Beer & Bike: On the Trail of Adriaen Brouwer 

Introduction

Walking around my adopted home city, Antwerpen, Belgium, you will not get very far before coming face to face (quite literally!) with Antwerpen’s artistic legacy.

David Teniers, Anthony Van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens, Quinten Matsys, Peter Paul Rubens.

These immortal giants of Flemish art stand today as stone sentinels around the city reminding citizens and visitors that Antwerpen was once a cultural and commercial power in the late 15th to early 17th centuries.  There were so many great artists coming from this area during that time period, that today they are collectively called The Antwerp School.

Peter Paul Rubens’ iconic pose looms over the Groenplaats presenting the world to the Cathedral of Our Lady wherein hangs one of his famous alterpieces.  Teniers and Van Dyck spend their eternity watching mobs of giddy shoppers parading up and down the Meir shopping street.  Jordaens oversees Antwerpen’s antique district near the Sunday Market.  Quinten Matsys oddly guards a small quiet neighborhood in Antwerpen’s south (Zuid) district away from anywhere a tourist might see him.

This legacy is seen in other ways as well.  Everybody who visits the Cathedral of Our Lady has walked by the decorative Quinten Matsys well.  The house and workshop of the greatest Flemish painter of them all, Peter Paul Rubens, is a top attraction in the city.  The city’s Stadspark is bordered by Rubenslei and Quinten Matsijslei.  The city’s waterfront castle Het Steen sits on the Jordaenskaai.  Anthony Van Dyck is a Michelin-rated restaurant found on Antwerpen’s “secret street”.  Cafe Quinten Matsys claims to be the oldest cafe in Antwerpen.  If you visit Antwerpen and don’t know these names, you’ll miss a big connection to Antwerpen’s Golden Age.

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Rubenshuis on the Wapper

But while all of that is impressive, another member of The Antwerp School who is not as well represented around the city has bragging rights over the rest of them.  Adriaen Brouwer.  There is an Adriaan Brouwerstraat and coincidentally a famous landmark called the Brouwershuis sits on that street.  The house has nothing to do with Adriaen Brouwer but it once functioned as a pumphouse for the city water supply and as the brewer’s guild.  In the late 16th century, this pumphouse increased the amount of water that could be pumped to the nearby breweries allowing Antwerpen-made beer to take over a market which was being dominated by Germany and England.  The only relationship this building has with Adriaen Brouwer is that it sits on the street with his name and it is very likely that he consumed large quantities of the beer produced in the neighborhood.  And beer does have everything to do with the aforementioned bragging rights which I am getting to.

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Brouwershuis on Adriaan Brouwerstraat

Adriaen Brouwer

Despite the perfect last name, Adriaen Brouwer did not actually come from a family of brewers.  His father made Flemish tapestries, and fortunately his last name was not Tapijtwever or this post might never exist.  While Brouwer wasn’t literally a brouwer, he did seem to project his last name into his artwork.  While Rubens and Van Dyck were painting huge altarpieces and being commissioned for portraits by Kings and Queens, Brouwer was painting scenes of drinking and gambling.  He has only roughly 60 paintings attributed to him because he died at the age of 30.  Two of the best places to view his works are the Mauritshuis in Den Haag and the Alte Pinakothek in München.

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A Brouwer work on display in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek
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One of Brouwer’s works on display in the Mauritshuis in Den Haag

Brouwer was believed to have been born in the city of Oudenaarde, which lies on the western edge of the area known as the Vlaamse Ardennes or Flemish Ardennes.  He was living in Antwerpen when he died in 1638.  Internet sources indicate that he was buried in the Carmelite Church in Antwerpen.  But what internet sources don’t follow through with is that this church was demolished in 1785 in the aftermath of the French Revolution.  So don’t go looking for the Carmelite Church in Antwerpen.  You won’t find it.

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Carmelite Church shown on an old map – at the R
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View of the Wapper with the Carmelite Church in the left background

The Carmelite Church where Brouwer was buried originally sat just across the Wapper from Peter Paul Rubens’ house.  Today the site is a school.  What happened to Brouwer’s body remains a mystery.  I inquired with a couple of historical art-related organizations in Antwerpen who were helpful but not very encouraging that the answer could be found.  In any case, if I wanted to investigate this in the city archives, I would have to seriously improve my Dutch, not to mention my 18th century Dutch.  Perhaps his bones are scattered in rubble underneath the foundation.

