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The Quest for the Holy Ale

La Fleur en Papier Doré in Brussels was a 20thcentury gathering spot for surrealist artists including Magritte; today, it’s a cozy bar.

in belgium, they cook with beer, drink it with meals, and brew it as an act of faith. Here’s why. b y H e ath e r J oh n P h o to g ra phs by Kyo k o H a m a da


f beer drinking is a religion—and to many Americans it is—a tall glass of Belgian ale is its holy grail. If you think that’s an overstatement, consider what my neighbor Chris Gillen said when he heard that my husband and I were going to Belgium to drink beer: “I told my wife that if anything ever happened to her, I’d join a monastery.” In the world of beer worship, Belgian beer fans are the zealots, dreaming of a country with real robe-wearing Trappist monks who, when they’re not praying, make beer as a devotional act. The monastic life Gillen would take solace in is at St. Sixtus abbey in Belgium, where the most soughtafter beer in the world is brewed: Westvleteren 12, a strong and dark beer, purportedly tasting of sweet malt, leather, and figs. It will only be sold to you if you go to the abbey in person. Luckily, Gillen has the best of both worlds: He is still happily married and lives in a country where Belgian beers are the current darlings of beer culture. I’m a fallen-away beer drinker who makes a living mostly by writing about wine. But it was getting harder to avoid the call of Belgian beer. At my local Whole Foods, an entire section is devoted to the Belgian beers. The bestselling import, Stella Artois, is a household name. And in downtown Los Angeles, the restaurant Wurstküche offers more than 20 Belgian options, with most of these beers boasting alcohol levels that hover around a punchy 8 or 9 percent. But these beers have traveled more than 5,000 miles from their point of origin: Belgium, a country that is the holy land for beer devotees. Ever in search of a bibulous epiphany, I booked a ticket to Brussels so that I could get a taste of the birthplace of so much great beer, including Westvleteren 12. Call it a quest for the Holy Ale. Although many of the Belgian beers that make it to the States are high-octane fruit bombs, by the time I get to the motherland, I’m tasting a different story at one of Brussels’s superlative beer bars, Chez Moeder Lambic—where, in addition to a staggering 350 Belgian beers on offer, you’ll also find the brewers of some of Belgium’s cult beers, like Cantillon and Brasserie de la Senne, stopping in for a pint after work. Chances are they’re not drinking the strong stuff that most Americans usually associate with Belgian beer. Owner Jean Hummler passes a plate of tangy goat cheese drizzled with barley malt syrup, opens a bottle of Brasserie de la Senne’s Stouterik, and pours. With a mere 4.5 percent alcohol, the beer tastes of toasted malt, bitter chocolate, and coffee. It’s light and refreshing, and marks a new generation of brewing in Belgium—one that is best enjoyed at the source.

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day one the challenge begins On my maiden pilgrimage to Belgium, I am astonished by the sheer number of incredible beers that have never made it to the States. My first drink is a summer beer called Saison de la Senne. Refreshingly tart and spicy, it’s aged in barrels and—at 4.3 percent alcohol—is nothing short of amazing. And while “bigger alcohol is better” is the belief of stateside Belgian beer fans, I realize that in Belgium the varieties of religious experience are wide and subtle, with styles ranging from dubbel (a dark, strong beer), tripel (even stronger), and saison (seasonal, hoppy beer) to the “sours” like lambic (made by spontaneous fermentation; highly acidic), gueuze (blend of young and old lambics), and kriek (cherry-flavored lambic beer). Anxious for my moment of conversion, I strike out with my husband for the abbey of St. Sixtus, in hopes of buying a few bottles of the storied Westvleteren 12. But alas, according to Brother Joris, the beer is not for sale that day. Still, there’s time and more beer to drink. And so we press on for Brasserie Dupont. Tucked along a country road about 40 minutes outside of Brussels in the picturesque village of Tourpes, Brasserie Dupont not only produces some of the finest beer in the country, but also sells excellent cheese and bread, quiche, and tarts at the family’s bakery next door. Man cannot live on beer alone. Fifth-generation Dupont brewer Olivier Dedeycker, whose great-grandfather Alfred Dupont purchased the brewery in 1920, walks us through the building filled with antique copper boiling kettles and a heady aroma of yeast in the damp air. Dupont’s proprietary yeast is the envy of many brewers, and the yeast’s distinctive spiciness is responsible for the brewery’s benchmark saison, an intensely hoppy beer (also known as “farmhouse ale”) made primarily in the Hainaut province in the winter. There’s We wander something beautiful about this through the idea, that an ethereal presence, impossibly combined with the passing of picturesque seasons and the artistry of man streets of can converge to make, well, a Bruges until damn fine beer. we reach beer But it’s not all monks and mecca Brugs meteorology. This is the 21st Beertje, a century, after all, so back in rollicking bar town we dine at the very chic that offers Viva M’Boma, which means more than 300 “Long live the grandmother” in Belgian beers. the Bruxellois dialect. Housed

