ORDERING a triple at the bar would often spark concern for your wellbeing.
In a Belgian monastery, it is perfectly normal — they might be hurt if you didn’t.
Westmalle Abbey brews two of Flanders’ most heavenly ales, the blonde Tripel and dark brown Dubbel. Home to 36 monks and their forefathers since 1794, it is an hour’s pilgrimage (by car) from Brussels, starting a trip that will lead me to five breweries, two pubs and a beer festival.
We enjoy both beers over a lavish supper, yards from the abbey which houses one of ten Trappist breweries in the world — named after the followers of the rules of St Benedict.
Their tipple has a few followers, too, and also follows strict rules. The monks must brew the beer inside the abbey walls and put profits towards its upkeep.
Local expert Eric Leubeck told us: “Their marketing manager is the only one in the world told to keep production down.”
The family-owned Bosteels Brewery in Buggenhout makes the distinctive Kwak, served in a narrow glass with a bulbous bottom, typically found resting on a wooden stand in Belgian pubs.
Thirsty coachmen — who could not leave their horses — reportedly had the unique glass made for them by a pub landlord so a Kwak was always close to hand.
On arrival, we learn the brewmaster’s grandmother “lived to 95 on one Kwak a day”.
While the health benefits are unproven, it works wonders for your mood.
Most tourists in Belgium opt for the romance of Bruges, but we stop first in Mechelen, midway between Antwerp and the capital Brussels. Its residents — known as maneblussers or “moon extinguishers” — are an interesting bunch.
In 1687, after a night on the ale, a man looked up at St Rumbold’s Cathedral, centrepiece of the main square and, to his horror, found it ablaze.
Stirred from their beds by his cries, locals rushed out with buckets of water — only to find the “inferno” was a reflection of the moon.
Around the corner stands the Het Anker brewery, perhaps the only one in the world with a hotel within the grounds — a “short stumble” from its brasserie.
Over a meal we sampled its famous Gouden Carolus beer, named after Emperor Charles V, who ruled central Europe from 1519.
After a night of high spirits — Het Anker’s newly-launched single malt whisky — we made it to Antwerp the next day. Antwerp is literally built on beer — its city walls once ended at the De Koninck Brewery, born from an inn known as De Plaisante Hof or “the merry garden”.
We move on to the De Pelgrim restaurant for a tasting session with a twist — cheeses matured inside the brewery paired with a few special brews — then head out for a night in a pub.
This “beer cathedral” has its own priest, Hans Bombeke, who gives classes about the stuff.
Our final stop is at the 19th Essen Beer Festival in a packed sports hall on the Dutch border, boasting 190 brews. Despite my heroic efforts, I didn’t quite have time to try them all.
GETTING THERE: Eurostar from London King’s Cross to Brussels from £69 return. See eurostar.com.
Article written by myself.
Originally published in The Sun on Saturday October 18 2014.