After a rousing breakfast surrounded by sonorous Flemish voices, I cycled my increasingly heavy bike through the Brouwershuis’ verdant gate. In one day I’d added the weight of a dozen beer bottles, and it was starting to take a toll on the handling of the bike. Fortunately I hadn’t much farther to go, and quickly I came to the city of Poperinge.
I left Johannes’ home bound for breweries and hop fields. My second day of riding (the map of my full route is in Part 1) would take me past De Dolle Brouwers and De Struise Brouwers before having a rest at In De Vrede, the café of Sint-Sixtusabdij, and finally coming to Brouwerij Sint-Bernardus where I would spend the night in the heart of the hop-growing region of Belgium called Poperinge. Unfortunately the first two breweries only open up their taprooms and tours on weekends, but as Johannes said before I pedaled away, “You never know – maybe they’ll see your cycle and the rain and feel sympathetic.” With that hope, I headed in the direction of Esen.
I took off from Brugge along a broad canal headed in the direction of the Zwin. By my guess, the channel used to bring ships in from the coast via the Zwin back when Brugge was a major inland port, but over time the Zwin silted up and Brugge lost its status as a hot spot of trade. But the Zwin still sees its fair share of comings and goings, only these days the traffic is comprised of birds rather than ships. It brought me to the northernmost corner of West Flanders, so much that I crossed into the Netherlands and back into Belgium twice in the course of cycling there.
Henri Maes opened Brouwerij De Halve Maan in 1856 on the promise from his uncle of a contract to supply Sint-Janshospitaal in Brugge with beer. High above the houses, on the edge of the small city, the rooftop of the brewery offers what may be the best view of the contortion of canals, cobbles, gables, and red-shingled roofs. Some of the shingles are new, but each house wears the same uniform cap.
There being so many farms in Norfolk, one might wonder just what they’re growing. After my own heart, the farmers of Norfolk produce much of the barley Crisp turns into high quality English malts that I’ve used in my own beers in Brooklyn. Branthill Farms supplies over a dozen brewers in Norfolk with Maris Otter malt and operates The Real Ale Shop and solar-powered Branthill Micro Maltings. Naturally, to better get a taste for Norfolk, I made finding the shop a high priority.
It is taking me quite awhile to acclimate to cooking in England. The kitchen here is not well-stocked on cookware, and many of the pieces of equipment I use most often in the US are not easy to find at an affordable price. When I have found a deal, it has more than once come at the cost of horrendous quality. A cast iron skillet was high on my priority list, but the first one I order (for a bit more than a standard Lodge cast iron in the US) cracked while I was seasoning it. However, failure on this front was not an option.
Even before I stepped off the S-Bahn into central Berlin and was struck by the pervasive graffiti and street art, I saw a shocking sight. Two men chatting on the train, drinking beer. And more people drinking beer walking up and down the streets, or waiting for food at a truck. Jonas (a friend of a friend) told me that beer is regarded as a basic food in the German diet, and while there are special taxes on alcohol as in many other countries, the legal and cultural attitude towards beer is as relaxed as towards bread.
And many of my outings in Berlin were accompanied by beer. In Germany it is nearly impossible to escape lagers, which made me a bit uncertain about how happy I would be with my beverages, but I found them to be skillfully brewed and more interesting than I expected. I did eventually also manage to try some of Germany’s distinctive ale styles. But among the pils, helles, schwarzbier, weizen, and kolsch, one style stands apart as totally unique, sharing little in common with most well-known German styles (although somewhat similar to the obscure gose style), and the style calls Berlin its home. The Berliner weiße, a style I brewed before I’d even tried it, was the one beer I was determined to drink during my stay.