Monday, June 15, 2009

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

Sunday arrived and the God's were kind to us.  No jet lag, no hangovers.  After a delicious breakfast, we gathered at the van and headed back towards the city center of Brugge to witness the beginning of the Tour of Flanders.  This "Spring classic" bicycle race is akin to the Super Bowl for Belgian cycling enthusiasts. All the top teams in cycling compete in this challenging road race along the cobblestone roads of Belgium.   One of our travelmates, Pat, 
is a huge cycling fan, so the serendipity of our trip falling on the weekend of Belgium's biggest cycling event proved a real treat for her.  Tim, a.k.a. Brown, made certain he was wearing his Sunflower t-shirt so that he may be immortalized in picture on the walls of Sunflower Outdoors.  The Shimano support team looked a little puzzled by Tim's presence in front of their support vehicle holding a flag of Flanders in both hands.  The race started without incident and, poof!, they were gone within seconds.  Thousands of onlookers quickly dispersed, as did we, so that we could head to one of my all time favorite breweries, De Dolle Brouwers, or The Mad Brewers in English.   Located in the tiny burg of Esen near the municipality of Dicksmulde,  De Dolle Brouwers is the quirkiest of breweries.  The passion of Kris Harteleer,  De Dolle began in 1980 after he and his brother entered a brewing competition normally reserved for commercial beers.  They won the competition and soon thereafter their mother financed the purchase of the 19th century brewhouse they continue to brew on to this day.  Kris' mom was our tour guide on our visit and she will go down as one of the most passionate tour guides I have ever encountered.  She spoke, in English, at great length of the healthful benefits of beer.  There was an impassioned speech about the "power of the seed."  That all life comes from seeds and beer is brewed from seeds.  So much nutritional power is packed into seeds and beer harnesses that nutrition.  She would back up her assertions with anecdotes of doctors that had visited the brewery over the years and confirmed her beliefs in the "power of the seed".    
After the tour, we gathered in the café and drank Oerbier, the very beer Kris and his brother had entered into competition all those years ago.  I talked with Kris about the fantastic 1st anniversary Oerbier I had had on my previous trip to Belgium in 2001 at the Kulminator in Antwerp.  He then 
pointed out that the lion-maned man and his wife sitting at the table behind me were the proprietors of the Kulminator.  I ran back to the van and came back with two bottles of Free
State Santa's Helper for Kris and for Dirk and Leen, the Kulminator folks.  It was fun to be able to give back after such great hospitality.  I would have been content sitting on the back patio of De Dolle drinking Arabier or some other fantastic De Dolle creation for the afternoon, but alas, we had appointments to keep.  On our way out someone pointed to a printout posted on the outside of one of the breweries cooler doors.  It was a listing of the top 100 breweries in the world according to Ale Street News.  De Dolle came in at #6...Free State sat at #77.  Pretty cool.

We hopped back in to the van and headed off to Poperinge, the center of Belgium's small hop growing region and home the the Hop Museum.   I'll be honest, I made only a cursory run through at the museum.  Having gone to Hop School at HopUnion in Yakima Valley, WA, I was pretty familiar with hop growing.  Instead, I waited in the sunny courtyard to the museum and enjoyed a delicious beer and hop jenever at the café.   This resulted in my taking a nap on the ride back to Brugge.  In fact, most van rides resulted in several of us taking naps to recover from the previous nights activities.   It was important at this point to rest up for our dinner
reservations at Den Dyver.  
This fantastic restaurant in Brugge specializes in beer cuisine and multi-course meals with beer pairings.   Glutton that I am,  I ordered the five course tasting, each accompanied by the perfect beer.  The service was spectacular.  Our waiter/host effortlessly guided us along each course with a deftness at describing each beer that 
was admirable. He also reminded me in some weird way of a villain in a James Bond or Bourne movie. He looked as if he could dispatch any challengers with a quick kick a la his countryman, Jean-Claude Van Damme.  If JCVD is the Muscles from Brussels, then perhaps our waiter was the Mussels from Brugge.  Regardless, we left Den Dyver in tact, dispatched by our appetites, not any imagined villains.  Most everyone rolled home to the hotel.  Rick and I headed to t' Brugge Beertje for one last visit and a few nightcaps before leaving Brugge.  A perfect way to end a perfect day.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Free State goes to Belgium

Back in the cold days of February 2008, Rick Martin and myself embarked on our annual journey to the Mustard Museum of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. For the last few years we've been driving up to the Dairy State to procure the goods for March Mustard Madness. Being a nine hour drive or so, it gives Rick and me plenty 
of time to stare out the window, talk shop, plan our visit to Madison, introduce each other to new music, and occasionally hatch a brilliant plan. Enter our trip the following April to a beer and cheese mecca even farther afield... Belgium.  Driving back from Wisconsin we discussed how fantastic it would be if we could host a Free State sponsored trip to Belgium.  As soon as we got back to Lawrence we started formulating an itinerary and contacted Chris Armstrong of Travel Leaders to get the ball rolling on making it all happen.  A year later it all came together.  Here's what happened.  

