From a distance, the conical green plants reminded me of the rows of Fraser firs in the North Carolina mountains, but that didn’t make sense here in the flatlands of western Belgium.
“Look! Hops!” my wife, Selina, yelled out, then pointed to a road sign. “And now we’re on the official hops bike route!”
Ah, that explained it. I’d seen demonstration hops grown at American breweries, but never fields of them and certainly not more than 20 feet high. We were on what we would thereafter call our “Stop and Smell the Hops” trip, a five-night tour combining two of our favorite things: bikes and beer.
As the planner of this little adventure, I was initially overwhelmed by the options. We live in the Netherlands, so getting to Belgium was easy enough. But in this country — the size of Maryland — there are 168 breweries and counting, many run by families for generations. Where to start?
I reached out to a Dutch acquaintance, Henk Wesselink, for advice. He’s the Benelux partner behind the Portland, Ore.,-based bike tour company Beercycling, whose motto of “Getting you from pint A to pint B” pretty much says it all. Wesselink told me that Beercyling owner Evan Cohan, who spends summers in Belgium leading tours, had just written a self-guided information packet about West Flanders in response to the many independent travelers who contacted him for tips. Bingo!
Cohan steers travelers to the Flemish area of Westhoek because of the province’s high concentration of hops and breweries (27), many with regular visiting hours. For $99, customers get a downloadable guide, along with email support. The guide fully details routes, lodging, bike rentals, food attractions and out-of-the-way breweries and gives insider tips. Although that might sound pricey, it was a relative bargain in that it saved me days of planning.
Thanks to the packet, I could plot out an elaborate schedule that on most days included a brewery visit and every day involved tasting several beers, many of which are not available outside the region. The guide also includes small breweries I probably wouldn’t have found on my own, along with bars and restaurants that specialize in craft beers. (Despite Cohan’s lodging suggestions, I booked a mix of Airbnb stays and lower-priced hotels, with the exception of one of his recommendations.)
Selina’s role was to map our daily routes using the national Fietsroute, a marked and numbered bike network (“fiets” means bicycle in Dutch), paying attention to scenery, mileage and brewery opening times. By tour’s end, we’d cycled just under 200 miles over six days (low mileage for us).
We headed out on a Friday afternoon just south of Bruges, where we’d left our car. This was our longest cycling day, 52 miles, mostly through small villages and farms, passing fields of flax and Brussels sprouts (the name is no coincidence). We kept on course to arrive in Ypres for an event that marked a sobering start to the trip: the Last Post. This public commemoration for soldiers killed in World War I has been held every evening since 1928. Until researching this trip, I had scant knowledge of Flanders Fields, an area of Belgium that was under siege for four years until the war ended in 1918. Indeed, our beer-bike theme expanded to include a fair number of battlefields and burial places — more than half a million soldiers from more than 50 countries died in Belgium. Even today, farmers find bullets and sometimes live ammunition in their fields.
Each Last Post ceremony, held under the famed Menin Gate, includes buglers and a short reading about one soldier, but otherwise varies. The gathering we attended with a few hundred other spectators included performances by a university band and a marching band, both from the U.K. Afterward, several people placed poppy wreaths along the monument steps to remember loved ones.
Ready for a bit of levity, we visited the Times, a bar popular with locals just off the gorgeous historic market square and rebuilt after the war. We started with the locally brewed Wipers Times, a blond ale (“Wipers” was the British soldiers’ pronunciation of Ypres), followed by hoppy, bold beers brewed in the next day’s destination of Watou — a St. Bernardus Tripel and a Poperings Hommelbier. Hommel is the local abbreviation for humulus, the botanical name for hops.
Any questions I had about hops — the herbs of beer — were answered the next day at the fascinating and recently updated Hop Museum Poperinge, housed in a beautiful and aromatic 19th-century building that once held the municipal hops weighing and storage facility. The region, I came to learn, produces the vast majority of the 271 tons of hops harvested in Belgium annually, most of which go to regional breweries. I appreciated learning about the science of this plant, so perfect for the region’s fertile soil, and I especially loved reading about the culture of farming and harvesting that connected the community before industrial agriculture took hold. Not to be missed is the museum’s “wall of beer,” which contains hundreds of bottles from every Belgian province, many for sale in the gift shop.
