Mother, son follow brews from Brussels to Brugge

Monasteries, chateau sweeten pair's beer tour through Belgium

Destination: Europe

November 09, 2003|By Christine Temin | Christine Temin,Boston Globe

My mother once told me that water is what you bathe in, wine is what you drink and beer tastes like garbage.

I never thought to ask her how she came to that conclusion about beer. When she died -- at 87, after following that formula faithfully -- she took her opinions to the grave.

I inherited my mother's distaste for beer. Nonetheless, when my 24-year-old son proposed a beer trip to Belgium, I instantly agreed. Jonathan is good fun, his French is better than mine and he likes driving in foreign countries, which gave me the chance to absorb the architecture while he watched the road.

The lure for him was not just his charming mother's company. I had half a million frequent-flier miles then, and he knew that if I came along, he wouldn't have to stay in youth hostels (I'm too old to qualify).

So off we went, on an itinerary built around breweries, but with serendipitous finds for me as well: among them, meeting an elderly princess who lives in roughly one-hundredth of her daunting chateau, and exploring a lovely town called Poperinge, a place I had never heard of.

We found moments when we were of one mind. We had both recently read Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, about that monarch's bloody takeover of what became the Belgian Congo. We both shuddered during our visit to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in the Brussels suburb of Tervuren.

The imperial pile was built entirely with the proceeds from the "Crown Dominion," which was Leopold's private preserve. A gilded statue of a goddess personifying Belgium, gazing beneficently down on sculptures of grateful "natives," is among my creepiest memories of the place.

It must be remembered, though, that Belgians themselves became fed up with Leopold. He was about as popular with his subjects as he was with the Africans he considered his personal property.

Our first stop was India. The 15 rooms in Brussels' Hotel Welcome are not numbered. They are named for various exotic locales, and decorated accordingly. "India" is Taj Mahal-ish, with gauzy hangings in an elephant print and carved wooden doors. The hotel, which is in the city's bustling fish market area and boasts a superb seafood restaurant, La Truite d'Argent, was the highlight of Brussels for me.

The high point for Jonathan was the tiny, out-of-the-way Brasserie Cantillon, a Brussels brewery run by Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the husband of the great-granddaughter of Paul Cantillon, who founded the business in 1900.

Van Roy is a staunch holdout in the beer community, the only remaining brewer using solely "spontaneous fermentation," meaning that natural yeasts in the air, not added chemicals, cause fermentation. As a result of this painstaking process, his production is limited: Cantillon produces only 9,000 liters of beer annually.

Van Roy is dismissive of many of Belgium's "new" beers, which he considers excessively sweet. "There are only five or six Belgian beers I would drink," he says. He resents the growing dominance of the massive multinational corporation Interbrew, which has been buying up smaller breweries around the country.

On first taste, it would be easy to mistake Van Roy's beers for champagne, particularly since he serves them in champagne flutes. Although a bit heavier and sweeter than champagne, by Belgian standards they contain minimal quantities of sugar.

Cantillon's beers are not widely available in Brussels, where the preference is for the sweet stuff. Van Roy attributes this to the proliferation of sugary soft drinks after World War II. In other words, it's America's fault.

The soul of Chimay

Not even in the severest of storms do the authorities in the town of Chimay, in southern Belgium, allow the streets to be salted. The salt would seep into the local water supply, which is used to make beer. And the beer is the very soul of Chimay, where the Trappist monks of the Abbey of Scourmont oversee a state-of-the-art facility producing 1.2 million liters a year of a brand beloved around the world.

Along with Stella Artois and Hoegaarden, Chimay is among Belgium's most recognizable beers. The difference, though, is that while Stella and Hoegaarden are owned by Interbrew, the Chimay label and brewery are still owned by the abbey, as are many things in the area, including the Auberge de Poteaupre, one of the few hotels in the region.

The Auberge can satisfy all of your Chimay needs, as it sells every version of the drink, in various size and packaging combinations, and all sorts of nonpotable Chimay products. Chimay watch, anyone?

Chimay produces Trappist beers, which is as exclusive a designation in Belgium as champagne is in France. Only beers that are actually produced on the grounds of a Trappist abbey are eligible. Belgium boasts six such breweries, Chimay the largest. But while Chimay is still brewed in the abbey, the bottling and business operations are done several miles away in a plant that is the picture of efficiency and modernity.

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