Take a train from Brussels and you can be there in two and a half hours. Driving is an hour faster, but then you’d miss that distinct feeling of unlikeliness. Leaving the station, you look around to see that you’re in the basin of a lovely, thickly wooded valley bisected by a stream called the Lomme. This babbling water feeds the Lesse, which feeds the Meuse, which eventually flows into the North Sea.
Right there, across the road from the station, is the hotel Val de Poix, which can hold more guests than the hamlet has residents. From the back of the hotel an arched wooden footbridge extends over the river (watch the brown trout below). The bridge leads to a highly regarded restaurant called Les Gamines—“the Girls,” for the two sisters who run it⏤its existence here no more likely than that of the train station.
Picture windows over the river line one side of the restaurant. The rest is stone walls, and one features a neat stack of firewood. In the midst of the larger dining room stands a beautiful, shiny red meat slicer. The firewood and the slicer hint at the menu, which emphasizes local charcuterie and roasted meats. This is a restaurant du terroir, and the proprietors call themselves terroiristes—i.e. locavores.
The eyes of beer-preoccupied travelers are drawn to something else: One of those walls features a chalkboard map of Belgian Luxembourg, with 15 stars each marking a different brewery—Orval, Rulles, Achouffe, Fantôme, Sainte-Hélène and more, they’re all there. You can drink their beers with a sampler of dried sausage, fried croquettes of Orval cheese, or suckling pig from the rotisserie. Or in the fall, there is inevitably wild game, a specialty of the Ardennes.
Luxembourg province—which includes most of the Ardennes and its eccentric little cousin, the Gaume⏤is something like a Belgian Alaska. It’s the country’s largest province but also its least populated. It has nearly 15 percent of Belgium’s landmass but only 2 percent of its people, not counting the many thousands of clever Dutch tourists who flock here during summer for the hiking, biking, food and drink.
Those are facts. Here is an opinion: This part of Belgium punches far above its weight when it comes to great beers.
You can make an argument that they have terroir, too, but it depends on how strict you want to be about what that word means. According to some, it has to do with the people and their history rather than the soil. Tim Webb⏤my co-author on the Good Beer Guide to Belgium, and the man who started the book in 1992⏤is among those who believe beer has terroir, but “not for the soil where the grain or hops are grown, but for the people in the area for whom the beer is brewed, who shape by their cultural expectations how that beer will be.”
About those beers. I’ll mention a few.
Their chief is none other than Orval, that most idiosyncratic of Trappist ales with its bone-dry taste, its generous hopping and its edgy dose of Brettanomyces. It’s an important beer to Belgium but it’s especially important to this region, where I have seen locals enter ordinary cafés and toss them back like pils despite the higher price. These days, even many Luxembourg drink warehouses limit their customers to a six-pack each, since demand outstrips supply. Thankfully, it is ubiquitous in the region’s cafes.
The local palate is accustomed to Orval, and this helps to explain the character and distinction of other beers in the region. Another important factor is Orval’s own laboratory, which shares its testing facilities and house yeast with other brewers of Luxembourg⏤a major boon for smaller brewers who lack resources. The yeast it provides is not the Brett but rather the primary strain, less spicy than other Belgian brewing yeasts. It tends to produce a dry, clean frame for showcasing hop character.
Another seminal beer from the region is none other than fruity, spicy La Chouffe. It came on the scene in 1983 amid a tide of brewery consolidations and increasingly corporate beer lists. Along with contemporaries like De Dolle and Abbaye des Rocs in other parts of the country, La Chouffe would help inspire a generation of brewers who wanted to make and drink something different. Also influential: The beer’s convivial 75 cl format. It’s nice for sharing with friends over a meal but founders Pierre Gobron and Chris Bauweraerts liked it because the bottles were easier to clean.
They performed another feat a decade ago with Houblon Chouffe, among the country’s first (actually, La Rulles was doing it first) to give pride of place to citrusy American hops. Bauweraerts says that Duvel CEO Michel Moortgat enjoyed drinking Houblon Chouffe as they discussed purchasing Achouffe that year. Duvel Tripel Hop came soon afterward.
There are too many worthy beers to mention, but here are a few other highlights I’d recommend without hesitation.
- La Rulles Estivale is that brewery’s lightest offering at 5.2% but also one its bitterest at 42 IBU, balanced by a complex citrus and berry character—a product of both the hops and its open fermentation. It’s utterly quenching, and La Rulles’ usual 25 cl glass frankly isn’t big enough. More difficult to find but with more obvious terroir is Houblon Sauvage, brewed with foraged Gaume hops. It’s said to have a minty, herbal character, but I have yet to find the beer in the, er, wild.
- Lupulus is the flagship of 3 Fourquets, founded by Gobron after Duvel bought Achouffe. In fresh bottles, its smack of herbal, spicy hop-bitterness is more than enough to balance its mellow residual sweetness. It’s often overlooked by Belgian beer geeks because it’s widely available, and an attitude of “oh, it’s just another strong blonde ale.” But, in my view, this is one of the country’s most underrated beers.
- Sainte-Hélène Simcoe Lager is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s only 3.5% in strength⏤just to back up that whole theme of improbability. It also happens to be hugely entertaining, its aroma evoking more peaches than pines. You should not feel guilty about keeping a 75 cl to yourself, if you can find one. But drink it fresh.
- Bastogne has only been going since 2009, and brewer Philippe Minne is increasingly confident in brewing the stuff that he most wants to drink. His darlings include the beefy, balanced and impressive Ardenne Stout, 8%, but I lean toward the Ardenne Saison at 5.5%, amply dry-hopped and dosed with Brettanomyces at bottling for a huge aroma that mingles citrus, bookshop-must and barnyard. They harvested the Brett strain from the skins of local apples.
Again defying the odds, one of Belgium’s best beer shops is in the provincial capital of Arlon, tucked into the country’s far southeast corner. I asked Mi-Orge Mi-Houblon‘s Chris Gillard what sets the region’s beers apart.
He mentioned the presence of Orval for both its popularity and its lab as well as Achouffe. He added that in this region, “we do not have any traditional styles, like saison in the west part of Belgium, Flemish red and so on, so brewers just did beers.”
He also said that the personality of the people affects the personality of what they drink.
“To answer your question, you have to understand the people in Luxembourg, who are known to be stubborn,” Gillard said. “In this area people do what they want, without taking care to the fashion, buzz, hype and so on.” That’s why you don’t see many bland wheat or fruit beers, “but a big majority of beers with a lot of character.”
The same principle applies to those who make the beers. “When you speak to the brewers, they answer when you ask why they are making beers with this profile, ‘I’m brewing beer I like to drink.’”
It would be nice to think that all brewers should follow that philosophy, instead of allowing themselves to be steered by the latest fads and ideas from the sales and marketing departments. But could such a thing happen?
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