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Cycling through Flanders, I learn how Belgium's beer heritage and its First World War history intersect

The Poperinge-Vleteren-Ypres loop is one of Flanders’ four beer cycling trails, taking us to some breweries that played roles during the war.

The Toronto Star, November 11, 2022

Just outside Poperinge, a cobblestoned town in the Flanders region of Belgium, the sound of cathedral bells chiming the quarter-hour is soon replaced by the lowing of cattle. They graze in clusters amid vibrant green fields, and some raise their heads in greeting as my husband and I cycle past on a narrow country road.

The bucolic farmland that pushes east toward Ypres grows cauliflower, sugar beets and potatoes — plus 80 per cent of the hops used to make the country’s famous beer. We’re pedalling toward the Sint-Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren, where Trappist monks brew the vaunted Westvleteren 12, often cited as the world’s best beer.

Our route is one of the Flanders region’s four beer cycling trails, and the one we have chosen is where Belgium’s beer heritage and its First World War history intersect. Admittedly, these two topics seem at odds, but I learned that some of the breweries along the route played roles during the war. My husband and I decided to embrace another Belgian heritage — cycling — and learn more on a full-day ride.

The 46.5-kilometre Poperinge-Vleteren-Ypres loop will also take us to the village of Woesten, past a Yorkshire trench dugout, and along the massive brick fortifications of the city of Ypres, which has been rebuilt exactly to its pre-war specifications as a memorial to those who lost their lives over a century ago.

During WWI, Ypres anchored the “Ypres Salient,” a bulge in the Western Front where Allied and German forces dug in for four years of trench warfare, with neither side making much progress. In the end, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians perished in what would become known as Flanders Fields.

As we near the Sint-Sixtus Abbey, a poppy-marked interpretive sign explains the monastery’s importance during the war. Not only did the monks care for wounded Allied troops at the abbey hospital, they continued making beer, going through 600 to 700 bottles a day.

The soldiers were grateful to have a cold beer after a long march to the front, but some of the officers worried the smoke from the brewing process might attract unwanted attention from the enemy. Still, production continued at a limited capacity throughout the war.

Now, visitors are no longer allowed inside the abbey and must sample the beer at In de Vrede, the neighbouring abbey café. And Sint-Sixtus only makes enough beer to support its operations and charitable causes; the monks’ first priority is prayer in a place of silence and contemplation.

The atmosphere inside the café is appropriately subdued, and sipping the historic Westvleteren 12, a strong dark ale, gives me pause. It’s hard to reconcile today’s peaceful farmland with the horrific events of 100 years ago. Even today, farmers in Flanders still regularly plow up human bones and artillery shells.

A sombre ride of reflection follows. I take in the horizon of fertile and fallow fields, brick farmhouses and spinning windmills, which appears never-ending. It’s difficult for a civilian like me to understand how troops saw any advantage in gaining the small, barely distinguishable rises.

Because of the flat landscape, it’s a quick cycle to Woesten, a village whose brewery was destroyed during the war. Since brewing beer is a Belgian tradition, it was rebuilt in a new location in 1920. Deca Brewery is now run by Nicolas Christiaens, a fifth-generation brewer.

“A love of beer is in our culture,” explains brewmaster Jeroen Steenkiste, standing next to a copper mash tun that dates to the 1880s. “Every small village had its own brewery back in the day.”

Steenkiste is honouring that tradition with a classic Belgian-style blond, a dubbel and a tripel, which would approximate what the brewery made historically. As a craft brewer, he’s also experimenting with a range of barrel-aged beers, like the delicious Vleteren 12. On Saturdays when the tasting room is open, it’s packed with tourists visiting the war memorial fields or cycling the routes, says Steenkiste.

Our easy ride continues all the way to Ypres, and the scenery gradually becomes less rural as we approach the city. In town, we pedal adjacent to a canal that parallels an imposing brick wall. The foliage-topped facade was built in the 14th century and once encircled the city.

Now, part of this ancient fortification houses Kazematten, the city’s only brewery. Kazematten means “casemates,” which are dugout-like rooms under the city wall, which now hold the tanks that create the brewery’s range of Belgian beers. A WWI black-and-white photo mural decorates a wall opposite the tasting bar; during the war, the building was used as a mess hall and dugout for some officers, explains Pieter Verdonck, marketing manager for Kazematten and its parent brewery, St. Bernardus.

“We decided to call our beers the Wipers Times because this facility was also used by soldiers to make a satire paper that was like an account of the war,” says Verdonck, explaining that British soldiers mispronounced Ypres as “Wipers,” hence the name. “They were laughing at their own misery, basically. They wrote that newspaper and printed it here.”

It feels a bit strange to sample beer inside a bunker, in a city steeped in such a sad history. Verdonck admits it takes a delicate balance to promote beer and a brewery that take their names from a bloody war. It has to be done in a respectful way, he says.

Afterwards, we cycle to the nearby In Flanders Fields Museum, which explains Belgium’s role in the war and the brutal battles that took place in Flanders Fields. The interactive museum lets us choose a soldier whose story we’ll follow as we tour past exhibits that set out a timeline, along with artifacts from the war.

Our soldier, a Canadian from B.C., dies on the front. Soon after that, we come across a giant display of the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written by John McCrae on the battlefront in 1915. The gravity of what happened here a century ago really hits home.

Later in the evening, back in Poperinge, I sip another Westvleteren 12 and contemplate our bike ride through history. I like to think that then, as now, these warming, malty beers — brewed in a place of reflection — provided a modicum of solace (or a small taste of normalcy) during dark times.

Cycling through Flanders' beer and war history

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