Monday, 28 September 2015

EBBC West Flanders Excursion - Part Two

De Struise Brouwers, Oostvleteren
Following on from Part One of the narration, we re-join the European Beer Bloggers on their West Flanders Excursion

Following our departure from the world-famous Abbey of Sint Sixtus at Westvleteren, our coach drove us along the winding lanes of this flat, but attractive area of West Flanders. After a detour to avoid a local cycle race, we arrived in the village of Oostvleteren, home to the now legendary De Struise Brouwers. Housed in an old school building, complete with corridors, blackboards and even the old school toilets, De Struise have acquired a reputation for pushing the boundaries of brewing. This has inevitably elevated the company to near “God-like” status amongst the beer geeks of this world thanks, in no small part, to reviews received and ratings given for their beers on sites such as Rate Beer and Beer Advocate, (see Hi-Tech Ticking). 
Corridors were never like this when I was at school!
 Quite a few of our party were understandably excited by the prospect of visiting De Struise, but I must admit that until this visit I had never heard of them. The coach deposited us outside the old school and we made our way across what must once have been the playground, to an old class room where we were met by one of the brewery partners. Unfortunately I didn’t catch his name, but he was very friendly and, whilst obviously very proud of the brewery and its achievements, he was very approachable and down to earth.

The brewery was started back in 2001, by two partners who owned an old ostrich farm. The farm had been converted into holiday accommodation for visitors to the area, and the idea was to produce distinctive regional beers to serve to the guests. Starting initially with wheat beer, the partners soon branched out by producing other styles, and since then have never really looked back.
Lessons - De Struise style

Until 2013, when they commissioned their own brewery at the “Old Schoolhouse” in Oostvleteren, De Struise functioned as a “gypsy brewer”, producing their beers at the Caulier Brewery in Hainaut, before moving in 2006, to the Deca Brewing Facility in Woesten-Vleteren in West Flanders. The company also have a shop in Bruges. De Struise are named after the old Flemish word for ostrich, which also is a contemporary slang term meaning "tough". Many of the beer labels feature ostriches, and the bird features prominently on their logo. The name “De Struise” translates roughly into English as "The Sturdy Brewers".

The on-site brewery can produce up to 1,000 litres of beer at a time which, if you’ll pardon the pun, is no small beer. The taproom has around 20 beer lines and after our host had spoken about the company’s history, and talked us through some of the beers, we were offered 8cl tasting glass samples of which ever beers we fancied.

For some people this was like being a kid in a sweet shop, but after several days of over-indulgence taking in some fairly extreme beers, the last thing I wanted was more of the same. I was actually taking notes at this stage, but although I have only written about three of the beers, I am fairly certain that I sampled more. The three I wrote down were: Havic Pilsner 4.5%; Oblis Saison 8.0%; RIP Dark Brown Porter 7.0%.

An impressive row of taps
The brewery has recently ventured into stronger and sometimes rather more extreme beers, with "barrel-aging" becoming increasingly important. As evidence of this, we saw plenty of old wine casks, stacked up in the yard. As I mentioned earlier, many of the party were in their seventh heaven here so I probably sound like a real philistine when I say I found myself yearning not for a super-strength barrel-aged imperial porter or a vanilla-oaked Chardonnay-infused Saison, but a good, a plain simple quaffing beer; something I could sit there and just enjoy, without overly challenging my taste buds, or other senses.

That statement is in no way intended as a snub, or a put-down to De Struise, who obviously produce a wide range of world class beers, but instead is more a reflection of the stage I had reached after five days of sampling, and on the whole enjoying, some of Belgium’s finest but often quite challenging beers. We were privileged to have visited De Struise Brouwers, at their “Old Schoolhouse” home, and to have been talked through some of the beers by one of the partners in the firm.

Chilling out in the old school yard
After thanking our host, and also saying goodbye to our guide, Johan from Poperinge, it was back on the coach. The combination of a warm early evening and a surfeit of strong beer was enough to send me to sleep, so it was quite a shock when one of my travelling companions shook me awake to announce it was time to get off the coach. We had reached the town of Roeselare, home to the legendary Rodenbach Brewery, and our coach was parked right outside the Eetcafe where an evening meal had been arranged for us.

I was still half asleep as we filed into the restaurant, and was not that receptive to the idea of yet more beer. I settled for a glass of water, along with a bottle of Boon Geuze, “just to be sociable”. After a fish-cake starter, we enjoyed a real tasty serving of that most traditional of Belgian dishes, Carbonade flamande. 

Suitably fed and watered, we departed the Eetcafe, and re-joined the coach for the short journey across town to the Rodenbach Brewery. I have written at length here, about our tour round this historic producer of classic Flemish Red-Brown Beers, so I won’t say anymore in this post. Suffice to say that after a late finish at Rodenbach, we were driven to the historic city of Bruges, where we were to stay the night.

A Belgian classic for dinner
It had been one of the best days out I have experienced in a long time, packing in several superlatives and, for me, some places that had been on my brewery “wish list” for ages. I’m certain I speak for all the tour participants when I give thanks to Visit Flanders, for organising the itinerary, and a special thank-you to Yannick, our ever patient, helpful and good natured guide who accompanied us every step of the way and who ensured that everything ran smoothly, and to time.

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