About a year ago, Emma and I decided we wanted to visit Belgium and drink all of their beer and eat all of their cheese and all of their chocolate, but given the potential adverse effects on our health we wondered if there was a way to do it by bike.
We googled something along the lines of “Beer and cycling in Belgium”. Top result: Beercycling.com.
Well that was easy.
After some back and forth with Beer Cycling founder Evan Cohan, our money was paid and our trip booked. A 10 day “Flanders Adventure” tour.
Two doubts crept into our minds in the lead up. The first being that I tend to feel a little bit defeated if I do an organised tour. Like I’m admitting I’m incapable of doing things such as booking a hotel and visiting a brewery by myself. However I’m the first to admit that I’m far from an expert on Belgium and organising a cycling trip… in Belgium.
The other doubt was “what sort of annoying weirdos will be on the trip too”, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that they would probably be “my sort of annoying weirdos”.
Before I jump into details I will make it clear that any concerns were completely unfounded, the trip itself exceeded any expectations and it didn’t take long before the bunch of strangers became a bunch of people we enjoyed drinking with every day (and neither annoying nor weirdos).
Anyway, lets talk about the non-beer stuff first.
Belgium is flat, traffic cares about cyclists and the tour is paced fairly well. We had a day off (in Bruges) in the middle and the last two days were only about 20km. I did probably half of it in my jandals (thongs/flip flops/sandals depending on where you were bought up), so that gives an idea of how strenuous it isn’t.
It was a lovely cruise amongst fields of corn and potato (and sometimes hops), under wind-turbines, next to canals, behind houses and through the cycle friendly cities of Bruges and Ghent.
The bikes themselves are heavy cruisers, with two panniers for your clothes and any beers you pick up along the way. While it doesn’t sound like a lot, we came back to Australia with 16 bottles of beer which were all stored in the panniers over the journey. If anything, we probably packed too many clothes as a couple of tshirts, shorts and your “delicates” are probably all that is needed. If you’re like me, you’ll probably pick up a few t-shirts as you go also.
While they aren’t the raciest bikes, once they get going they stay going. Great for heading down a hill, not so great for trying to do a sweet move when parking.
Wifi provided at most (all? I forget now) places for free and breakfast was included each day. Most were business hotels with a couple of notable exceptions. One, Hotel de Brouwerij, which is family run, has a great beer list, and offered an impromptu sour tasting for the group after dinner.
Another was Hotel Cordoearier, where the rooms feel like a business hotel, clean and comfortable, but the attached beer cafe has a beer list that makes it worth the visit even if you aren’t staying. Check it out here: http://www.cordoeanier.be/blog/beermenu-bierlijst/
I should also mention the B&B next to St Bernardus. An amazing mansion where they have an “honour bar” which is a few fridges full of the St Bernardus beers. Help yourself and put your money in the jar. Then wake up the next morning for a tour of the brewery.
The beer and breweries
One of the more interesting revelations from the trip is that Belgium can be a bit of a den of lies.
Some histories aren’t quite what they seem, and why do they need to harvest all that yeast if they use spontaneous fermentation? That hopfield next door that is in all their marketing is probably owned by someone else, and can it really be the original recipe if you are now just putting holes in a tin of hop extract and throwing it into the boil?
The good thing is that amongst all of these lies, it’s the truth that is always most interesting.
St Bernardus ferment all of their beers right on 26 degrees celsius (surprisingly high even for Belgian yeast strains). De Dolle’s mashtun and cool ship look like they haven’t been cleaned in decades, and even a brewery the size of Van Steenberge (Piraat & Guden Draak, amongst others) is still very much family owned and operated… oh and Emma fell into their pond.
I won’t run through the tour day by day – although I’m sure I’ll bore anyone who asks me over a few beers with all sorts of uninteresting details – but there were occasions on this trip that would make any beer geek weep with joy.
Like tasting a 1987 Liefmans Goudenband right after trying their 2006 Kriek from the conditioning tank (for those visiting Liefmans soon, make inquiries about their vintages; apparently they are throwing them out because they don’t think they are worth drinking and need the space).
Maybe a De Dolle sour right from the barrel – both the commercial version and the one they only use for blending?
How about finding a vending machine next to the bike path that has Westmalle Tripel and then realising it has Westmalle glasses in a container next to it?
Getting Westvleteren for takeaway even though officially none were available, or tasting a Cantillon Fou Foune that had only been fermenting for 8 days.
I can put all of these experiences down to the reputation Evan has built in his four years doing Beer Cycling and that reputation is obviously getting his tours access that, unless you’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Belgium, you will not be able to attain.
I could crap on for hours about the beer, the characters, the scenery, the differences between tiny cupcakes and madeleines, and the picnic lunches; but as I realise I’m coming close to 1500 words I’ll try sum it all up.
If you are interested in Belgium beer but don’t know where to start then just sign up for one of these. I can’t think of a better way it could be done and Emma has already said she wants to do another of their tours.
The guides, Evan and Gerrit, were awesome and helpful and the line between them being tour guides or people up for a beer and a chat was
Being such a niche tour the people on it were also brilliant. I guess if someone wants to spend their holiday riding around Belgium and drinking good beer, then they are probably good people. This trip did nothing to prove that wrong.
I’ve put some of my pics along the way but the rest are on my flickr.
One thing I should mention before I finish – while the group got a bottle of Westvleteren each, there were two in the box that didn’t survive the journey, unfortunately that resulted in Emma and I returning with only one bottle (voluntarily, the other to miss out was Gerrit, but apparently his friend has 2 cases so he didn’t seem too miffed). So any of those on our tour who read this and plan on passing through Melbourne, feel free to bring us a beer or two from your land as a thank you.