BRUSSELS -- My mother once told me that water is what you bathe in, wine is what you drink, and beer tastes like garbage. I never thought to ask her how she came to that conclusion about beer. When she died -- at 87, after following that formula faithfully -- she took her opinions to the grave.
I inherited my mother's distaste for beer. Nonetheless, when my 24-year-old son proposed a beer trip to Belgium, I instantly agreed. Jonathan is good fun, his French is better than mine, and he likes driving in foreign countries, which gave me the chance to absorb the architecture while he watched the road.
The lure for him was not just his charming mother's company. I had half a million frequent-flier miles then, and he knew
that if I came along, he wouldn't have to stay in youth hostels. I'm too old to qualify. So off we went, on an itinerary built around breweries, but with serendipitous finds for me as well: among them, meeting an elderly princess who lives in roughly one-hundredth of her rather daunting chateau, and exploring a lovely town called Poperinge, a place I had never heard of.
We found moments when we were of one mind. We had both recently read Adam Hochschild's "King Leopold's Ghost," about that monarch's bloody takeover of what became the Belgian Congo. We both shuddered during our visit to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in the Brussels suburb of Tervuren. The bombastic imperial pile was built entirely with the proceeds from the "Crown Dominion," which was Leopold's private preserve. A gilded statue of a goddess personifying Belgium, gazing beneficently down on sculptures of grateful "natives," is among my creepiest memories of the place. It must be remembered, though, that Belgians themselves became fed up with Leopold. He was about as popular with his subjects as he was with the Africans he considered his personal property.
Our first stop was India. The 15 rooms in Brussels' Hotel Welcome are not numbered. They are named for various exotic locales, and decorated accordingly. "India" is Taj Mahal-ish, with gauzy hangings in an elephant print and carved wooden doors. The hotel, which is in the city's bustling fish market area and boasts a superb seafood restaurant, La Truite d'Argent, was the highlight of Brussels for me.
The high point for Jonathan was the tiny, out-of-the-way Brasserie Cantillon, a Brussels brewery run by Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the husband of the great-granddaughter of Paul Cantillon, who founded the business in 1900.
Van Roy is a staunch holdout in the beer community, the only remaining brewer using solely "spontaneous fermentation," meaning that natural yeasts in the air, not added chemicals, cause fermentation. As a result of this painstaking process, his production is quite limited: Cantillon produces only 9,000 liters of beer annually.
Van Roy is dismissive of many of Belgium's "new" beers, which he considers excessively sweet. "There are only five or six Belgian beers I would drink," he says. He resents the growing dominance of the massive multinational corporation Interbrew, which has been buying up smaller breweries around the country. "Brussels is Interbrew territory," he notes.
Cantillon produces three types of beer: Gueuze, a light brew; Kriek, made with cherries; and Rose de Gambrinus, made with raspberries. On first taste, it would be easy to mistake Van Roy's beers for champagne, particularly since he serves them in champagne flutes. Although a bit heavier and sweeter than champagne, by Belgian standards they contain minimal quantities of sugar.
Cantillon's beers are not widely available in Brussels, where the preference is for the sweet stuff. Van Roy attributes this to the proliferation of sugary soft drinks after World War II. In other words, it's America's fault. "It's easier to find my beers in Helsinki than in Brussels," he notes with a slight smile. And indeed, we had a guide in Brussels who said that the tours Van Roy gives of his brewery are delightful until the end, "when he makes you drink this awful stuff."
The soul of Chimay Not even in the severest of storms do the authorities in the town of Chimay, in southern Belgium, allow the streets to be salted. The salt would seep into the local water supply, and the water is used to make beer. And the beer is the very soul of Chimay, where the Trappist monks of the Abbey of Scourmont oversee a state-of-the-art facility producing 1.2 million liters a year of a brand beloved around the world.
Along with Stella Artois and Hoegaarden, Chimay is among Belgium's most recognizable beers. The difference, though, is that while Stella and Hoegaarden are owned by Interbrew, the Chimay label and brewery are still owned by the abbey, as are many things in the area, including the Auberge de Poteaupre, one of the few hotels in a region that's a sort of Chimay theme park. The Auberge can satisfy all of your Chimay needs, as they sell every version of the stuff, in various size and packaging combinations, and all sorts of nonpotable Chimay products. Chimay watch, anyone?
Chimay produces Trappist beers, which is as exclusive a designation in Belgium as champagne is in France. Only beers that are actually produced on the grounds of a Trappist abbey are eligible. Belgium boasts six such breweries, Chimay the largest. But while Chimay is still brewed in the abbey, the bottling and business operations are done several miles away in a plant that is the picture of efficiency and modernity.
Each of Chimay's three beers has a different color cap and label: red, blue, or white. The Red, the oldest, is a middle-of-the road brown beer with a distinctly fruity taste. The Blue, first produced in 1954 and by far Chimay's most popular beer, is dark, heavy, rich, and at 9 percent alcohol by volume (most US beers are 5 to 6 percent), quite potent. Chimay Triple, with the white cap, was born in 1962 and is a light amber.
