The first Belgian beer I ever drunk was Stella Artois. I was 15, it was in a hotel in Ostend during my first holiday on the European mainland. I can’t remember much about it but I did like it (I recall a little off-licence right next to Harringay Station in the late 1980s that used to sell little bottles of imported Stella, which I loved. I didn’t know that it used to be dry-hopped then, which perhaps explained my brief devotion to it).
It was during this time when I really started to enjoy beers from Belgium. First of all there was Duvel, thanks to a friend who worked in Eindhoven (I know it’s not in Belgium but he introduced me to it, and one night we had eight bottles, which is not to be recommended if my hangover the next day was anything to go by). Other beers followed: Chimay, Dupont, Orval and Hoegaarden, the latter being hard to avoid in early 90s London. Since then I have been over many times, visited breweries, interviewed brewers and remain devoted to many of its beers (though my love for Belgian beer is not blind, there are some stinkers).
I was last over in November and am currently hankering after Belgium, especially as I recently bought a copy of The Belgian Beer Book, by Erik Verdonck and Luc de Raedemaeker. It’s massive, full of lots of lovely photos as well as plenty of text on the beers, bars and drinking cultures of both Flanders and Wallonia. When it arrived last week, I just sat there, flicking through the pages, and my thirst for Belgian beer continued to evolve and has since taken me by the hand and led me to my Wednesday beer, Westmalle Tripel, bottles of which I have been getting delivered from Exeter’s fantastic bottle shop Hops + Crafts.
Trappist brewing for me is a collaboration between the sacred world of Cistercian monks and the profane one of commercial brewing, a bridge between the spiritual and the temporal. After all isn’t brewing just another form of prayer, doing the same thing, day after day, with maybe the odd change of words or recipe? And for me, Westmalle Tripel is one of the most generously flavoured and elegantly structured of this union of beers, a corn gold apparition that shimmers in its Grail-like glass beneath a well-blessed billowing head of snow-white foam. There is lemon, barley sugar and a siren call of sweet orange on the nose, while on the palate there is rich orange, a hint of peach, malt sweetness and a Mousse-like mouth feel, before it finishes with a sprightly hop tingle that makes me want to dive straight back into the glass.
I visited Westmalle five years ago. Actually, a correction: I visited the onsite cafe/restaurant but the closest I got to the brewery was on an autumnal walk around the site with a group of judges from the Brussels Beer Challenge. Apparently, some of us were jumping in the air with the aim of seeing over the wall and getting a glimpse of the brewing kit. Maybe this is how I got the photo below — I should have bought a stepladder. Next time I will, unless, of course, I’m allowed in the brewery.