Wallonia is the French-speaking half of Belgium. The cultural and linguistic divide between Wallonia and the Dutch-speaking Flanders is deep seated, politically charged, well documented and completely beyond the scope of this account, so I’ll confine my opening comments to observations that are safer and more relevant to beercyclists: Geography.
Landscapes in Wallonia vary. To the south and east, the low, wooded hills known as the Ardennes are darkly mysterious, enduringly scenic and sparsely populated. North of the Ardennes, stretching westward through the Meuse River valley from Liege to Namur, then along the Sambre River to Charleroi and Mons, runs an area similar to what Americans know as a “Rust Belt.”
The industrial revolution on the European continent took root and exploded in these environs during the early 19th century, with an emphasis on coal mining and heavy industries producing steel, glass and cement. As in other regions of the developed world, these old industries have been steadily contracting for decades, and the goal of every fair-sized municipality is to relieve the European Union of wheelbarrows filled with developmental money and to use the largess to create miniature Silicon Valleys behind the slag heaps, brownfields and abandoned factories.
The city of Mons (a battleground in World War I) is the capital of Hainaut province, the westernmost in Wallonia. Beginning in Mons, and continuing westward to Tournai, the terrain begins to flatten into what eventually becomes the Flanders plain stretching to the Atlantic. The industrial zone remains evident along the Sambre River and then the Escaut (in Flemish, the Scheldt), but it is intermixed with landscape of a more pastoral character.
The towns and villages reflect these differing influences. There are tidy modern cottages and the homes of people who commute to work in the larger towns. Next to them, one might see the manure-caked tractor of a family still engaged in farming. Crops in Hainaut include wheat, oats, sugar beets, chicory – and yes, barley. A simple bike ride through the countryside yields abundant olfactory evidence of hogs and cattle.
Even in the tiniest settlements, there usually can be seen sturdy, drafty brick buildings and rust-stained ground. Back in the day these were workshops and factories, the smaller satellites of the industrial complexes concentrated elsewhere. Many of these relics now are dilapidated, while others have been reclaimed and are used as auto body shops, storage facilities, art studios, or for whatever modern purpose that they can be adapted and renovated to serve.
Although it is certain all these archaic red brick buildings have historical stories to tell, it’s just as unlikely that one would find any of them, apart from farming structures, still being used for the purpose originally intended. Even if this would be the case, it’s a considerable stretch to fantasize the work still being performed in the way it was in olden times.
Yet this is the case at the Brasserie à Vapeur, a brewery housed in a utilitarian relic of the 19th century located in the sleepy village of Pipaix. It's a thoroughly “retro” operation helmed since 1984 by the the indefatigable Jean-Louis Dits.
Brewing at this location began in 1795, and all the heat and power for the brewing operation is generated by steam, this being the result of an extensive “modernization” -- undertaken in 1895!
Upon closer examination, the boiler is of recent vintage, and there are stainless steel fermenters (open fermentation having been abandoned several years ago). Various spare and replacement parts also are of newer vintage, but in amazing measure the brewery operates as it would have when Queen Victoria reigned and Louisville had a major league baseball team.
I’d seen the Vapeur (“steam”) brewery previously in 1998 during the first homemade group tour of Belgium, but in 2000 our biking group had a timely opportunity not possible two years before: We would be able to visit Vapeur during the actual brewing process, which takes place only once each month and is open to the public.
Riding bikes to the Vapeur brewing day? Priceless.
Saturday morning in Tournai was cool and cloudy. It had spit rain intermittently during the night as we crawled from café to couscouserie and back to café, absorbing ales great and small. Heavier rain wasn't expected on Saturday, but it mattered little to us, as there were far too many activities planned for the day. If we became wet, so be it.
The morning’s ride began absent precipitation along the bank of the Escaut in the center of Tournai, taking us quickly across the river and to the outskirts, where an access road to the highway ran east toward Leuze. Although heavily traveled, the bike lane provided suitable buffering from the roar of passing traffic. Pedaling through a succession of villages clustered around the old highway, it was noted that the scene was similar to that glimpsed along roads anywhere: Gas stations, video stores, cafes, and dozens of ordinary people tending to weekend chores.
Upon spotting a sign that pointed the way toward Pipaix, we exited south onto a smaller, less noisy highway and entered a verdant countryside filled with fields, farms, villages, rows of trees ... and breweries.
