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Drinking up the best of Belgium

TOURPES, Belgium - Frost lingers in the Wallonian morning air as a group of sleepy Philadelphians arrives early to the cobblestone courtyard of Brasserie Dupont.

The legendary farmhouse brewery, in the Belgian countryside a few miles from the French border, has agreed to collaborate on a special brew with a contingent of brewers and bar owners representing Philly Beer Week. To be poured at the Philadelphia festival this summer, it will be the first collaboration in the brewery's 166-year history - a fact that speaks both to the prominence of the city's annual beer celebration and its special relationship with Belgian producers.

This beer will be something Dupont hasn't done in recent history: a '30s-style "Spéciale Belge" with pale ale malt tweaked by peat-smoked barley.

"I am definitely excited," said Chris LaPierre, head brewer at Iron Hill's Maple Shade location, who was chosen in a Philly Beer Week raffle in the fall to be the local pro to participate. "I'm just hoping to learn as much as possible."

Dupont's fourth-generation brewer Olivier Dedeycker is there to greet them. He is already focused and intense. Within moments, he and LaPierre are down in the malt room, inspecting the grains to be used in the brew. The peat-smoked barley from nearby Malterie du Château de Beloeil is the subject of discussion. LaPierre fears that too much will overwhelm the beer, but after munching a handful, he realizes it is gentler than expected.

Once they agree on the blend, the augur in the old grain mill clicks into gear. Conveyor belts surge to life. A sweet haze of toasty malt fills the air. Enormous flames burst from furnace jets beneath Dupont's 90-year-old copper brew kettles. And the climactic finale of the Philadelphians' weeklong Belgian mission starts rising to a boil.

Philadelphia has been called "Brussels on the Schuylkill" for good reason. Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont coined the label in the late '90s when "there was nowhere else in the U.S. that was as into Belgium." The sustained interest distinguishes the city as one of America's best beer towns, even as Belgian styles become more influential in craft brewing across the nation.

The late dean of beer writing, Michael Jackson, is universally credited with whetting Philly's taste for Trappist ales and Flemish reds at his well-attended Book and the Cook tasting banquets, which ran for 17 years beginning in 1991. Local publicans like Michel Notredame (Bridgid's, Cuvée Notredame), Michael Naessens (Euology), and Tom Peters kept the ale flowing freely at their taverns. Peters, especially, gained a reputation at Copa Too, then Monk's, and the Belgian Cafe, as the first American to debut renown Belgian brews on draft, from Chimay Tripel to Corsendonk Brown and La Chouffe.

The sudden surge of American interest couldn't have come soon enough for Belgium's traditional beers, especially the sour and funky lambic ales of Cantillon and the famed farmhouse saison of Brasserie Dupont (with a distinctive yeasty profile of tartness and dry spice). Both were on the brink of dying out as Belgians turned increasingly to soda-sweet fruit beers and inexpensive, mass-produced lagers like Jupiler and Stella Artois.

"My gross consumption single-handedly drank them back to solvency," Peters says.

He's only half-joking, as the Philly Beer Week crew discovered during a six-day tour of Brussels, Brugges, and part of Holland, where he was greeted in every bar, brewery, and obscure beer boutique like a favored uncle returning home with friends in tow.

"Tom has been a better ambassador for Belgian beer than most Belgians," said Yvan De Baets, who welcomed the Philly Beer Week group to his Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels. "And the enthusiasm is pure oxygen for us. It's really something we don't have here, and perhaps still won't for another 10 years. I'm in love with Philly. Now that's a beer capital. Speaking of which - do you guys want some beer?"

"It'll be my first beer of the day!" says Peters.

"You're still as good a liar as ever," says De Baets.

'Simplicity in recipes'

Vince Masciandaro, 47, a civil engineer and the lucky Marlton home brewer who won the PBW raffle to join this adventure, couldn't help but express disappointment at the modernity of some of Dupont's brewing equipment.

"It's more hands-on at the Tun Tavern," says Masciandaro, referring to the Atlantic City brewpub where he won a home-brew competition with his Belgium-meets-Jersey Shore creation: Thong Remover Tripel.

And yet, amid the new stainless-steel mash tuns and automated touchscreen controls, the touchstones of history are everywhere - from the direct-fired antique kettles that achieve a distinctly deep caramelization of flavor to the curious venting system that sends beer steam fuming directly through the terra-cotta roof tiles as if the attic were on fire. Even just outside Dupont's doors, where geese waddle through nearby farmyards, tipsy villagers with mallets and wooden balls blocked off the cobbled street for "crossage en rue," a 13th-century precursor to golf, played in honor of Mardi Gras.

