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Philly in Belgium

Philly in Belgium

When Philly visits Belgium, many potential stories come out of such a trip: the big, cold box; don’t tell anyone I ate that; 30 Dutch beers on tap, each one a mystery; no, that is not normal; the search for chicken; you can’t drink all day if you don’t start off iwth a Duvel on the train; avoiding the offer of  20 year old Westvleteren; hours and glasses of lambic fly by at Cantillon; fresh, 3 month or 9 month old Orval; in Belgium, nobody ask, ‘do you want fries with that’. But for now, the one to be shared is “Brew Day at Dupont.”

The original party that set out from Philadelphia was myself, Tom Peters, William Reed, and Craig LaBan. First some back story:

Tom Peters of Monk’s Café, William Reed of Standard Tap, and me – Scoats from The Grey Lodge Pub, are all on the board of Philly Beer Week (PBW). Since last year, in an effort to raise money and awareness, PBW raffles off a trip to brew a beer in Belgium. The winner of this contest is allowed to choose a local brewer to go with them. This year’s winner was Vince Masciandaro. Vince just so happens to be an award winning homebrewer and fittingly picked Iron Hill Maple Shade’s Chris LaPierre (aka Lappy), who hosts the local homebrew club meetings he attends, to accompany him on this exciting journey.

Without a doubt, Tom Peters of Monk’s Café is the king of Belgian beer in America. And a while back, he arranged a brew day with Brasserie Dupont, makers of the world renowned Saison Dupont, to brew a special beer for Monk’s Café. He gave up this extremely rare opportunity to PBW for this year’s collaboration brew. William and I wanted to tag along, paying our own way.

Craig

For those who don’t know, Craig LaBan is the premier Philadelphia food writer, who goes to great lengths to protect his anonymity. Rumor has it that includes wearing disguises while eating out and using a voice modulator when talking to industry people on the phone. His official Philadelphia Inquirer picture has his face obscured by bread sticks, AKA baguettes.

I had heard that Craig was joining us; I assumed that was a dream or something. When the day to depart finally arrived, there was Craig LaBan at gate A24. I, of course, recognized him from the bread sticks in front of his face.

Lots of fun and many laughs were shared amongst the four of us over two very full days and nights. On Monday, while Tom and Craig were out visiting chocolatiers, William and I met Vince and Andrea. We four traveled to Brugge together where we met up with Lappy and his girlfriend, Allagash’s Suzy Woods, later that afternoon. By that evening, fellow Philadelphians, Steve Palladinetti and his fiancée, Melanie Bergwall, arrived in Brugge, bringing our party up to ten.

Brugge

Tom picked Brugge to be our home base for the journey to/from Brasserie Dupont. Having to drive to the brewery, Tom, being a veteran Belgian traveler, was concerned about making it through Brussels’ notoriously bad rush hour traffic on a Tuesday morning.

Before talking about Dupont, we should talk briefly about Brugge. Brugge is an absolutely gorgeous little city. From what I remember, the movie In Brugge, captures it pretty well. Like Bamberg in Germany, Brugge is an UNESCO World Heritage site. Also like Bamberg, Brugge is almost all cobblestones and pavers, with no concrete or asphalt anywhere. It is like stepping back in time, but with electricity and without chamber pots being emptied all over the place like in the old days. The effect is positively charming.

Unlike Bamberg, which only has rauchbier (tasty, tasty rauchbier); you can take in a good sampling of the beers of Belgium without leaving Brugge. There are a lot of good beer bars in Brugge, and we went to most of them. Enough back story, on to the real story…

Early Wake Up Call

Tuesday morning we were up by 6am to catch the private shuttle Tom booked to get us to Tourpes, the small, rural town where Brasserie Dupont is located. First stop was a highway rest stop with a typical, modern day convenience store. It took me ten minutes to figure out how to get the coffee machine to give me some hot water, but fresh chocolate croissants were everywhere in Belgium, including highway convenience stores, clearly making up for the struggle. We were fueled up on caffeine and sugar and were wide awake when we reached Tourpes, home of Brasserie Dupont.

Tourpes is a small town surrounded by old time countryside. Brasserie Dupont, at one end of the main road is pretty much still an old school farmhouse brewery.

Michael Jackson Lives On

In Tourpes, you see signs for Moinette, Dupont’s blonde ale, but none for Saison. It can’t be understated how important Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium and his subsequent Beer Hunter BBC TV series were for Belgian breweries. Without it, Cantillon may have gone out of business and Dupont would no longer be brewing their famous Saison Dupont. Before Michael Jackson, Saison was a very small part of Dupont’s business and they had been considering discontinuing it.

