweries during WWII by paying a ransom of 20,000 Belgian Francs to the invaders.

To maintain the foeder forest, and build new ones from time to time, Rodenbach employs two full time coopers plus an apprentice cooper.  It’s a necessary investment, because the foeders are key to getting the sour, fruity, balsalmic character that makes Rodenbach beer so special.  The base beer is not wildly different from a Vienna lager, and given the fact that 20% of the malt bill is corn, probably not a very special one at that.  The slow magic that happens over two years aging in foeders transforms this Negra Modelo-like beer into the masterpiece that famed beer writer Michael Jackson once called the most refreshing beer in the world.

Make no mistake when it comes to aging beer in wooden vessels size matters. The massive proportions of the foeders at Rodenbach reduce the amount of beer in contact with the wood, where the mixed cultures of wild yeast and bacteria live.  The low surface-to-volume ratio also slows the diffusion of oxygen to the beer, which facilitates a slow conversion of organic acids into fruity esters.

Rodenbach Barrels1
Not only does every foeder have it’s own number, every stave in each foeder is numbered.

Nearly all Rodenbach beers are a blend of beer that has matured in oak foeders for two years and young beer that has been lagered for a month in stainless steel tanks.  Eugene Rodenbach, grandson of one of the four founding Rodenbach brothers (Pedro), is credited for the idea for blending old and young beer.  An idea he took from time spent in Victorian-era English pubs, where the publicans would add aged beer to freshly fermented beer to increase its complexity.  The standard Rodenbach, which our tour guide called an everyday beer, is made with 75% young beer and 25% aged beer.  This ratio is inverted in the more celebrated Rodenbach Grand Cru, which is 67% aged beer and 33% young beer.  Every year the foeder that produces the best, most balanced beer is bottled directly without blending and sold as Rodenbach Vintage.

The tour finishes with a tasting of the Grand Cru in an impressive room, lined with retired oak foeders and portraits of illustrious Rodenbach ancestors hanging on the back wall.  The beer served at the end of the tour had less acetic vinegar character than I remember, and the complex fruit flavors (apples, cherries, black currants, …) are so bright you’d swear that fruit was added to the beer.

Rodenbach Grand Cru
The tour finishes with a glorious glass of Rodenbach Grand Cru.

Suffice to say this is a wildly inefficient way to make beer, so it’s not surprising to learn that you can count the number of Belgian breweries that make sour Flanders ales on your fingers, only Rodenbach makes this style exclusively.  Unique is an oft-misused descriptor, but Rodenbach is one of the few breweries on the planet that can claim to be truly unique.  To join a tour you have to contact the brewery ahead of time and see if they can fit you into their schedule, but for anyone with more than a passing interest in beer it’s an experience without parallel.

Rodenbach St George
Anyone caught breathing fire near the foeders will be dealt with harshly.

Westvleteren

Wednesday was our last full day in Belgium, and I’d saved it for a brewery whose beer might be more coveted than any other, the Trappist brewery of Westvleteren.  These days many breweries in the US sell their beer direct to the customers, and some über popular breweries, like Treehouse and Hoof Hearted, eschew distribution altogether.  Although that seems like a modern concept the monks at Saint-Sixtus abbey have been using this approach since 1989.  The only sure way to get their beer is to call on the phone and pray (it is a monastic brewery after all) that you are one of the lucky ones that lands an appointment.

Westvleteren is one of the smaller Trappist breweries, producing roughly 30 times less beer than their daughter abbey in Chimay. This is due in large part because at Westvleteren the monks still take a hands-on approach to brewing.  There’s a certain integrity to a Trappist brewery where the monks still make beer, but it’s hard to run a commercial operation when you have to nip out eight times a day for prayer services. They work around this complication by pairing each monk with a layman who picks up the slack during prayer times (except for the monk who answers the phone, presumably).

My wife and daughter had wisely opted out of this day trip from Ghent.  On the way I made a detour to Roeselare to swing by Rodenbach and purchase some beer, something that was not possible the night before because the shop was closed when our tour ended.  It’s a stretch to call it a shop, in reality one of the ladies who works in the office took a break from what she was doing to sell me some beer.  It was a cash only transaction, and she had to find co-worker to make change, but it was well worth the detour though because I walked away with 750 mL bottles of Alexander (Grand Cru aged over cherries) and Rodenbach Vintage (unblended foeder beer) for a paltry sum of €12.

Once back on the road I continued to drive southwest, passing by Ypres and then into Poperinge, driving past fields of hops along the way.  The Saint-Sixtus abbey is located in the rolling green fields about 6 km north of Poperinge, about halfway to the town of Westvleteren. As I continued the roads kept getting smaller and smaller, until finally it was down to a one lane road that cuts through fields of grain.  It feels like you’re on the road to nowhere, but once you drive by the John Deere tractor dealership you’re getting close.

Westvleteren Fields
The building in the distance is the Saint-Sixtus Abbey, presumably the plume of smoke coming up means that today is a brew day.

I knew that the only way to get beer directly from the abbey was to make a reservation in advance on the phone.  I considered giving this a try, just for the sake of journalism, but the thought of either bringing home 24 beers on the plane (in addition to what I had already purchased) or drinking a case of 10% beer in two days seemed impractical, even by my standards.  Instead my plan was to pay a visit to the In de Vrede café, where they not only serve the Westvleteren beers but sometimes sell six packs to go.