From there, we dropped in on nearby De Plukker, a brewery run by organic hop farmer Joris Cambie. Tastings are held in a nondescript industrial building only on Saturday afternoons. We sampled a Keikoppenbier, a fresh blond, top-fermented ale and chatted with Cambie, who turned the family farm organic when he took over in 1993. At his invitation, we cycled through his 35-acre farm, passing tall, tidy rows of hops before heading out.
At this point, we made the agonizing decision to skip De Struise Brouwers, famous for its big, bold brews and barrel aging, in order to accept a challenge posed in Cohan’s guide.
“Like the idea of doing more mileage and hills?” it asked. “Consider cycling over the border into France to visit the Mont des Cats Trappist Monastery.”
On the 15-mile detour, we passed several war graveyards, by now a familiar sight, including Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery outside of Poperinge. The second-largest Commonwealth cemetery in Belgium is a solemn sight, with rows and rows of identical headstones marking the 10,840 mostly unidentified British Commonwealth soldiers buried here.
We worked up a thirst climbing the steep hill to the monastery, which welcomes the public to its gift shop and cafe. The abbey, known mostly for making cheese, in 2011 revived its original amber-beer recipe after a 163-year hiatus, although it’s brewed by another abbey. (Only 12 abbey breweries worldwide carry the Trappist label, which guarantees that the beer is brewed by or under the supervision of monks. That exclusivity gives the ales their avid fan base.)
We spent the night in Watou, a small, sweet Belgium town with a historic square ringed with restaurants and a large church. Dinner at our hotel on the square, Het Wethuys, included a crepelike “pancake” made of beer batter and stuffed with meat and vegetables, and two pints of their house beer, a sweet, earthy concoction brewed with local hops.
Sunday started with a pilgrimage to the Holy Grail of Trappist beer: Westvleteren, made at Trappist abbey of Saint Sixtus in Vleteren. Selina, who grew up a few hours north and used to occasionally purchase crates of beer to go, couldn’t believe how the beer outlet had transformed from a tiny shop in the woods to a tourist mecca, with bus parking. The modest-looking abbey, founded in 1831 by a monk from Mont des Cats, is private, but visitors can tour its lovely shrine to the Virgin Mary just outside the walls. Across the street is the modern cafe called In de Vrede, said to be the only place in the world one is guaranteed to find Trappist Westvleteren 12, Westvleteren’s highest-alcohol brew (10.2 percent alcohol). Some have called it the best in the world for its complex flavors.
We hoisted our famous froths in a toast with none other than our virtual guide Cohan, his co-leader Wesselink and their 10 Beercycling customers. A couple days earlier, after sending Cohan a note of appreciation for all the great intel, I had realized we’d be crossing paths at the monastery, so Selina and I planned to have lunch with his “10-Day Flanders Adventure Tour” group.
I ended up sitting next to Matthew and Suzanne Picard from Kensington, Md., who had chosen the trip to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
“It’s everything we love: beer, bike and Belgium,” said Suzanne Picard. “It’s our first group tour ever. We couldn’t have figured out the route ourselves, especially with all the little family-run breweries Evan is taking us to. It’s been great.”
After lunch, while folks waited for their hops cake and ice cream made with beer, Selina and I, just a teeny bit tipsy, sped off to one of the family-run breweries the tour group had already visited — De Dolle Brouwers (“the crazy brewers”) in the little town of Esen.
At De Dolle, brewmaster Kris Herteleer, who uses hops from Poperinge and brews with old-school equipment, told us his beer was more famous in the United States than locally. (It’s available in limited amounts in the Washington area.) During the tour, I struck up a conversation with a fellow American who turned out to be Michael Webb, a Capitol Hill resident on a research trip to the “beer mecca of the world.” Over fresh, hoppy ales in the brewery cafe, Webb raved about Belgian beers and told me he’d be paying them homage when he opens National Capital Brewing Co. in the District in 2016.