"Tradition and history - and simplicity in recipes - are the philosophy of this house," says Dedeycker.

As proof, he brings out two frayed brewing logs, elegantly scribed 110 years ago by his grandfather, Sylva Rosier. Dedeycker turns to these first whenever he needs inspiration for a "new" beer. His excellent Monk's Stout is a prime example. As is the Spécial Belge, the collaboration that is simmering away next door. Coordinated by Dupont's pioneering importers Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield of Vanberg & DeWulf, it is the product of two years of conceptual discussions with Peters, and LaPierre offering fine-tuning input, too.

"I already have a test-batch here, do you want to taste?" says Dedeycker, who holds up a glass with an amber brew. It will be darker once made against the caramelizing heat of the larger copper kettle. The smoke will be dialed-up an extra notch, too. Peters chimes in swiftly: "It'll be my first beer of the day!"

International flavor

Peters and his PBW mates had more "first beers" than they could count. Though, for most of the 10 people on this trip, the opportunity to taste these brews in their native land was the primary reason for packing a bag.

For Mike "Scoats" Scotese, owner of the Grey Lodge Pub in Northeast Philly and a Beer Week board member, the trip uncorked the possibilities of adding more international flavor to his largely local and American craft-beer list: "There will definitely be Belgian beer on tap at the Grey Lodge when I get back," said Scotese. "Every beer has a story to tell. And somehow it means more now that I've seen where it comes from."

This is one beer mecca that must be seen and sipped to be believed. For a country just about the size of Maryland, Belgium produces an astounding number of diverse beers - more than 1,100 from nearly 130 different breweries. With Peters leading what seemed like 18-hour daily field trips through an endless string of favorite hidden drinking nooks and breweries - "We're going to climb Beer Mountain! C'mon!" - it's not an exaggeration to say they put a dent in 10 percent.

There was a visit to Cantillon, where they saw tart and earthy barrel-aged lambics inoculated by the wild yeasts harbored in the terra-cotta ceiling, and the tasting room poured bottles whose acidic snap also blushed with fermented pink raspberries, peppery orange wine grapes, and the golden perfume of elderflower. There was a tasting session of the crisply bitter, avant-garde, low-alcohol brews from Brasserie de la Senne. There were wildly inventive high-octane beers drunk in a windmill during a brief Dutch detour to De Molen.

There was a night at Moeder Lambic in Brussels, where the brilliant young gueuze-blender, Pierre Tilquin, unveiled his latest: a mystery elixir fermented with quetsche plums. (Gueuze is typically a blend of three different-aged lambics, but in Tilquin's case, lambics from four different breweries). This crew didn't merely drink Orval Trappist ale over games of dice and Etta James at Comptoir des Arts, a subterranean blues bar in Brugges, but they also drank their Orval at three different ages, to see how the beer's live yeast kept drying the flavor as it evolved from fruity to quenchingly bitter.

And still, for PBW cochair (with Peters) William Reed, whose Standard Tap will always serve exclusively local beer, this trip spoke to his former life as a brewer. To culminate with a brew day at Brasserie Dupont was irresistible: "It's like meeting my childhood sports idol."

The finishing hops

It was just after 3 p.m., and the group had returned from a tavern lunch of braised rabbit and a field trip to the local maltery, where toasty puffs of roasting-barley smoke streamed into the sky.

The collaboration beer is roiling inside the kettles, a rich and biscuity foam rising nearly to the top. It is time to add the finishing hops so this Spéciale can begin to cool and start its fermentation. About 200 kegs and 1,300 bottles are to be shipped in time for a June 1 debut at Philly Beer Week's Opening Tap.

While the rest of the crew gather around the kettle for the finale, Reed sneaks up creaky wooden stairs to the attic, where the kettle's vent pipe opens up in the floor. As LaPierre and Masciandaro in tandem grab buckets of English Bramling Cross hops and slowly dump them in below, Reed reaches his hand to cover the hole.

As green hops hit the brew, a gust of beer steam billows into the room around Reed, with the vivid smell of black currants, hay, and lemon. Slowly, it evaporates through the gaps and holes in Brasserie Dupont's terra-cotta-tiled roof and drifts across the frigid Belgian countryside, west toward the Atlantic.