Summer has arrived in Belgium bringing with it an anxious buzz as terrace umbrellas have bloomed everywhere like fields of poppies. People, weary from 9-months of in-home beer drinking, have returned to our cafes and pubs to tempt fate at the 11th hour. Meanwhile writer’s block has seemed to be a far greater threat to me personally than any plague. Whether or not surgical masks have prevented deadly RNA virus strands from entering my respiratory tract, they are without a doubt doing a bang-up job against sentences, phrases, and ideas entering my brain. However, with the terraces open again, I sought some inspiration in a rural farming area in the Hainault Province of Belgium. Little did I know that inspiration would hit me like a ton of bricks. Or rather a 22-ton stone.
I have highlighted a lot of Belgian beer on this blog, pointing out how much I love the way Belgian beer names and labels often tie closely to history, places, and legends. But none of them can match the posterchild of clever marketing brewed by the self-proclaimed oldest brewery in Wallonia.
If the word Bush doesn’t make you think of the majesty of Belgian beer culture, then I don’t know what does.
Excuse me while I blow the dust off my dormant sarcasm.
Bush makes me think of a lot of things; however, none of them are associated with beer or Belgium. Not to be confused with Busch which makes me think of a cheap American beer… found in cans… in the cooler at Walmart… the kind that makes you look around before hiding it in your grocery cart… and then slinking towards the self-checkout hoping nobody sees you. But that’s Busch not Bush.
Make no mistake, Bush is no cheap low class beer. Bush is brewed by Brasserie Dubuisson who have been brewing beer since right around the time Napoleon’s mother was changing his diapers. 1769. According to the Brasserie Dubuisson website, the brewery originally was a castle brewery, but Holy Roman Empress Maria-Theresa, mother of Marie Antoinette, revoked the tax-exempt status of castle breweries. So it became a farm brewery until 1931, when they said screw the farming. Today the brewery restaurant, Beerstorium, sits on the site of the former castle.
There must be something in castle water, because like their Flemish castle brewery counterpart, Kasteel (brewed by Kasteel Brouwerij Vanhonsebrouck), the line of Bush beers all sit north of 10% alcohol content. But I find them more consistently palatable than the Kasteel beers which tend to have an overbearing sweetness, especially the dark version. So don’t let the name fool you. When you drink a Bush, it is as much a glass of great Belgian tradition as any beer on the market.
The name itself was instituted in 1933. Brasserie Dubuisson wanted a name that would take advantage of the popularity of English beers at the time. A curious oddity in the family of classic Belgian beers. The name has stuck, and I would bet that I am not the first American expat who has wrinkled an eyebrow at it for its puzzling Englishness. But the beer itself is pure Belgian deliciousness. What better way to come out of the pandemic darkness than to organize a Beer & Bike ride beginning and ending at the former castle brewery.
|Starting Point||Beerstorium Parking|
|My Moving/Total Time||2h27m / 3h08m|
It’s Not Just a Beer, It’s a Journey
A few kilometers before arriving, my gps took me thru some winding single lane farm roads before bringing me around to the Beerstorium parking area. It was not necessarily middle of nowhere but it certainly felt like it. The Beerstorium is an oasis camouflaged by fields of cows and barley. The approach by car foreshadowed the quilt of multi-shaded farmland that would soon blanket me in a sea of green.
The scenery was indeed lush as I pedalled thru one rolling picturesque field after another, only interrupted briefly by humble one-cafe hamlets. The breeze rattled millions of barley spikes bringing with it a swath of early summer freshness, occasionally with a hint of manure, the kind that farmers love and makes kids roll up the car windows.
While I had expectations of tranquil beauty, I had no expectation of discovering anything historically significant. I arrived at the first notable landmark of the ride, a small idyllic canal which I followed before veering off into a forest. As I came out of the forest, I found myself looking out over something quite curious in Belgium. A large body of water. The lake is rather redundantly called Grand Large. It is a man-made lake which is part of a canal system called the Nimy-Blaton-Péronnes Canal. This canal connects the River Meuse to the River Scheldt and runs right thru the heart of the coal mining region of the Hainault Province. The lake has huge locks on either side, and a hundred years ago would have been busy transporting large filthy barges of coal to the Scheldt. Today the lake seems mostly for yachters, picnickers, and cyclists.
A few kilometers after the lake, you reach a crossing marked by a tall standing stone off to the side. Nothing gives you that Where is my life going? vibe than an intersection in the middle of open farmland. When that intersection has five visible branches and is also called the Site of the Six Chemins (or Six Paths), that gives it an even more surreal layer of outcomes. There are indeed only Five Chemins. One of them must be lost to time and recovered by nature.
