Belgium Part Un: Brussels & Dinant

BelgiumThings

On the way to Belgium, my luggage flew first class. I could see it sitting in the overhead bin, through the small sliver of curtain left open to reveal the roomier isles of our AerLingus airbus as the flight attendants prepared the cabin for takeoff. Yes, we were going to Belgium! And Netherlands! This is our Eurotrip story, the most epic of our “beercations” so far, and it has everything. Cantillon. Trappists. Lambics galore. And yes, even hops!

Belgium_Map

1) Brussels: Jet lag. All the Cantillon. New friends. Moeder Lambic.
We landed in Dublin at 6:30 in the morning, local time (it was past midnight in Chicago). The plan had been to sleep during the 8 hours that we spent flying over the Atlantic, but of course…not so much. We sleepily shuffled to our next gate, where our connecting flight to Brussels awaited.

I’d never spoken French before, except to jokingly exclaim “Sacrebleu! Invaders!” along with Lumiere while watching Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. But French was commonly spoken in Brussels and south of there, so I practiced some “survival phrases” as we waited for our plane to board. “Bonjour! Si vous plait, un frite mayonnaise!” (It turns out that most Belgians do speak English, but not so much in the south … but I’ll get to that.)

Day one was a blur. We dragged ourselves around Brussels like a pair of zombies, stuffing oily frites and whipped cream-topped waffles in our tired faces, visiting the obligatory Manneken Pis statue, marveling at the sheer number of infamous “best beer in the world” Westvletern bottles that seemed to spill out of every bottle shop, (I am not kidding-they were everywhere!) and trying not to fall asleep. Then, I fell asleep sitting up. Day two is really where things got interesting.

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We awoke the next morning with only a memory of jet lag doldrums, totally replaced with excitement – this was it – CANTILLON DAY! We’d chosen our AirBnB location based on its proximity to the famous brewery, a mere 4 block walk from our host’s apartment. I was so excited when we arrived that I neglected to take a picture of the outside, and then failed again to snap a photo on the way out. But, the brewery’s facade really didn’t matter, because the magic happened on the inside.

Cantillon
Cantillon is a family-run brewery, the current location of which has been producing since 1900, making beer – lambic, to be specific – the same way it did back then for over one hundred years. People go crazy for their blended beers, very few of which find their way to the United States. Every year you will find Cantillon fans celebrating “Zwanze Day,” a day when a special beer blended just for the day is released in the U.S., and a festival is held around this unique beer blend. A brief lambic lesson from the Cantillon literature:

Lambic is composed of 35% wheat and 65% malted barley, with a 22kg addition of 3-year-aged hops. These hops are not meant to add aroma or bitterness, they are simply added as a preservative. Once the wort (unfermented beer) has been produced, it is cooled in a large, copper vat called a coolship, which is housed in the attic of the brewery. Here the cooled wort is exposed to the open air, containing a vast collection of wild microorganisms that aid in fermentation. According to research from the University of Leuven’s organic chemistry department, one type of lambic can contain as much as “100 different strains of yeasts, 27 strains of acetic acid bacteria, and 38 strains of lactic acid bacteria,” all of which contribute to the flavor, aroma, and final character of the beer.

Next the beer is stored in wooden barrels, and left to mature for 3 years. This lambic is the base beer for all Cantillon products. Cantillon Gueuze is a blend of 1, 2, and 3 year old Lambic. Their Kriek is a two-year old lambic to which sour cherries have been added. Many of their other lambics also have various fruits added, including Fou’foune (apricots), Saint-Lamvinus (black Merlot grapes), and Vigneronne (white Muscat grapes). These beers are complex, funky, beautifully balanced works of art, produced in what feels like a mysterious old building that takes you back in time when you pass through its doors.

Upon entering the brewery, my nostrils were immediately invaded by the smell of funky yeast, old musty wood, and sour lambic beer. The smell was heavy, but welcome and pleasing. We wandered about the main room for a minute, gazed at the souvenirs and secured a table for two, then went up to order. Matt began to peruse the menu thoughtfully, and then I immediately blurted out, “WE’LL HAVE THE FOU’FOUNE.” (I may have even yelled that–I can’t be sure.) As we paraded our precious prize back to our table, a sinking feeling entered my stomach. We’d come all the way across the Atlantic to visit Cantillon, and it was going to be virtually impossible to try all the varieties available between just Matt and myself–almost everything on the menu was in a large-format, 75 cL bottle. If I had any hope of remembering the rest of my day and enjoying the next one, not to mention having some money left for, you know, food and stuff, there was simply no way we’d be able to taste that many varieties. I pushed this thought from my mind and enjoyed the Fou’Foune, a two-year-old lambic fermented with apricots.

