After a Val-Dieu hike in December 2020 during the peak of Belgium’s 2nd lockdown, I was eager to don the biking shorts and revisit the beautiful yet challenging region around the Abbaye by bike instead. Val-Dieu has become one of my favorite launching points for my explorations of beer culture. It has some of the best atmosphere of any brewery in Belgium, starting with it’s remote location, well-preserved abbey, terrace cafe, and shop. It is the quintessential abbey beer experience.
While the hike gave a taste of the beauty and history of the area, exploring by bike gave the opportunity to really experience this crossroads region between Maastricht in the Netherlands and Aachen, Germany. Fortunately for beer lovers, the area has three well-established breweries each with their own unique character. But to get to all three by bike, a sum total elevation change of over 600m is required. I would say there were four “killer” climbs. That means beer on this ride was look but don’t touch.
- Abbaye du Val-Dieu
- Brouwerij Gulpener
- Brasserie Grain d’Orge
- View of Kasteel Neubourg
- View of Kasteel van Beusdael
- Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery
|Starting Point||Abbaye du Val-Dieu|
|My Moving/Total Time||2h48m / 3h47m|
|Eating Place||Several available such as:|
Cafes next to Klooster Wittem
It’s Not Just a Beer, It’s a Journey
Leaving Val-Dieu, you barely have enough time to enjoy the breath of fresh air in your lungs before those lungs have to kick the oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange into high gear. The first challenging hill is directly after Val-Dieu, thru the village of Saint-Jean-Sart. It reaches a 7% grade and lasts about 1.5 km. But at the end, the view is spectacular.
The second climb comes shortly after, from the village of Sint-Martens-Voeren until the Dutch border. The grade reachs 8% and covers about 2km with a short respite in the middle.
After crossing into the Netherlands, it’s an easy ride towards the city of Gulpen. It starts with a bike path crossing thru Dutch farmland.
The first beer highlight along the route is the Gulpener hop garden (hoptuin).
Right before arriving into Gulpen, there is a nice view of Kasteel Neubourg. It is a privately-owned castle which once served as a United States Army headquarters in World War II.
Gulpen reminds me of what I like about Dutch towns. They seem a bit more polished than Belgian towns. They have that old Europe character yet they also feel new. Brick in the Netherlands seems to have a different character to it than in Belgium, like it doesn’t age the same way or that the lines are slightly more perfect. I arrived first to the Kapelaan Pendersplein with its pub Tavern de Leeuw van Vlaanderen.
Just further on is the Brouwerij Gulpener. I wasn’t interested to cool down my legs for very long, so I made a quick visit to the shop. Gulpener brews an assortment of beers, not the typical Blond/Brune/Tripel variety like Belgian breweries, but more a mix of German, American, and Belgian styles. Pilsners, hoppy varieties, and bocks. Somewhat annoyingly served in 30 cl bottles as opposed to the 33cl standard in Belgium. Mentally, that 3cl seems like the difference between a quality beer buzz and a lackluster one. As I was picking out a couple bottles to take with me, my attention naturally was drawn to a variety called St. Gerardus. This is Gulpener’s line of abbey beers. The cashier mentioned that the abbey was located just outside of town.
Before heading towards the abbey, I passed thru the Markt. On a mildly warm early Summer afternoon, Gulpen was thriving. There was very little evidence that a pandemic was still going on. I was quite taken aback by how much it seemed that the Netherlands had thrown down their guard much more dramatically than Belgium, although we are catching up as I write this.
The next stop was the abbey Klooster Wittem which is dedicated to St. Gerardus, who is the patron saint of mothers and pregnant women. The abbey itself is not so impressive but it has a couple nice cafes adjacent to it.
Back on the bike path, the route passes thru some nice rural country on the way back to Belgium.
The third tough climb is the approach back into Belgium which reaches a 7% grade and lasts about 1km. Right at the border, there is a good view of the Kasteel van Beusdael, another privately-owned castle.
Back in Belgium, there is a roughly 4km climb, which is mostly pleasant. There is one difficult section which reaches 6% grade. At the top of the climb is the Brasserie Grain d’Orge. Grain d’Orge is both a brewery and distillery making several beers and whisky. There is a nice pub devoted to the brewery along the road. The brewery is around the corner and down the street where there is a small shop to buy the bottles.
After Grain d’Orge begins one of my favorite parts of the ride. It is a long uphill climb but very gradual, never exceeding a 3% grade. It follows a ravel or a bike path converted from an old rail line.
At the pinnacle of the ravel before it heads down into the village of Aubel, I hopped over onto the main road to take a detour to the Henri-Chapelle American Military Cemetery. 7992 Americans who died in World War II are buried here. This is the highest point of the ride.
After a visit with my heroic countrymen, it was a fun downhill ride into Aubel, a small town know for it’s cheese and sirop de Liège. Grain d’Orge brews the Aubel line of beers.
After Aubel, it is mostly downhill back to Val-Dieu where it is highly recommended to pick up their variety pack of beer. It is also possible to buy the Aubel and Val-Dieu cheeses and my personal favorite, the cinnamon- (kaneel-) flavored Liege waffles. This ride was a calorie burner so leave the guilt feelings at the door.
This was easily one of the most satisfying Beer & Bike rides yet. It is not often you hit three breweries with their own terrace cafes and shops open during the same ride (although I didn’t drink at any of them), and then you throw in two countries, two beer abbeys, an important American WWII site, beautiful scenery, and challenging uphills; and you have a ride that speaks for itself without my usual historical angle. I really didn’t find one for this post and I apologize if my commentary lacked my usual inspiration, which I suppose is appropriate when you consider the inspiration that went into naming a beer after the patron saint of pregnant women.