One Day in Belgium: Driving Through Pajottenland en route to Westvleteren and Struise

originally published on ratebeer.com

8:00am. Wake up in an uncomfortable bed. Mix one part jeg-lagged lethargy, one part hangover and one part upset stomach caused by an excessive amount of lambic the night before, this is a hell of a way to start the morning. Walk out into an unbelievably bright street a few blocks from the heart of Brussels. We have three blocks to go before we hit the subway. What’s that? A waffle stand? Hell yes. Cover the thing in chocolate, yeah, shake some powdered sugar on it, trade it to me for some of these coins. Breakfast.

In the rental car office on the other side of town, it’s about the size of a closet. Loud woman in front of me is loud. She’s American, so I try to be extra quiet and polite to make up for her while I wait. Drink some water to pass the time. Read some travel brochures to brush up on your French. Sign the paper, jump in the car and go.

Nativate the small, windy cobblestone streets of central Brussels. It starts to feel like an experience. I love driving in foreign countries. In a half-hour we will exit the freeway and enter Pajottenland.

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Asse, Belgium. 15 miles outside of Brussels proper it feels like an entirely different world. Rolling hills, farms, creeks, open land… slow life. I decided on this cafe for morning lambik after reading of it in Tim Webb’s book Lambicland. Up on the left is the small white-washed building with a bold sign reading “Koekoek.” Pulling into the gravel parking lot we’re the only car here. Are they open? Are we too early? There’s a guy half-way up a ladder painting the side of the house.

“You open?”

He motions around the side of the building and says something that I don’t understand. Yeah, they’re open.

Opening the door is stepping back in time. The far end of the rustic, dust-filled room sits a small bar, and the medium-sized room is filled with small wooden tables adorned with red and white checkered tablecloth. The proprietor appears from back in the house to welcome us. I try my best to put together some friendly words but he doesn’t understand me at all. It’s my fault so I shut up and smile. But I make sense of some of it; he owns the house, his family lives here, this is his life. Out front he has a lambic café; in back he has a field full of chickens and lamb.

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The reason we’re here is Girardin lambik. Koekoek is one of the few places to consistenly find the jonge Girardin lambik. Turbid, frothy, alive, active, dense, sour, sweet flavorful beer. The aroma is instantly invigorating, expressing raw barley and wheat and musty, highly-active yeast. The beer is pulled and sampled while still undergoing active fermentation. You have caught the flavor and texture at a moment in time that will never exist again. I’ve never been the most objective reviewer of beer, especially while traveling, so excuse me while I have a moment here. Enjoy every aspect that contributes to a experience, I say. Halfway through the glass with no hesitation: perfect 5.0.

12:00pm Lunch at De Heeren van Liedekerke in Denderleeuw. It’s early, so we’re really the only people there. Scanning the beerbook, salivating. Lunch is gray shrimp salad for one of us and beef carbonade for the other. To drink? A bottle of 2000 Lindemans Loerik and a 1993 De Troch Gueuze, that’ll be fine.

2:00pm We’ve been on the road for less than an hour, first traveling west towards Gent, then south on E17 towards Kortrijk and on to Poperinge where we’ll be staying the night. Through a small bed and breakfast website we found a gentlemen who rents out rooms on the top floor of his house, not more than a couple of blocks from the center of Poperinge. After making some small talk and dropping off our things, we set out to find some quick food and then head out of town.

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3:00pm: Six miles straight north from Poperinge you hit Westvleteren, the Sint-Sixtus Abbey, and In de Vrede, their small restaurant, pub and shop. We spent a comfortable hour sitting on the back patio of In de Vrede sipping fresh Westvleteren 8 and 12. This young and this fresh it’s distinctly hot and green, it needs some time in the bottle to develop. Why am I complaining? I’m sitting outside on a glorious day in West Flanders drinking one of the best beers in the world. No complaints at all. A light breeze, the soft rumble of conversion behind us and the distant calls of sheep down the road, this is pure relaxation.

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beer nameabvmy score
Westvleteren Blond5.8%
4.1/5
Westvleteren Extra 88%
3.8/5
Westvleteren 12 (XII)10.2%
3.7/5
Westvleteren 6 6.2%
3.7/5

4:00pm. We need to be on the road. We’ve made plans with Urbain Coutteau of De Struise Brouwers. We were supposed to have figured out where Struise Farm was located and show up at an appropriate time, but the location of the farm was the one piece of information that we simply forgot before we started our trip. Worry starts to set in, both for missing out on meeting him and seeing the farm, and also of standing him up, of not showing up, of leaving him a bad impression of us. Deca Services is in Woesten, not far from Westvleteren. We show up unannounced and ask around until we find Urbain, and hesitantly make our introduction. “Come back to the farm for a drink” he says. Absolutely.

A few miles from Woesten are the two small villages of Lo and Nieuwkapelle. Through a network of dirt roads we follow Urbain out to Struise Farm, not far off from the main road but completely isolated and peaceful. There is not a sound of an engine within earshot, the fields are empty, it’s miles to the nearest neighbor. Urbain remarks at just how remote the farm becomes at night, and how calm and quiet life becomes for him out here. There’s little complexity in the words being exchanged between us but the meaning is well-understood. This is the good life. Here is an artisan brewer, an artist, living life on his own terms, in his own way. I both understand and envy the way he describes his passion for brewing. I feel welcome in his home.

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urbain coutteau @ struise

The conversation flows as the beer does, that is the absolute best part of this hobby… or perhaps way-of-life is a better term. It’s not so much about the beer as it is about the people you meet, the friendships you make, and the experiences you take part in.

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Struise Ratings

beer nameabvmy score
Struise Tsjeeses Reserva - Bourbon10%
4.2/5
Struise Aardmonnik / Earthmonk8%
4.2/5
Struise Pannepot (10%)10%
4.1/5
Struise Dirty Horse7%
4.1/5
Struise Tsjeeses10%
4.1/5
Struiselensis6%
3.9/5
Struise Pannepot Reserva10%
3.9/5
Struise Catso5%
3.8/5
Struise Pannepot Grand Reserva10%
3.8/5
Struise Pannepøt - Old Monk's Ale - Pannepeut10%
3.7/5
Struise Witte5%
3.7/5
Struise Pannepot Wild10%
3.5/5
Struise Black Albert13%
3.5/5
Struise / Mikkeller Elliot Brew9%
3.4/5
Struise Black Damnation VII - Single Black2%
3.2/5
Struise Cuvée Delphine13%
2.6/5
Struise Five Squared25%
2.1/5

4.2/5
Struise Aardmonnik / Earthmonk 8%

BJCP-certified beer judge, photographer, and software developer from Boulder, Colorado. I use this site to chronicle my worldwide beer adventures shared through photography and stories, with a focus on traditional old world brewing practices.

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