I am a complete Germanophile. I absolutely love anything having to do with Germany – the culture, its language, and the people. This bias toward all things German was also prevalent from very early on in my love affair with beer. After all, I reasoned, Germany is the land of beer! It just seemed to confirm my suspicion that German was the greatest living culture on earth. As I learned more about beer though, it became evident that there were competing claims to beer supremacy. In particular, I was confronted with those who touted Belgian brewing tradition as the vastly superior example of fermented goodness. No, thank you, I said.
One of the things I’ve always loved about German brewing is the tradition going back centuries. Specifically, I loved how the oldest statute in German law is the so-called Reinheitsgebot of 1516, which declared it illegal to brew beer with anything other than malted barley, hops, and water (yeast was added to the list in the 19th century). This absolute commitment to purity in brewing appealed to me – especially when most large American commercial brewers supplement their barley with cheaper grains like rice and corn.
When I first learned about Belgian brewing, I could do nothing but scoff. How could those Belgians dirty up their beer with things like fruit, spices, and other ridiculous things. Spontaneous fermentation, indeed. Belgians were like your crazy, coked-up cousin who likes to set things on fire. German beer, on the other hand, represented order and purity.
Well, I’m writing today to declare that I have eaten my words. A few weeks ago, while some friends were visiting from the States, we drove to Belgium to do a little sightseeing. Included in the trip was a few visits to beer producing locales around the country. The experience would challenge my deeply held Belgian beer bigotry.
Fortunately, Belgium is a pretty small country. Since Cologne is only a mere 80 km from the Belgian border, it makes quick jaunts into the country rather easy. We set off early in the morning for our first stop in southern Belgium near the border with France – the Trappist abbey of Orval. As one of only seven brewery/monasteries allowed to carry the name Trappist, we figured that this community of brewing monks would know a thing or two about beer.
Incidentally, I don’t think I had much of a concept at that point of how significant the Trappist brewing tradition actually was. These monks, drawing on centuries of brewing wisdom, produce their special brews – not for commercial profit – but as a means of sustaining their charities and insular monastic communities. Most of these monasteries brew only a limited amount of beer each year making their offerings highly prized and sought after. The monks themselves generally shy away from outside attention. They are simply content to live their lives of solitude and prayer while at the same time brewing their amazing beer.
Like most of the Trappist monasteries, Orval does have a small visitors center attached to but isolated from the main monastery, which handles the numerous beer pilgrims attracted to the place each year. But, Orval is unique because it allows visitors to tour the ruins of the original 13th century monastery that was destroyed by the French in 1793. The tour of the ruins provides a really interesting insight into monastic life and community. And, it’s an absolutely beautiful place to boot.
Along with the beautiful sights, the visitor’s portion also includes a nice gift shop where you can purchase Orval ale as well as their various cheeses which the monks also produce at the monastery. However, if you actually want to sample their tasty beverage, you have to make your way to the welcoming restaurant just off the monastery grounds. Here you can sit outside in the sun enjoying a few glasses of Orval and some of their amazing cheese.
So what about the beer? Well, I can say that Orval changed forever my perception of Belgian brewing. The beer itself is a Belgian Pale Ale that is bottle fermented. Served in a traditional Belgian goblet, the beer pours to a nice golden brown-yellow color with a rather dense head. What sold me immediately about this beer was the aroma. Wow! Waves of citrus, spices, and wheaty hoppiness fill your nose, and you know at that point this is going to be a good beer. The taste is nice and complex with lemon citrus and wheat hay flavor on the front end and nice clean hop bite to finish. I had been converted.
We left southern Belgium a few hours later with new excitement. What else does the rest of Belgium have to offer the eager beer palate? Unfortunately, the various Trappist breweries are spread all over Belgium (with one in the Netherlands), so further visits to these remote beer hideouts would have to wait. However, we were soon to find out that Belgium is no one-hit wonder. The brewing arts run deep in this small country. So, we decided that the most appropriate place for a concentrated sampling of this multifaceted beer culture would be the capital. Therefore, we set out on the 3 hour drive north for our next stop – the city of Brussels.