If everything goes according to plan, it shouldn’t take more than two hours to get from Brussels to Belgium’s Alvinne Craft Beer Festival. The festival, once known as the Pre-Zythos Festival, used to be held on a castle estate called Kasteel Der Lakebosschen in Oostkamp. To get there, one need only take a train from Brussels to Bruges, hop on the 21 bus to Ruddervoorde Leikendreef, and walk about 10 minutes.
It was said to be simple, easy, and stress-free. All of which proved untrue when my buddy Scott and I attempted the journey a few years back.
Scott and I both left the University of Tulsa for our semester abroad in Brussels. While we we’d barely been acquaintances before the trip, our mutual love of beer made us fast friends. Almost every Wednesday, after my French class and his Flemish class, we’d hop on the metro and go to one of the many storied beer bars around Brussels. In the middle of the March, Scott suggested we head to Pre-Zythos, a small gathering of microbreweries from around the world that was held every year before the much bigger Zythos Bierfestival.
Breweries from around the world would be present – De Struise, Alvinne, Thornbridge, De Molen and Urthel among them. While these all appealed to Scott and me, what truly compelled us to go was the presence of BrewDog and their obscene, 32 percent alcohol quadruple IPA dubbed “Tactical Nuclear Penguin.”
The first part of the trip — taking the train from Brussels to Bruges — went off without a hitch. It was the only part of the excursion that would have such success.
We boarded what we thought was the right bus. Being that I only spoke French (and you DO NOT speak French in the Flanders region of Belgium), Scott, armed only with a few months worth of beginner’s Flemish, asked the bus driver if we were on the correct line to get to the festival. She regarded us with an odd look, a mix of uncertainty and annoyance, then nodded.
The bus took us through the quaint town of Ruddervoorde, coming to a stop in what looked like the city center. The bus driver turned back to us and offered a noncommittal nod, which we took to mean, “this is your stop.”
We disembarked, and looked around. Before we left, Scott told me the festival was in an old castle. But we saw no castle. Just your average European small town with pastry shops and convenience stores and little houses. We wandered a little — hoping to find the festival hiding around some corner… but it wasn’t around the first corner, nor the second, nor any other corner in town.
“Scott, I’m not seeing any castles,” I said.
“Yeah, me neither,” he replied.
“So, this probably wasn’t our stop.”
“Yeah, I don’t think the bus driver actually knew what I was talking about when I mentioned the beer festival.”
Luck had not entirely abandoned us, however, as we were fortunate enough to meet a Danish couple who, like us, followed the bus driver’s misguided directions. They, being adults and smart and reasonable, were armed with a map. Through various hand signals and improvised sign language, we learned that they were heading to the festival, too. We asked if we could tag along, and they agreed. Or, at least, they didn’t say no. Waiting for the bus wouldn’t work. We weren’t sure of the timetable, and we couldn’t be sure the next driver would know where to go, either. So, we decided to walk. We traipsed through the town, hoping for a quick journey. It soon became clear that hope was in vain.
Quickly, the town faded in an eery dissolve. Roads gave way to unpaved gravel, storefronts became acres of untamed grass. It was spring, yet nothing was in bloom. Spring in Belgium, especially early Spring, means it’s only a little less cold. The sky is still a constant grey, the distant sun just barely peaking through at random intervals. Dull, sickly green pastures and trees not yet in bloom surrounded us. The crisp, cool air subtly stung our nostrils. It was the perfect complement to our already sour mood. We walked through this backcountry for several miles (nearly four, as I’d later learn), with no guarantee of correct course save for the Danish couple, who looked only slightly less uncertain than us.
“Are we sure we’re going the right way?” I asked Scott.
“That’s what they say,” he said.
“Are they sure we’re going the right way?”
This part of the journey is one long, lifeless haze. Unremarkable in every fashion. No view to appreciate, no hint of direction except forward, no reason to do anything except walk. There was one welcome break in this otherwise mundane stanza of our epic… It came in the form of a horse. I say a horse because that is the animal it most approximated. Yet, if Scott or the Danish couple had told me it was the last relic from the prehistoric era, I would not have doubted them. It was straight out of Neil Gaiman’s imagination — mud-brown with a pale blonde mane, it was a hulking, massive thing, radiating at once majesty and horror.
Onward we trudged, the horse blending into the rest of the forgettable portrait. The gravel was now just a hard dirt path, and while the view before us had revealed a few houses, we had yet to see a castle. At one point Scott and I made a decision.
