Monday, November 19, 2012

Familiar Faces in the Ardennes.

During the summer visit to Belgium I had a rental car for several days. The day I arrived in Luxembourg was not one of them. Starting that morning in Antwerp, I took trains to Gouvy. Then I hopped a bus to Houffalize, and from there lugged my wheeled suitcase down a bumpy path between pastures -- the cows were amused -- to the Vieille Forge.

The Vieille Forge is a B&B which is also home to the new-ish Inter-Pol nanobrewery, but I'll get back to that. This is in Mont, a village with a strategic location for beer travelers. From the lodge you can take a 15-minute walk through more pastures and down the hill to another village named Achouffe, which has basically been taken over by the eponymous brewery. Beer lovers can go to the Taverne there and enjoy Chouffe Houblon. Soup lovers who prefer copious coriander to hops can drink one of the other beers instead.

Here I wrote a rant about the travesty that La Chouffe has become. Then I deleted it. Much more interesting to talk about Pol's little brewery, as he puts it, the second largest one in the Achouffe valley.

Beer-traveler types were coming to Vieille Forge for years before there was a brewery here. Andy Neil, he of Bier-Mania tours, was the one who turned us on to it. Tine and Pol let us camp in the yard when the inn was full once, for the Grand Choufferie. (And what a piss-up that is, lots of folks drinking 8% Chouffe from kegs like it's lager, then attempting to climb stacks of beer crates. Highly recommended.) People came for proximity to Achouffe and Luxembourg's many natural charms, and for Tine's cooking, but they stayed to hear Pol talk about his brewery. He dreamt, then planned, then worked on that stone shed in the driveway -- the old forge itself. It opened in 2010.

The main two beers are the Witte Pol and the Zwarte Pol. The white is classic Belgian Witbier laced with citrus zest, refreshing, while the black one gets light sweetness from milk sugar and some bitterness from cacao. Both were intriguing and more than a bit mysterious, the types of beers you can sit and get to know over a couple of bottles. Neither was overdone in its spicing. Maybe Pol knows things that the brewery down the hill, where he leads tours from time to time, has forgotten.

Pol's beers (and those of the neighbor, and its parent company) are available at the Grand Café, the petit bar that takes up half the old forge. It opens Fridays and Saturdays at 5 p.m., very handy for guests who have been touring all day. It seems to have a few local regulars as well. Past and present brewers from down the hill have been known to appear.

It's worth noting that this makes a serviceable HQ for exploring the Ardennes, whether it's war monuments, trout fishing, or breweries you want. Or some combination thereof. Near enough are Trois Fourquets, Ferme au Chêne, Fantôme, Oxymore, and others.

Good thing my friends showed up the same night I did. With a car.


  1. La Chouffe have become a travesty!? Oh no. How so?

  2. Fair warning: We are fully entering the world of my personal opinion now. I won't pretend that my opinion represents any kind of conventional wisdom among belgophiles, or anything like that.

    My opinion is that virtually every glass of draft Chouffe I've had over the past three years has been borderline-noxious, overly bitter, schnapps-laced cilantro soup. Bottles have been a bit better, but even they are not what I remember.

    What I remember: a very fruity ale, moderately bitter, with some honey-like sweetness. The coriander was never all that subtle but it didn't dominate. The 75cl bottle was one of my favorites with a meal, especially sausage and stoemp, where the spicing became an asset rather than a liability. I used to really enjoy that beer. I had a relationship with it.

    I've got nothing against Duvel and I thought La Chouffe actually improved for a while after the purchase. It became more consistent. But now with the 33cl, the 75cl and the kegs, we are basically looking three different products made in different places, treated differently, and distributed differently. The draft Chouffe (which I don't believe is made in Achouffe, for whatever that's worth) has proliferated and is generally served ice cold in all sorts of bars and clubs where kids might want something of 8% strength in a cute glass. The 33cl also shows up on a lot of beer lists these days and arrives with suspiciously little yeast in it. The 75cl bottle -- at least some of which are still made in the village of Achouffe -- used to be the rule but now has become the novelty.

    But others are more familiar with the beer than me, especially over the past three years. Am I that far off?

  3. No, you are spot on! The draught version is thin and unpleasant. The 33s are gassy and sharp. Yet the Maredsous range produced at Breedonk are still favourites of mine.

  4. "Pol's little brewery, as he puts it, the second largest one in the Achouffe valley."

    LOL ! Sounds like an interesting man.