At La Fleur en Papier Doré bar, a patron sips gueuze, a popular lambic wheat beer with a distinctive sour taste.


The thousands of Belgian beers include such specialties as Cantillon’s Rosé de Gambrinus, a brew formulated with fresh raspberries.

Chez Moeder Lambic, a small bar in the Saint-Gilles area of Brussels, has 350 Belgian beers on offer and is a favorite hangout for discerning beer lovers.

A toast to Bruges’s Gothic architecture in the square outside the Provinciaal Hof municipal building.

Beef stew is made with beer at Viva M’Boma, a chic restaurant in downtown Brussels. For a similar dish, see our carbonnade recipe, page 129.

belgium: restaurants and bars





Kemelstraat 5, Bruges; 011-32-50-339616; Hoogstraat 10, Bruges; 011-32-50-613-181;

Rue de Savoie 68, Brussels; 011-32-2539-1419


Rue de Flandre 17, Brussels; 011-32-2512-1593

Rue des Alexiens 53, Brussels; 011-32-2511-1659


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fluids—I guess I’m the only one who finds nun and clown puppets and crossbows hanging from the ceiling unsettling. We start with a glass of Brasserie de la Senne’s Taras Boulba, a complex and hoppy ale with only 4.5 percent alcohol that is named for Gogol’s story of the same title. “There is an image that Belgian beer is spicy, fruity, sweet, and strong,” says De Baets, who founded Brasserie de la Senne with partner Bernard Leboucq. “But we are returning to the tradition of unfiltered, unpasteurized beers without additives, and using only the best ingredients. We became brewers to create a beer we wanted to drink.” What I love about De Baets, right up until I’m ready to lose consciousness, is his passion. He is an equal opportunity beer lover, and is just as eager to introduce us to other brewers’ offerings as he is his own. Cantillon, Blaugies, Tournay, and Oud Beersel were definitely in the mix, but kindly forgive me if I have forgotten all that we tasted that night, because I have enough trouble recalling how many different bars we visited. I will forever remember, however, La Fleur en Papier Doré. If I could live in a bar, this would be the one. It’s beyond romantic and cozy, and I know of no place like it in the New World. Old framed portraits, poems, and sketches cover the walls, and this spot was a favorite with Magritte and the surrealists, as well as Tintin creator Hergé. That night I count bottles of Westvleteren as I drift off to sleep. day three the best brewery After a strong coffee, the next morning delivers what is ultimately the highlight of our entire visit: Cantillon. Brewer Jean Van Roy, whom we met briefly at Chez Moeder Lambic on our first evening, takes us through what is the last surviving lambic brewery in Brussels, where fermentation feeds off the natural yeasts in If I could live in a bar, La Fleur en Papier Doré would be the one. It’s beyond romantic and cozy. I know of no place like it in the New World.

