Some Beer & Bike rides do not turn out as planned.
On paper, this was a gem. And is a gem really.
Perhaps March 4 was a bit too early in the year to be overzealous about a Beer & Bike ride. But I’ve had pretty good rides as early as February is years past. I think it was the number 12 that blinded me to reality. 12 Celcius. The forecast for March 4, 2017. To a cyclist, 12C is often better than a summer day. Cool, fresh air keeping the body temperature stable. But not all 12’s are created equal. Especially in Belgium where the good weather is unpredictable, but the bad weather is not. As it turned out, my pilgrimage to a triumvirate of great Belgian breweries and a craft beer festival became an exercise of futility and bad luck.
The idea for this bike ride started from a poster hanging outside Antwerpen’s craft beer pub, Beerlovers Bar. The advertisement for the Alvinne Craft Beer Festival during the first weekend of March had me looking for the Bierhalle Deconinck on Google Maps. As I normally do with such a search, I begin to piece together a potential Beer & Bike ride. My eyes scan the vicinity for castles, breweries, scenic places, and historical sites. Within a minute, I knew this had the makings of a classic.
One of my favorite resources for planning rides is the Belgian Beer Routes Map. I could see that this area had not just small locally known breweries, but some pretty famous ones including a couple which brew some of my favorite beers. The three key breweries which would make the final route were:
- Brouwerij de Brabandere – makers of Petrus, Kwaremont, Bavik, and others
- Brouwerij van Honsebrouck – makers of Kasteel, Passchendaele, Brigand, Filou, and others
- Brouwerij Rodenbach – makers of Rodenbach
There was one additional factor in the planning. Media Markt, the local electronics conglomerate, was having a week of tax free sales. That’s 21% off. One item inflicted me with the fever and insanity that men get when they decide that they must have a particular gadget. And in most cases when this fever strikes, the item is not available at the most convenient location. The gadget in this case was the Garmin Edge 1000 bike GPS. The clerk at my nearest Media Markt informed me that the only shop that still had this in stock in all of Belgium was located in Roeselare. Roeselare??
And there were still 5 left. It was Friday, March 3. Finding Roeselare on the map, I felt a smile take form on my face. I knew my Beer & Bike route was complete.
I planned the route on my Strava page. The starting point was the Waregem train station and the end point Roeselare station. The final recorded distance was 57,8 km.
Key beer pictures are an important part of my travels. One particular shot that I planned for in advance was to get a photo of a Kasteel beer in front of the actual castle that is depicted on the bottle label. That castle is located in the town of Ingelmunster not far from the brewery. So at Antwerpen Centraal station, I purchased a bottle of Kasteel Donker and placed it carefully in my small backpack.
Flanders Fields American Cemetery
About 4km from Waregem station is this site containing the graves of 368 Americans who died in World War I. It is the only WWI gravesite in Belgium for Americans. The site was created in 1919 and I was surprised to learn that every Memorial Day (a holiday in the USA), a ceremony is performed here.
At this point the ride was going quite well. The sky was gloomy but still holding back the rain and the temperature was comfortable. However, before leaving the cemetery, the first sign of the impending doom would appear. I was reaching for a quick drink from one of the two water bottles mounted on my bike, when to my horror, I noticed that both water bottle frames were empty. I ran through the events of the morning in my head.
Putting the energy powder in the bottles.
Filling them with water.
Carrying them to my bike.
It was a fateful return to my apartment to collect a pen that led to my leaving my two water bottles sitting outside my front door. Curse #1.
Travel tip for cyclists in Belgium – make sure to take a pen with you if you are taking your bike on a train to sign and date your bike ticket. You never can predict the mood of the conductors. But don’t forget your water bottles!
With the majority of the bike ride still in front of me, I decided to stop in the next town and look for a supermarket. This was the town of Anzegem. The Anzegem Delhaize supermarket was the spot of Curse #2. I opened a pocket of my backpack to get cash to pay for a couple bottles of Aquarius (the Belgian Gatorade). I noticed immediately that I was short two (2) twenty euro bills I was sure I put in there. I envisioned myself back at the Antwerpen train station paying for my 2 euro bottle of Kasteel while 40 euros silently fluttered to the floor. I don’t know where and when it happened. But it happened.
Back on track with my two bottles of Aquarius and the knowledge of losing 40 euros, I headed to the next destination.
Alvinne Craft Beer Festival
At about the 17km mark is the Bierhalle Dekoninck. This is the biggest and best distributor of Belgian and craft beers that I’ve ever seen. As I roamed the aisles in awe of the selection, I was very jealous of the people with shopping carts and cars waiting outside. Meanwhile my backpack felt smaller than ever. Out of the several hundred possible choices, I did manage to narrow down my choice to two, Verdi Imperial Stout (Italy) and Folklore Stout (American).
