One of my favorite things about Belgium is the way beer and it’s religious history are so closely intertwined. Not that it is any surprise that beer and monks would be closely related. Monks have been brewing beer for ages, not just in Belgium, but all over Europe. Whether by genius of marketing or just plain better quality, the “monk beer” with the highest prestige in the world comes from Belgium. When you say Abbey beer or Trappist beer, Belgium is the first country that comes to mind. That is not to take anything away from the non-Belgian Trappist beers, but Belgium is the spiritual center of that style of beer-making.
Belgium gives the opportunity not only to taste many abbey or Trappist beer, but also to visit the namesake abbeys themselves. Perfect for a beer pilgrim like me. I prefer to do these pilgrimages by bike, most of the time organizing the route using Fietsnet. One such pilgrimage or Beer & Bike Ride, which I like to call them, occurred this past March. Total length of the ride was 52km.
After a miserable February and early March here in Belgium, March 15 presented the first opportunity of 2016 to resume my beer & biking tour of Belgium. As usual, it was highlighted by Belgium’s rich assortment of abbeys (or abdijen) and beer. The route that I organized was actually part of an official route called the Abdij route. Since I go by bike and do not own a car, I took the train from Antwerpen to the village of Diest for the starting point. The first stop was Belgium’s most holy pilgrimage site called the Scherpenheuvel or “sharp hill”. Don’t bother trying to pronounce it. For me it comes out like Scoop-n-Shovel or Schöfferhofer (which is a German weissbier). Legend has it that in the 1500’s there was a cross-shaped oak tree on the hill and to make it holy, a statue of the Virgin Mary was placed in the tree. A young brat tried to steal the statue and this quite upset Mother Mary. With nothing better to do, she miraculously taught the boy a harsh lesson by turning him into a statue. A few years later, some sneaky Dutch Protestants stole the statue, not sure if it was the original one or the poor lad. A few scuffles broke out between the Protestants and Catholics, which the Catholics won, and the statue was safely in the hands of the Jesuits. They had the final laugh in 1607 when they commissioned this church to be built in a shrewd marketing effort for the Counter-Reformation. In 1927, the church was raised to the status of “Basilica Minor”.
The next stop was the Averbode Abbey (Abdij van Averbode), founded 1134. Interestingly, the monks of Averbode are not technically monks, but canons. Canons differ from monks in that they are basically priests with their own parishes but living together in one community. While we managed to visit a small part of the abbey, we seemed to have missed the abdijcafe. Therefore an Averbode was not consumed at Averbode. A good excuse to go back another day. Averbode beer is not brewed in the abbey but at the Huyghe Brouwerij (the makers of Delerium Tremens).
Missing the Averbode cafe gave us extra thirst, and fortunately not too far away was a nice beer pub Bierkroeg Den Hulst. Beer Pilgrims rejoice! They have their own special house beer, a fine 9% Meroode Tripel. Meroode (or Merode) was the family name of the landowners upon which Averbode Abbey stands. They owned the property from 1887 – 1921, after which the abbey purchased the property back.
Feeling a buzz kicking in, it was off to Tongerlo Abbey. Tongerlo got the jump on Averbode by six years, being founded in 1128. Tongerlo also has canons and not monks. There are a few other beer-related abbeys around Belgium that are the same, the most famous being Grimbergen, Postel, and Floreffe. The cafe for drinking Tongerlo is across the street from the abbey, De Kort/Jozef, where I enjoyed a Tongerlo Prior. Tongerlo beer itself is brewed by Haacht Brewery. To read about my bike ride to Haacht brewery, click here. For more information about what an official Abbey beer is, please visit my post about Leffe Blond.
After 3 religious sites, the end of the ride was in Aarschot which is one of several Belgian towns with a name that can be associated with the ass. Ironically, a few pasty-skinned asses were on display in 8 degree C weather during a not-so-sexy catwalk show. From here I caught the train back to Antwerpen.