m ap i llustr atio n b y lu b a lukova

in a former triperie (a butcher shop specializing in offal), the restaurant reflects the kind of new Belgian cooking you hope will make its way stateside. White subway tiles line the walls and taxidermied sheep’s and pig’s heads preside over diners. Here, offal is still the thing to order, and if you can get past the idea of it, the cow udder pâté is fantastic. I’m enjoying sweetbreads and my husband is eating a fantastic version of carbonnade à la flamande—Flemish beef stew made with Belgian beer—that is sprinkled with ginger speculoos cookies and Italian parsley. Both of these dishes would be insane with a bottle of, say, Kerkom’s Bink Blond, a hoppy and fragrant blond ale with a citrusy finish that seems to last forever. But Viva M’Boma, like many finer dining establishments in Brussels, does not feature native craft beers on the menu. “Haute cuisine in Belgium arises out of a Burgundian tradition, which, of course, implies wine,” says Wendy Littlefield, who imports Dupont and several other Belgian beers into the U.S. “In Belgium, at finedining restaurants beer is generally consumed as an aperitif or a digestif. There are a number of progressive young chefs who—taking the lead from American chefs, to be honest— are beginning to incorporate more beers into their lists and give them the esteem they deserve at the table with main courses.” That Belgian beers can be subtle enough to go with food is a revelation, something you’d never realize from the boozy exports like Houblan Chouffe (9 percent) or St. Bernardus Abt 12 (10.5 percent). A fact that appeals to the wine drinker in me, who knows that big flavors in your glass can kill what’s on your plate. day two the perfect bar More education is in order before we plan our next attempt at St. Sixtus. I’ve arranged a tasting of beers at a local bar known for its impressive selection of lambic, rare, and vintage beers. Fortified by stew and an afternoon snack of Belgian frites grabbed from a street cart, we head past the Manneken Pis statue to meet brewer Yvan De Baets of Brasserie de la Senne across the street at Poechenellekelder, a beer bar filled with large suspended marionettes. This doesn’t seem to alarm any of the other patrons calmly chatting and sipping a selection of golden

Moules frites is a classic Belgian dish in which steamed mussels are served with french fries. For an updated moules recipe, turn the page.

learned that Belgian beer can be food-friendly, an aperitif. And, above all, ethereal. We have listened to the disciples of ale, who commune with the yeast that float like spirits on the air. We have lost our narrow assumptions about high-octane brews. But we still have not tasted the ultimate sacrament, and we are ready for our final conversion. Neon-orange poppies pepper the roadside, guiding us to the abbey for one more shot at the Westvleteren. I catch a glimpse of a white-robed Trappist monk around the abbey’s brick walls, and we ask if we can buy beer. But it isn’t to be. “Why?” we inquire. He just keeps walking. As we drive off to the airport, we tell ourselves we’ll come back. In the future. After all, the brewery has been there for 172 years, so there’s a good chance it will still be crafting beer on our next visit. Today, though, we’ll return to the States empty-handed. But we will go home with faith. Our Belgian beer quest has taught us that beer works in mysterious ways. Brussels’s last lambic brewery, where fermentation feeds off natural yeasts in the air, feels like a Gothic chapel with dusty barrels stacked reverently to the ceiling.

mathieu palombino cooks with belgian beer mathieu palombino is a belgianborn chef who began his culinary career as an apprentice chef at 15. after years of working in restaurants in brussels, then under laurent tourondel in new york city, the 32-year-old now runs outposts of his motorino pizzerias in brooklyn and manhattan. when he developed the recipes that follow, he was recalling the delicious belgian dishes of his youth.

satisfying,” Palombino says. Making the following recipes became a family affair for him when he called his brother–a chef in their hometown of Mouscron, Belgium–to chat about some of their favorites. “These recipes are a personal version of some Belgian classics, staying within the boundaries of Belgian cuisine,” Palombino says. One such hallmark is a liberal use of beer in cooking. “Belgians use beer as an ingredient in the same way that people from Burgundy use wine– it’s our aromatic component of choice for stews, terrines, and even ice cream.”

