Below is a summary of the final three days of my trip to Belgium, the first part of which I wrote about last week.

Day 3: Antwerp, Denderleeuw, Vleteren, and Watou

After a brief walk through Antwerp in the morning and a visit to the grand Cathedral, we headed in the direction of the town of Denderleeuw about an hour southward. This small village is pretty bland overall, but we were here to eat at De Heeren van Liedekercke, one of Belgium's noteworthy beer restaurants which easily had one of the best beer lists I have ever seen. Much of the Belgian comfort food they produce is cooked with beer as a principal ingredient, and I very much enjoyed a heavy potato gratin made with Orval, which they appropriately named orvaliflette.

{De Heeren van Liedekercke in Denderleeuw}

{Orvaliflette from De Heeren van Liedekercke}

Following our lunch, we drove down to the renowned Abbaye de St Sixtus deep into West Flanders, where we were lucky to get one of the few spots that enabled us to pick up a couple crates of Westvleteren 12 - the most elusive of beers brewed by trappist monks.

{Crates of Westvleteren 12 at the St Sixtus Abbey}

Though we did not open any of our 48 bottles of what is considered by many to be the best beer in the world - those are to be enjoyed over many years to come - we did stop by the delightful In de Vrede cafรฉ run by the abbey. Here, we had the chance to savour some Westvleteren 8 and Westvleteren 12, and sampled some of the local "paterkaas", cheese that is also apparently made by the monks.

{The Westvleteren paterkaas made by the monks of St Sixtus} 

Our next beer stop for the day was De Struise Brouwers, one of Belgium's most notable microbreweries of the last ten years. In a very unassuming environment, the jolly brewers themselves served us samples of their outstanding experimental brews, including Rio Reserva, an 11% abv Belgian quadruppel aged in bourbon barrels that emerged from a collaboration with the Japanese Rio Brewing & Co.

We ended our day in the small village of Watou, near the French border, which is home to Brouwerij Sint Bernardus and Brouwerij van Eecke, which we were unfortunately unable to visit. Still, we enjoyed a pleasant meal at another one of Belgium's premier beer restaurants, 't Hommelhof, where we ate some cod from the nearby North Sea and sampled some of the local St. Bernardus beers.

Day 4: Ypres, Veurne, Esen, and Bruges

We started off our last full day day in Belgium exploring some of the quaint villages of West Flanders, most notably Ypres and Veurne. Ypres was completely razed during the Battle of Flanders in World War I, but has been beautifully reconstructed with lots of character. The old town square of Veurne, bordered by a number of beautiful 17th century buildings, may be my favourite of the whole trip.

{Ypres' Cloth Hall that was wonderfully reconstructed after the destruction of Ypres in World War I}

{Veurne's landhuis (town hall) and courthouse in the central square}

{Tyne Cot cemetery, the wonderful memorial to the fallen Commonwealth soldiers at the Battle of Flanders during World War I}

After a forgettable lunch in Veurne, we headed to the isolated town of Esen to visit the brewery of De Dolle Brouwers ("The Mad Brewers"). We were fortunate to receive a tour of this fantastic brewery from the legendary brewer Kris Herteleer, who started De Dolle along with two partners in 1980 long before craft beer became popular. The quirky brewer walked us through the facilities, even taking us into the room where open vessel fermentation was taking place.

{De Dolle Brouwers' koolschip, where the wort cools and experiences a little bit of wild fermentation before }

Kris was also a pioneer in the barrel-ageing of beers, and one of the most fun parts of our visit here was spending time in the room where he ages the Oerbier Reserva beers in recycled red wine barrels from Pomerol near Bordeaux - he even popped open one of the barrels for us to taste. During the tasting session following the tour, he sat down with us for a while to further share his passion for brewing the best beers possible, with the freshest local ingredients (he only uses fresh hop flowers from nearby Poperinge - something few brewers still do) and aiming for the highest gravity (a measure of the density of beer in proportion to its water content). The beers we tried (Arabier, Oerbier, Dulle Teve, and Extra Export Stout) were ridiculously good, as expected, and our visit here was easily one of the highlights of the trip.

{Wine barrels from Pomerol are re-used to age some of De Dolle Brouwers' most special beers} 

Once we made it to Bruges, we spent some time meandering through its wonderful network of canals, and eventually walked into the lovely little bar named Staminee de Garre near the town square. Down a narrow alley, the bar is in a small three-story building with a warm atmosphere and an outstanding beer selection.

{The world famous medieval belfort of Bruges}

{Bruges' Groenerei canal}

The other noteworthy beer destination we visited in Bruges was 't Brugs Beertje, a very cosy little pub that had one of the best beer selections we'd seen on our trip. Great atmosphere and warm service helped make our stop here quite memorable.

{'t Brugs Beertje, one of Bruges' world-class bars}

Day 5: Bruges, Ghent and Beersel

On our last day in Belgium, we took a nice early morning walk around parts of Bruges that we hadn't seen the previous day.

{Old wooden building by Bruges' Arenthof}

Next, we headed for a quick trip to Ghent, where we sadly were not able to spend much time. We had been to Ghent three years ago together, but had somehow missed some of Ghent's most beautiful sights - which we made sure to check out this time around. The town has a lively historic center that I'm certain I'll be back to visit in the near future.

{Historic buildings of the Graslei, Ghent most recognisable quai}

For our final stop on the beer trip, we went to the restaurant attached to the Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen. Located in Payottenland, the heartland of lambic brewing, it is widely recognised as a premier lambic brewer, along with Cantillon and Girardin. All the beers we tasted here were simply amazing, and our meal of white asparagus ร  la flamande and a carbonade (beef stew) made with some of the Oude Gueuze beer was our favourite meal of the trip.

Favourite beers from Days 3, 4 and 5

Drie Fonteinen Kriek (from Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen; beer on the right)

This was hands down the best kriek (lambic beer aged with sour cherries) I have ever had. The beer has a soft, silky character from the cherries, and is enlivened through bold carbonation. The tartness from the cherries and sourness from the Brettanomyces bruxellensis yeast blend perfectly, and the delightful flavours linger on the tongue for long after a sip. One of the most thirst-quenching brews I have had. The Drie Fonteinen Faro (a lambic beer brewed with candi sugar) pictured in the middle, and the Drie Fonteinen Gueuze on the left were also outstanding.

Rodenbach Vintage 2011 (from 't Brugs Beertje)

This 3-year old Flanders Red Ale was really quite special. Though this style of beer is often compared to wine for its astringent qualities, rarely have I come across a beer where that vinous character was so present. Acetic acid flavours were dominant, as is often the case with Rodenbach beers, but the vinegar-like sourness was nicely balanced out by a soft oaky undercurrent.

Westvleteren 12 (from In de Vrede, pictured on the left)

This beer is widely perceived to be one of the world's best, and it certainly does not disappoint. Its texture is silky smooth, and has a very fruity character dominated by raisins, caramel, and a bit of spice. Its a lovely beer that is so balanced you can hardly taste the extremely high alcohol content (11.2% alcohol by volume). Its sister beer pictured to the right, Westvleteren 8, also comes pretty close.

2002 Orval (from De Heeren van Liedekercke)

Orval beer is already in a category of its own - it is a tart, vibrant beer that is one of the only, if not the only, beers brewed by trappist monks that undergo mixed fermentation (both spontaneous fermentation like lambics and top fermentation like ales). But ageing adds entirely new dimensions to it - the yeasts stayed active in the bottle, helping consume any residual sugars. The tartness mellowed and became more subtle, allowing the beer to become much more balanced and smooth while still retaining its unique character.