Trappist Breweries: An introduction

If there is anything about Belgium you should know, it is about beer (and politics, but that is a lot less fun).

There are upwards of 180 breweries and 700 or so different variations of beer in Belgium making it one of the worlds top places for true Micro-brews. One of the more famous variations of beer, and supposedly some of the tastiest in the world, are the Trappist breweries. These breweries are extremely rare: there are only 10 in the world and 6 of them reside in Belgium.

Brewed by Monks, all funds collected from selling the beer go to charities or to fund the abbey; so you can take pride in the fact that while you are enjoying your 8% brew, you are also supporting the abbey fund as well as charities from around the world!

Visiting Trappist Breweries
The ability to visit these exclusive breweries varies by the monastary.


Chimay is the most well-known of the breweries and exports to all parts of the globe. However, despite its global name, visiting the abbey/gift shop (no Trappist breweries allow you to take tours of the brewing process) is underwhelming to say the least.

For 6 Euros you can take a mini-self guided tour on Chimay and its charities, however, you will be done with the ‘tour’ in about 20 min. Attached to the mini display is a pub and mini-gift shop which allows you to buy suvineor glasses. Overall though, not worth a special trip if you only have a few days in the country.


Westvleteren, on the other hand, I would highly recommend. Famous among beer lovers, it has garnered many awards, including being named “the best beer in the world” for its dark, complex 12 variety.

The title, however, I believe comes from its exclusivity rather than actual taste. Westvleteren beer is not sold on the economy and it is one of the hardest beers to get your hands on. The only way to taste or buy the beer is to visit the small cafe attached to the monastery or schedule an appointment buy calling their appointment line – which is not always open. Buying the beer you are looking for (they have a Blonde, 8 & a 12) is not guaranteed either, even if you have an appointment to purchase a case. The monks brew a certain amount of each batch according to what they need to finance their monastery and nothing more. This modest beer industry creates an ever rising demand for their complex, interesting brews.

If you want a more inside look at how trappist beers are made, I recommend a trip to St. Bernardus. Only a few clicks away from the famed Westvleteren, it is rumoured that St. Bernardus has virtually the same beer receipe as Westvleteren as they both come from the same origins.

From 1962 – 1992 St. Bernardus brewed beer on behalf of Westvleteren. Then in 1992, Westvleteren broke away keeping to more traditional means of production while St. Bernardus expanded to international exportation.

Other Belgian Trappist breweries not mentioned above: Orvel, Westmalle, Archel


What’s the difference?
If you are a Bud Light type of person, you will be sad to know that your light lager goes bad after 9 months in the bottle.

Trappist beers (and many other Belgium brews), however, preserve similar to a champagne – and are bottled the same. Larger champagne bottles preserve the beer for much longer than your regular 12oz, lasting 5-6 years or longer. They also taste that much better and pack a heavy punch being fermented twice or sometimes even 3 times in the case of triples.

With so many beers to try and not enough days in the year to sample them all, Belgium is the Mecca for beer lovers.

The Flower Carpet Festival: Brussels

Since moving to Belgium, I have been pleasantly surprised with how many festivals, brocantes (Flea Markets) and WWI/I commemorations occur nearly every weekend.

Taking place only once every two years, the flower carpet festival is one of the more famous festivals out of Brussels.


Began in the 1970s, this floral arrangement is planted directly into the cobblestones of the Grand Platz. Months of preparation go into the design as it is all put together over a day and lasts for only 3.

The significance of this festival is in the primary use of the flower, begonia. Belgium is the worlds largest producer of Begonias cultivating nearly 60 million flowers annually and exporting to the likes of The Netherlands, France and USA.


Mark you calendars for the next one – August 2016. More info can be found on the link below.

The Road to Champagne

In April, I found out I got, yet another, assignment overseas. This time, it was to Southern Belgium working with our international partners at NATO. I am not quite sure how we pulled it off, but we somehow got the opportunity to go from one dream assignment to another.

