Sunday, July 08, 2007

Belgian beercycling 2000: Brugge and the DTs.

At the conclusion of the last installment, the biking beer hunters – Kevin Richards, Bob Reed, Buddy Sandbach, Kevin Lowber and Roger Baylor – had completed the second leg of their biking and beer tour of Belgium, Poperinge and environs, and were moving on to Brugge, the final stop.

Belgian beercycling 2000: A pause for perspective before the tour concludes.

Belgian beercycling 2000: Poperinge and Cassel.

Belgian beercycling 2000: An evening at Cave a Biere, Danes included.

Belgian beercycling 2000: Brewing day with Jean-Louis at Brasserie A Vapeur.

Belgian beercycling 2000: Tournai warm-up, Cave a Bieres and Pays du Collines.

Belgian beercycling 2000: From Brussels to the Tournai base camp in less than 15 drinks.

Belgian beercycling 2000: A prologue.


Thursday was a transfer day, and the objective to be pursued – but only after a tasty Hotel Palace buffet breakfast of bread, butter, jam, selected cheeses and meats, and an egg – was to convey the expanded group of five beercyclists by rail from Poperinge to the junction at Kortrijk, then north to Brugge. Departing the historic Belgian hop-growing town of Poperinge wasn’t easy. We took with us a full complement of ideas for future trips, many of which have come quite delightfully to fruition in the years since.

After debarking in Brugge, we executed a forced march to set up headquarters at the Hotel Europ, and then immediately doubled back to the train station for a short train trip to Ghent, specifically to the suburb of Melle, home of the Huyghe brewery. Along the way, there was a reconnoitering of the bicycle rental shop near the main square.

The excursion to Melle meant that biking would have to wait until Friday, as the genial Joe Waizmann, then of the Merchant du Vin importing company, had helpfully arranged for a Thursday afternoon tour of Huyghe, a family-owned brewer of more than a few brands of ale, including Merchant du Vin’s Duinen abbey ales and the more widely known Delirium Tremens family of strong elixirs.

As customary, I’d taken Joe’s information and initiated a dialogue with the target brewery, exchanging a couple of faxes with the Huyghe company’s contact, Alain, and fixing a tour time for 2:00 p.m. on Thursday.

At least that’s what we thought as the train departed Brugge. Unbeknownst to the group, a very long afternoon was only just beginning.

Our train ride from Brugge was brief and uneventful. There was a switch in the Ghent main station, and soon we were stepping off the small commuter platform at Melle, where precious little was observed to be occurring in the immediate vicinity. The town bore the unmistakable appearance of a one-time countryside village that had undergone industrialization in the 19th-century thanks to the proximity of waterways and railroads.

The fax I had received from Alain while still stateside clearly indicated that someone from Huyghe would meet us at the station to provide escort, but no one arrived, and after a half-hour’s wait filled with escalating fears that we’d miss the appointment, we resolved to take control and find the brewery on our own.

This wasn’t very difficult. Older breweries anywhere almost always lie next to the train tracks, and this is the case with Huyghe. Furthermore, the brewery’s street address is Brusselsesteenweg, or the main road in the general direction of Belgium’s capital. This central road could be seen a short block away, and after lining up street numbers, we followed it.

The address being sought was affixed to an older building with no obvious entryway. Newer additions extended around a corner, so we followed the trail and eventually looked up to see a huge pink elephant emblazoned on a wall, and yet still no entrance beckoned. After knocking on several doors, one opened and a young man smilingly pointed us to the rear of the building, where activity was humming. Pallets of kegs and bottles were being shifted by forklifts into waiting trucks and workers were going about their tasks, all alongside the freight rail track that now could be glimpsed running alongside the passenger track and leading directly toward the platform where we’d started.

We wandered into the area and were quickly intercepted by a man in a suit, who directed us through the warehouse to a second-floor office. Ominously, the receptionist was visibly confused at our presence. Phone calls of escalating intensity were made as we stood in a cramped foyer, killing time and ducking passers-by.

It was far past lunch, and I ate a final apple for strength as more time passed. We were given several reassurances that Alain had been paged and was expected at any moment. Finally a young man appeared, introduced himself as Alain, and noted that we had come on the wrong day. I asked him to look at the fax a bit more closely, and he went into his office seemingly unconvinced. When he returned, his face was beet red, and apologizing profusely (and unnecessarily; after all, mistakes happen), he led us into the brewery for the belated tour.

Given the misunderstandings and delays, we expected very little beyond a cursory look at the brewery and perhaps a couple of beers, but in fact a veritable tour de force already was picking up steam. It proved yet again that when beer lovers of like mind get together, anything can happen, and the passion generated by such meetings is unlike anything experienced by the dire corporate bean-counters of the world of swill.

Alain began by explaining that like many Belgian breweries of like size, family-owned Huyghe was stagnating in the 1970’s, producing ordinary pilsners for local consumption, seeing its traditional market for these beers shrink along with the demand for low-gravity table beers, and suffering from increased competition from larger, better heeled breweries. In short, Huyghe faced a questionable future when Alain’s father concluded that something had to be done. His answer to the problem was to specialize, creating ales more in keeping with Belgium’s diverse brewing heritage.