MUSSELS STEaMED IN BEER with crème fraîche, herbs, and PARMESAN croutons 6 servings Mussels are a quick and simple dish that is protein-rich and nutrient-dense. Don’t forget to serve steamed mussels with a spoon so as not to miss any of the beery, creamy, herb-flavored juice.

4 5x3x1/2-inch slices country-style bread, crusts removed, bread cut into 3/4-inch cubes 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese 2 tablespoons olive oil

3/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

1/4 cup chopped fresh tarragon

1/4 cup chopped fresh chervil (optional)

2/3 cup crème fraîche*

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon whole grain brown mustard or whole grain Dijon mustard

3 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon butter

4 large garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

5 pounds mussels, scrubbed, debearded

4 to 41/2 pounds beef short ribs (about 8)

1 large onion, sliced (about 3 cups)

3 cups diced seeded tomatoes (about 4 large)

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons all purpose flour

1 cup chopped green onions (about 4)

1 12-ounce bottle Belgian white beer (such as Hoegaarden)

2 12-ounce bottles Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale or other brown ale

2 cups beef broth

1 12-ounce bottle Guinness stout

Preheat oven to 375°F. Combine bread cubes, Parmesan, and oil in medium bowl; sprinkle with salt and toss to coat. Spread bread cubes evenly on rimmed baking sheet. Bake until bread cubes are crisp and golden around edges, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool. Mix parsley, chives, tarragon, and chervil, if desired, in small bowl. Whisk crème fraîche and both mustards in another small bowl to blend; set aside. Melt butter in extra-large pot with lid over high heat. Add garlic and thyme; stir 1 minute. Add mussels, tomatoes, and green onions. Pour beer over, then add crème fraîche mixture; sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Cover tightly with lid and cook until steam appears, about 3 minutes. Add half of fresh herb mixture and stir until mussels and herbs are gently mixed. Cover tightly with lid again and cook until mussels open, 4 to 5 minutes (discard any mussels that do not open). Using slotted spoon, divide mussels among 6 bowls. Season mussel juices lightly with salt and pepper, then pour juices over each serving. Sprinkle each serving with Parmesan croutons and remaining herb mixture and serve. *Available at most supermarkets and at specialty foods stores.

Heather John is a bon appétit contributing editor. She also blogs at

“belgian food is rustic, rich, and

Illust rati on b y T homa s Fu chs. F or m or e details, se e sour ceb ook .

the air. Dappled sunlight peeks through slats in the attic roof in the dark and musty aging hall, which feels like a Gothic chapel with dusty barrels stacked reverently to the ceiling. In an age where industrialized brewers take shortcuts, Van Roy worships at the altar of tradition. His are exquisitely sour, complex, and acidic beers with low alcohol that age for years and beg to be enjoyed with food. In fact, they taste more akin to an Alsatian Riesling, tart and fresh, which also happens to be my favorite white wine. While we are at the brewery, Van Roy gets a call from El Bulli in Spain, alerting him that Ferran Adrià wants to serve Cantillon beers at the restaurant. The three of us celebrate with a glass of Grand Cru Bruoscella, and, on our way out, we grab a bottle to take to dinner that evening in Bruges. Perhaps our best dinner in Belgium takes place that night in the warm dining room at Calis, a stylish four-room B&B run by Laurence Vanraepenbusch and Daniel Jejcic. A trained chef, Daniel brings out a tuna and grapefruit carpaccio that is heavenly with the tart lambic beer we’ve brought, brewed with 100 percent organic malts. After our meal, we wander through the picturesque streets of Bruges until we reach beer mecca Brugs Beertje, a rollicking bar that offers more than 300 Belgian beers. Here, we try five of the six Trappist Belgian beers: Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, and Westmalle. Only the Westvleteren eludes us. day four the best beer? And so, the next morning, on the final day of the quest, we set our course once more for St. Sixtus. We have worshipped under lambic stills. We have

“Carbonnade à la flamande’’ short ribs 4 servings Carbonnade is the quintessential Belgian comfort food; this recipe’s caramelized onions, brown sugar, and brown beer make the sweet stew addictive. Chef Palombino also recommends making this carbonnade with any muscular cut of beef that’s good for stewing, such as skirt and hanger steaks.