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The site where the Carmelite Church once stood before 1785

While it is clear where Brouwer died, his birthplace is still more of an educated guess than proven fact.  In the 18th century, historians had proposed his birthplace as Haarlem in the Netherlands because of the similarity in his painting style to that of Frans Hals, who ironically was born in Antwerpen.  But it is widely accepted today that his birthplace was Oudenaarde.  It is just outside of Oudenaarde where Adriaen Brouwer’s bragging rights over the other Flemish masters of the Antwerp School is perpetuated.

In the form of….  Adriaen Brouwer beer.

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Rubens has the famous statue but Brouwer has the beer

Adriaen Brouwer beer is brewed at Brouwerij Roman.  There are two beers which have the Brouwer name, the Adriaen Brouwer Audenaerds Bruin and the Adriaen Brouwer Dark Gold.  Both are traditional Flemish Brown beers which means they are dark, slightly sweet and acidic.  In addition, a special edition whisky oaked winter beer, Adriaen Brouwer Winter Wood, was produced for the 2016-7 winter season.

None of the other famous Belgian artists have their own regular beer in Belgium, at least among the bigger commercial breweries.  Brouwerij De Graal makes a Jan Van Eyck beer but this is not one of their own designed beers.  It is a collaboration with a “Brouwingenieur” (Brew Engineer) to make a beer using some of the plants and herbs depicted in Jan Van Eyck’s famous Lamb Gods painting.  In 1999, Antwerpen’s own De Koninck brewery (now called Antwerp City Brewery) released a limited Antoon beer in honor of Anthony Van Dyck’s 400th birthday.  (Would I ever love to get my hands on a bottle of that!)  Otherwise the crossover between Belgium’s artistic and brewing heritage begins and ends with Adriaen Brouwer beer.

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Jan Van Eyck craft beer

Beer & Bike Ride

After the fun but slightly ill-fated Beer & Bike Ride #1 of 2017, Oudenaarde was a great candidate for Beer & Bike Ride #2 of 2017 and for some redemption.  This one would come with a slightly higher level of difficulty thanks to the Vlaamse Ardennes, the hilly region of Flanders whose climbs are part of one of the most famous bike races in the world, the Tour of Flanders.  Without considering whether I had the legs and fitness for such a ride, I mapped out six highlights on a 61km circuit and set out by train from Antwerpen to Oudenaarde.

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The first 4 kilometers didn’t reveal what was in store for this bike ride.  From the Oudenaarde train station, I departed along the Schelde river to the first highlight of the ride…

Ename (Site #1)

Ename is a sleepy little village whose name can be found on the range of abbey beers made by Brouwerij Roman.  The actual abbey which inspired the beer was the Benedictine Abbey of St. Salvador built in 1063 by order of Baldwin V the Count of Flanders to honor his father’s victory over the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III, in 1033.  Just like the Antwerpen Carmelite Church where Adriaen Brouwer was buried, the St. Salvador Abbey was dissolved and eventually torn down during the French Revolution.  Today it is an archeological site, which I regrettably managed to miss as I rode to the Ename village center.

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After a short photo stop, I set off from the village center and discovered quickly why serious Belgian cyclists flock to this region.

Kattenberg (Climb)

Looming ahead of me was my first test of the day.  The official Strava segment for this climb lists these specifications:

  • Distance:  700m
  • Elevation Change:  48m
  • Grade:  6,8%

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Atop the Kattenberg looking over Ename

After catching my breath with the scenery, it was on to the next beer pilgrimage.

Brouwerij Smisje (Site #2)

This microbrewery in the micro-village of Mater brews the Smiske line of beers.  Unfortunately, I arrived 15 minutes too late for the shop.

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Brouwerie Smisje

Moving onward, I grabbed some blueberries and a banana at a farm market for some extra energy and soon found myself rapidly descending into a valley only to find myself at the foot of another climb.

Arme Kleie (Climb)

According to Strava, this climb had the steepest grade of any segments that were recorded for this bike ride.

  • Distance:  500m
  • Elevation Change:  38m
  • Grade:  7,6%

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This was a tough one.  At the top of this climb is a nice Fietscafe Taverne ‘t Hol van Pluto but I chose to skip it and find a place further on to have lunch, which was Huys te Oudenhove in Sint Goriks Oudenhove.  This place had the best uitsmijter ever.

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After lunch, I was confronted by two more serious climbs before my next Beer Pilgrimage.

Slijpstraat (Climb)

Not the steepest climb, but the distance makes it an endurance climb (almost 1km)

  • Distance:  900m
  • Elevation Change:  39m
  • Grade:  4,2%

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This was followed shortly thereafter by the 3rd steepest climb of the day.