Not to let an opportunity to be wasted, we took the move as a chance for a road trip from the northern UK to Southern Belgium with a key stop along the way — Champagne, France


For such a well-known, world renowned region, it is surprisingly understated – and simply – French. There are 2 main cities that you can stay in to explore the countryside, Reims or Epernay (plus Troyes, but I recommend one of these two). We decided to stay in Reims as it was only a 2.5 hr drive from our final destiantion.

Staying at a local B&B (, I felt like I had died and entered some sort of French Indie film. The B&B offered a croissant and coffee for breakfast, which you could eat outside in their peaceful garden or by the window in your room, locals could be seen riding bicycles carrying a baguette and the weather was a near perfect 70-75F.


There are tours easily booked for the large champagne houses in the region (your well known Moet, Dom Perignon and Gosset), but these are just store fronts with elaborate costumes and fancy glasses. I was interested in physically going out to the vineyards and observing the champagne process first hand.

This proved surprisingly difficult – I had envisioned renting a bike, biking around to all the vineyards, sampling, and biking some more. However, no vineyards allowed you to just ‘stop in’ for a taste. After finally finding a tour that would accomplish what I was looking for, I soon understood why this was such an impossible task.

There are 320 villages in champagne with over 5000 small producers, yet they only make up 10% of the market of Champagne. 90% of the champagne produced is from your large producers, which buy grapes from farmers in the region and process them in large, sterile factories, not located near their pristine store fronts. While these small, independent producers and growers make up a majority of the population, they are run on such a small, untouristy scale they have no capacity for receiving guests.


I got the opportunity to see this first hand through a highly recommended and wonderful experience called RAW France ( Not to be found easily on google, RAW France is run by Rachel, a Brit who fell in love with a local wine producer and saw the opportunity to share the independent champagne industry with the rest of the world.

Taking us on an individualised tour of Sacy, a small village outside Reims, whose whole town is involved in some way in the wine industry, I learned why independent champagne houses are so much better than your large, big name brands. All starting out as towns of farmers who sold their grapes to the large producers, local farmers in the 1950s looked at the price they were getting for the grapes versus the price the champagne houses were selling for the bottles and decided they could do better producing wine themselves, thus the independent champagne movement began.
(this includes all independent wine growers, select the region for the full list)


After showing us around the Wafflart-Briet patches of land spread out in sections over the hillside, we got to see the cellar where the fermentation process begins and where it all ends, in the labelling process. To top off the whole experience, we labeled our own bottles of wine, and concluded with champagne tasting and pairing on the porch of the family chateau overlooking the vineyards we just walked around.


The best part? You can purchase these bottles (of gorgeous) champagne for just € 15-20.Their competators? The same bottle (and quality) will cost you upwards of €100 from one of the large champagne houses. These grapes are taken from the same region, fermented using the same process; the only difference is the marketing. Also, independent producers do not exported; 80% of all champagne produced is drank by the French. They keep all the inexpensive quality stuff for themselves and export the rest!

(Not that I can say I blame them)

Frolicking through the Arctic Tundra

Iceland is a mystical country full of tall tales, natural beauty and wonder. Reykjavik, the capital city, falls directly within that description. Having more of a ski town/backpackers hideout type of feel rather than a national city, Reykjavik easily is one of my favorites cities (really towns) in the world.

I don’t know if it was the bearded-mountain-man/granola eating feel to the city or the fact that the population of Iceland is half that of any major city, but Reykjavik is the perfect place to start exploration of one of the worlds best places for natural wonders.


We originally got roped into traveling to the country through a groupon deal to see the northern lights. Sadly those suckers are a difficult thing to track down and only a lucky few get to see the colourful green hues. What we did get to do though was snorkel in arctic temperatures in one of the top 25 diving locations in the world, Silfra in Þingvellir National Park; see what all geysers have been named after, geysir and strokkur; cave underneath the frozen layer of snow and relax after it is all said and done relax in an outdoor arctic spa famously known as ‘The Blue Lagoon’.


