Time: 8am Wake up in an uncomfortable hostel bed. Mix one part jeg-lagged lethargy, one part hangover and one part upset stomach caused by an excessive amount of lambic the night before, this is a hell of a way to start the morning. Stumbling around the hostel, there’s kids everywhere... 20, maybe 22 years old. We’re the old people in the hostel. Next time we need to be real and just get a hotel.
8:30 We walk out into an unbelievably bright street a few blocks from the heart of Brussels. We have three blocks to go before we hit the subway. What’s that? A waffle stand? Hell yes. Cover the thing in chocolate, yeah shake some powdered sugar on it, trade it to me for some of these coins. Best food ever.
9am In the Hertz rental car office on the other side of town, it’s about the size of a closet. Loud woman in front of me is loud. She’s American, so I try to be extra quiet and polite to make up for her while I wait. Drink some water to pass the time. Read some travel brochures to brush up on your French. At the counter there’s no hang-ups, no problems, no concerns, we sign, we pay, we’re handed the keys. We’re in the car and ready to go, I can’t believe we get 24 hours for 40-something US dollars. I pass on the insurance to save a few bucks, I mean it’s not like I’m going to be drinking all day. That’s not why I flew to Belgium.
9:30 We take a slow turn out of the garage and hit the cobble-stone streets of central Brussels. We have a map, we know where to go to get out of town, let’s hope this works. Shooting down the narrow, cobbled roads, it starts to feel like an experience. Yeah, I’m still just sitting in a car and driving on some roads, but it’s a remarkably different experience compared to just hoofing it or using public transit. Without any problem we meet up with the R0 expressway on the west side of Brussels. Just up the road is E40, and only a few miles further we’re reaching the outer edge of the lambic world, one of the true gems of beer culture: Pajottenland.
10:00 Asse, Belgium. We’re only 15 miles outside of Brussels proper, but it feels like an entirely different world. Rolling hills, farms, creeks, open land, slow life. I’d been interested in exploring a lambic café along the main road into Asse for some time, thanks to the magnificent information presented in Tim Webb’s book Lambicland. Up on the left is the small white-washed building with a bold sign reading “Koekoek.” We pull into the gravel parking lot, we’re the only car here. Are they open? Are we too early? There’s a guy half-way up a ladder painting the side of the house. “You open?” I quickly say. He motions around the side of the building and says something that I don’t understand. Yeah, they’re open.
Opening the door we step back in time. At the far end of the dust-filled room is a small bar sitting adjacent to a number of benches and tables, each one adorned with a small red and white plaid tablecloth. Right away a man appears from a back room and cordially welcomes us and introduces himself. I try my best to put together some friendly words but he doesn’t understand me at all. It’s my fault so I just shut up and smile. From what he said I gathered than he owns the house, his family lives here, this is his life. Here is a man who in the front of his house has a lambic café, and in back he has a field full of chickens and lamb, they’re out there making noise and other general fuss.
The reason we’re here is Girardin lambic. This is one of the spots where the true jonge lambic can be found - the turbid, frothy, alive, active base lambic created by Brouwerij Girardin. What is placed before me in a glass is the most alive, dense, flavorful lambic I’ve tasted in my life. Absent was the overt acidity of blended gueuze, while present was an exceptionally frothy denseness from the yeast, with the slightest hint of sweetness to compliment. I’ve never been the most objective reviewer of beer. I’m very open to enjoying every aspect that contributes to a moment, and I fully allow these things to influence my perception of what I’m drinking at the time. This truly is life. Halfway through the glass I’ve completed my rating. Perfect 5.0. Unbelievable.
12:00pm Lunch at De Heeren van Liedekerke in Denderleeuw. It’s early, so we’re really the only people there. Scanning the beerbook, salivating. Lunch is gray shrimp salad for one of us and beef carbonade for the other. To drink? A bottle of 2000 Lindemans Loerik and one of the 1993 De Troch Gueuze, that’ll be fine. Yum.
2:00pm We’ve been on the road for less than an hour, first traveling west towards Gent, then south on E17 towards Kortrijk and on to Poperinge where we’ll be staying the night. Through a small bed and breakfast website we found a gentlemen who rents out rooms on the top floor of his house, not more than a couple of blocks from the center of Poperinge. After making some small talk and dropping off our things, we set out to find some quick food and then head out of town.
3:00pm: Six miles straight north from Poperinge you hit Westvleteren, the Sint-Sixtus Abbey, and In de Vrede, their small restaurant, pub and shop. We spent a comfortable hour sitting on the back patio of In de Vrede sipping fresh Westvleteren 8 and 12. This young and this fresh it’s distinctly hot and green, it needs some time in the bottle to develop. Why am I complaining? I’m sitting outside on a glorious day in West Flanders drinking one of the best beers in the world. No complaints at all. A light breeze, the soft rumble of conversion behind us and the distant calls of sheep down the road, this is pure relaxation.
4:00pm. We need to be on the road. We’ve made plans with Urbain Coutteau of Struise Brewing. We we’re supposed to have figured out where Struise Farm was located and show up at an appropriate time, but the location of the farm was the one piece of information that we simply forgot before we started our trip. Worry starts to set in, both for missing out on meeting him and seeing the farm, and also of standing him up, of not showing up, of leaving him a bad impression of us. Deca Services is in Woesten, not far from Westvleteren. We show up unannounced and ask around until we find Urbain, and hesitantly make our introduction. “Come back to the farm for a drink” he says. Absolutely.
A few miles from Woesten are the two small villages of Lo and Nieuwkapelle. Through a network of dirt roads we follow Urbain out to Struise Farm, not far off from the main road but completely isolated and peaceful. There is not a sound of an engine within earshot, the fields are empty, it’s miles to the nearest neighbor. Urbain remarks at just how remote the farm becomes at night, and how calm and quiet life becomes for him out here. There’s little complexity in the words being exchanged between us but the meaning is well-understood. This is the good life. Here is an artisan brewer, an artist, living life on his own terms, in his own way. I both understand and envy the way he describes his passion for brewing. I feel welcome in his home.
The conversation flows as the beer does, that is the absolute best part of this hobby… or perhaps way-of-life is a better term. It’s not so much about the beer as it is about the people you meet, the friendships you make, and the experiences you take part in. I look back on this single day in Belgium and I almost don’t believe that so many experiences can be packed into such a short amount of time. Nothing brings back a passion for travel as those experiences in life where the focus is truly on the moment, and without even being aware at the time, pure enjoyment in life is nothing more than a funny conversation and a drink shared.
This is the stuff!
You can be anywhere drinking the best pints in the world but the moments with friends and strangers (becoming friends...) sharing this reflectional moment over an ace pint just makes it!
I know almost every detail of your story implicitly. You put it into words far better than I could. Thanks.
This is not the first time I have salivated over that image of the Girardin, I’m sure it will not be the last.