The city of Ieper (or Ypres if you are inclined to follow the French) has been on the list for a weekend beer tour for some time. I love Belgium for a little break and I particularly like Flanders. In mid-November, I set off with a few comrades on Friday and headed in the general direction of Belgium.
After a pitstop in Cite Europe to load up on the recently released 2016 Beaujolais Nouveau and significant amounts of Bordeaux that should, in theory, see me through the Christmas period, we drove the short distance to Ieper. One of the crew had found a small apartment run by a potter called Stefan and it was comfortable and cheap. The apartment has everything except an oven, but definitely had enough to get by and self-cater on the gas hob.
There was no chance of us self-catering, however. Gentle reader, you should understand by now that we intended to spend most of the time out and about, sampling the delights of the Ieper beer scene.
After a wander around to get our bearings, the first bar up was Les Halles on the market square. The place has 30 beers on the menu and serves food. I decided to try the Belgium Meat Balls and I was disappointed. The food in Belgium generally is very good, but the sauce killed these meat balls for me. I should have played it safe and had the Stoofvlees which one of my brethren informs me was top notch. The burger also seemed popular with the other customers.
I started with a Westmalle Trappist Dubbel, a favourite of mine after my recent trip to Knokke and had a Kriek Max (a Cherry flavoured beer) to finish the meal. We then moved to St Arnoldus which boasts 25 beers on tap. This has to be one of my favourite bars of the trip. It is run by one lady working on her own. It seems to be a common thing for a bar to be run by one person in these parts, even on a Friday and Saturday night. I started with a Wipers Times. The British, who were stationed here during the First World War, could not pronounce Ieper or Ypres, and ended up calling the place Wipers. The Wipers Times was a newspaper for the British expats stationed there.
In St Arnoldus we came across the usual warnings from the staff about "sour beers". A sour beer is usually fermented by letting nature take its course and by leaving the fermenter open to let the natural yeasts fall into the brew. I suspect the untrained beer drinkers from the UK often complain about a sour beer being off, hence the warnings. I had a Grand Cru Rodenbach. I acquired a taste for the ordinary Rodenbach earlier this year - the Grand Cru is a level up.
By this time, it was nearly 8pm and we left in a hurry to go to the Menin Gate. This is a memorial to those who died in the Ieper conflict but have no known grave. The number of names on this memorial is staggering. You will see names from all over the former British Empire including Canadians, South Africans, Indians and Australians. Every night at the Menin Gate, the Last Post is performed at 8pm and wreathes are laid. I found this quite striking given that the events of Ieper in the First World War started over 100 years ago, yet they are still remembered and respected today. Indeed one local told me on the Saturday night that most people come to Ieper for the beer and the war.
Straight from the memorial, we headed to the Ypra Inn on the corner by the Menin Gate. Once again, we were warned off the sour beer but it didn't stop us. The service was very pleasant in here. We would have stayed but our itinerary dictated that we go around the block to The Times. This is more of a locals place run by a single bar man and we had one drink before calling it a night.
Up early and eager to go in the morning, we found breakfast a little hard to come by in the town.
There were many cafes open, but none seemed to do much in the way of breakfast. The market had food counters so we were able to get something in the end. The market is very good and I would love to have a market like this where I live. You can get everything you need there and I suspect the locals reserve Saturday morning to do the weekly shop.
The first order of business was to visit the Flanders Field museum. There were saw a comprehensive exhibition on the First World War. I have to admit I skipped some of it, because it is a lot to take in and there was a lot of human suffering in the war. After inspecting the Menin Gate in the light to find some relatives unsuccessfully, I regrouped with the other beer tasters in The Walker with a quick pitstop. Another locals place, The Walker serves just beer and we started the afternoon with a Quadubbel bottle from La Trappe.
Then we walked to the Hopperie. The bar boasts the largest number of beers in Ieper at 300. The decoy was a little rustic for me and they had only just opened for the day. We had two bottles in here before heading off. I had an Oude Gueze and then a St Bernardus Christmas Ale.
After a quick visit to the car to reset the parking clock on the dashboard, we headed to the Kazematten Brewery. The brewery has been installed into an old bunker. We had a quick brewery tour describing the process to make their beer. There's nothing particularly new here for me other than they spend a lot of time conditioning their water for the styles they produce and they lager their beer in tanks after the fermentation process has finished. The tour guide and brewer answered all my questions with enthusiasm. There was a second brewer there and I ended up having a conversation with him about the colour of one of their brews. Elderberries are apparently the ingredient to use to redden a beer. The brewery brews a beer called Wipers Times in honour of the newspaper I mentioned earlier. This place is definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.
After acquiring bottles from the shop, we pushed off to the Kaffee Bazaar. The staff in here were very friendly indeed. I started with a 13% stout called Black Albert. As we finished the first drink, one of the brewers from the brewery came in and had a drink at the bar. We were obviously in a highly regarded place.
Then we went to De Vauban for something to eat. This is more of a restaurant and three Stoofvlees (beef stew cooked in beer) were procured and consumed rather quickly.
One last place to visit on the list was the Old Bill, an Irish-style pub. The other customers were very friendly and we stayed for one drink. I had a VanderGhinste Oud Bruin. We called it a night for touring, but went back to St Arnoldus and then the Hopperie to finish the Saturday.
Roll on to Sunday, where we discovered that one of our party had purchased Kefir instead of milk when he acquired provisions for breakfast. Another of our party was complaining that his cornflakes didn't taste right. I popped out to find some milk and found a bakery open - their milk and chocolate eclairs were liberated.
After consuming cornflakes with the correct lubricant, we headed to one of the war graves where one of my relatives has a grave. It took us a little time to find the grave. The wind was very strong. After locating the war grave guide in the middle of the yard (most war graves in Ieper have a paper guide in a little cupboard) we located the grave relatively quickly. Once again, it was striking how many graves and names were there, particularly graves of unknown soldiers.
Then we headed to St Omer in France. There isn't much open in France on a Sunday so we settled for lunch and by complete coincidence we found a brew restaurant in the town centre called La Brasserie Audomaroise. I could not drink as I was the driver but I have three bottles to try from this place. I had a final Stoofvlees, here called Carbonnade but it was far too sweet for me. We headed home via Calais on the Eurotunnel.
Ieper is a nice town with plenty of restaurants and bars for those into beer. We suspect that most of the visitors are there to see the war history and pay their respects. Definitely a visit to the town gives a lot of food for thought and puts things into perspective.
One of the crew has written a Beer Guide for Ypres - you can find it on the Kindle platform.