Next door to the Bierhalle was the Beer Festival. At every other beer festival I have been to in Belgium, you arrive, buy your glass and tokens, and then get sloshed. Piece of cake. Looking around, I did not see a ticket booth. Figuring it was inside the building, I cut my way thru the cloud of cigarette smoke at the entrance and found my path blocked by a guy who could be security at Graspop Metal Meeting.
“Tickets.” Whoa, what?
“Where can I get tickets?”
“You don’t have tickets? Sorry we are sold out.”
Sold out. Curse #3.
Behind the black curtain hanging over the entrance where the security guy was standing were the beers from craft breweries all over the world. Beers that were suddenly out of reach. As I walked back past the crowd of smokers, it was as if I was suddenly surrounded by mocking smiles of yellowed teeth exhausting streams of more smoke. I got the feeling that something else foreboding was hanging in the air besides the stench of burning tobacco. And it came in the form of cold rain. Curse #4.
I was able to take a couple glasses of two “vintage” beers at a tent just outside the festival, but this came with very little satisfaction. The ground underneath the tent was asphalt and was quickly turning into puddles from the rain creeping in.
After leaving the beer festival, I stopped briefly at the Vichte Kasteel and then charged towards the direction of the three breweries. Whatever physical comfort remained by the time I got to Vichte was quickly eliminated by the rain soaking thru my bike clothes.
Brouwerij de Brabandere
Also known as Bavik Brewery, the makers of the excellent range of Petrus beers have their brewery in the town of Bavikhove. It sits at the 30km and just past halfway mark of this ride. The Petrus Tripel is one of my favorites and I regretted a bit that I did not bring a bottle to photograph, but it wouldn’t have been easy with the current state of my backpack. At this point, I was completely soaked from head to toe and I was starting to feel the death throes of all my toes. So I pressed on towards Ingelmunster.
Kasteel Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck and Kasteel Van Ingelmunster
After a long stretch of boring road, reaching Ingelmunster brought a revival of my spirits despite being cold, wet, and hardly able to feel my feet. As I crossed the canal into Ingelmunster, the Kasteel came into view behind a security fence and brick wall. It looked precisely as it does on the beer bottle and on the beer glass. The castle has been around since the end of the 11th century and since 1986 has been owned by the brewery. Except for a few days a year, the castle grounds are not open to the public. The castle itself can be rented for events.
This is the Kasteel of Kasteel beer. I rode my bike up to a security gate to prepare my beer picture, pulled the bottle of Kasteel beer by the stem from my wet backpack, and as I was raising it to decide how to frame the photo, I felt the bottle release from the clutch of my fingers. When a beer bottle is dropped, there is no time to wonder whether the bottle will absorb the impact. The ground was made up of tiny stones and any chance of hope was crushed with a loud pop followed by hissing foam. Curse #5 at kilometer 38.
Fortunately, just a kilometer away is the Kasteel brewery. This brewery is quite well setup for visitors. There is a restaurant, a gift shop, and an entrance for guided tours. At the Bier Boutiek, I replaced my smashed bottle of Kasteel Donker, consoling myself that it was more authentic than the last bottle. Then I headed back to the castle for the photograph.
Satisfied with my photo, I was feeling a strong urge to get the rest of this ride over with as soon as possible. Before the final brewery stop, it was a visit to Media Markt Roeselare.
The Media Markt stop is worthy of a story all its own which I will not share here. It appeared initially that the curse had struck again, but in the end, there I was soaking wet, legs covered in road-splashed mud holding my prize.
But with the prize and the warmth of Media Markt relaxing my body and bringing feeling back to my feet, I was now ill-prepared for the adjustment back to the cold rain. The ride to Rodenbach brewery was a teeth-gritting, shivery albeit short expedition.
I am not a big fan of the Rodenbach sour beers but they are an institution here in Belgium and part of the mystique that makes Belgium the best beer country in the world. The brewery sits on an old picturesque street which looks out of time. The character of the brick buildings reminded me that there was still room for one more chance to fulfill a pilgrimage. Alas today there would be no drinking a Rodenbach at Rodenbach as the visitor hall was rented out for a wedding. I guess you could call that Curse #6 although the restroom in the lobby took care of another problem and for that I could not complain.
With a little more careful planning and lucky weather, this would be a fantastic Beer & Bike trip, even without the beer festival. Some of the towns are worthy of a little more time looking around, especially Roeselare and nearby Rumbeke Castle, which I did not get to see. It would be great to plan this ride in conjunction with the opening of the park around Kasteel Van Ingelmunster. Longer rides can be foreseen to include Oudenaarde, which still remains on my bucket list. Also in the neighborhood of Vichte is Brouwerij Verhaeghe which I knew was closed on Saturdays and the rain erased any efforts of finding it. They are the makers of Duchusse de Bourgogne and Barbe beer, to name a few. So there are plenty of ways to make this an exciting Beer & Bike ride.
Despite the bad luck and weather, this ride will remain one of the most memorable. Every time I sip a Kasteel, in fact, and I hear the hiss from removing the bottle cap, I’ll remember when I sacrificed a bottle I carried all the way from Antwerpen in front of the security gate.