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FOMO? Back to Belgian Beer Festivals!

Bier van Olier Bierfestival photo Frank Debels
Bier van Olier Bierfestival photo Frank Debels

Paul Davies of AleHunters writes about the joys of being back in Belgium and going to the Bier van Olier Bierfestival in Sijsele.

FOMO. Or FOMBBF – Fear of missing Belgian Beer Festivals. Back in August we were spending a weekend at my Mum’s place in Wales. Looking out of the windows at the wonderful and persistent Welsh rain I stole a glance at my phone for messages and saw an announcement that Belgium had belatedly acknowledged the NHS Covid Pass and that travel to beer heaven was possible again. There was just one snag.

I had booked crossings and a place to stay for a 15 day break based in Brugge which was due to start that very day. But I’d cancelled the trip as we were still barred from entering Belgium. Talk about rubbing salt into recently opened wounds, sigh….

Coupure Canal, Brugge photo Paul Davies
Coupure Canal, Brugge photo Paul Davies

So after Wales it was back to work on the Monday – beer judging, brewery tours, more beer judging – but the FOMO knowledge that friends of ours from the US had already been in Belgium for two months started to gnaw away at me.

And finally we decided to book a last minute week’s trip to Belgium and cram in 15 days of activity into 6 days (excluding a day in quarantine).

Once the Covid pre-travel, during and post travel requirements were taken care of – half a day I will never get back – we were fit to fly. Or drive. And we finally made it back to Belgium. Just.

Triennial Brugge 2021 – TraumA
Triennial Brugge 2021 – TraumA

We managed to catch up with almost everyone during our brief stay. Museums that we previously failed to visit were ticked off. And luckily we were in town during the Triennial art installation and worked up a huge thirst walking the routes to view the exhibits – always a treat every 3 years. I even went for a swim in the canals.

Yes, in Bruges! For a number of years now the city has dredged the floor of the Coupure canal up by where it meets the Groenerei. As long as you don’t mind the cannonballing young lads or the occasional swan for company this is a truly invigorating experience. And the water tastes clean..

Bier van Olier photo Frank Debels
Bier van Olier photo Frank Debels

So after a busy week of walking, talking, drinking, swimming, eating, etc it was with anticipation that we waited for the (hopefully correct) bus to take us to the Bier van Olier Bierfestival in Sijsele.

This year it was located in a huge abandoned military barracks just outside the village, a suitable location in these times providing plenty of space and fresh air with both inside and outside seating, some children play areas and food.

My first Belgian beer festival for 18 months didn’t disappoint. This third edition (2020 was cancelled due to the pandemic) featured 18 small producers, many from within this part of West Flanders.

Evaluating the Apero Cult photo Caitlin Mackesy Davies
Evaluating the Apero Cult photo Caitlin Mackesy Davies

As in the UK beer festivals are a great opportunity to catch up with friends and many of our favourite small breweries were on show. Note: bring cash to buy jetons and glasses if you don’t have a Bancomat card. One of the highlights was recent World Beer Awards medallist Gigant, a small microbrewery based in Adinkerke.

Their Apero Cult is a ‘Piconesk’ beer using a contemporary range of hops and flavour editions to evoke the sensory experience of this cult French aperitif. 6.4% abv. Sure Thing is a ‘beachy tripel’ using Galician samphire and seaweed. 7.7% abv. Lovely folks and I really enjoyed their beers.

‘Research’ photo Frank Debels
‘Research’ photo Frank Debels

It’s always great to catch up with Kristiaan from Bar Belge especially after almost 2 years. It was even better to learn that he and Filip now have a site of their own in Zedelgem and that there are more beers sitting alongside their award-winning amber ale.

I tried their Bar Blanche, a refreshingly vibrant Witbier that should be just as popular as the amber. 5.8% abv. Its also impressive to see that they have added to Belgium’s rapidly expanding no and lo alcohol range with Bar BO, coming in at a gentle 0.4% abv.

No Dirk De Meester as he was away on holiday (ironically I had bumped into him at Bierhalle Deconinck earlier in the week). But his team had brought 13 different beers to the festival and were also sharing their space with Punaise, the bar who has been brewing at De Meester.I love Dirk’s beers especially his dark ones which are so rich and malty. But for a change I decided to sample his bourbon barrel-aged Maitre Tripel instead. Quality as always and a cheeky 9% abv.

It’s always a treat to catch up with Eli at Brugs Bierinstituut and I was interested you hear that he has been distilling during lockdown with the Belgian on trade drying up. I wasn’t in the mood for gin but knowing Eli I’m confident that his Den Yzeren Armgin which includes a distillation of his beer is a classic.

Robin and Yannick De Pelsmacker’s brewery ‘t Gijzelaarke is a four year old microbrewery set up by these beer-crazy brothers. I hadn’t tried their beers before and was mightily impressed by their 7.5% abv Dubbel.

Located just South east of Gent they suplement their Blond, Dubbel, Tripel and Saison beers with gin and cheese. Must be worth a visit! Earlier in the week I had the privilege to celebrate quarantine release with Jonas Schollaert at Cafe Republiek and ‘t Brugs Beertje.

A fellow beer nut and expert on all things Trappist, when not busy with his day job as a geography lecturer he makes excellent beers with his mate Tom. One of the best Saisons out there and I had a sneaky taste of their test batch DIPA which was delicious. Skollman are currently making their beers at Gulden Spoor/De Feniks.

When I last spent some time chatting to Franklin Verdonck, he was still working with Breandan Kearney and Siphon Brewing was firmly established at the eponymous restaurant just outside of Damme.

Things change quickly. Franklin has decided to go on his own and is hopefully moving to a new location in Gent. What hasn’t changed is the quality of their beers and his Zwaluw Rye Session Ale is a banger at 3.3% abv.

I was also lucky to meet his wife Kim aka Zytholicous. Hopefully the next time we meet up it will be in their new location. Jeroen Gunst one of De Vier Monniken was on form.

In fact Jeroen is always on form, such a nice guy. He was keen for me to try his newly brewed IPA yet was unsure that it had a big enough hop profile for the style. He needn’t be worried as it is a perfectly balanced beer and I’m looking forward to tasting it again when they start packaging it.

Other breweries attending the event included BramBrass from Zwevegem, Houtlandse Brouwers from Moereveld, Blommecaes in Gent, Beer van BruggeBrouwerij Ruimtegist in Kortrijk, Bieren Boels from Sint Niklaas, Castalia in Zonnebeke, Crystaklstick from Halle, Brouwerij Benoit in Kortrijk and Rostune in Beernem. Really well run, plenty of space, sparging stations for glass cleaning – all you need for a beer festival in these interesting times. Cheers!

Some of the photos used in this article are by photographer Frank Debels: https://www.facebook.com/DfVisions
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