LaBan in Belgium: 'Beer, anyone?'


Part 1 >> Some thirsty Philadelphians have embarked upon a beer pilgrimage this week to Belgium, where they will collaborate with the legendary Brasserie Dupont on a special brew to be poured at Philly Beer Week this June. But first, there is the adventure. Stay tuned to The Food Department -'s new blog - as The Inquirer's Craig LaBan reports back between sips from the land of tripel and saison.

It is only 4 a.m. back in Philadelphia. But Tom Peters knows how to shake off the sleepies of a red-eye flight. The Monks Café owner, leading the advanced guard of a Philadelphia contingent to Belgium, wastes little time after our arrival adjusting his inner-clock.

Encouraged by a rousing response from his companions – William Reed of Standard Tap, Mike “Scoats” Scotese of the Grey Lodge Pub, and myself - he rises from his seat on our train rolling north from Brussels and heads directly to the bar car. He returns moments later with four cold bottles of Duvel in hand.

The golden ale’s head rises like a lemony meringue in our plastic cups, and the first sip is cool and restorative. My first Belgian brew in Belgium. So crisp and so much fresher that what I’ve drunk back home. Jet lag? Ha! Out comes my camera to capture the moment.

“You’re going to need a lot of memory on that camera,” says Peters. “We are just getting started.”

Peters isn’t kidding. It’s only 10 a.m. local time, and we are just warming up. This is business, of course. This is a beer trip in the most literal sense. We’ve come to drink and explore the wonders of Belgium’s brewing scene, but also to collaborate on a new brew at Brasserie Dupont to be unveiled this sumer at Philly Beer Week. That will come later in the trip.

But first, a detour.

Peters is also hoping that another beer he’s collaborated on with the pioneering Dutch brewer, Menno Olivier of De Molen, is also going to be ready for the festival. So our first order of business is to travel to Holland and Olivier, whose brewery was founded inside a windmill in the town of Bodegraven just outside of Amsterdam. Here, the gregarious Olivier welcomes us with an easy smile and, of course, more beers – an excellent bitter, a tart saison, a black beer that smells like liquid pumpernickel, an imperial stout so smoky it tastes of peaty Islay malt. Then he leads us into a warm room inside the newly expanded brewery. This is where the beer Peters brewed in September has been resting in an old Scotch barrel – a smoked porter with brettanomyces, a natural yeast which produces a peculiar sour funk that takes time to emerge. They’re calling it “Smoke and Leather” or “Rook & Leer” in Dutch.

Menno unplugs the cask and pokes a glass siphon through the beer’s yeasty crust and draws out some dark, syrupy beer and pours a bit into a glass for Peters and the rest of us to swirl and sniff: “I’m hoping it’s going to be ready for June,” says a hopeful Peters before he takes a sip.

It’s rich and complex, a dense and powerful beer full of notes of coffee, figs, alderwood smoke and just the lightest hint of brett’s coveted twang.

“Velvety,” says Menno. “The beer geeks are going to love this. But it’s not ready yet. Needs more sour, more smell of horse blanket. Needs another year.”

“A year?!” says Peters, disappointed. “I’m going to be mighty thirsty by then.”

Little chance of that.

Before the day was out, we’d taste 15 or so extraordinary and rare beers at De Molen followed by a nightcap of more Dutch craft brews at ‘t Arendsnest bar in Amsterdam, where we also sampled a barrel-ambered range of true Dutch genever from Zuidam. Peters and his companions would more than compensate.

Read more

Part 2: The Power of Sour at Brasserie Cantillon

Part 3: Fun eating in Brussels