1 cinnamon stick

2 bay leaves

1 whole star anise*

5 whole black peppercorns

For complete nutritional info for all of the recipes in this issue, go to

grilled ham and Chimay Cheese sandwiches with Caramelized Belgian Endive 4 servings Chimay “À La Bière” cheese is a Belgian smooth semisoft cheese that is washed with Chimay beer. It has a pungent aroma and mild flavor. Look for it in specialty cheese shops or on or, or try another cheese with a beer-washed rind, such as German Temptin cheese. endive

2 tablespoons canola oil

4 heads of Belgian endive, root ends trimmed and discarded, leaves separated

16 pitted prunes

1/3 cup (packed) golden brown sugar

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 5x3x1/2-inch slice crusty country-style bread

1/2 cup Belgian white beer (such as Hoegaarden)

Chopped fresh Italian parsley

1/4 cup orange juice

1 tablespoon sugar


special equipment Cheesecloth

Wrap cinnamon stick, bay leaves, star anise, and peppercorns in piece of cheesecloth and tie to secure; set aside. Melt butter with oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat until butter starts to brown. Sprinkle short ribs with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Working in 2 batches, add short ribs to pot and cook until deep brown on all sides, turning occasionally, 7 to 8 minutes per batch. Transfer ribs to large bowl. Add onion to same pot and sauté over medium-high heat until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add spice packet and Worcestershire sauce; stir 1 minute. Return short ribs to same pot; sprinkle with flour and stir 1 minute. Add ale, broth, and stout, then prunes and brown sugar; bring to boil. Sprinkle lightly with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Spread mustard over bread slice, then place bread slice atop short ribs in pot, pressing to submerge bread into liquid. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until short ribs are very tender and begin to fall off bones, stirring occasionally, about 21/2 hours. Discard spice packet. Transfer short ribs to plate. Strain pan juices through large sieve set over large bowl; reserve solids in strainer. Spoon fat from top of pan juices and discard. Return juices to same pot and boil until liquid is reduced to 4 cups, 15 to 20 minutes. Season juices to taste with salt and pepper. Return short ribs and solids from strainer to juices in pot and simmer until heated through, about 10 minutes longer. Transfer short ribs and sauce to large bowl; sprinkle with parsley and serve. *A brown star-shaped seedpod; available in the spice section of some supermarkets and at specialty foods stores and Asian markets.


8 5x3x1/2-inch slices country-style bread

8 thin slices country ham or prosciutto (about 8 ounces total)

8 ounces Belgian Chimay “À La Bière” cheese or German Temptin cheese, thinly sliced

8 sour pickle spears

Whole grain brown mustard or whole grain Dijon mustard ENDIVE Heat oil in large nonstick skillet

over medium-high heat until very hot. Add endive leaves and sauté until almost translucent and beginning to wilt, 1 to 2 minutes. Sprinkle sugar over and sauté until endive leaves begin to brown and edges are deep golden brown, stirring often, 2 to 3 minutes. Add beer and orange juice and boil until liquid is reduced to thick glaze and coats endive leaves, 3 to 4 minutes. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Let cool to room temperature. SANDWICHES Preheat oven to 350°F. Arrange bread on baking sheet. Spread 1 side of each bread slice lightly with butter. Turn 4 bread slices over, buttered side down. Divide ham and cheese among plain sides of 4 bread slices. Top with remaining bread slices, buttered side up. Heat large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add 2 sandwiches to skillet and cook until brown on bottom, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer sandwiches to same baking sheet, browned side up. Repeat with remaining 2 sandwiches. Bake in oven until sandwiches are brown on bottom and cheese melts, about 5 minutes. Place 1 sandwich on each of 4 plates. Spoon endive, 2 pickles, and mustard alongside each and serve.

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The Quest for the Holy Ale