A Belgian Blonde in Limburg
Comparing our arrival in Belgium to that in Mexico six months ago paints the canvas in black and white.
In Mexico: we landed in Oaxaca at 10 PM, at an abandoned airport where everything and everyone lived in Spanish; Sara and I shared a seat on the bus (a van) burgeoning with bags and humans; we rode down dark dirt roads chasing stray dogs through the maze of wire fences and graffitied buildings; we bumped along for 1.5 hours to move 20 miles; last to leave the bus, we nervously walked with our 50 pound packs along a one light street searching for a red door and our home for the next month.
In Belgium: we landed around noon; the airport, clean and streamlined, seemed designed for efficiency; our rental car was waiting, we purchased a SIM card next to the rental car office, and had the option to do it all in English, Dutch, or French; we drove down the Autobahn to Zutendaal for a week-long house-sit; at the drive-way, the gate opened and our hosts greeted us, showed us around and introduced us to a dog, two cats, and two horses; we walked the dog down narrow paths through the woods in the failing light, sat on the couch with wool socks and radiant heat building, made room for the dog by our feet, and looked out the window at a Whitetail bounding as the evening drizzle pattered on the skylights, sounding like static on a record.
Besides the house-sit we drank a beer or two, chatted with some brewers, and circumnavigated countless roundabouts. Two days after landing we parked in a gravel lot outside the walls of a castle: our first brewery visit in Belgium, Ter Dolan. Among the pastures grazed by cows and the fields dormant no more, sprouting green shoots through the turned brown soil, the walls of Kasteel De Dool also sprouted, in the form of white washed brick, antiqued by unforgiving Father Time rather than a chic designer. As if approaching Camelot, we crossed over receding moat on a stone bridge, towards the sally port leading to a courtyard. Just before the keystone, I glanced right to a plaque reading “Kasteel Brouwery.” Through the port I saw the castle in front, brewery on the right, pub to the left, and patio between it all.
We walked into the pub. A new fire sparked and cracked at the entrance as background for the guttural Dutch spoken inside. The draft tower rose from the center of the long, narrow bar; six taps branched from the center of the tower; two were pulled when we ordered a couple beers and asked the bartender for Mieke, the owner. I held a hoppy blonde named Armand, unfiltered and dry hopped with American hops. Taking in the long, window lined barn, natural light penetrated from nearly every angle as I inhaled the dry, grapefruit aroma of Armand. The matte, dark tiled floors supported congregations of wicker lounge chairs with tables and high tops surrounded by padded bar stools; all led in symmetrical lines towards the brick wall running perpendicular to the well manicured rows, all converging in linear perspective. The place certainly had a woman’s touch. I took a first sip of the beer and was surprised by the citrus rind and grapefruit with a background of cracker. This was Belgium after all: I was expecting more yeast and less hops. But this was Belgium after all, so expect the unexpected. Rules don’t apply to Belgian beer. What tastes good; what creates complexity in palate and aroma; what makes the drinker think? These are the questions a Belgian brewer asks. The finish kept me in place looking at the brick wall, certainly pulled there intentionally by the designer: a long subtle bitter, characterized by an orangey, white wine dryness cleansed my palate as I broke trance, turning around and walking back into the pub.
Mieke approached, introduced herself, and led us to the patio where we finished our beers before touring the property. Of course, we immediately asked how she found this castle and started brewing beer. Descending from a long line of brewers - grandfather, father, uncles, etc - starting a brewery seemed natural. An opportunity arose with the property when the family of a former Prime Minister of Belgium placed it on the market; rich in history and brewing tradition, Mieke and her family decided to make it a brewery once again.
The foundation of the castle dates back to 1107 (the year), while the farmhouse (where the pub resides) and the stables (the brewery) are a meager 380 years old and sheltered many a wandering monk throughout the years. The estate bounced around noble families, sheltered Nazis during the occupation, and most recently served as a retreat for a former Prime Minister’s kids and grandchildren. Now it is both Mieke’s home and her brewery. In 1993 they installed a 40 BBL brewhouse and three fermenters. The seasons christened them with fantastic weather that first summer of operation: their patio and courtyard overflowed with people, forcing them to redirect all output just to quench their thirsty brewpub customers. Now they export all over the world; however, Mieke focuses on her own community and believes the craft beer movement is only becoming more regionally and locally focused. “Before the Wars there were many breweries, and after the Wars few survived; now there are many again. When I go to another place I want to drink their beer. Underneath my own church tower I want everyone to drink my beer.” I asked her if she had to bring any of the beer to church yet. “The most difficult part is to convince your own people that your product is good. There used to be one hold out in my town, but they gave in,” she replied with a smile.
We stood up from our chairs on the patio. The bare grey trees, just beginning to bud, stood starkly against the bright sky-blue of Spring. Everything shined under the unobstructed sunlight: the grass a little greener; the sundry colors of the Castle's brick reflecting from the occasional patch of quartz or sandstone. The brick of the castle was beautiful - whitewashed in places and varied in color. Never a dull patch. On the ends of the castle two cylindrical towers rose and suggested spiral staircases with a large circular room on top, holding Goldilocks captive. Mieke and her family rebuilt the castle as their home while building the brewery. Initially, they all moved into the Chapel (which is now the office) and all slept in the same room. As they finished rooms within the castle, it slowly became their home: room by room. We walked around to the back side of De Dool, and I noticed how massive the structure was and thought of all the history that walked upon these 20 hectares. Behind the castle is a large grassy yard and beyond that wetland with a meandering stream running through and willows weeping on the shore. Beyond that the ground rises a bit and dries out and old, giant, vascular looking hardwoods wind up and out in arabesques, displaying their years and plethora of observations. If the trees could talk.
We walked through the brewery next. At the entrance, on the right, photographs depicting her family beer tree lined the wall. I saw a picture of her father who was so integral to the start of Ter Dolan. Along with helping start the brewery, he and a friend from Hoogarten, developed the recipe for Ter Dolan's first beer - their Blonde. Now his face anoints the glass which holds his namesake beer: the fantastic hoppy blonde called Armand. The brewery is a contrast between new and old, industrial and rural. We stepped out the door and back into the pub to sample the rest of the beers and have a final beer while we finished chatting on the patio. Regarding the brewery’s future Mieke replied, “I want to stay within the water running around our property here." The customers she has are great and she's had them for years. Demand continues to grow, but organically and at a manageable rate. She plans to pass the business on to her son and from there it's his ship. "It doesn't work with two meanings," was her reply when we asked what she thought about her son taking over. You need one captain to steer the ship. I lifted my glass in agreement and noticed the yellow blossoms on a shrub disappear into the golden Armand in my glass.
In my short time around, Spring rarely proves enjoyable. Growing up, the pollen coated and layered the Earth; at college, the Hudson Valley only garnered a week or so of comfort and blooming between the cold wind and humid heat; in Italy I was either in Afghanistan (not a good Spring) or away; in Washington, it rained. In Belgium, I’ve watched the yellow-green, and occasional red, buds emerge from the grey capillaries of hardwoods. Every day the green grows and the sun warms. As the dog tugged on her leash I resumed walking along the dirt path through a silvan tunnel. The wind blew a sudden mist upon my face, and the sun broke a stubborn cloud. I sank in the contrast and breathed deeply, finding that evergreen smell pervading above the dead leaves. Spring was still fighting Winter. I love the in between time where, beneath a beetling brow and shielding hand, you witness the approaching and trace the receding. In the last year I’ve watched every season studiously, and for the first time, noticed the in between: the excitement of anticipation and celebration of culmination.