Friday April 3rd, 2009

I woke up ready to be there.  Though I know that part of the thrill of travel is the journey to get where it is you're going, I
never really have been a fan of the "friendly skies."  Since I was a kid, I've always wanted the Star Trek Transporter fiction to become reality.  The turbulence, the tight quarters, and the terrible food all contribute to my unease with air travel. It's always a bit easier when you're traveling with friends though. So Rick and I made it to the airport safely and met up with our new friends and travel-mates: Tim, Linda, Kim, Kim #2, and Pat. After a quick bite of airport food, Tim, Rick, and I were off to the airport bar to mitigate that aforementioned anxiety and partake in our first beer/most expensive beer of the trip.  Rick and Tim caught up with each other while I chatted it up with the gentleman to my left. Salty (yes, Salty) was a globe-hopping businessman who poured salt in his lite american lager as he talked of his travels.  You would think that his name might derive from his penchant for sodium in his malt beverage, but it was really short for Saltimbo
ca or some other Italian surname.  A really nice man that Salty, but not necessarily the best taste in beer. We boarded the plane and made a quick stop in Atla
nta for a switch in planes and a quick beer (a Hoegaarden).  The flight over really wasn't that bad.  I got some sleep, played some Yahtzee, and dreamed of the trip ahead. Eight or so hours later, poof, there we were on foreign soil.

Saturday April 4th, 2009

At the Brussels airport we were met by our champion tour guide, organizer, driver, and interpreter, Marjolein (the Dutch equivalent of Marilyn).  It was easy enough to find her as she was holding up a sign with the Free State logo.  We made our
introductions and taxied our luggage to our awaiting chariot, a 9-passenger
Fiat Ducato. We hopped in after some careful arranging of the luggage.  We were fortunate enough to have Tim, a UPS man, on our crew to maximize the spatial arrangements. His nickname quickly became "Brown" and the call would come out atvarious times throughout the trip, "What can Brown do for you?".
We headed out of the airport and on towards Brugge.  I was struck by how much agriculture there was so close to the city.  Lush farmsteads dotted the highway just outside Brussels, interspersed with the occasional factory or village.  I know it's typically used as metaphor, but the grass truly was greener on the other side.  The climate is similar to the Pacific Northwest and all the lush greenery reminded me of my days in Seattle.  We relied on TomTom, our Dutch GPS cyborg, to guide us to our hotel and all our other destinations throughout the trip.  Adjacent to our hotel, a flock of sheep grazed in a emerald green field.  We dropped off our bags and headed to the medieval center of Brugge.  Rick and I ended up at a café for lunch with the odd name, Diligence.  I had an omellete with salad and frites, Rick had the more adventurous, fried eel.  The eel was delicious and tasted like a really clean, better version of fried catfish.  We all gathered back together and loaded up for a trip to the Wallonian village of Pipaix and a tour of Brasserie Vapeur.  An hour and a half drive later, we arrived at the gate of Vapeur and were met by a young woman that we later learned was the wife of the owner (we later admitted, inadvertantly, to thinking she was his daughter).  She explained that they would be a minute, as they were finishing up a bottling run.  Shortly thereafter, Jean Louis, the brewmaster and owner of Brasserie Vapeur, introduced himself and his unique brewery.  Vapeur, which means steam in French, is the only remaining steam- powered brewhouse in the world.  All the pumps, mash-tun rakes...everything mechanical in the brewhouse is run off of a single steam engine.  A system of pulleys, belts, freewheels, clutches, and brakes emanate from this engine.  Not necessarily a model of efficiency in this day and age, it takes Jean Louis a 
full day to prepare a brew and a full day to clean up.  For this reason they brew but once a month, but fortunate for the public at large, it is an open brew for all to
come and witness on the final Saturday of each month. In this regard Brasserie Vapeur is a living museum.
Unfortunately we had missed the previous months brew by a week. After the tour, we headed across the street with Jean Louis to the Vapeur café where he poured us glasses of Saison Pipaix, Cochonne, Folie, and his delicious Eau d' Vapeur, his "single malt". He distills the Cochonne twice, then adds undistilled Cochonne to the distillate to bring it down to proper proof, rather than the customary water.  We weren't the only ones enjoying the café. Shortly after we sat, the roar motorcycles became clear and in strode eight or so Harley-Davidson riding French men & women in full leathers sporting their Harley club name.  What a fantastic afternoon.  We all piled into the Ducato and left Pipaix feeling lucky to have experienced such hospitality in one of the most unique breweries in the world.
That night, back in Brugge, we imbibed at t' Brugge Beertje, a famous beer bar and cafe with hundreds of choices. We did our best to make a dent in their beer list and paired the beers with some of their house pâté and cheese. It was my intention to take a picture of every single beer that I drank while on the trip. I had already forgotten that mandate after the first beer, so when the guy sitting at the table next to me ordered the beer I had forgotten
to take a picture of, I asked if I could take one of his. He obliged and we got to talking to him and his travel companion. Scott and Becky were a young couple visiting from Sacramento and were as big a pair of beer geeks as we were. We hit it off so well that we decided to do a bit of bar hopping with them and headed to De Kelk.  We had a bit of an old west saloon moment when we walked through the doors of the dusty and dark De Kelk.  The twelve or so patrons, all locals I would presume, turned in unison upon our entrance as if to say, "who are you?"  That all changed quickly when we asked the bartender for a beer list and asked for recommendations.  A bit uninviting at first glance, De Kelk was one of those places that you just needed to trust in and in return it would trust in you.  I guess that's ultimately what you have to do whenever youare a stranger in a strange land.  We drank a few beers, ate the pâté and cheese Becky and Scott shared with us, and enjoyed the company of some new friends. Rick and I parted ways with Scott and Becky near closing time and wandered the cobblestone streets back to our hotel. Along the way we contemplated crashing a wedding party in the banquet hall we passed on our way.  But we'd done enough for one day.  Actually we did enough for
two or three days.