Avenue Pub in Belgium: Of beer and battlegrounds (Field Trip)

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As part of our “Field Trip” series, we’re following Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts and her staff as they get up close and personal with some of the best beer in Belgium. Next up: Polly Watts tours battlefields and a historic brewery tied to war.

I joke that when I travel, beer and battlegrounds are my favorite activities. The social aspect of beer and the history of the region as told through war memorials are the two aspects of travel that I seem to return to every time I travel. My memories of the Poperings/Yrpes region of Belgium combine those about as much as is possible, so of course I wanted the Pub staff to see the area.

Poperings historically has been a farming region and it the major area in Belgium for hops. Yrpes (pronounced “eeper”) and its surrounding area are the site of the bloody four-year Battle of Passchendale during World War I. Almost half a million souls were lost during those four years in the miserable stalled trench battle that completely consumed the terrain. The fields of crops are so dotted with cemeteries that one doesn’t even have to go to the major sites and cemeteries surrounding the Menin Gate to see the inspiration for John McCrae’s WWI poem “In Flanders Fields”:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

Pleas for future peace are everywhere, in the German Youth Brigade cemeteries where the remains of thousands of young student and seniors soldiers lay buried in a mass grave, in the countryside memorial to the first gas attack the world had ever seen, and at the Menin Gate, the memorial that every night still plays last post to honor the dead of the war. I do not possess the eloquence to fully explain the emotion of this place, but it’s abundantly clear after visiting why people at the time thought it was “the War to End All Wars.”

The history of this place is intertwined with the brewery we visited. The owner of Van Eecke is descended from medieval brewers in the region. The locals burned the original brewery to the ground to keep the advancing Germans from occupying it. After all, providing beer-brewing equipment to the enemy would we a real disaster.

Philip’s (the Van Eecke owner) grandfather and great uncle were both involved and in the war. One of the many roadside memorials we visited was a statue of Philip’s great uncle, who died during one of the battles towards the end of the war.

After the war, Philip’s father rebuilt the brewery within sight of the Salient Line. Like everything in the area, the building dates to 1924. Yrpes and surrounding areas were pummeled by four years of mortar attacks. What you see there today are detailed reconstructions of the original medieval buildings.

After the war Philip’s grandfather met the daughter of an the local brewery at the Brewers Ball, and two brewing families turned into one family with two breweries.

Today, Van Eecke is a medium-size regional brewery. Like many regional breweries, their local community supports and their signs are on many local pubs and restaurants. This is such a change from Brussels, where you see signs of mostly InBev products like Jupilar with a smattering of Duvel Moortgat. Their beers use local hops and their Poperings Hommel is a much hoppier Belgian beer than you normally see in these regional breweries. Our Pub Pils is the Pilsner the brewery makes for the local pubs.

The house where Philip grew up was built on the brewery grounds. Again, this is typical. Brewery owners lived where they worked. Our group of 10 was served coffee in the house on his mother’s china, surrounded by antiques overlooking the small garden. Not surprisingly, all the windows in the light-filled rooms face away from the breweries grounds, so once inside you don’t feel its presence.

It’s doesn’t take much to visualize the generations of brewers who were raised here with the brewery courtyard as their playground. The rabbit warren of brewing buildings that have been added on over the years would have been the best hide-and-seek a kid could be tempted with, so one also wonders how the matriarch of the family kept the kids from disappearing into that of stairs and little rooms.

Five years ago, Philip introduced me to what still ranks in my experience as the best beer restaurant I’ve visited. T’T Hommelhof is in the Watou Village square, a town of no more than 2,000 people. Although normally closed on Tuesday, the chef opened us just for our group, a testimony to the close relationships they have with our host Van Eecke. The food and beer the chef creates feel organically connected. These are not “pairings” where a modern chef has created a dish and then found a beer to accompany it. They are such seamless and delicious combination that one leaves with the idea that neither could exist without the other — which is very much like the relationship between the history of the region and the brewery.


Avenue Pub in Belgium: Noted beer author on “The Belgian Mystique” (Field Trip)

As part of our “Field Trip” series, we’re following Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts and her staff as they get up close and personal with some of the best beer in Belgium. Next up: Stephen Beaumont, who along with “World Atlas of Beer” co-author Tim Webb ran into Watts on her trip, takes over the keyboard to discuss “The Belgian Mystique.”

“Do you still learn something new every time?”

That was Polly Watts asking me last night about my Belgian experiences. I first met Polly when I came to New Orleans for a conference several years back, but I’ve known Belgium for considerably longer. I made my first trip over in 1997, and I’ve returned at least once a year every year since. And yes, I do learn something new every time.

My colleague and “World Atlas of Beer” co-author, Tim Webb, has visited Belgium many more times than have I, and although I’ve never asked him, I’d bet that he learns something new every time, as well. It’s that kind of place. Since I make my living writing about beer and have done so for 26 years now, it won’t come as a shock that I began visiting Belgium for the beer. What keeps me coming back, though, carving out a week here or a few days there from a sometimes ridiculously packed travel schedule, is the delightful absurdity of everyday life in this tiny and divided land in northern Europe.

When I do speaking gigs, as I’ll do at the Avenue Pub in November, what gives life to the beers I present are the stories I’m able to tell about the breweries, the people behind them and the sometimes odd and eccentric ways in which I’ve encountered both. A large number of these stories are based in Belgium.