Upon arrival I found a line of 8-9 cars cued up to receive their allocation of heavenly elixir.  The scene vaguely resembled one of those drive through beer and liquor barns that you sometimes see in the US, albeit with more tasteful signage.  After snapping a few photographs I wandered around until I found the café, which is located across the road behind a stand of trees.  You can imagine my dismay that when I learned that for some inexplicable reason the café closes for 11 days in the middle of April.  While monks may not go on spring break, apparently the same cannot be said for their secular partners. Best to check the website ahead of time to make sure you don’t suffer a similar fate.  I can warn you that they are closed Thursday and Friday every week, regardless of the season.

The In de Vrede café may the only place outside of the St. Sixtus abbey authorized to sell Westvleteren beers, but if you go to Brussels or Amsterdam you’ll quickly find out it is not the only place that sells Westvleteren beers.  The gray market in Westvleteren beers, and the extreme markup that retailers charge, is a source of irritation for the monks.  In Brussels individual bottles of Westy XII were going for €14-18, it’s even more expensive in Amsterdam.  Contrast that with the €42 price tag that the monks charge for a case of Westy XII.  It’s laudable that they don’t want people to get ripped off, but at the same time the whole gray market exists because they make it so damn hard to get their beer.  I will say that as I was walking back to my car the decision to buy a lone bottle of Westy XII back in Brussels, just in case, helped ease my disappointment.

Westvleteren Sign
The beer queue at Saint-Sixtus on a Wednesday morning.

Poperinge Hopmuseum

No sense crying over spilt milk, so I got in my car and headed back to Poperinge.  This is the center of the Belgian hop growing region, and I took the turn of events as a sign that I should visit the hopmuseum in Poperinge.  When I entered, the man at the counter looked surprised to see a customer, and for most of my visit I had the museum all to myself.

With an audio guide in hand I headed to the third floor of the museum and spent the next hour making my way down to the ground floor.  I learned that farmers used to spray all kinds of disgusting concoctions on the bines to ward off insects. I learned that farmers employed large numbers of migrant workers every year at harvest time, and threw a big party complete with a burning straw man at the end of the harvest.  I learned about the use of hops in cooking, confectionaries, and pharmaceuticals. I saw a scale model of St. Bernardus abbey, and a crate of Westvleteren beers taunted me from the inside of a glass case.  However, there was precious little information about different varieties of hops, and not a great deal about how they are used in brewing.  It was interesting to learn that Belgium is known mostly for growing bittering hops, perhaps explaining why hops are peripheral to many traditional styles of Belgian beer and those styles that are hoppy tend to use German, English or French hops.

Hopmuseum
This contraption was used to spray a mixture of tobacco juice and ammonia on the hop bines to ward off insects. Maybe insecticides aren’t so bad after all.

Ypres

By now I was both hungry and thirsty, so I headed east to Ypres determined to find a café that served food and beer.  Fortunately, that was an easy task and before long I was enjoying a basket of bread, a charcuterie plate, and flight of St. Bernardus beers.  From 1945 to 1989 St. Bernardus brewed the Westvleteren beers under contract.  They still use the traditional strains of yeast from the monastery, so what better salve to ease the sting of the afternoon’s earlier disappointment.  I’ve had the St. Bernardus Abt 12 and the Westvleteren XII before, and while they aren’t the same beer neither are they wildly different.  The fact that Westy XII is rated as the 2nd best beer in the world by RateBeer, while St. Bernardus Abt 12 is only the 16th most popular beer in Belgium basically comes down to scarcity.

If you visit this part of Belgium it would be pity not to set aside some time to learn about the horrors of WWI trench warfare.  Over 10 million people died in WWI, a figure that’s almost unfathomable.  The western front cut right through the outskirts of Ypres, and there were at least four large battles fought here between 1914 and 1918. Casualties during the third battle of Ypres alone are estimated to be nearly 400,000. All of this to push back the German lines back by a few miles, gains that would be lost six months later. It was here the Germans introduced chemical warfare here for the first time.  It’s hard to get your mind around the tragedy of the great war, but Ypres is one of the best places to try.

After satiating my thirst with a flight of strong abbey ales I headed to the In Flander’s Fields Museum, housed in the majestic clothes hall on the town’s market square.  It’s a very moving, well done museum.  In retrospect I should have skipped the hopmuseum and spent another hour in this haunting place.  After it closed I drove into the countryside to see the Tyne Cot cemetery, where nearly 12,000 soldiers from the British Commonwealth are buried.  Two-thirds of the graves contain the remains of unknown soldiers who came from all over the empire and never returned to their native lands.  If you come this way do try to set aside some time to see this historic side of Flanders.

On that happy note I’ll wrap up the Flanders leg of my adventures.  If you are heading to Flander’s keep in mind that there is so much more to see and drink here than I could fit in my schedule.  De Struisse is located in Vleteren, only a 10 minute drive from the Saint-Sixtus abbey, but their tasting room is only open on Saturday afternoons.  De Dolle Brouwers in Diksmude is not too much further away, if you happen to be visiting on a weekend.  Finally Watou, home of St. Bernardus, is only 25 miles from the abbey, and unlike Westvleteren they give tours during the week and have a nearby bed and breakfast called the Brewer’s House.

St Bernardus Flight
No complaints about this consolation prize.  A flight of St. Bernardus beers in Ypres.

This may be the end of my Belgian beer adventure in a chronological sense, but not so when it comes to the blog.  Check back next week when I loop back to describe my visit to Brussels and the lambic brewers of the Senne valley.

If interested you can check out my earlier posts in the series.

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