Once Upon a Time
As a just reward for graduating and surviving four and a half years at the University of Tulsa, we set out to conquer Europe as much as three 22 year olds can conquer a continent over a six and a half week period with a 60 liter backpack and a thick Lonely Planet guidebook. Our mission was simple. Visit Italy, Austria, Czech Republic, Switzerland, France, and Spain, and as the manliest show of manhood, our goal was to obtain as many phone numbers and/or email address we could acquire from girls and how many of these girls we could kiss. To the winner, the spoils of competition and pride of having beat our buddies. I won. The others claim they won, but they have poor memories.
This trip back in 2000 consisted of five extraordinary young lads and one slightly above average individual. This group consisted of Pepper, Gonzo, Jeremy (Pepper’s nine-fingered twin brother), Scuba Steve, Steve Paulakitus (friend of Pepper’s from their study abroad in England), and myself.
At the end of our epic backpacking adventure across Europe, Gonzo had already returned to the United States, so Pepper and I found ourselves one of the last days seated at a random bar in Spain talking about our college adventures and experiences at TU and the Philip Neri Newman Center, girls, and the future awaiting us after Barcelona. It was a moment of camaraderie at this pivotal point in our lives, transitioning from idealistic college guys to young adults. The conversation occurred over several mighty tasty and strong Chimay Bleu. Thus, there lies the role of Belgian beer in a friendship in 2017 and a trip on bicycle.
A lot has happened since that European bar seventeen years ago, as we’ve all had plenty of individual adventures and beers across the globe. Some of us have now found girls that will kiss us from time to time without having to ask for their phone numbers and actually want us to call them about sexy topics as shopping and diapers. Amongst us all, we’ve lived in Alaska, Peru, Cayman Islands, and Papua New Guinea, got even more edumacated, and traveled the world. Most importantly, at any given opportunity, we give the other guys shit and make fun of them over items as minuscule as their man parts.
In 2012, I decided to spend my 40th birthday doing some things that I love. Thus was born the idea of biking around Belgium to the various Trappist monasteries drinking that delicious homemade brew. Pepper was soon on board.
For a little more than the last year, Pepper and I have created and modified cycling routes, researched the best hotel options, and recruited friends and family to join in on the journey. And as a very organized fan of spreadsheets, Pepper made at least a thousand of them, and I made smartass jokes on every one. Joining Pepper and I are Scuba Steve and Jeremy from our first European vacation in 2000. My good teaching buddy Jason from the Cayman Islands, a recovering New York Yankee fan who has bettered his life by marrying a good ol’ Texas girl, will be coming with his other Yankee friend, Tom. We are an accepting group. Jeremy doesn’t have any friends, but at least his twin brother has a few he is willing to share with him.
Among the many resources we used in our research, one that we found entertaining was Harry Pearson’s travelogue, “A Tall Man in a Low Land.” It provided us cultural and historical insight to Belgium. He even took the time from reporting on local English football/soccer results to respond to a few of my inquiries on such important topics as beer and beer. We’ll take his advice and conduct our own on the ground research.
Our trip to Belgium starts with four of us boarding a transatlantic flight to Reykjavik, Iceland on the ever popular, Iceland Air, where we will pick up Jason and Tom and continue onto Brussels. Once on the ground, in typical Jeremy style, he will arrive last with everyone waiting for him. Here is the route:
Brussels – Bomal Bomal – Achouffe Achouffe – Bastogne
Bastogne – Rochefort Rochefort – Chimay Chimay – Brussels/Bruges
A Little History
Here is a little cultural and gastronomic background about Belgium. This country bordering the European giants of France and Germany produces many of its own unique homegrown products. The Belgians are quite renowned for waffles, chocolate, Audrey Hepburn, and most important to all of civilization, beer. After my own personal encounter with smooth Belgian ales in Spain by happenstance, it’s been my preferred beer among the multitude of various specimens offered around the world. Pepper states that his pallet has become more refined over time as he now prefers IPAs, but I feel that this is simply a result of overexposure to spicy green chili that has burned off the majority of his taste buds and along the way and unfortunately too many brain cells.
Let’s get back to the important business of Belgian beers. Beer is and has always been a cultural staple that bonds this multilingual region. The Trappist monks produced these beers for many reasons, but most of them for the noblest of intentions. The Trappist monks have used the production of beers to fund restoration of their monasteries or simply heal . . . the masses. Yes, curing the sick and saving lives with the simple ingredients of barley, water, yeast, and lots of love. As the Black Plague swept through Europe, their beer had miraculous curative powers. By providing Belgians with an alternative drink to that dirty, infested water, that may leave anyone drinking it in a state more dire than a hangover, they saved lives. Their delectable concoction prepared with boiled water and other life-giving attributes, resulted in healthier, happier, and living countrymen. It truly can only be described as a selfless act for the betterment of humanity. On behalf of humanity, I would like to personally thank you Trappist monks. I feel confident that this beer will protect me and my buddies from any illnesses we may encounter in Southern Belgium.
