Dry January may be over – but this needn’t be the death knell of a new you. If broadening your horizons sounds more appealing than cutting back, allow me to suggest a crash-course introduction to Belgium’s Trappist beers, which I (over)indulged in recently with the aim of educating my beer-tasting palate.
To put it simply – never one to order a pint, I had signed up for a two-day beer crawl. But this time, rowdy stag parties were replaced by Belgian ramblers, and bland lagers swapped for flavoursome, monk-approved brews. It was my best chance of developing a taste for the hop-based tipple.
Over two days, I joined a group testing out a new trail, which is intended as a self-guided tour, hiking and biking the pathways around Wallonia, a French-speaking, landlocked area in southern Belgium. Conquering the full official trail – between the region’s Trappist abbeys – requires a 180-mile trek. I sampled a mere snippet, as the majority of tourists do. Belgium’s beer trails are made for dabbling: you can tackle them in stages of five- to 15-mile stints, depending on your stamina. Six of the world’s 14 Trappist breweries are in Belgium, with three of those in Wallonia, making its Trappist trails something of a beer-lover’s pilgrimage.
The Trappist order began in the monastery of La Trappe in Normandy. Certified Trappist beers must meet the following criteria: brewed in a Trappist abbey; monks involved in the production; most of the money made from its sale used for charitable purposes. Trappists follow the Rule of St Benedict of Nursia, which sets out that monks should combine prayer with manual labour. Trappist monks veer towards silence; according to a document written by St Benedict, monks are disciples, the defining quality of which is “to be silent and listen”. They talk little during prayer, study or work.
After taking the Eurostar to Brussels, it was an hour and 40 minutes’ drive to Hotel des Lacs de l’Eau d’Heure, where we stayed overnight. The following day, our first beer call was the Poteaupré Inn, which has been serving Chimay brews for more than 100 years. Among the beer-laden tables were a mix of ages (although most people were 40 and over), including a sports team. I felt momentarily panicked that I’d be the odd one out among a group of beer aficionados, but this soon proved not to be the case . Our first tasting was ideal for a novice such as myself.
We started with a beer, cheese and bread sampler, a heartier take on a cheese and wine pairing. Our beer flights, served on an authentic-looking tiered wooden tray, were an easy introduction to Chimay brews. The weakest (4.8% ABV) and easiest to drink was the Chimay Gold, a blonde beer. I found to my amateurish surprise that the stronger, heavy brews were slow-burn favourites. I devoured the Chimay Blue, a brown beer best paired with à la Chimay Rouge cheese.
After lunch, there was an opportunity to wander a section of the trail, the Foundry of the Dogs, in the Calestienne region. This craggy pit (if you’re visiting fresh from a beer tasting, be careful not to venture too close to the edge) still retains a monastery-esque peace. Our guides, veteran trail walkers, pointed out a barn owl perched in a nook, an indication of how tranquil the area was. I was itching to explore further, but another beer tasting called – this time in Wallonia’s capital, Namur.
A steep drive took us up to the Citadel, which sits high above the confluence of the Meuse and Sambre rivers. Its stature and 2,000-year history command attention, but it is the underground castle that’s most memorable. We explored its tunnels before settling down for some more beer, including an original Blanche de Namur, its lighter, rosé version and a chocolatey Gauloise Blonde. I was starting to distinguish the notes in each brew – or at least understand the terminology to suggest I could.
The next day we pushed further south using electric bikes. We cycled (I decided to bike manually in a vague attempt at offsetting – until we reached a hill) along the Meuse to our next beer stop. A gaggle of geese were the only creatures to cross our path, which offered views of riverside and fairytale-like chateaux.
After lunch in Annevoie gardens we headed to our final beer stop, the Brasserie du Bocq (founded in 1858), which brews 14 varieties – including those we’d sampled at the Citadel. A whistle-stop tour of the brewery was topped off with a final tasting.
The tour complete, I had a newfound appreciation for the history and complexity available among this arguably most humble of drinks. On the drive back to the Eurostar I committed to taking greater note of the beer menu on future pub visits. I’ll be recommending the Chimay Blue.
Eurostar from London St Pancras to Brussels starts at £29 each way. Chimay is a 90-minute drive from Brussels; trains from Namur to Brussels Midi start at £10 one-way. Rooms at Hotel des Lacs de l'Eau d'Heure from £68. Detailed Trappist trail maps are available from grsentiers.org.