Friday 28th May
5.00am: Get up, shower, dress, pack, panic I’ve forgotten something important.
6.00am: Leave house, walk to train station.
10.00am: Arrive in France, heading for Belgium, first stop: Westvleteren for breakfast.
10.30am: Realise Westvleteren is closed on Friday (lazy bloody monks), change of plan: Oostvleteren.
11.00am: Arrive at Oostvleteren, home of De Struise Brouwers, head for their ‘school’, where they have a shop and offices. This is also closed. I begin to start worrying that we will never get a beer. Owen, who is in Europe interning as a brewer, worked at Struise earlier this year so called Urbain, the brewer.
11.30am: After arriving at Deca, where the Struise beer is brewed (they don’t have a brewery, instead they rent space where they can make, package and distribute their beers), and meet Urbain, a short, scraggy guy with stress and laughter lines etched into his skin, who speeds around like a madman, here one moment, gone the next, infectiously busy and cheery. He’s bottling, labelling and packing palates of Pannepot, as well as many other simultaneous jobs. I have never seen so much Pannepot in my life – over five palates full – and we help to lift the crates off the trolley and pack them.
12.00pm: Work done, we finally get a beer: Saint Amatus 12. We might have failed to get a Westvleteren but this is the next best thing: Struise’s ostensible 'copy' of Westvleteren 12. It was young (too young, said Urbain, as he poured and then tasted it before leaving us for half an hour while he filled in some paperwork) but it was stunning: a body like velvet, dried fruit sweetness then a super-fresh hop flavour, leaving a dry finish. They are working on a new bottle cap for this beer which is a firmly tongue-in-cheek nod to their West neighbours.
1.00pm: We are in the office/shop for the brewers, sitting upstairs in what can best be described as a bachelor pad with the best beer fridge ever, drinking bottles with the brewer: Elliot Brew, a big IPA brewed with Mikkeller, wonderfully fresh and very good; Roste Jeanne, a delicious red Belgian ale; Mocha Bomb, a blend of stouts (50% Black Albert aged on coffee beans, 25% Hel & Verdoemenis from De Molen aged in Jack Daniels barrels and 25% Cuvee Delphine – yes seriously) to make a superheroic one to kick everyone else’s arse; Black Mes, which is Black Albert aged for three months in Caol Ila’s Distillers Version 1995 casks, which is an incredibly good whisky-aged beer with the barrel adding just enough to improve the original (if such a thing is even possible); and finally a couple of Westvleteren 12s (we got there in the end). Carlo, another member of the Struise family, shares a couple of the beers and then it’s time for us to leave.
2.30pm: Hungry – need food!
3.30pm: Arrive in Roeselare for a Rodenbach Foederbier (the unfiltered and unpasteurised version of Rodenbach) and lunch (over-dry croquet monsieur) in the busy square. I don’t really like Rodenbach so this wasn’t my thing (it’s the aceto that I don’t enjoy, that vinegary harshness at the back of the throat). The question of attractive Belgian women is first raised: are there any?
5.30pm: Get to 3 Fonteinen in Beersel, meet Armand the blender and (former) brewer, tour the cool, aromatic cellar, lined with chalk-marked casks of different beers ready for blending. We try the last batch of lambic brewed on site, straight from the barrel, which is young but delicious (of course it is, we’re drinking it in the cellar, surrounded by giant barrels of lambic – there’s something to be said for context) then drink their kriekenlambic in the bar, a bright blush of pink with a wonderful cherry depth. Did you know they used 10-year-old challenger hops to brew with here? 3 Fonteinen is a great place.
8.00pm: Arrive in Brussels at hotel after driving around looking for parking for ages. The hotel (hostel) is best described as cheap, cheerful and cosy, overlooking a very busy and noisy street, with four single beds lined up side by side, perfect for four drunk guys on a budget...
8.30pm: Eat something disgusting (half a baguette stuffed with two burgers and fries) to prepare me for an evening of drinking. Brussels is lively, busy, jazz music plays all around because we arrive during a Jazz Marathon.
9.00pm: Meet Dominic from Marble Brewery, Janine, girlfriend of Dom and brewer at Ashover, and John Clarke at Moeder Lambic. We sit outside, in the warm evening, and drink. Taras Boulba is light, dry and hoppy, just what I needed after imperial stouts, quads and sour beer all day. A IV Saison is just about the best beer I drink all weekend, packed with tropical fruit and just so bloody tasty. We continue to look for attractive Belgians without success.
10.30pm: To Poechenellekelder, opposite the lamest national landmark I’ve ever seen: the Manneken Pis. A bottle of year-old Orval (because I couldn’t not have one) and various others, including a 2008 Cantillon Zwanze, made with rhubarb. A great evening just chilling outside drinking and talking.
12.15am: To Porte Noire, a dark and grungy underground bar, filled with smoke and people (the non-smoking section is empty when we arrive, in fact they have to turn the lights on for us). It’s salubrious, the walls are bare, the tables wobble too much to be safe, but it’s a great place to drink late at night. The Hercules Stout was very good.
1.30am: To Delerium’s Hoppy Loft, a smelly, hot, smoky place with a decent selection of taps and bottles, including a new brewery to look out for – Hornbeer (Black Magic Woman is fantastic, their IIPA is delicious and their bottles look great). Dom also thought buying a bottle of Sam Adams’ Triple Bock was a good idea. It probably wasn’t.
2.30am: Chips and mayonnaise. Still searching for good looking Belgians and even at this time of night with beer-blurred vision we are unsuccessful.