Life is good when you had a good night sleep in a comfortable bed. It is even better when you've finally managed to get online after trying for two hours the night before with no luck. After a light breakfast of croissant and orange juice, it was off to Brouwerij Van Steenberge in the small town of Ertvelde for our full tour of the brewery (makers of Belgian Abbaye Ales such as Borem, Augustijn, and Piraat.)
The Van Steenberge brewery, also known as Bios, was started some 250 or so years again in Ertvelde to serve its own pubs in the area. Today, it is Belgium's 12th largest producer specializing in top-fermenting ales and several contract brews. As André Van De Velde, the Exporter/Representative/Marketing Manager/Vice-President of the company told us several times, "We are brewers." The brewery does not participate in any complicated marketing campaigns or diversify by offering bottled sodas, it just makes good beer. They believe in making good beer so much, that they plan on reinvesting a large amount of money each year into new equipment, such as a new bottling line within the next year or so. This commitment is evident in their new brewhouse which was installed in 1992. Of the breweries we've visited of this size, this is the most automated setup we've seen. To brew a beer, all it takes is for Geert, the brewmaster, is to select which beer he wants to make and have a couple of people standing by to move hoses when necessary. Very impressive. After our tour, we joined up with André in the tasting room where we sampled more Augustrijn (it was 10:30 in the morning after all) and had a long conversation concerning beer and Belgian life.
Our visit to Van Steenberge concluded a bit afternoon after which we headed off to Brugse "the Venice of the North" about 45 minutes to the West. The drive was very easy, but finding a place to park was not. At one point we found ourselves driving, in the wrong direction, on a cobblestone street avoiding bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorcyclists. Eventually, we located the city parking garage and took a convenient bus to the marketplace in the old town.
It must have been divine intervention, but the shuttle bus dropped us off right outside of a store called "The Bottle Shop." This store currently has 515 types of Belgian beer and plans on adding another 300 to its portfolio in the fall. This would make it the store with the widest selection in Europe. Doug and Mike now know what it feels like for customers who come into John's and witness our beer selection of 440 beers. Later in the day, we would find ourselves back at this shop to pickup a few bottles of the rarest Belgian ales.
Once Sabrina managed to herd us out of The Bottle Shop, our next priority was lunch. Our feast was had at La Civiére D'or, a café bordering the marketplace with a wonderful view of the Belfort (bell-tower.) In the Belgian tradition, Mike and Sabrina ordered mussels cooked in white wine while Doug ordered wild rabbit. To drink, Doug had a Brugse Tarwebier, very similar to John's Generations Ale and Mike had a Duvel on draught. It was a very filling lunch which required a walking tour of Brugse to work off before our dinner at Den Dyver (a beer restaurant) later in the evening.
Our walking tour of Brugse started in the marketplace and continued eastward. Brugse's history dates back at least to 900 AD and the city, as it currently stands, dates back to the 16th century. All of the buildings have ornate facades and are mostly constructed of brick. Most of the buildings constructed before the 17th century were made entirely of wood and burnt down in several of the city-wide fires over the years. The most striking thing about Brugse, was not the lovely canals and all the flowers and greenery, but all the tourists. The city has been centered around tourism since the 18th century, and there is no shortage of inflated prices and imitation souvenirs. Despite this, Brugse is still a city worth visiting…without a doubt.
The highlight of our day in Brugse, at least for Mike and Doug, was Den Dyver. This restaurant specializes in preparing food with Belgian beer and has a small and elegant atmosphere. It was so relaxing to be sitting next to a gothic window, looking out over the canals, with a glass of Trappist ale in you hand, and just enjoying it all. Our wonderful dinner consisted of the following:
Doug: Roasted lamp prepared in a Trappist sauce. To drink, Doug started with a Piraat on tap, Westmalle Double, and finished with a 3 Fonteinen Geuze. For desert Doug had two scopes of Belgian Chocolate mousse prepared with Rochefort.
Mike: Salmon with spinach prepared in a trippel-bier sauce. To drink, Mike started with a Rochefort 10, then a St. Bernadus Triple, and finished with some of Doug's geuze. Mike skipped dessert as he was about to explode.
Sabrina: Steak fillet prepared in the traditional Flemish style. Sabrina drank water as someone had to remain sober and she finished her meal with something that resembled chocolate tofu, but tasted much better.
It just doesn't get any better than this.