Swimming in near freezing water? No problem, just put on a dry suit. Being new to diving, I had no idea that cold, glacier water often has some of the best diving/snorkeling in the world. Created by melting glaciers and cleaned naturally through hardened lava rocks, the water is as blue as the carribean sea. The surreal thing to all of this though is…it is snowing will you are swimming!


Losing feeling in my hands and feet, I was happy to end our 45 min journey and travel on to explore lava caves created nearly 2,000 years ago. Within these crevasses our guide shared some of the folklore of this ancient country. One of my favourites was the tale of the 13 Santa’s or more properly named ‘Yule lads’.


Iceland children do not have just 1 figure at Christmas time, but 13. These little guys are not the benevolent image known today by children, but mischievous trolls that will take you things, leave a potato in your shoe and generally haze you if you have been a bad boy or girl. Utilised a tool for scaring children into obdience, modern Yule lads have morphed into a much nicer version compared to their original creation.


Moving from folklore and freezing tempatures, my partner and I took to the road and drove the famous ‘Golden Circle’. Hitting 3 crucial stops Þingvellir National Park, home to the first commonwealth/democracy established in Iceland, Gulffoss waterfall, and Geysir and strokkur. Geysir was the first geyser to be documented and thus shaped the modern english word ‘geyser’. The name Geysir itself is derived from the Icelandic verb geysa, “to gush”, the verb from Old Norse.


Rounding out our adventure holiday, we took a break in one of worlds most famous geothermal spa’s, the Blue Lagoon. Heated by volcanic lava that is circulated every 2 days, the waters contain high levels of silica and sulphur that are meant to be extremely good for the skin, including having the ability to cure skin diseases such as psoriasis.


Aside from the sheer beauty of sitting in warm blue water amidst snowing mountain caps, they also offer in-water massages. Being a bit of a spa enthusiast, I was not going to let this unique opportunity pass me by, so I signed up for the ‘Silica indulgence’. Weirdly floating in this warm water, yet cold air, I will have to say it makes the top 5 of most interesting massages (with the Korean scrub down being the best) – but I don’t know if I would do it again. While the session starts out with exfoliation and ends with a floating message, the cold air (and sometimes cold message oil/exfoliant) combined with the warm water makes the overall experience a bit of a balancing act between shivers and warm relief. However, at the end of the day I was the most relaxed I had ever been and felt the silica had truly done wonders for my skin.


After all our adventuring, exploring and story telling, there is an even better happy ending to the Icelandic trip.

Never could I have imagined such a wondrous journey, would end with getting engaged to the love of my life and fellow travel/life enthusiast. Iceland will forever be one of the most interesting, life changing trips – and I cannot wait to see what’s in store next.


Walking in the Ruins of History

Traveling to Greece, I imagine, is like traveling to Jerusalem–it has an infinite history that seems impossible. This is especially hard to grasp being American and comparing our short countries history to that of mesopotamia.

When I was younger, the only thing that held my attention (besides world history) was Roman/Greek mythology. A tie between real life and that of a fantasy world, it comes to life in the ruins amongst the city of Athens and surrounding villages and islands.



The renowned Parthenon is the highest point in the city of Athens. Late every evening, it paints a backdrop to a metropolitan city that has seen its series of uprisings, and change in political thought, yet it reminds us of its foundation to the western world. It took 9 years to build and at the height of Greek & Roman power, and had nearly 50 tons of gold adorning its pillars. With an average of 10-12K visitors a day, the area surrounding this centrepiece is exactly what you would expect from a European tourist hub. Cheap vendors peddle their ‘one of a kind’ old Greek style pottery, lines of stalls sell Greek food and crafts of wine (which is fairly amazing) and locals hurry through the crowds being no stranger to either crowd or ancient ruins.


Athens itself is hot, crowded and fairly touristy. Yet, even among the throngs of foreign travellers, you can view the first theatre in the world, the ancient temple of Zeus and hop to surrounding islands and inland cities.

