Guest Post: Sampling St. Feullien in Roeulx

A few weeks ago I got an email from Irish blogger/writer Seamus Murphy, who writes for Trenditionist and had recently been to Belgium. He wanted to know if I'd publish his account of visiting St. Feullien. Since I'm not going to be going there myself in the foreseeable future, I figured I'd take the opportunity to share this with my blog audience.  (all photographs are courtesy of Seamus Murphy.)

It's interesting (and a little sad to me) that Americans are still thought of as crappy beer drinkers, regardless of the fact that we have a huge number of craft breweries throughout the country. 

Also, when he start talking about the start of their St. Feullien tour experience, it made me think a little bit about this April Fools post from earlier this year which is hilarious. 

Thanks, Seamus!

The original plan was always to visit the St. Sixtus Abbey and sample the near mythical Westvleteren 12. Unfortunately, we had to change it due to circumstances beyond our control. So my friend and I got our bikes ready, threw them on a regional train and got off around 10 kilometres away from the village of Roeulx, deep in the Belgian countryside.

We wanted to sample another excellent Belgian beer – St. Feullien. Its popularity has really taken off in recent years and you can find it all over the country. I remember flying to Belgium ten years ago and I never knew about St. Feullien. So, after a few nights drinking this magnificent beer, the brewery was second on our visit list. I once read that the beer is brewed with pure water, actually located under the brewery itself – quite intriguing.

After cycling for a few hours along canals dotted with old decaying remnants of Belgium’s former industrial might, as well as visiting the world’s tallest boat lift at Strépy-Thieu, we arrived in the unassuming town of Roeulx. My first thought was “is there really a brewery here?” You actually have to go under the arch of a redbrick building on Rue d'Houdeng to find it. We did exactly that but we found nobody. Our tour was scheduled for 2:00pm so we were somewhat perplexed.

Instead of waiting in the soft drizzle, we walked through the yard towards the bottling plant where hundreds of bottles lay on a stationary conveyer belt. It was strange – all this delicious beer just sitting around in the open with nobody around. Anybody could just walk in and steal some. Eventually we heard a voice and a friendly old woman emerged from a dark corner just behind one of the machines.

She said the tour has actually started a half hour earlier (not sure if it was our fault but probably), so we promptly joined them in the boiling room. The guide spoke in French with broken English so I didn’t quite understand everything about their infusion-brewing method. I heard enough to realise that after the fermentation of the barley, the malt is mixed with water and the sugar is extracted. The hops, which provide the beer’s amazing aroma, are added during the boiling process before being cooled and sprinkled with yeast. The yeast slowly rises and the sugar turns into alcohol. Then voila! St. Feullien is born! However, it has to mature. 

We went back out into the wind and drizzle and crossed the courtyard to the cooling rooms. The beer is stored for around six weeks at a temperature of 0C to help with decantation. The next step is bottling so we revisited the bottling plant where the process was fully explained. Interestingly, it is then moved to a warm chamber where secondary fermentation occurs at 25C. Only after this final step, when it acquires its sparkle, can it be consumed.

Naturally, we were very thirsty indeed after experiencing the rich aroma all around the brewery. Almost as one, the 20-strong tour headed for the small pub in the corner of the courtyard. Nobody knew each other – most people were Belgian but there was a small party from California in addition to a few French guys and a Dutchman. Even though craft beer is getting big in the Untied States, the beer scene is still dominated by boring mainstream brews so it was nice to see the American guys sampling all they could. The pub was very cosy and well decorated with every kind of St. Feullien bottle imaginable. We all sat at a long table and ordered a bottle of the typical St. Feullien Blonde. We both intended staying for one or two beers before jumping on the bikes and heading back to Brussels. 

Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to walk away from deliciously fresh St. Feullien sold at ridiculously low prices. “A connoisseur will start by gently pouring the beer while holding the glass straight without letting the neck of the bottle touch the edge of the glass”. These guidelines about serving the beverage on the St. Feullien website became harder and harder to adhere to as we drank beer after beer. After the Blonde came the Tripel. After the Tripel came the Brune Réserve. It was November so they had a healthy stock of Cuvée de Noël Christmas beer so we drank some of that as well.

A big bowl of cheese was passed along the table – it complemented the carmelised malts and subtle bitterness of the darker St. Feulliens quite well. The conversation was also flowing as well as the beer. One of the French guys used to slaughter horses. One of the American guys used to be a Navy SEAL. We were just boring guys from Ireland. Boring guys who had over-indulged themselves just a little bit too much. We finally decided to finish up and make our way back home. Not before trying the brewery’s much revered St. Feullien Grand Cru. Light, pale and slightly bitter, it is a hoppy and fruity masterpiece. We bought as many 750ml bottles as we could squeeze into our rucksacks (the beer really is that good, believe me) and we hit the road. 

Understandably, we were a little bit wobbly and off balance as we cycled through the darkness back to the train station. We did stop for some traditional hand cut Belgian frites, a welcome tonic to the effects of our over-indulgence. We both threw the bikes onto the train and jumped onboard ourselves. We had really just experienced the very best brewery tour of our lives. Forget St. Sixtus and Westvleteren 12. Head to Roeulx and drink St. Feullien. It is an absolute delight – smooth and frothy on top, dry and hoppy in the middle, bitter and malty at the end. A very refreshing and endearing beer indeed.