The next day was more about battlefields than beer as we visited two fascinating spots in Diksmuide — the Museum on the Yser and the hauntingly titled Trench of Death. The museum, until recently called the Yser Tower, is a 275-foot-high tower that looks both drab and regal and reigns as Flanders’s most nationalistic symbol in its struggle against the country’s French-speaking Walloon region. Visitors start at the top for an amazing 360-degree view, all the way to the North Sea, then work their way down the 22 floors of the museum, where exhibits detail the fallout from the war and also the Flemish Movement. A mile north of the tower are the famous trenches, along the Yser River, paths and tunnels (now re-created) used by the Allied forces for more than four years of fighting German forces, some of whom were planted only 100 yards away.
The perfect antidote to the grim reminders of death and destruction was a visit to the sunny seaside. We headed west through farmland until we reached the coast, where miles and miles of paved walkways and cycle paths were clogged with beachgoers and pop-up markets.
The last day of our tour started with a serene ride along a canal that took us directly to the bustle of Bruges, a world-famous and touristy medieval city. We started with a tour at the popular Brouwerij de Halve Maan (Half Moon Brewery), where it took the guide longer to herd our group of 40 than it did to explain the process at this state-of-the-art facility. Interestingly, its hops come from the Czech Republic “because of the price,” the guide said. For the tour-averse, Halve Maan has a lovely cafe with patio for imbibing. From there we hopped over to Cafe Red Rose, where Cohan promised I’d find the until-now elusive De Struise, the one whose brewery we bypassed for a trip to France. Indeed, the cozy cafe had a long list of options from De Struise and many, many others. I couldn’t resist the 2015 Aestatis, a strong, musty saison, while Selina went with a dark beer from Malheur, a family brewery in East Flanders.
After some famous Belgian fries, a must-do canal tour and a little strolling and window shopping (including at the Bier Temple Store), we were ready for our final stop to smell the hops, at Staminee De Garre. Tucked into a narrow alleyway hiding off the market square, this low-key, old-world tavern manages to maintain its local cred despite an ever-growing fame among hopheads. Stealing the show among De Garre’s 100-plus beers is its exclusive house beer Tripel de Garre, a hearty abbey blond served in a goblet set atop a paper lace doily, a nod to traditional Belgium lace. The nose was sweet and hoppy, a fitting farewell to Flanders.
Diane Daniel is a freelance writer based in the Netherlands. Her website is bydianedaniel.com.
Hotel O Ieper
D’Hondstraat 4, Ypres
On the historic market square, this 29-room hotel features a military theme, with breakfast and drinks on the rooftop terrace. Rooms from $100.
Brouwershuis (Saint Bernardus) Bed-and-Breakfast
Trappistenweg 23A, Watou
This spacious B&B run by Saint Bernardus Brewery is next to a field of hops. Rooms from $125.
Watouplein 17, Watou
One of Belgium’s first restaurants to cook upscale dishes with beer. Three courses with beer pairings, tax and tip, $75.
Cafe In de Vrede
Donkerstraat 13, Vleteren
The one place you’re sure to find Westvleteren 12 ale also serves tasty lunches. Closed Thursdays and Fridays, except July and August, when they close only Fridays. Sandwiches with abbey-made cheese from $6.
Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres
Free outdoor ceremony to honor World War I soldiers. Open 8 p.m. daily.
Hop Museum Poperinge
Gasthuisstraat 71, Poperinge
Open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Open for groups from December through February, except holiday time. $7 adults, $3.50 ages 6 to 25, younger free. Self-guided audio tour takes about 45 minutes.
De Dolle Brouwers
Roeselaerestraat 12b, Esen
Brewery open Saturdays and Sundays from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Guided tours in English are held on Sunday at 2 p.m. for $5.70, which includes one beer.
Brouwerij de Halve Maan
Walplein 26, Bruges
English tours daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for $9, which includes one beer.
“West Flanders Self-guided Information Packet” available from beercycling.com. Price of $99 includes email support and will be credited toward a Beercycling guided tour at any point in the future.