While Scourmont is regularly open to visitors, other abbeys are not. We showed up at one called St. Sixtus hoping to tour the brewery and sample the brew, which is infrequently made and treasured among beer lovers. We were ushered into St. Sixtus's church, where we sat through a lengthy service, following the monks' leads in standing and kneeling. We figured we were being spiritually cleansed in preparation for the tour. The tour never happened: A monk just said "no." And the store selling the beer was closed.
While our reason for going to Chimay was the brewery, the big find for me was the vast 16th-century castle behind a stone gate at one end of the town square. Burned and rebuilt eight times, it is still inhabited by the 22d generation of the family, headed by Princess Elisabeth, widow of one prince and mother of the next, who married into the family in 1947. Elderly but feisty, she still gives tours of the ancestral abode.
The princess has spent more than half a century restoring the building, which was occupied by soldiers during World War II. One star achievement is the renovation of the castle's 210-seat, 19th-century theater, where Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, and Borodin once played, as, more recently, have a roster of greats including Rostropovich and Rampal. Since 2000, the theater has hosted an annual festival of Baroque music.
The theater's ornate central box is a reproduction of one of Madame de Pompadour's boudoirs. Unlike La Pompadour, the current princess lives modestly, in one corner of the huge property. There's an odd disconnect between her pop-up toaster and the four-foot-thick walls built long ago to withstand attack.
She seems a bit wistful about how the outside world views "her" town. "You say `Chimay' and everyone thinks `beer,' " she says. "I wish they would think `Chateau.' "
A contrast in brewing After our stay in Brussels and Chimay, both Francophone, we traveled to southwestern Belgium and into Flemish territory, where we visited a handful of smaller breweries that contrast sharply with the technology and commercialism of Chimay.
Our arrival at St. Bernardus, a modest brewery just outside the small town of Watou, was unannounced, but the welcome could not have been more cordial. St. Bernardus produces "abbey" beers, which have some lingering link to an abbey, if only in name. The brewery is located in a nondescript warehouse by the side of a country road. St. Bernardus produces one-tenth the quantity of Chimay, but offers more variety, with five distinct beers that are exported around the globe. The earnest employee who gave us our tour proudly announced that one had recently finished second in a beer competition -- organized by the Danish Society of Beer Enjoyment. (The Danes gave first place to Samuel Adams Boston Lager.)
Jumping back into Francophone territory, we next stopped at Brasserie Dupont, a brewery in the tiny town of Tourpes (good luck finding it on a map) that produces cheese and bread in addition to its beer. It is housed in an old farmhouse, which was purchased in 1920 by the Dupont family as an incentive to keep a family member from emigrating to Canada. We were guided by the brewer, Olivier Dedeycker, who does have Dupont blood in his veins, probably mixed with plenty of beer. The brewery specializes in "top fermentation" beers, which undergo a second fermentation as they sit in the bottle. Dupont has only nine full-time employees, but its beers are gaining in popularity.
All the breweries we visited in this part of Belgium were an easy drive from Poperinge, a sleepy little place where you don't have to rush feverishly from one important site to the next. There aren't any, at least not in the town itself: There are notable World War I sites nearby. Booklets at the tourist office inform you that among Poperinge's most "famous" inhabitants was the 16th-century Jesuit Lodewijk Makeblyde, who wrote a Dutch catechism and was a prolific poet.
One particularly grisly chapter in Poperinge's history was during the Great War, when it was the center for the execution of deserters of several nationalities. You can visit the bare cells where they spent their last hours before facing a firing squad made up of their own countrymen. They were as young as 16.
Bustling and charming Bruges is as well known as Poperinge is obscure, and in Bruges you will want to keep going: There's always too much to see.
Much of the quintessentially quaint town was actually rebuilt in the 19th century, and some purists consider it Disneyfied. I'm not a purist. Get up early, stay up late, go off-season, find a way to have some privacy in Bruges, and you'll fall in love. Among its chief charms: the Memling Museum, recently and exquisitely renovated, combining a medieval hospital and the magical, quasi-mystical paintings of the great 15th-century artist.
One of the very few breweries left in Bruges is the Gouden Boom (Golden Tree). A 15-minute walk from the city center, it is also home to an extensive museum chronicling the history of beer production in Bruges. Jonathan was shown around by a guide named Jacques Baeke, who relished telling the story of how the brewery was once awarded to the winner of a jousting contest. After Baeke spent an entire hour on just one of the several exhibition halls, Jonathan had to ask politely for a little less detail.
I skipped the Gouden Boom. I had been a good sport on the beer front, tagging along at every stop except this last one, and with good reason: Bruges's shops were having their semi-annual sales.
What I liked more than the beer was the spirit of its makers, their pride and dedication. I also got a kick out of watching my son eagerly interacting with them, so obviously having fun.
I could sense my son daydreaming about defecting from graduate school and embarking on a beer-based career. I also know that he's too sensible for that. (Right, Jon?)
He is also gracious: On our last night in Bruges, he agreed to share a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse, and we agreed to disagree on our beverage of choice.
Because after all is said and drunk, I still think Mummy was right.