Wednesday, September 16, 2009
After a tough day on Tuesday we set off first thing to drive to Chimay, near the French border. This is probably the best known of the Trappist beers so I felt we had to make the trek down there even though it was a 60+ minute drive towards an abbey I was pretty sure we couldn’t tour. Needless to say, my hopes were not high.
It was a a little gray and rainy as we made our way southwest amidst green fields and trees. Heading the other direction on one of the highways was a protest procession of large trucks. You hear about all the disgruntled workers in Europe and it was interesting to see them in action!
The Scourmont Abbey of Chimay was a simple building that frowned upon tourists. The real gem, however, was the Auberge de Poteaupre located just a mile away. We passed this humble building on the way to the abbey and noted its Chimay signage. I had personally discounted it as a bad souvenir shop but Amanda fortunately forced us to stop.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the Auberge was the official tasting room for the abbey. The inside was elegantly furnished with wooden booths, antique beer memorabilia, and large bottles of Chimay. The tasting room looked out upon a beautiful green field that even had a swingset for the kids.
We got there right at opening time so we had the place to ourselves. Chimay is known around the world for their three beers: Rouge, Bleue, and Blanche. However, at the auberge, they also serve a special beer that’s typically only available for the monks themselves: Chimay Doree. This is a lighter beer of only 4.8% alcohol but has a wonderful spiciness and crispness similar to a saison.
I ordered a Chimay Blanche (their triple-style) on draft, and it was richer and more luscious than any time I’d had it in the U.S.. Along with these beers we ordered a tasting plate of abbey cheese. They were all a little on the pungent side, but absolutely delicious. It was great to be able to try all the abbey products in one place, which definitely made the trip there worthwhile.
Our next stop was the Maredsous abbey, also well known in the U.S.. This was an interesting stop because of the contrast to the other abbeys we had visited: it was touristy. There were tour buses parked outside, a large visitor center, and hundreds of German tourists inside. There were shops selling cheap souvenirs, cheap cafeteria food, and pay-per-use toilets. We got a taster of the three Maredsous beers, which of course were delicious.
We started a self-guided walking tour of the grounds, reading about the abbey history, and it started to dawn on us: the abbeys are a great scam. The original idea was for them to sell beer locally to support their priestly efforts. But somewhere down the road they realized they could make some serious money doing this. The abbey was beautiful, magnificent, modern, and spotless. They must be rolling in money from the tourism: this was the waning days of their season and the place was still packed.
Then there’s the beer. It’s not even brewed by the abbey anymore we learned; it is outsourced to Duvel Moortgat. Yes the beer is delicious and Duvel makes other good beers as well (namely, Duvel) but for me at least it pierced the magic to realize that having an “abbey beer” is partly a marketing ploy just to earn money. This was my Wizard of Oz moment.
Disillusionment aside, the Maredsous abbey premises were beautiful and the church impressive. It seemed very modern compare to others we would see on the trip, and allowed access to most of the interior. After snapping pictures we headed off for nearby Floreffe abbey.
Floreffe was another abbey beer that is no longer brewed at the abbey (it is brewed by Lefebvre, whose tavern we had tried to visit the previous day), but it had an entirely different feel from Maredsous.
The abbey itself is tightly integrated into the community. It houses a school, hosts yearly events, and even has an attached tavern where locals drink.
We took a short self-guided tour through the grounds, snapping pictures of the flowers and decrepit buildings in the back.
The abbey is perched above a river, and we watched barges creep along the water. We had missed the tour of the church, so we headed right for the tavern and quaffed a Floreffe Blonde and Kriek.
Both were awesome, and inspired us to buy a Tripel and Brune to take back to the U.S. with us. They also sold goat cheese there, so we bought a chunk of that to eat for breakfast the next day. Overall the Floreffe abbey was a rewarding stop with cool buildings, tasty beer, and a friendly vibe.
Our final destination for the day was Rochefort, home to another well-known Trappist monastery. On the way we passed through Dinant, with its arabesque church and impressive citadel. Being pressed for time, we pushed on and decided to return the next day for more exploration.
The roads in to Rochefort were verdant and rolling, with a myriad of cows, corn, and trees. The town itself is rather small but kept up well; I got the impression they get a fair share of tourists over the summer. We stayed at the elegant Hotel La Malle Poste right in the center of town, within easy walking distance to restaurants.
Dinner that night was, in a word, incredible. I learned that “a la volcan,” while literally translating as “at the volcano,” really means that your steak will be served on a searing-hot piece of slate. It also helped that my steak was topped with a slab of shallot butter nearly as big as the meat itself.
The real winner, however, was Amanda’s steak “a la Trappiste.” In this instance that meant a sauce of beer and cheese made at the local abbey. It was rich and had such amazing depth of flavor that we couldn’t help dipping our fries in it and ended up licking the plate clean.
With dinner I had a couple of local brews–Rochefort 6 and 8–and Amanda tried two Saint Monon beers. These had a very unique flavor profile and were new to both of us.
A triumphant day full of drinking behind us, we rewarded ourselves with some gelato and crashed in our hotel.
Today was a busy day! I tasted:
- Chimay Blanche
- Chimay Doree
- Maredsous 6 Blonde
- Maredsous 8 Brune
- Maredsous 10 Triple
- Floreffe Blonde
- Floreffe Kriek
- Saint Monon Au Miel
- Saint Monon Brune
- Rochefort 6
- Rochefort 8
Total to date for the trip: 39 beers