Brewing Up


Where: Namur, Belgium

Belgium has raised the craft of brewing to a high art; its outsized reputation in the world of beer is completely disproportionate to its size. Today it produces around 450 different brews, from golden pilseners such as Stella Artois, to light and effervescent lambics, to dark and strong double and triple bocks. Manual labor is considered a form of meditation by the monks, and they take great pride in their time-honored methods, zealously guarding their recipes and special strains of yeast. Brewing operations are a major source of income, helping the monasteries fund their charitable activities. Because they're such strict religious communities, the breweries themselves aren't open to the public -- but with a little ingenuity, you can get close to the source.

On your way from Brussels toward Chimay in southern Belgium, just west of Namur you can glimpse medieval monastic life at the 12th-century Cistercian Abbey de Floreffe (7 rue du Séminaire, Floreffe; tel. 32/81/44 53 03; www.abbaye-defloreffe.be). After touring the abbey -- which belongs to a less strict order than the Trappists -- you can sample some of the traditional beers still made at the Abbey in an old mill on the grounds.

In the Ardennes village of Purnode, tour the 19th-century, family-owned brewery Brasserie du Bocq (rue de la Brasserie 4, Purnode; tel.strong>32/82/61 07 90; www.bocq.be); their white wheat beers and blond Triple Moine are especially fine. In Falmignoul, check out Brasserie Caracole (Côte Marie-Thérèse 86; tel. 32/82/74 40 80; www.brasserie-caracole.be; call ahead for a tour), housed in a rustic 18th-century stone building; their Troublette white wheat beer and Nostradamus dark strong ale are complex and delicious.

From there, it's an hour's drive east to the Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Scourmont, where the monks have been brewing Chimay since 1862. You can't tour the brewery, so head to L'Auberge de Poteaupre, an old school that the monks converted to a restaurant-hotel, with plenty of freshly brewed Chimay beers on tap. Chimay's beers are color-coded: the red label is a double beer (7% alcohol), the white is a triple (8% alcohol), and the blue Grand Reserve is a dark strong ale (9% alcohol). Full bodied, with creamy heads and velvety-smooth textures, these are some of the world's great beers -- drinking them so close to their holy source may feel like a religious experience.

Information:
Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Scourmont, Route de Rond Point 294, Chimay-Forges; tel. 32/60/21 30 63; www.chimay.be.

Nearest Airports:
Brussels (138km/86 miles).

Where to Stay:
Auberge de Poteaupré, Rue de Poteaupré 5, Bourlers (tel. 32/60/21 14 33; www.chimay.be). L'Auberge des Bouvignes, Rue Fétis 112, Dinant (tel. 32/82/61 16 00; www.aubergedebouvignes.be).