When I planned our Belgium itinerary, it included one West Flanders brewery tour day. Due to brewery logistics, we had one day where we could arrive in Poperinge, rent bikes and head up to Abbey Saint Sixtus in Westvleteren and De Struise Brewery in neighbouring Oosvleteren. The logistics appeared to be quite simple; as long as the weather held up (which is never a guarantee when in Belgium), we would have a few kilometers of biking to take us from one brewery to another. Logistics, of course, don’t account for drinking a few chalices of strong beer, buying eight bottles of beer and glassware and storing it on the back of your bicycle. The one thing working in our favour? Belgium is, for the most part, flat as hell.
Using a hand-drawn tourist board map from the Poperigne tourism office and a series of street signs, we tipsily made our way down seven kilometers of back roads and hop fields to the sleepy town of Oostvleteren. With some difficulty, we finally found a subtly-marked doorway that lead us to the promise land: De Struise Brewery.
Located down an alley and in a former school house, De Struise is a subtle brewery that makes not-so-subtle beer. They’ve quickly gained a cult following and have been named one of the world’s top brewers. Being from Ontario, we never had the chance to try Struise’s beer before going to Oostvleteren and based our visit solely on adventure and reputation. Before we arrived, I emailed Carlo Grootaert, one of the brewers, to see if we can get a tour.
Before our tasting began, I had to make a bathroom pit stop. The bathrooms are a (semi)converted old stable!
With my mind and my bladder liberated, I was ready to taste De Struise’s beer.
Carlo met us upon our arrival and brought us to the classroom. This wasn’t your typical tour; Carlo talked to us about his beer, gently opening bottle after bottle for us to taste, carefully eying, smelling and tasting his wares. Behind him was a blackboard that explained (kind of) the brewing process. It was like an alcohol-inspired version of Einstein’s theory of relativity.
The best part about our visit was how casual it was. Here we were, a brewmaster and two Canadian visitors, sitting in an empty classroom, sipping world-class beer and talking about beer. Two locals popped into the room and, knowing Carlo, told him about a French Trappist brewery they just drove to across the border. Out came a bottle for all of us to taste, and our party of three briefly became a party of five.
They brought a bottle of a new trappist beer, Mont des Cats. We split it among the room and, while it wasn’t earth shattering, it was a nice, clean drink.
It was at this tasting that Robin was introduced to one of her favourite beer in the world; Pannepot. Named after a traditional fishing boat from the De Panne area, Pannepot was a beer made based on what the brewmaster imagined that his family had brewed in generations past. Its a Belgian strong ale that has the characteristics of a stout without any stouty bitterness.
This beer is a real winner. It has nice, chocolately and fig flavours but is incredibly gentle and light on the palate. It has delicious herbal notes of cinnamon and coriander. Its smooth and not overly sweet, but is overly delicious. If it was available in Toronto, it would be our go-to beer. Its best served slightly below room temperature so the flavours can pop in your mouth.
Next we tried Pannepeut and Roste Jean. Pannepeut is slightly higher in alcohol than Pannepot and is a traditional old monk’s ale. This was a 2007 vintage (yes, you can age some beer very well) and it was interesting to do a horizontal tasting versus Pannepot. Roste Jean (“Red Haired Jean”) is brewed with Westvleteren yeast, so the yeast is what represents the beer. It has a delicious candy sugar taste to it and was another interesting offering from De Struise.
Part of appreciating De Struise’s beer is looking at its beautiful appearance. Hot damn…this picture’s making me thirsty.
We ended our tasting session before our legs were too wobbly. After all, we still had a 15 km bike ride back to Poperinge and had to protect our backpack full of delicious beer. We weren’t sure what to expect when we arranged to visit De Struise. We ended up leaving there with a great appreciation for their beer and for their bathrooms. Besides the excellent hospitality, we discovered that De Struise is one of our favourite breweries and look forward to the day when their beer will (somehow) make it into Ontario.
Photos by Robin
Text by Richard