Over the last few days I realized that I had a host of posts still to write about my European travels this past September. The last two posts that I wrote, The Day I Owned Paris and Directionally Challenged in Europe, recounted my brief time in Paris before driving the van up to Belgium.
The trip officially started in Bruges, one of my favorite cities in Europe. Some say that it is a bit too touristy, and it certainly is a popular destination. But as I always say, there is a reason that it is touristy—it is stunningly beautiful, so get over the “touristy” thing.
There are dozens of places to visit and things to do in Bruges, with countless websites and books that will walk you through the options. For me, just being in Bruges is enough to get my motor running–walking through the town, grabbing a waffle. (Yes, I love buying a waffle or four when I am in Bruges, yes it is a bit cliché, and yes, it is what the tourists do. There is a reason that the tourists buy the waffles, though–they are really, really good.)
The first few times I visited Bruges, I tried to see everything–visited all the museums, went into all the buildings, climbed the Belfry, and visited the Church of Our Lady (where I took what seems like a hundred pictures of the tomb of Mary, Duchesse of Burgundy but sadly none of Michelangelo’s Madonna).
For me though, the best thing to “see” in Bruges is the city itself–walking the cobbled streets, following one of its many canals away from the center, drinking a beer in an outdoor café (with all the other tourists).
Since Bruges is the start of the Northern European bike trip that I lead, it is also the start of a week-long journey into the world of Belgian beer. I have disparaged beer on this site countless times and for good reason–for me, beer is far too formulaic, its production is based on a recipe and thus there is little artistry, little left to “chance”.
Belgian beer is different, however.
Sure, there is still a recipe, but there is also far more care, more heart, and above all else, a sense of place that goes into its production. And for me, that sounds an awful lot like wine. So Belgian beer gets a pass when it comes to my disdain.
At least that is what I’ve been able to convince myself to believe.
This last trip to Belgium, I was determined to try as many different beers as I could and I wasted no time once I stepped foot in Bruges.
After I met up with the clients and gave them all their bikes, it was early in the afternoon and I had a bit of free time before having to find a place for dinner (which is harder than you would think–the down side to touristy places is that they generally have a ton of crappy restaurants and it takes a bit of work to find the good ones).
So I did what I always do when I first get into Bruges–I go to the local beer store right by the hotel, grab a couple of cold ones, and head to my room. Why? Simple. In Belgium during the not-so-dreary months (I am not sure it ever really gets “hot” or even “warm” in Flanders) you can always find a bike race on T.V. Sure, it will be broadcast in Flemish–a virtually impossible language to understand–but it does not take a genius to figure out what is going on in a bike race.
Some quick notes on terminology: the terms “Dubbel” and “Tripel” apparently originated in the abbeys and monasteries that produced beer in and around Bruges. There is no real “technical” definition that is applicable across brands, but within the same brand, the Dubbel has more alcohol than the “Single” (a rarely used term anymore) or standard beer. The Tripel then, has more alcohol than the Dubbel. These terms originated centuries ago when few people were literate and one, two, or three “X” on the bottle indicated the relative strength of the beer.
The first beer was a Brugse Zot: a Pale Ale that comes in either a Blond (6% ABV) or a Dubbel (7,5% ABV). It is brewed right there in Bruges, and is apparently what a lot of the locals drink. Since I have been known to “roll” with the indigenous population from time to time, it seemed like the perfect starting point. I opted for the Blond since I needed to ease my way into the whole beer thing. The Zot was fantastic (particularly after the five-hour drive), very mild with a hint of honey and nuttiness on the finish. Very Good.
Having concluded my “easing in period” I decided to make more of a splash with the second beer: a Tripel Karmaliet (8.4% ABV). This beer, besides packing a bigger wallop, displayed a much more distinctive flavor with citrus and a bunch of caramel–some of it slightly burnt. I do not have a ton of experience with beer, but this is one of the better beers I have had. Complex yet inviting, if this did not cost about a third of my monthly mortgage payment a bottle in the U.S. I would consider drinking it on a regular basis. Outstanding.