In fact, our quartet of amateurs was cycling into a veritable Golden Triangle of artisan Belgian brewing, because nearby in this portion of rural Hainaut province, almost within walking distance of each other, are three world-class breweries: Vapeur, our archaic destination for the day; Dubuisson, home of the heavenly 12% Bush Beer (known as Scaldis in America); and Dupont, preserver of the tradition of Saison, or Belgian farmhouse ale.
Dubuisson dates from 1769, and the eighth generation of its founding family runs the business today. In addition to brewing, the company is a beer wholesaler, and it exports Bush/Scaldis throughout the world. Since the 2000 trip, a sleek new tasting café has risen on the site, testament to the family’s faith in the future of quality ale.
In like fashion, Dupont began its working life in 1850 as the Brasserie Rimaux, which was taken over by the current owning family in 1920. The family now brews, malts barley, bakes bread, makes cheese, and does a little farming on the side. Dupont was a Belgian pioneer in brewing organic beer, and in contract brewing for other companies in the country. The brewery’s ales, which like Dubuisson’s are aggressively exported, include Saison Dupont (I), Moinette (II), and the delicious seasonal Avec les Bons Voeux (III).
Where else in Belgium can be found three breweries of such high quality, located so close together? We’d have liked to make a pilgrimage to each of them; however, because of the novelty of Vapeur’s brewing day, it would be the sole destination, with the others reserved for subsequent journeys.
After a hard left off the main road, perhaps two kilometers and a few puzzled moments trying to locate the village of Pipaix, the unprecedented and grudging step of asking a village passer-by to point the way to Vapeur was undertaken. He shrugged and pointed. It was the building just behind us, perhaps twenty yards away.
Embarrassment ensued. Couldn’t we smell the mash?
Bikes were abandoned and we followed our noses into the brewery, where Jean-Louis Dits, his assistant and Jean-Louis’s wife were hard at work before a handful of interested onlookers.
By almost any standard of measurement, Jean-Louis is a Renaissance man whose talents extend beyond brewing renowned ales like Cochonne, Saison Pipaix and Folie. He is an educator, a naturalist, a museum curator, a cheese maker and a bread baker.
To visit Vapeur on the monthly brewing day is to attend an eclectic seminar about all things germane to Pipaix, one taught by a passionate, patient, bilingual instructor. You will learn about the medicinal lichen that once was an ingredient in Vapeur’s beer, but that has been degraded by air pollution.
You will learn of the many breweries that once operated in the area, and how so few remain today.
You will learn about the power of the steam and the system of pulleys and shifting drive belts, and just when stirring of the mash grinds to a halt and it’s time to let nature work, the lecture abruptly ceases, the bell figuratively rings, and recess begins – thankfully, without any need for dodge ball.
At Vapeur on brewing day, resting the mash is rushing the growler. Everyone is guided across the courtyard to the tasting room, where ample pitchers of draft house brews are passed along the wooden tables and a contagious communal appreciation envelops the surroundings.
Jean-Louis noted that lunch would be served for those willing to ante a small fee. In these simpler pre-Euro times of 2000, roughly $12.00 sufficed for the museum admission, the many “recess” beers and the meal. He described lunch as a simple plate of bread and locally made cheeses.
It turned out to be anything but simple: Two enormous platters laden with cheeses – hard and soft, white and yellow, stinky and mild, some incorporating locally grown herbs, and taken together, all quite overwhelming to the already besieged senses. Crusty crumbs and cultured shards flew, pitchers of Cochonne continued to appear with breathtaking speed, and we began to fear the ride back to Tournai.
As trained professionals, we persevered, toasted, drank, and ate more cheese than any human should attempt. Back in the brewery, it was approaching the time for the boil (the wort is pumped upstairs to the brew kettle), but we concluded with much sadness that because of the evening festivities planned in Tournai, it was time for us to bid “adieu” to Jean-Louis and his grand, archival Vapeur brewery. He graciously consented to a photo-op in the courtyard, which for some reason turned out somewhat blurry to the camera lens, and we were off to retrace the path.
It never rained … but the deluge was only just beginning.
Next: Returning to Tournai, we discover Danes waiting in ambush at the Hotel d’Alcantara, proceed to La Cave à Bière, and lose contact with Mission Control.