De Vlamme (Climb)

Literally meaning “The Flames”, it was an appropriate description of how my lungs and glutes felt at the time.

  • Distance:  300m
  • Elevation Change:  24m
  • Grade:  6,3%

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After those two climbs, it was time for a break.

Brouwerij Van Den Bossche  (Site #3)

Sitting at the very eastern corner of this bike ride is a village with one of those intriguing hyphenated Flemish names, Sint-Lievens-Esse.  The claim to fame of the village is the tradition surrounding the namesake of the village, St. Lievens (or St. Livinus).  St. Lievens was an Irish apostle who came to Flanders to preach the gospel in the 7th century.  According to tradition, he was murdered in Sint-Lievens-Esse, which presumably was called something else at the time.  St. Lievens is the inspiration for the Pater Lievens range of beers brewed by Brouwerij Van Den Bossche.  The village is so tiny that the brewery itself sits on a corner of the quaint main square.  Other beers include Buffalo, Livinus, and Lamoral.

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As expected, there was no visitor center, so the experience was highlighted by the photo opportunity.

Setting off in a southwesterly direction, the most thrilling downhill segment of the ride is between Sint-Maria-Oudenhove and the Sint-Franciscusinstituut.  This 900m downhill segment peaks at between -10 to -12% grade with an average between -6 and -7%.  Even applying a little brake pressure, I was getting up to 60 km/h.  I didn’t have the faith in my bike to go any faster.

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Sint-Franciscusinstituut

Shortly after the most thrilling part of the day’s ride, I reached Site #4.

Brouwerij De Graal  (Site #4)

If the Holy Grail is somewhere hiding in plain sight, then this brewery also takes after its namesake.  The Brewery of the Grail sits in a small Brakel industrial park in a plain looking warehouse as if trying not to be noticed.  I rode up and down the street a few times before I decided to snoop around the building that my GPS was pointing to.  Finding a few empty plastic beer crates stacked up behind the building indicated I was in the right place.  Generally on my beer and bike rides, I find many breweries which I never get to go inside, but when a side door opened up, I was greeting by the Master Brewer, Wim Saeyens, and for the first time of the day, I found myself inside a brewery.  While the building itself does not make for an interesting photo, being able to buy bottles of beer directly from the brewer is always a treat.  Wim was very friendly and explained a bit the characteristics of his beer.  I bought a bottle of Quest to take home.

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After leaving Brakel, I was quickly confronted with the longest climb of the day.

Kleiberg Brakel (Climb)

At 1300m, this monstrosity seemed never-ending.  Not only was it the longest climb but covered the largest elevation change of the day.  Not steep enough to force submission, but definitely painful.

  • Distance:  1300m
  • Elevation Change:  59m
  • Grade:  4,4%

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The good news is that was the last of the big climbs.  All that was left were the two Adriaen Brouwer-related sites.

Brouwerij Roman  (Site #5)

As mentioned before, Brouwerij Roman brews the Adriaen Brouwer and Ename beers.  They also make the Gentse Strop beer which plays an integral role in my Ghent post.  Other beers are the Roman brand of beers and Sloeber.  The brewery was closed but gave me a good opportunity for an Adriaen Brouwer beer picture.

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Roman Brouwerij and Adriaen Brouwer beer

Oudenaarde  (Site #6)

The bike ride came full circle back to Brouwer’s birthplace.  The main square is a typically beautiful Belgian square, lined with picturesque cafes and book-ended by the grand Sint-Walburgakerk and the city hall.

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Oudenaarde City Hall

I celebrated the 61km route with an Adriaen Brouwer Audenaerds Bruin and finished the trip off with a hunt for the object which is missing from Antwerpen’s collection of giants… a statue of Adriaen Brouwer.  Brouwer’s statue does not have the elegance or grandeur of his colleagues.  There is no pedestal and his figure is more life-size than larger than life.  But that seems to fit with his relative level of fame, and in fact you could say that the depiction of the man raising a beer stein would fit right into any one of Brouwer’s paintings.  In any case, until someone comes out with a Rubens, Van Dyck, Teniers, or Matsys beer, Brouwer beats them all.

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Adriaen Brouwer statue – holding a palette and a beer

Official Adriaen Brouwer Bike Route

There is actually a 31km route configured of Knooppunten specifically dedicated as the Adriaen Brouwer bike route.  For more information visit the Fietsroutes.org website.


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