Continental Car Rentals Pale Rider: Belgian Beer Tour
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Be they blonde beers or pale ales, Low Country pints are worth the trip. Mike Di Paola rents a car and sips responsibly
Belgium ruined me. I had been drinking beer since the Johnson administration, and legally since Jimmy Carter (Billy: best First Brother ever), but I'd never had a very discerning palate. Any mixture of barley, hops, water, and yeast would do, so long as it was cold and wet and infused me with a false sense of self-esteem. A chronic consumer of American beer, I could not have cared less about flavor. It never occurred to me that there was any flavor. Then I heard about Belgium, where the science of zymurgy is raised to an art form, the craft of beer making exalted as religious experience. Things will never be the same.
I made plans to do a beer tour of Belgium. I wanted a small but powerful rental—something to put the wind in my face. Renault answered that call with its Mégane Coupé-Cabriolet, a sporty little number with enough horsepower to jet me around one of the densest road networks in Europe but sufficiently nimble to thread the narrow byways of rural outposts, as the situation warranted.
Recognizing the obvious perils of a drinking-and-driving expedition, I plotted a sober plan to visit the six Trappist monasteries in Belgium that practice the divine rite of brewing. With a long history involving much trial and error, I've come to understand that sobriety and drinking do not mix. Keeping this in mind, I planned to adhere to some simple rules to ensure the safety of myself and my fellow motorists: one beer max, always with a meal or a snack, and at least an hour's wait before operating heavy machinery or midsize sports cars. Since I'm no monk, I would restrict incidents of crapulence to the evenings, when the Mégane was safely tucked in for the night.
Day One, 253 Miles: Achel to Rochefort
In the morning sun, cruising the outskirts of Achel, just south of the Dutch border, is a most pleasant excursion. The Abbey of St-Benedictus is like a fortress without weaponry: High, forbidding walls separate the men of God from the world of men. Saint Benedict—who presides over Trappists everywhere—glowers from his brick perch, a recessed alcove behind the gate. It is too early for a beer—by which I mean they aren't serving yet—and in any case, I have to drive the length of Belgium today. I sampled Achel's nectar the evening before, when the car was parked, its keys hidden for the night (I say that figuratively, since the Mégane has no key but a smart card and an ignition button). The newest of the six Trappist breweries, Achel puts out a brown and a blonde beer—after the first sip of which I understood that they are not to be gulped. You don't quaff something that's eight percent alcohol (about double the typical American lager), and you certainly don't chug down such robust flavor. The blonde has a hint of cloves, the brown a chocolaty richness. I found myself aerating the stuff by swirling it in its chalice and sipping it with an annoying sucking sound.