“You realize, if we actually make it to the festival, there’s no way we’re ending with Tactical Nuclear Penguin, right?” I said
“Nope. We’re starting with it,” he said.
“We’ve earned it.”
Eventually, after several wrong turns and one angry farmer who thought we were trespassing, we arrived at the castle. As far as castles go, it looked more like an impressive mansion than a palatial estate. The main building looked to have all the ingredients of a castle – the large, pointed entrance, the obligatory siege tower, even a pond with ducks waddling about – smushed together to make it a “reasonable” size. A yellow-green lawn, not yet revived by the Spring sun, engulfed the estate.
Relief washed over us first, then joy. Anticipation fueled our footsteps as we rushed to pick up our tokens, then stepped inside the festival itself. To our left, almost immediately upon entering, was BrewDog’s table, and on it, our holy grail. We immediately asked the rep for a glass (though, just a six ounce pour, because we hadn’t eaten for quite some time and also were not so insane as to drink 13 ounces of a 32 percent beer even on a full stomach).
Time slowed, if only for a moment. We considered the glass, and the brown liquid now inside it. Then we clinked glasses, smiled, and drank.
Our eyes lie to us. There’s a reason eyewitness testimony is considered one of the least-reliable forms of evidence in a court of law. What we see in the moment may not be what actually occurred, and every second we’re removed blurs more of the details. Memory is not a playback of a video recorder, but rather a reconstruction. Perhaps the monolithic horse I saw was only a normal-sized horse, or at least just your garden variety Very Big Horse. Maybe the countryside of Ruddervoorde was a bit more scenic than I recall. It’s possible the journey to the estate was longer, and filled with even more detours, or shorter and straightforward. It was over five years ago, and though I like to think I have a very good memory, those sights twist and distort, even fade entirely.
But taste and smell are a completely different matter. The memories brought about by those senses stay with you, in searing detail, for much longer.
A hoppy, chocolate grenade exploded in my mouth. I wish there was more to tell you about the beer — what flavor notes I found within, the types of hops I tasted, how the chosen malts affected the flavor — but this is what I recall when I think of that beer. It is etched in my tastebuds and carved in the pleasure centers of my brain. It was not the best beer I had ever tasted, but I have not tasted one like it since.
When I think back on the beer, or when I am asked about its taste, I do not just simply taste the chocolate hop grenade. I feel the crush of gravel beneath my feet and the constant chill of the Belgian spring. I see my friend Scott, as delirious and happy as me, and I see the prehistoric horse. These sensations rush into me, momentarily thrusting me back to the estate. It is only then that the grenade finally explodes.
Five other alcohol journeys worth taking just for that perfect first taste:
Kulminator – Antwerp, Belgium
Tactical Nuclear Penguin wasn’t the best beer I had at the festival. The best was a beer called Earthmonk, a wild sour ale, from the tiny De Struise brewery.
You won’t find it in any liquor store in the United States. It only rarely pops up in De Struise’s web store. Your best bet of finding it, and many other extremely rare beers, is in one of the top-rated beer bars in the world, the cramped shop Kulminator in Antwerp. Be warned, though – Kulminator keeps odd hours. sometimes not opening for days. If you’re lucky enough to be there when it’s open, you could spend the rest of your day just sorting through their wondrous catalog.
The Bar at Vernadsky Research Base – Antarctica
This bar could also be called the Bar at the End of the World. It’s located in a tiny area in the research base. Suggested drink… the house-made vodka, crafted from glacial ice. You can pay either in dollars, or, oddly enough, women’s garments, which will be proudly displayed at the bar.
Bitter & Twisted – John St East Maitland, New Zealand
The beer selection is smaller than most festivals (just over 50 craft beers), but where else can you say you legally got drunk inside of a maximum security prison?
Albatross Bar – Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, Tristan da Cunha Island
Even an island with just over 300 inhabitants needs a bar. Just don’t expect a quick taxi or train to get you there. According to Atlas Obscura, in order to drink in the shadow of the volcano housed on this island, it “will take seven to eight days aboard one of the irregularly scheduled fishing trawlers which picks up locally caught lobster and drops off supplies.”
Beese’s Riverside Bar and Tea Gardens – Bristol, UK
Though not nearly as tough to get to as Albatross, the only way to access this bar is either via ferry or an ill-defined path. Bothing worth having in life comes easy, and the view alone from the patio of this bar is certainly worth the hardship.