Beer Cycling Through Belgium
Love beer? Love cycling?
Why not combine the two with a bike tour to Belgium’s trappist breweries. That’s exactly what Kyle & Briana did in summer 2010. They spent a week bike touring from one brewery to the other, seeing the traditional abbeys and tasting the results of the monk’s efforts.
“The route was enjoyable for the scenery alone and the prospect of another beer tasting at the end of the day made it one of my favorite tours so far,” Kyle wrote in a post describing the trip on their Roll Global website.
We were intrigued by the idea, and so we asked Kyle & Briana to tell us more about their trip.
1. What was the inspiration behind this particular beer tour? How did you pick Belgium?
As avid bike commuters and home-brewers, a bicycle beer tour seemed like a logical goal for a trip. We had both been urban riders for years but neither of us had any touring or long-distance riding experience and the flat terrain and developed bike infrastructure in Belgium and the Netherlands seemed like a great place to get started. The fact that Belgium alone has over 125 active breweries brewing world-renowned beers was enough to make our mouths start watering and our legs start aching for the trip.
2. How did you plan the trip?
While we had discussed the tour for a long time, we never really got around to planning it out until the last minute. Inspiration to travel and to change our lifestyle kind of exploded from the beer tour idea and next thing we knew we were no longer thinking about a 2-3 week vacation from work but rather a multi-year round the world odyssey, a marriage and a liquidation of most earthly belongings.
When the time came to start the tour we decided to focus the itinerary on the seven Trappist breweries, six of which are in Belgium with the remaining one being in the Netherlands. Planning the tour around the Trappist breweries provided an easy framework on which to build an itinerary and ensured we would get to taste some of the best beers in the world.
We scoured the internet for information on bike paths and route planning but found relatively little. In the end we mapped out the location of the places we wanted to visit and using a trusty 1:200,000 scale Michelin map and our GPS we found the best way to connect the dots. On several parts of the itinerary the breweries were a perfect day’s ride away from each other and in other parts we spent 2-3 days cycling between them.
See the Trappist Breweries Map created by Kyle & Briana
3. Did you follow bike paths? Was it relatively easy to navigate and stay away from traffic?
Our ride was an even split of bike paths and road riding. Our Michelin maps showed the major long-distance bike routes in Belgium and France and we generally steered ourselves towards those when appropriate. We were really impressed with the quality of most of the bike routes we cycled on. Many of them are converted railway lines and tend to travel away from development through beautiful natural surroundings. Following bike paths adds a little mileage but we considered it to be a worthwhile tradeoff.
When we were riding on the road we found that the pavement was generally of good quality and the traffic was low. We were easily able to avoid major highways and saw very little truck traffic the entire trip. It was definitely a great riding experience.
4. What did you typically find when you arrived at the breweries?
Well, planning a tour of the Trappist breweries is a little silly in a sense because none of the breweries are open to the public. Trappist beer is brewed by monks in abbey breweries using traditional methods that date back to the seventeenth century. The beer is produced and sold to support monastic life, a key element of which includes remaining closed off from the general public.
In most cases this means that you will only get to admire the often gorgeous abbeys from the outside, though Orval and Chimay offer access to portions of the abbey grounds. Most of the breweries have semi-official visitor’s centers where you can taste their beers and other Trappist products. Some of the abbeys, such as Rochefort, are located a short distance from the town with no services at the actual site. In this case the local town will invariably be home to a variety of pubs for you to choose from where you can taste the full selection of brews often paired with delicious local cuisine.
If you want to go to the Westvleteren tasting room (an absolute must on this itinerary, since it is widely considered to be the best beer in the world) be aware that it is closed on Thursdays and Fridays as well as the second week in April and the last two weeks of September.
5. Aside from the beer, what were some of the highlights?
At the end of a long and steep day of riding in cold rainy weather we pulled into a little town near Chimay and were surprised to see every resident out and about, huddling under leaky party tents, drinking beer and boisterously celebrating their local holiday. The very sight of the two of us, wet and dirty from our journey on the fully loaded bike made the entire crowd erupt in cheers. It was an uplifting finish to a trying day.
6. Give us one “insider tip” for anyone wanting to plan a beer tour in Europe.
It’s fun to plan an itinerary around internationally renowned beers but don’t let that focus stop you from slowing down and popping into a local pub to see what’s on offer. In Belgium especially, almost every little village in every region has its own beer. At the end of a long day drop in for a glass, make some new friends and maybe you’ll discover your new favorite brew.