In Search of Flanders' Holy Ale

Flanders is a region in Belgium historically famous for its lace and chocolate and understandably so, considering these delicate, demure and dainty little items are created by some of Europe’s finest artisans. But when you’re visiting this wonderfully whimsical region, you won’t be able to overlook the more boisterous beer products that have made Flanders famous as well, because they, too, enjoy an illustrious history with a royal roster of ale artisans that goes back centuries.

And, while beer pairings have only recently become trendy in many of the world’s gourmet restaurants, Flanders’ own custom cuisine restaurants have been offering those pairings forever, primarily because beer has always played a major role in Flemish culture and cuisine, as evidenced on a recent Flanders Tourism trip titled, appropriately enough, “In Search of the Holy Ale.” The tourist office’s selection of this editor as a participant, by the way, was more than appropriate as well, since we have always believed in the concept that beer is God’s way of making water palatable, a quasi-religious philosophy that admittedly has not always been universally accepted.

Imagine our relief, then, that the very first stop on this holy quest was the Westmalle Trappist Brewery in Malle, a traditional religious organization living under the strict rules of Benedictine law, whose beer products are some of the most popular throughout Flanders and Belgium. The brewery, which accepts visitors on a limited basis, looks out upon beautifully serene gardens and fields where dairy cows graze contentedly—the monastery also produces cheese—in an atmosphere of total peace and quiet. After the tour, we headed over to the Cafe De Trappisten across the road from the brewery for some beer sampling and some of that homemade Trappist cheese.

Later that day, we visited the Bosteels Brewery in Buggenhout, makers of Kwak, Karmeliet and Deus beers. It’s as much a museum as it is a brewery with the original family home still sitting amidst the brewery grounds and open for tours, along with the traditional coach wagons that made the Kwak beer famous. It seems at one point, the government decided the coach drivers should no longer go into the inns with their passengers, so a cylindrical device was designed to hang along the side of the coach next to the driver wherein a specially designed Kwak beer glass could be contained and not just for emergency purposes. In that same town, we stopped at the nearby De Landtsheer Brewery, makers of Malheur beer. This, too, is a small, family-owned operation set in the midst of town and you probably wouldn’t even know it was a brewery until you walked through the gates. Three of its beers—Malheur 6, Malheur 10 and Malheur 12—run, coincidentally enough, from 6 percent alcohol content to 10 and 12, respectively. In addition to those beers, there are three sparking beers that are just that, carbonated beers resembling sparkling wines.

ghent With beer samples in hand and bellies full of the truly sampled beer, it’s off to the beautiful city of Ghent, one of the most underrated and least-known jewel of a European city you’ll ever find. This is a city that ranks right up there in terms of beauty, culture and history with the likes of Amsterdam, Prague and even its sister city Bruges, which gets most of the accolades. This is a city of canals, winding fairy tale-like, cobblestone streets, serious museums and not so serious pubs and bistros.

There’s plenty of things to do in the daytime and more than plenty of places to go for nighttime fun. It’s a charming city that combines the whimsical with the historical, with curious shops that offer everything from the ubiquitous Belgian lace and chocolates, to specific products like a variety of uniquely seasoned mustards. Add to that a collection of both classic and eclectic museums, parks and historical attractions.

To give you an idea of why this town has maintained its historical flavor without looking like some Disneyland-esque monstrosity, consider the fact it escaped two world wars with barely a scratch. It has more historically listed buildings than any other Belgian city, including its share of castles like Gravensteen, the 12th century Castle of the Counts, which is the only medieval fortress in Flanders.