When Stu Stuart of Belgian Beer Me! Beer Tours of Belgium (BBM!) asked me to be a guest host on one of his “Wild & Spontaneous Beer Tour of Belgium,” I gladly accepted. I normally plan my own tours to Belgium and can safely say that organizing them is a very intricate, time consuming process. Planning brewery visits, planning meals at various beer cafes and restaurants, and arranging transportation and accommodations can take months of preparation. Having someone else do the planning and arrangements for you, and making the tour turn out to be great fun in the process is, well, almost priceless.
The Wild & Spontaneous Tour this year included the great “Toer de Geuze”, an event held every odd-numbered year, where most of the lambic breweries and blenderies hold an open house. I had already attended Toer de Geuze in 2009 and 2013, and pretty much decided that I wanted to attend every one that I can in the future.
Stu first visited Belgium in 2004, and began organizing tours in 2008. His tours have been so successful that he has 12 of them scheduled for 2015. Stu has been a stand-up comedian for more than 20 years and it shows in the fun people have when traveling with him. For more info, see here.
BBM! tours range from six to ten days and many of the tours are consecutive so you can combine them.
The 2015 “Wild and Spontaneous Beer Tour” ran from April 29-May 4. I missed the first day of the tour, a Wednesday, which featured a visit to the great Brouwerij Liefmans, now renamed Liefmans Craft Blenders. Liefmans is easily one of the top ten brewery visits in Belgium, and features loads of old copper brewing equipment. I visited the historic facility in 2007 and 2010, and am due for another visit sometime soon.
The wort for the Liefmans beers is brewed at Brouwerij Duvel-Moortgat in Breendonk, and then brought by tanker truck and put in huge open copper fermenters for a week. It is at this point that the wort is infected with lactobacillus and other bacteria, giving brews such as Oud Bruin, Goudenband, and Cuvee Brut their mild to moderate tart character.
I also missed the “bottle share” that was slated for that night at The Keizershof, an excellent hotel located in Aalst where the group stayed all five nights. Those on the tour were encouraged to bring a bottle or two along with them from their respective regions to share with each other, a great way to break the ice and meet the other people on the tour. While I missed that night’s bottle share, we managed to have one almost each of the next four nights.
The Keizershof offers a great breakfast with a wide variety of foods: scrambled and hard boiled eggs, several kinds of sausages, bacon, artisanal cheeses….I could go on and on, but I’m making myself hungry. There is also a bar with such brews at Orval and Westmalle Tripel, in case you somehow have not had enough beer during the day and evening. Or, if just feel like having an Orval nightcap. I did, more than once. I don’t regret it. Never have.
On Day 2, Thursday April 30th, the group took a train to Brussels and had lunch at La Brocante, one of my Brussels favorites, located just off a square with a big flea market. The cafe features tasty meals at very reasonable prices and has a strong beer list. See here for more info. I met Stu and his group of 16 soon-to-be lambic beer road warriors at Brasserie Cantillon in the afternoon, and they enjoyed a tour and tasting at this hallowed brewery before heading off to another Brussels bar, Poechenellekelder, for dinner….and more beer. It was a common theme during the W&S tour: someone else does the driving or you take a train, so you can, ahem, enjoy yourself to your hearts content. Standard disclaimer: Please Drink Responsibly.
On Friday, May 1st, we embarked on what would be another full day of lambic beer adventures. We boarded a multi seat luxury coach (that means a really nice private bus to we Americans) and headed for Brouwerij Girardin in St-Ulriks-Kapelle. Girardin is the most reclusive of all the lambic breweries, except for the never-can-be-visited-anymore Belle-Vue, which is owned by AB-INBev.
Girardin does not do any brewery visits, but you can go there to buy lambic and kriekenlambiek, as well as gueuze, kriek, and framboise, on Saturdays. You can also see the beautiful copper brewhouse of the pils brewery from the road. The two-lane road to the brewery is just wide enough for two cars, but is much too small to be navigated by a large coach. Our coach driver parked on the main road and we walked a kilometer or so to have a look at the outside of this fiercely independent farm brewery, which is less than ten miles from the heart of Brussels. We ran into brewer Paul Girardin, and I introduced some of our group to him. Few beer lovers will ever be able to say they have met Paul in person, as he is far too busy working on the farm (where they grow their own wheat and some of their own barley) to attend any beer fests or other events.
I have visited the brewery five times since 2009, and business is good for Girardin, as the family has added many new barrels, both in oak and chestnut, in the last several years. Paul also added a number of stainless steel tanks for putting lambic into for summer use inside one of the barrel rooms, as he does not like emptying wooden barrels in summer. All of the barrels at Girardin are 400 to 600 liters in size, and are signed with the Girardin logo (in beautiful handwriting) by Paul’s wife, Heidi Abraham.
Continued on the next page: the group heads off to Oud Beersel…..