As shown in the Google Maps excerpt above, the name of this stone in French is La Pierre Brunehault. I thought to myself, why are they calling it The Peter Brunehault? Then it occurred to me. Peter. The Rock. Biblical apostle. I had never seen the use of the French form Pierre as literally meaning rock, or monolith in this case. But it is the Brunehault part that created the most intrigue. I happened to be headed to the village of Brunehaut and the Brunehaut brewery. Little did I know at the time, but I had come face to face with another medieval legend.
Brunehault (or Brunehaut) is French for Brunhilda, a name which is intertwined in both medieval history and legend. Historically she was a queen in the 6th and early 7th century when this area was called Austrasia. After her husband, Merovingian King Sigebert I, died, the politically savvy Brunhilda managed to secure the succession for her son, grandson, and great-grandson. This continually brought her in conflict with nobility until eventually she was executed. Depending on which source you believe, it was either by being tied to four wild horses and pulled apart or being tied to the tail of a single horse and dragged to her death. Either way, the standing stone is said to signify the location where this execution took place.
Where the name Brunhilda really reaches legendary status is in the Germanic medieval heroic poem Nibelungenlied where the real Queen of Austrasia inspired one of the major characters, Brunhild the warrior Queen of Iceland. The poem has further been immortalized in Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. One of the other main characters is Siegfried who is based on King Sigebert I. In the poem, Siegfried has an invisibility cloak, and his entire body except one spot is invulnerable thanks to the blood spilled from slaying a dragon. The only vulnerable spot was where a leaf from a linden tree had stuck to his skin prior to the bloodbath. In one scene, Siegfried, wearing the invisibility cloak, sneaks into Brünnhilde’s bedroom, beats her up, and takes her ring and belt. Later Brünnhilde finds out the truth from Siegfried’s wife, Kriemhild, who tries to sully Brünnhilde’s reputation by revealing the ring and belt. Instead, she essentially signs her own husband’s death warrant. It’s only a matter of time before Brünnhilde learns of Siegfried’s weak spot and the revenge plot is on. In the opera, Siegfried and Brünnhilde are actually in love and the ring was a token of that love given to her by Siegfried. But Siegfried is double-crossed by a rival into drinking a magic potion that makes him forget about Brünnhilde. When that fails to break up their love, Siegfried is murdered in the same way as the poem. The opera ends with the distraught Brünnhilde riding her horse into the midst of Siegfried’s funeral pyre. Say what you want about Wagner, but I like his version better.
So on the surface, it may just be a 22-ton standing stone where five roads meet in the middle of Belgian farmland, but it represents something far bigger. Meanwhile, the village and brewery that carry on Brunhilda’s name are just a few kilometers away.
Brasserie Brunehaut brews an award winning assortment of Bio and gluten-free beers as well as the line of St. Martin abbey beers. St. Martin is the name of the abbey in Autun, France where the real Brunehaut was said to be buried.
Continuing on from Brunehaut, I crossed a certain milestone in this pandemic opera that we have been living in. I found myself at the end of a small neighborhood and looking at a dirt road leading into a large open field. This nondescript spot in the universe happened to be the border with France. For the first time in nine months, I was crossing an invisible line into someplace other than Belgium. It was with great glee that I headed in the direction of a copse of trees and took a shady break to soak in a little long overdue French atmosphere.
The scenery on the ride back to the Brasserie Dubuisson did not disappoint but it was seriously time to finally put the Beer in this Beer & Bike ride.
For better or worse, Brasserie Dubuisson has carried on with their Anglophile beer name. But besides the Bush line of beers, they also brew Cuvee des Trolls and their newest beer, a saison beer called Surfine.
The first cold bubbly sip of Surfine, was invigorating. More than invigorating, it felt… well, normal. This is how a Beer & Bike is supposed to end. Sitting in the sunshine surrounded by the din of happy conversations. It was the modern world again, not the Monty Python Bring Out Your Dead world that we have been living in for the last 15 months. Exploring the past is much more enjoyable when the present day gives hope of making new memories. It was a day that was highlighted by a couple of history’s strongest women, Empress Maria-Theresa and Queen Brunhilda. But it was a fictitious woman that seemed to pre-occupy my thoughts as I was sipping that beer. It is impossible to see a standing stone and not be reminded of the Outlander series. Sassanach. Here I am, trying to do with my bike what Claire Fraser can do by touching a magic stone. Is it coincidence that the year Brasserie Dubuisson was founded, 1769, fits right in the timeline of the 5th season of Outlander? Yeah, probably. But it is fun to imagine that while the Fraser Family are struggling to survive in the New World, back in the Old World, Empress Maria-Theresa is reading the brewing tax laws for the Holy Roman Empire and having a conniption.