One such place, and probably the most memorable of the trip, was the town of Delphi; home of the temple of Apollo. Built originally in 7 BC, the columns you see today are remnants of its 3rd rebuilding in 300BC following a fire in 6BC and earthquake 373 BC.


The temple was home to some of the first Olympic trials. It attracted travellers and visitors from all around the old world seeking blessings from the Gods and guidance from the oracle.


My image of an ancient oracle is fairly tainted by the film 300. Portraying a beautiful (nearly naked) women trapped in a temple surrounded by priests who guard her and interpret her visions.

Indeed, this is fairly similar to how it actually worked, with some slight scientific additions.


The location for the Temple of Apollo was thought to have been selected because of a chasm in the earth that emitted vapours upon which the oracle would inhale and profess its visions. What was emmitted? It is thought to be natural gas vapours that the oracle would inhale periodically. So in fact, the unintelgable visions of the Gods she would have that ‘only’ the priests could interpret were most likely professions of a person extremely high on gas chemicals.

So was life in the ancient world – full of mystery and the Gods. It is hard not to let your imagination run away with how the common people must of interpreted their everyday life’s walking in between reality and that of an other reality. One were temples, sacrifices and oracles filled the world.

It makes you wonder – how will the world view our ancient pillars constructed today to worship our current Gods? Will they laugh at the idea of our oracles thinking their most current interpretation of the world more accurate than those who built modern western belief systems nearly 2,500 years prior?


To Become a Nose

We all have them, but only about 200 people in the world properly use them.
A Nose can be equated to a sommelier, a connoisseur of scents. This individual can literally identify every scent in a perfume bottle as well as hundreds more. To be a true Nose one must go through a rigorous training having the ability to pair and mix scents to achieve some of the worlds oldest and most prestigious perfumeries.
I had the pleasure of visiting such a place on a trip to Grasse, France; the home and birth of perfume. Located in the hilly countryside of the southern province, Grasse is exactly the idyllic town you would imagine.
Going there gave me a greater appreciation for the true art of scent. It takes nearly 1 ton of flowers to make just 1 ounce of perfume oil! Further, most factories stick to their classic methods developed in the late 18th century and retain their dedication to quality.
Yes, ladies and gentleman, you too can become a Nose. Simply train yourself to identify the 10,000 smells that the human nose is capable of detecting – and you got it.
(Or you can be like me, appreciate true art when you see it, then leave the rest up to the professionals)

Berlin in the Rough


If I am completely honest, Berlin has never fascinated me all that much. Yes, I know my WWI/II history buffs are screaming at me – but it is the simple truth. The anticipation up to the trip there didn’t help much either – as the city break was meant to be a surprise Birthday present for my Ex. As luck would have it, we broke up months before the trip and I was left with 2 round trip tickets and a paid-in-full hotel.

Well Hell if I was going to waste that ticket! I made the trip solo and was left with lots of reflective time in the process.

West Berlin, while pretty, is fairly standard. Now East Berlin – that is something to observe, take in and explore. Whether you took a piece of the wall at that infamous moment in time in 1989 or are new to the city, the East Berlin that was once known for its stark depressive state, is a booming metropolis of history and progress.


East Side Gallery


Holocaust Memorial — controversial, but effective. Why the different heights and spaces? To get lost among the stone that represents the millions suffered under Nazi rule. Take a walk through the interactive memorial and understand history.

Gypsies?! aka “Traveler Community”

Today I learned something new — Gypsies exist. And we shouldn’t call them ‘Gypsies’ they are members from the ‘Traveler Community’ (kind of like Indians are ‘Native Americans’).
To be honest, they kind of have a bad reputation. In the UK, they are known for getting drunk and getting into fights. In mainland Europe, they have a bad rep for being beggers who steal all your money and attempt to scam you with sob stories. While these may all be true, the community has one constant in their culture — they are always on the move.
Have you heard of “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding?” Apperantly I am the only person in this modern world who has actually never watched the program – but it is your best bet for trying to understand this subculture of Europe. Weary of strangers, and an extremely closed community, the people are far from the Esmerelda cartoon character I imagined.