I was reading my copy of Great Beers of Belgium while traveling in Belgium. I looked at the Dupont entry the night before. In person, Dupont still looked just like it did in the 20+ year old photos, just less washed out. But, if you look around the edges of the brewery, you can see that Dupont has been seeing a steady increase in production.

12 Americans Is Too Many

The ten of us were met by Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield of Vanberg & DeWulf, the U.S. importers for Dupont, bringing the number up to twelve Americans. Third generation Dupont owner, Olivier Dedeycker, seemed a little overwhelmed to have so many wide awake American visitors at 8am. Twelve is definitely too many people for brewing, so I stayed out of the way with most of the rest of the party, clearing room for Tom, Lappy, and Vince to work with the Dupont brewers. So, while I can’t tell you much of the actual brewing, I can tell you about the beer:

Spéciale Belge is a type of Belgian amber ale that has been mostly lost and forgotten. This version, inspired from a recipe in the brew logs of Olivier’s grandfather, Sylva Rosier, has a slight smoky character from the use of smoked malt.

Brasserie Dupont is a modern brewery that tries hard to be true to its roots. Most of the brewery is new, shoehorned into the old brewery building. Olivier made sure to keep the old copper kettles, which are the first thing you see when you walk into the brewery.

I loved the sense of tradition that pervades everything about Brasserie Dupont, from the furnace jets that fire the copper brew kettle to the foie gras geese and cheese atelier that ring the old farmhouse brewery, to the ancient, hand-scrawled brewing logs from Olivier’s grandfather that the young master brewer still returns to for inspiration when creating a “new” beer – PBW’s Speciale Belge, included. More than anything, I remember the smells of that day – the grains being milled upstairs the moment before the brew and then steeped in hot water, the toasty intensity of malt being smoked with peat bricks at the nearby Malterie du Chateau de Beloeil, the citrusy burst of hops hitting the hot wort. You definitely felt like we were there at the moment of some creation – and it was surreal to uncork a bottle of that beer four months later and see how it had been transformed. – Craig LaBan

Lunch and Projectiles

Around noon, we walked a couple of blocks through Tourpes to a small restaurant. It was Fat Tuesday and most of the town had the day off from school and work. There were bands of people everywhere hitting wood balls with ancient large mallets while drinking beer. It was like a cross between Calvinball and croquet. You seem to play the ball where it lands, which often seemed to be the front steps of the pub (I suspect that may not have been by accident). I am told they only play this game on Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday.

Lunch was rabbit or beef, a glass of Moinette, and of course fries. Just about every meal in Belgium comes with a communal bowl of fries. After lunch, we dodged wooden balls as we headed back to the brewery.

Maltery

We took a short drive for a quick pop in at an old maltery, Castle Malting. Castle is a very renowned maltery; their malt is shipped all over the world. From what I could piece together, they didn’t seem to be expecting twelve Americans that afternoon, but they kindly showed us around anyway.

Hop farms are popping up; specialty yeast labs are appearing, but malt is sort of the last frontier for craft beer. Radically, different types of malt all come from the same type of barley. So malting, to me anyway, is pretty fascinating.

Having never been to a large scale maltery before, I was really jazzed to be there. For a beer geek who has seen quite a bit, I was very impressed. It was a huge building with a lot going on. We got to meet the owner, who somehow acquired it off the international company that no longer wanted it.

In addition to the long tried and true methods, Castle also has some crazy, gigantic and very new, custom designed equipment, which was incredibly impressive looking.

Getting Steamy

We got back in time to see the steam from the brew escaping out of the brewery’s tiled roof. Rather than being vented out to a chimney, the steam from the brew kettle is piped up into the attic. This echoed back to what we saw at Cantillon, Brussels’s great lambic brewery, a few long days earlier, and gave us a possible clue as to how lambic beers came to be, but that is another story.

I think about our trip to Belgium all the time – and reflect back on the absolute value of travelling to the source, even when we have so many of those great Belgian products in Philly. Yes, I’ve drunk my share of Duvel – but never with jet lag on a train rocketing out of Brussels. Yes, I’ve tasted Orval, but never compared three different vintages of the beer side-by-side in a subterranean blues club. Just visiting Cantillon for an afternoon of lambic drinking – where we tasted everything from ripe raspberries to elderflowers in beer – that was worth the trip alone… I do know you beer people don’t eat nearly enough while you’re drinking. Other than that, it was a blast! – Craig LaBan

I will echo Craig and say that this was a trip of a lifetime. Though, I hope to make that statement a lie by getting back to Belgium as soon as I can. Although, for a beer lover, any trip to Belgium can be a trip of a lifetime.

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