Arnold of the Abbey of Oudenburg near Bruges even insisted his parishioners drank beer instead of water, and became patron-saint of Belgian brewers as a result. – Harry Pearson
Trappist beers are highly regarded. There are eleven Trappist monasteries that have beers associated with their monastery. Not all of them still make their own brew in-house. Several have sold the rights to major conglomerates and receive a percentage of the profit. The Trappist monasteries are located mostly in Belgium with a handful in Germany, Netherlands, and recently in Austria, the United States, and Italy. BeerAdvocate.com, one of the prominent online beer critics consistently rates the Trappist beers highly. The recognized beers consist of Rochefort (the eldest from 1595), Westmalle, Chimay, Orval, Achel, La Trappe. But the western Belgian Westvleteren is king. It is often ranked one of the top three beers in the world. Not only is this Trappist beer excellent, the back story and the journey on how to actually acquire this unlabeled beer in brown bottles is just as enticing. Westvleteren is still produced by the monks, but in limited quantities. They produce just enough to cover the costs of running their abbey and regularly provide a list of their beers and dates that they will be made available to the general public. Yet in order to purchase your own little brown bottle of heaven, you must call their beer hotline at least two weeks in advance providing your license plate number and the exact date you intend to buy it. Upon purchase, the buyer agrees not to resell it. The maximum amount allowed per person is one crate of 24 bottles. Westvleteren is considered the holy grail of beers.
Page 232 – The monk grinned benignly at the thought, then, perhaps sensing he might be talking the Order out of a couple of sales he added, “The other beers are good too, though. Although myself do not like the Abt. To me it is too sweet. Far, far too sweet. It is a woman’s drink!’ The Westvleteren Act was nearly 12 per cent alcohol by volume. The monk had obviously known some pretty rugged women in his time. – Harry Pearson
Back in 2011, I already had my sights on the revered Westy. While studying abroad in Besançon, France, my only goal, other than actually learning, was to take an excursion by train to northwestern Belgium over a long weekend and finally acquire the sacred brew. As a result of various logistical and financial challenges and probably a few cognitive ones as well, I was unable to acquire it or even reach Belgium. I only made it as far as Luxembourg City, the capital of large wrist watches.
My second encounter of a barley kind was at my graduation from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Pepper so kindly gifted me four bottles of Westy. The topic of how he ascertained them is a bit murky and minor, and one honestly can’t be sure about many of things this guy does, but the Westys were tasty.
So the raison d’être for this journey is the pursuit of Belgian beer with friends and the finally having a Westvleteren in hand in Belgium. As you may have noted in our itinerary above, this soon to be forty-year old young man will not actually travel to Westvleteren. Thus, my last full day in Belgium will be spent in Brussels following the sage advice of Harry Pearson (we’ll see how sage it is if I don’t find any) to a few locales where one might successfully procure said Westy.
Cast of Characters
So who are the fools that agreed to go along with us around Europe, here they are:
Pepper, a.k.a. Dr. Matthew Pepper, a.k.a. top-selling author of such top-selling book as “Leading Schools During Crisis”. What other book topic would you expect from someone who grew up in the New Mexican public school system faced with daily conflicts (i.e. green chili shortage). He may be the smartest guy on the trip.
Scuba Steve, another holdover from our 2000 trip, worked at the Newman Center and years later served as a volunteer in Papua New Guinea. Pepper and I went to visit him in 2013. During our time in Madang, I cut an acre of grass in the Equatorial midday sun with 100% humidity causing me to sweat more than a fat boy running a summer marathon under the Dubai sun. Actually, Scuba Steve may be the smartest guy or at least the punniest.
Jeremy is Pepper’s twin, but he attended the prestigious University of Missouri-Rolla. In college, I’ve never seen a guy so excited to see a female in my life. The running joke about Jeremy and UMR was that “there were tons of girls at UMR, not just many of them.” You can easily distinguish him from his brother, he only has nine fingers. To his credit, he married himself an Argentine girl and moved her and the family to Texas. Definitely smarter than his brother.
Suva, not originally from the island nation of Fiji, grew up in Oklahoma. Like all bright people, he soon found his way to the great state of Texas. As a patent attorney, he would happily patent a bike technology that will carry his ass up the many hills on our first day of cycling. Suva also speaks a foreign language. His own. He speaks referring to random events and people that he assumes were familiar with and I’ve never heard of. Now this guy may be the smartest.
Jason is a great guy despite being from back New York, but with his Yankee mentality, you never know if he might just shank you for the fun of it. He and I met while teaching in the Cayman Islands, and we all always met up to play sports, talk sports, and bet money on other athlete’s prowess (fantasy football). Now he lives with his Texas wife and son in Atlanta. He is quite envious of his son’s full head of hair. He and Suva may be the smartest for marrying Texans.
Joining Jason is his friend Tom, soon to be everyone’s friend and highly respected simply measured by the fact he thought at least one of my joke’s was funny.
So what do you get when you put two Texans, three New Mexicans, two Yankees, and one Okie together on bikes drinking beer around the south of Belgium? I’m not sure either, but it should be fun finding out. I’ll let you know how it went in two weeks.
For over three centuries the Trappists did indeed work and live together in total silence. Nor did they eat meat, or in some cases even cheese or fish. This was partly the justification for brewing her: the brothers needed the iron and vitamins (a slightly more spurious course of reading had it that beer was permissible since ‘it is only liquid bread’. Which is true up to a point, though I’ve yet to see anyone staggering about trying to punch a policeman as the result of too much toast). – Harry Pearson