Thursday, March 12, 2009

All beer, all day!

Since our friend John is a brewer and Belgium is world-reknowned for beer, he was interested in touring some breweries while we were in the area. We were happy to tag along.

On Friday morning, we drove from the Netherlands to a Trappist monastery outside of Westmalle, Belgium. The monks started brewing beer many years ago for their own use and eventually started selling it to the locals at a stand just outside their gates. They still own the Westmalle brewery and it is located on their grounds but they have given over the brewing to professionals. The brewery does not give public tours so we were lucky that John had the right connections to get us inside. The brewmaster was incredibly kind and gracious and spent a lot of time with us. It appeared to be quite a commercial operation (see us standing in front of cases of beer- they make a lot!) but there were many things that were special. Because of the philosohpy of the monks, there is a great emphasis on a positive work environment so the factory has low-noise equipment, sound absorption panels and sky lights. The staff work just one shift and they always have Friday afternoons off to spend with their families. After the tour, we went into the tasting room and had the chance to sample the monks' private brew that is not sold to the public.

The monks themselves still make cheese from the milk of their 150-head herd of cattle. We went to the main entrance of the monastery and rang a giant bell to be let inside to buy some cheese. We got a 3.5 pound block and I don't know how we'll ever eat all of it! But how could we say no? We also bought some lovely soaps made by the nuns in the abbey a few miles away. It was a special experience.

Our next stop was the Duvel brewery, just outside of Brussels. I think Duvel is the biggest or one of the biggest brewers in the country. The scale of everything was amazing. Stainless steel tanks that looked like grain silos rising up out of the building, miles of piping running from here to there, computer monitors with diagrams of the entire system- wow! We tasted beer directly out of the fermentation tanks- talk about fresh! But the Flemish hospitality wore us down! Between two brewery tours, many samples and no lunch, we were all about to collapse on our feet! We did finally get dinner, and more beer, and then we were ready for bed!

Another country and another exciting day!

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