This strategy was bold and somewhat risky given the realities of the day. Belgium’s subsequent rise to international fame for the quality of its beers was foreseen by few, and Alain’s father faced resistance from other family members afraid of change. He responded by shrugging and buying them out, proceeding with the development of the flagship ale that would redeem the brewery’s fortunes: Delirium Tremens, which was given its name after a visitor remarked that he couldn’t drink more than two without risking the “D.T.’s” next morning.

Having perfected the recipe, the next step toward sales success involved coming up with a symbol, and the now-familiar pink elephant logo was drawn by a summer brewery intern for a couple cases of liquid remuneration. A quarter century later, it is one of Belgium’s most immediately recognizable beer labels.

While comparisons with Duvel are inevitable, and other strong golden ales from Belgium (Lucifer, Satan) vie for attention with the consumer, Delirium Tremens remains its own beer. It is decidedly sleek and clean, boasting a deceptive, medium body that allows hints of alcohol to peek through and remind the drinker of its strength. While Delirium Tremens may look like Budweiser, it certainly doesn’t taste like it.

The Delirium Tremens line has been extended to include Nocturnum, a dark version of the flagship brand, and for the very first time in the year 2000, Noel. Huyghe’s yuletide interpretation lies somewhere between the other two. There are no spices. The result is a firm, tawny and accomplished strong ale for winter sipping. As we walked through the brewery, and Alain animatedly explained the family business, he asked if we’d like to try the Noel – as it turned out, straight from the bright tank, as served by Alain himself into fresh DT logo glasses while he tottered on a ladder to reach the valve.

In one of the oldest parts of the original brewhouse, which has been replaced by a more modern facility in the newer wing, Huyghe has installed an excellent beer and brewing exhibit. The mini-museum includes a replica of a traditional Belgian café, complete with archaic cash register and bar games. Nearby are cases displaying glassware and historical advertising placards. After examining these, we gratefully adjourned to the contemporary, half-circle bar for our obligatory post-tour tasting.

At this juncture, with biking far from our minds and beers about to be poured, it’s worth noting that Huyghe is criticized in some quarters for releasing so many beers, which some doubters suspect are the same basic recipe with a different label attached. Alain bristles at this charge, particularly as offered by CAMRA correspondent Tim Webb, author of the massively influential “Good Beer Guide to Belgium,” and forcefully argues that with the exception of a couple of beers bound for export sales bearing export labels, all beers made at Huyghe have distinct recipes.

Perhaps for this reason, and to give us the chance to judge for ourselves, we were given the opportunity to taste seemingly every single brand brewed at Huyghe: St. Idelsbald Blonde, Bruin and Tripel, Campus, Golden Kenia (the pilsner mentioned previously), Vielle Villers Dubbel and Tripel, a few new fruit-flavored ales, and eventually a bottle of Artvelde Grand Cru that had been cellared since 1988.

Only a few of the latter remained, but Alain excitedly opened one for us, and the vintage ale was so delicious that soon Alain was on the phone calling the brewers to come up to the bar and taste it for themselves.

A dense thicket of glasses and empty bottles grew atop the bar, and then Alain proposed a toast, which I must paraphrase owing to my own bibulous role in the proceedings: To all the beer-loving Americans who have done so much to support the Belgian brewing industry, the ones who know quality, who appreciate the best, and who share in the universal love of beer.

It was a classy gesture and a memorable moment. Equally moving was Bob Reed’s impromptu assessment of the Huyghe brewery visit: “A guy can get fucked up in a place like this.”

Indeed, he can. We did. Our visit finally winding down after almost three hours inside the brewery, Alain proposed to drive us to the rail station, which was no more than a quarter-mile away, and seeing as he’d had just as many beers as us, it simply didn’t seem necessary or prudent. We thanked him and gathered our generous gifts -- t-shirts, pink elephant suspenders and DT glasses -- and stumbled into the late Melle afternoon, the sky now clear after rain and mist earlier. Heading down the narrow alley next to the rail line, I imagined food above all else; the weight of the ale was heavy on an empty stomach, and I recalled there being an eatery or two opposite the station.

Suddenly, somewhere to the rear, the approaching hum of a car was heard. I heard Alain’s voice. Screeching to a halt, he emerged with stacks of coasters, which Bob had requested earlier, and in the process, cementing his reputation as the perfect host for one of the best brewery tours I’ve experienced.

Beer was momentarily forgotten as the neighborhood “friterie” came into view. “Friterie” translates into fast food, Belgian style, and you must forget everything you’ve heard about carbonade, mussels and other gems of indigenous beer cuisine. As in so many other locales, Belgian fast food is the domain of the deep fryer, and not just for preparing the country’s famed french fries (parboiled before deep frying, and served with mayonnaise or one of several sauces).

In fact, most anything else that will fit into a Euro-standard fry basket, presumably including salad, tofu or whatever healthy food that might benefit from a high-temperature lard bath, can be found at the Friterie. Famished and intoxicated, behaving not unlike the early morning crowd at White Castle, we crowded into the mom ‘n’ pop operation. The former took the order after our language-challenged group took turns pointing to the object behind the counter, and the latter expertly deep-frying the choice while Mama made change.

Thus we cornered the market on saturated fat, our containers dripping with grease from wonderful artery-busting food, and climbed the steps to the platform to await the train, all the while shoveling with our fingers.

Delirium tremens … I’ll say.

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