FouFoune

Our bottle of Fou’Foune, shown properly served in a lambic basket, devised to keep yeast in the bottle from being disturbed while pouring the beer

As we sipped our fizzy, fluffy, funky beverage, we overheard the English-speaking group chatting at the table next door. Before we knew it, Matt and I were splitting bottles with our new friends Matt, Matt, and Florian (yes, we had three Matts assembled).

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Over the course of the next four hours, our little group managed to share some of every bottle available on the menu, and even a few that weren’t. Our new friend Florian happened to share the first name of Cantillon head brewer Jean Van-Roy’s son, for whom the brewer had created a special 18th birthday beer called “Cuvee de Florian.” Not only were we able to drink this special beer, but we got to taste it side by side with another vintage. This visit was truly serendipitous. Our group of Cantillon comrades agreed to meet later that night at famed beer bar Moeder Lambic to continue the tasting.

But before finally heading out the door (we really didn’t want to leave), we took ourselves on the self-guided tour of the brewery (which I highly recommend doing if you ever have the chance to visit).

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Moeder Lambic
Upon leaving Cantillon, we thought it would be wise to consume some solid food, so we went for dinner and spent a couple of hours relaxing and wandering around the city (while drinking much water, I might add). We found our way to the bar after dinner, where the trio of Matts et. all were reunited, along with new friends Nick, Robyn, Joe, and Paula (with whom we had also crossed paths at Cantillon as we were heading out). Then ensued an impromptu bottle share consisting of great conversation and memorable beers. As the group parted ways, it dawned on me that I’ve never before been on a vacation, much less an international one, where complete strangers just seemed to band together like that, all due to a shared interest. Beer really does bring people together in inexplicable ways. And it makes you more talkative, too.

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The next morning, we were off on a train to to Dinant.

2) Dinant: The Land of Eerily Casual Kayaking, Pearl Onion Sandwiches and now, My Camera
If you were to go on a kayaking trip in the United States, you’d sign a waiver or three, don a helmet and a life vest, and be sent out on the river with a guide who’d give you a not-so-short presentation on safety atop the water. But this wasn’t the United States–we’d signed up for kayaking in Belgium. Life jackets were optional (yeah, no one wore one), guides were non-existent, and you entered the water by way of a 200-foot-long conveyor belt made of the same metal rollers you’d recognize from the airport security baggage scan conveyor belt. Your kayak awaited atop this metal slide, you hopped in, and the lone employee gave you a generous shove down the rapid ramp. “Hope you make it back!,” he might as well have said, as Matt and I sped towards the river.

SPLOOSH.

And actually, it was awesome; totally freeing, with beautiful scenery including a cliffside castle and a small waterfall, unique local birds, and an interesting creature that resembled a miniature woodchuck (Matt deemed it an “aquatic hamster”) that paddled beside me near the shallow, shadowy banks.

Three hours later, our dock was in sight and I gracefully paddled towards it, barely kissing the edge with the bow of my boat. I carefully stood, while expertly balancing my weight atop the wobbly waves, leaned over, and then … I dropped my camera in the river.

All I could do was tearfully wail (in English of course), “My camera!,” and point to the stream of bubbles coming up from the middle … the middle bottom… the bottom of the Lesse River. The French-only-speaking-kayak-helper-guy-on-the-dock had no idea why I was weeping, and all I could do was shuffle away, crying accept the loss and move on like an adult. I realized later that I hadn’t really lost much beyond pictures of the kayaking trip itself, and if you asked me now I couldn’t tell you of one photo that I’m sad I lost. Now, I just have a great story that perfectly encompasses how ridiculously clumsy I can be. Plus Matt took a bunch of good photos, so it’s all good:

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On our walk home, I was again reminded that Dinant was really a French-only zone when Matt and I thought we ordered ham and cheese sandwiches. What we recieved were French baguettes filled with an abundance of mayonnaise and pearl onions. Sacrebleh. Perhaps this was a local delicacy … or perhaps French is just not one of my skills.

That night, as we lazily bar-hopped back to our hotel, I continued to practice my proper pronunciation of “gueze,” using the cues straight out of my Belgium guidebook’s beer section, but I got a lot of weird looks asking for a “KURR-seh” so I went back to saying “gooze.” French, you got me again.

The next morning, we boarded the train heading back north towards Brugges. Au revoir, Dinant! (You can keep my camera, strangely adorable aquatic hamster.)

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TO BE CONTINUED …

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