I’ve been taken on an all-night pub crawl by the chef-owner of the restaurant I ate dinner in for no other reason that he offered to show me around. I’ve lied my way into a Trappist monastery, pretending to be part of a couple considering a religious retreat, because the brewery had just hosted a German film crew whose visit had not gone well and the prior had decided to shut the place down to further media visits. (The resulting story was reprinted in the Catholic Digest, so I guess we were forgiven.) I’ve been led at 3 o’clock in the morning to an artisanal cocktail bar the equal of any in the United States, which also just happened to be an illegal underground speakeasy. I’ve drunk some of the world’s best lambics all night in a field in the middle of nowhere.

And that’s just scratching the surface!

The bottom line, as I will tell anyone who asks, is that beer is just the start of the Belgian experience, and when visiting it is important not to get so focused on the fermented stuff that you miss all the rest. Visit bars outside of the legendary beer destinations. Talk to locals and really listen to what they have to say. Have a plan, but also harbour a willingness to abandon it and shoot off in a new and entirely unanticipated direction.

But most of all, come and visit Belgium. The economic effects of those horrific terrorist attacks a while back are still being felt, and Belgium in general and Brussels in particular could use some tourist love. As an added bonus, hotels remain surprisingly inexpensive, making this a very safe and utterly affordable destination.

Oh, and there’s quite a bit of extremely good beer over here, too, including a lot of stuff you’ve likely never heard about. And you’ll be surprised by how cheap it is in the bars!

Stephen Beaumont is the author of “The Beer & Food Companion” and co-author with Tim Webb of The World Atlas of Beer, the fully updated and revised second edition of which will be published by Sterling Epicure in October.

Avenue Pub in Belgium: Bathroom break in photos (Field Trip)

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As part of our “Field Trip” series, we’re following Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts and her staff as they get up close and personal with some of the best beer in Belgium. Here she takes a brief bathroom break.

BRUSSELS — The last few times I’ve been to Europe, I’ve regretted not taking pics of the bathrooms. This trip I decided I was going to follow though.

The European approach towards bathrooms is vastly different that American. No worries or debates about transgender this or that. In Belgium, you are lucky to get a stall door, and the men and women’s rooms are rarely completely separate, and if you think the stairs ar the Pub are bad … . Don’t get get drunk in a Bruxelles bar and expect to make it to the bathroom safely.

Yet life goes on. Swimmingly, it seems. 🙂

Avenue Pub in Belgium: The relative scarcity of a good Gueuze (Field Trip)

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As part of our “Field Trip” series, we’re following Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts and her staff as they get up close and personal with some of the best beer in Belgium. Here she digs deep into the best, and not so best, of Belgian beers.

BRUSSELS — Beer lovers tend to think of Brussels as Mecca, and even though I’ve been here multiple times I’m guilty of romanticizing the beer culture here. The fact is though, that there is just as much mediocre beer here as there is in the U.S. OK, that’s a VAST overstatement, but it is fair to say that the vast majority of places in the city don’t carry the tiny breweries that we support at the Avenue Pub every day.

We started our day with a brunch (they don’t call it brunch here) with a lovely omelette and croque monster. A Gueuze was on the menu, and, since we were nursing hangovers from the night before, we ordered it. (As an aside, a good Belgium Kriek is the best hangover remedy there is.) It’s low ABV, and I’m convinced that electrolytes from the cherries survive the brewing process. I really don’t want to know if I’m wrong, by the way, so you brewing experts can just keep that info to yourselves.

Explanation of lambic
The lambic and Gueuze that most beer geeks in the U.S. go crazy for are the result of spontaneous fermentation. For you beginners, that means that the brewer doesn’t add yeast but relies on the environment around the brewery to contribute that essential part of the process. Just like wine the terroir is a critical part of this. If your yeast is coming from your environment, it’s pretty important where environment is located. Also, this is an area that one can step into a land mine. You should never ever suggest that Gueuze or lambic can be made anywhere BUT the Senne valley. It’s sort of like calling sparkling wine Champagne when it’s not from the champagne region of France you will be dismissed out of hand.

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Avenue Pub in Belgium: Planes, trains and automobiles (Field Trip)

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As part of our “Field Trip” series, we’re following Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts and her staff as they get up close and personal with some of the best beer in Belgium. Here’s her first entry.

It’s been one helluva 48 hours. As the owner of the Avenue Pub, I’ll say I have a bit of paranoia now about traveling to Belgium. There is always a lost money or baggage. On this trip, we had three flight changes, and the last one happened today at JFK Airport. The upshot was that Delta lost everyone’s bags today — everyone except bartenders Alfred Flanigan and Ed Overbu, who arrived in Europe and visited Vienna, Munch and Prague over the previous two weeks.

Brussels is, of course, still recovering from the terrible terrorist attack this past March. We personally knew two people who were either in the train station or the airport during the bombings. I expected to find a city and an airport on edge. Anyone who flew after 9/11 remembers the tension in all forms of traveling that was present for months after. In this instance, we found pleasant and helpful Belgian workers who were happy to see us. We had custom officers who gave us beer excursion tips and expressed horror at the idea that Duvel was not on our itinerary. I’m pretty convinced that had I not agreed to go to a grocery while in town and purchase the new Duvel dry hopped mix pack that she wouldn’t have let me into the country! Seriously, she went on about it for five minutes.

Another staff member was asked detailed questions about where we would be traveling while here. When she said Cantillon & de la Senne, he (with great flourish) stamped her passport. I did not get a stamp, perhaps because my customs agent didn’t trust me to buy the Duvel six-pack. Now, there were lots of semi-automatics (firearms). But even the camouflage guys with the big guns shooed us away from the entrance with a smile.

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