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The monks’ brew

  •  In Bruges, Belgium beer flows in bars and through underground pipelines
  •  Trappist beers are the most favoured tipple across Belgium

Trappist beers occupy pride of place in bars across Bruges. Photo: Getty Images
Trappist beers occupy pride of place in bars across Bruges. Photo: Getty Images

For an unstinting beer lover, a trip to canal-lined Bruges in Belgium offers a peek into its diverse brewing culture. Entire days can easily be spent hopping between pubs, sampling well-known brands such as Jupiler and Stella Artois, or whetting taste buds with the more nuanced or bold flavours of Trappist beers, made by monks in abbeys outside the city.

Originating in the Cistercian monastery of La Trappe in Normandy, France, the Trappist religious congregation has been around for centuries. Eleven of the 170 Trappist monasteries are recognized Trappist breweries that carry the ATP (Authentic Trappist Product) label. Six of these are in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, and one each in Austria, Italy and the US. One of the key tenets, according to the order’s Strict Observance rules of the 18th century, is that the monasteries need to be self-supporting. Having brewhouses inside a monastery has been a lucrative option since the Middle Ages, and continues to be one, to fund charities and social work. When the order spread to Belgium, it brought with it the long-standing skill of brewing beer. Belgium-based abbeys that produce exclusive Trappist beer lie in Orval, Chimay, Westvleteren, Rochefort, Westmalle and Achel.

Visiting the abbeys is not easy. Since these are closed orders, visitors are allowed only into the cafés or in-house museums. There is, however, more to the cultural heritage of Belgian beer than the six abbeys. The beer history of Bruges, for example, hinges on De Halve Maan and Bourgogne des Flandres, two of the oldest in-city breweries, which allows guests to tour the brewery.

I spent an afternoon at the De Halve Maan Brewery, established in 1856. It has introduced thousands of tourists to the city’s beer lineage. The hour-long guided tour ends with a tasting session.What more can a beer lover ask for?

At the end of the tour, our group found itself on the roof of the building, taking in views of the steeples and gabled roofs of the medieval Belgian city. George, our guide, hopped on to a raised platform, eyes gleaming with one last bit of trivia. He pointed to a building shrouded in the evening haze. Located 2 miles from this spot, it was the brewery’s bottling plant.

George told us how the sixth-generation owner of De Halve Maan, Xavier Vanneste, had broken norms to ensure the burgeoning demand was met. About 10-15 beer tankers, weighing more than 40 tonnes, used to ply in the town’s historic centre, a Unesco World Heritage Site, every week. It was becoming impossible to have them frequently squeeze into the slim streets to refill, without harming the delicate historical ambience. The answer? An underground pipeline, connecting the brewery to the bottling plant, launched in 2016.

Vanneste drew up a plan, even launching a crowdfunding appeal that would reward in gold, silver or bronze memberships, with up to a lifetime supply of the classic Brugse Zot Blond. More than half a million dollars came in. Now a 3.2km tunnel runs from the historic address to the bottling plant, where 12,000 bottles can be bottled and readied in an hour.

As I gulped a cold Brugse Zot Blond at the end of the tour, I wished I had pledged €7,500 (around 6 lakh) for the lifetime membership. It would surely keep me coming back to Belgium, and I might even get a chance to make a pilgrimage to an abbey.

Belgium’s best Trappist beers  

Westvleteren 12—Strong and dark ale that is hailed as one of the best Trappist beers.

Westvleteren Blond—One of the lightest beers that the monks drank as daily tipple.

Westmalle Tripel—Light golden beer known for a peachy sweetness and bitter finish.

Westmalle Dubbel—Reddish brown with a dominant fruity and bitter taste.

Rochefort 10—Loaded with caramel, fig and coffee flavours.

Achel 8—Pale, strong and hoppy blond beer.

Chimay Blue—Dark and fruity with a thick head.

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