My dad is in the driver seat, doing tentative donuts around the Belgian rental car park lot. The rental agent sits adjacent, speaking words of encouragement. He looks like a knock-off Carrot Top, and as he nods and cheers his red ‘fro wobbles like a pomeranian having a fit. I’m standing outside thinking, is this really worth it for beer?
You see, it wasn’t until we’d gotten into the car that we realized it was a manual transmission. I’d never driven one and it had been almost 30 years since my dad had. So Carrot Top gamely offered to give him a refresher.
Generally speaking, on a scale of travel prowess, ranging from Mr. Bean to Rick Steves, I usually fall on the more experienced end (despite not knowing how to drive a stick shift). While my dad’s travel resume includes a couple package cruises and road trips to sporting events in the minivan.
In the years since college, the closest I’ve lived to my dad was four time zones away (the farthest was 14). Since 2015, I’ve been living in Alaska, while he’s in Wisconsin. As adults, we hadn’t spent much time together and, frankly, I didn’t really know him. We had one common interest, though. So when I pitched the idea of going to Belgium and he asked why, I knew I only needed to say one word: “Beer.” He was in.
I decided getting our hands on some Westvleteren 12, a Belgian quad often ranked as the best beer in the world, would be the focal piece of our adventure. The brew has been elevated as a sort of Holy Grail for beer geeks. In part, because of its flavor profile—reminiscent of tart black cherries, brown sugar, and caramel. Beer judges see it as the benchmark of its style, world-class even, though a good deal of the hype is probably more so because of its rarity.
The fact that the brewery has such a small production is a wonder. It began brewing beer around 1839, and started selling to the public in 1931. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that beer-lovers around the world began making the journey to Westvleteren, Belgium to get their hands on the beer recently ranked one of the best in the world by RateBeer. Even as demand has grown, the monks at the Abbey of Saint Sixtus only make enough to support themselves as monks (a pretty spartan existence). That’s about 5,000 barrels of beer a year, and it’s only possible to purchase the beer (legally) from the abbey.
I considered it a good omen when my dad—a man who, as he’s aged, more and more resembles Bill Murray—and I found each other almost instantly at the Brussels airport (miraculous considering he flew into Paris and got on the wrong train twice before making it to me). He was wearing his usual “American Tourist” attire: spotless white sneakers, boxy dad jeans, neon windbreakers with sports team logos, mock-turtleneck, and a faded pastel-colored baseball cap covering his thinning, graying hair. I didn’t realize until later that his arrival blunder might set the tone for the trip.
The first couple days in Belgium, we tootled around Brussels, Bruge, Leuven, and Ghent, stopping at taprooms and breweries along the way. My dad marveled at my ability to figure out what train we needed to get on (there were signs everywhere) and delighted in how I found interesting bars to hang in (thanks, Google).
I was saving Westvleteren for last. The final hurrah before we’d fly back to our respective homes. It was also the only thing we really needed a car for (unless we wanted to take multiple buses over the course of nine hours to get there).
Which, dear reader, brings us back to the rental agency.
After a couple laps around the block, Carrot Top gets out, telling my dad, “Don’t worry, you’ll be grand. Or you won’t, in which case, call us.”
I get in and we pull cautiously out of the parking lot, listening to the Maps app spout directions (botching the Belgian pronunciation). When we get to the top of the first on-ramp, we promptly stall out. The engine sputters and churns. My dad lets loose a string of choice curses. The city bus and the line of cars behind us craft a cacophony of angry, baritone horn blasts.
“Dad, breathe, you’ve got this,” I say. It’s enough to ease his nerves and get the car restarted. He’d later tell his friends that my patience in the moment was what he remembered most about the trip.
Now several miles down the road and dad’s still nervously white-knuckling the steering wheel. He doesn’t want to listen to the radio, for fear it might distract him. The only sound is the more confident drivers zinging past us.
The single-lane dirt roads don’t help our cause. It’s nearly impossible to tell which is the one we need and which is a farmer’s driveway. Our easy two hour drive, turned into a five hour ordeal. Even once we got to town, we had trouble finding the brewery. Eventually, I wave down a runner, who begrudgingly removes his headphones.
“Excuse me, do you know where the Westvleteren cafe is?” I ask.
He points to the roof behind the neighboring hedges. We’re right outside it. We thank him and he runs a few more feet down the road before turning around and saying, “But it’s closed today.”
Now it’s my turn to curse. Traveling is my thing. How could I have possibly forgotten to check what days the brewery is open? I felt as though I’d butchered the finale of an acclaimed show. Dad is much more sanguine. He suggests spending the night in Ypres, about 20 minutes away, and going to the brewery first thing in the morning.
The only room available to us is in the attic of a bed and breakfast. The roof slants so sharply that the only place we can stand upright is in the doorframe, but the windows overlook the central square, so dad is thrilled.
“I can’t wait to show this to the guys,” he proclaims as he snaps pictures on his iPad. “This place is so neat.”
We spent the rest of the evening bopping between various restaurants and pubs, sampling beers, and talking—really talking—probably for the first time ever. Turns out, we have more in common than just a shared love of beverages served in pint glasses.
The next morning, dad is flying high on the charming nature of the breakfast—“There are inspirational quotes on the egg cups!”—and of the Saturday market that sprung up outside the front door—“Look, they have cakes! Outside!” He also seems less anxious about the car. Or maybe he’s just becoming a more confident traveler.
We get to the In De Vrede Cafe, which sits across the road from the abbey and brewery, just as they’re opening the doors. In typical middle-aged Midwestern man fashion, dad walks up to the bar and declares we’ll have “two of the good stuff.” The bartender nods and comes with two full chalices. She knows. Dad extends his fist for a bump and she responds in kind (the first of the many people he tried to fist-bump that week—nobody else understood).
Finding a spot at one of the many long wooden tables, we sip our spoils. We’re the only one’s there. It is 10 a.m. and the off-season, after all. But the wood accents make it cozy and warm despite the rain coming down hard outside the big picture windows. It’s a solid morning for a heavy beer.
And the beer is good. Really, really good. Though honestly, at that moment I probably would have ranked anything highly—it had been a fantastic trip.
Others came in, grabbed a couple six-packs and left. Others lingered to chat with us before waddling off with their keep. One family came in and tried to order several more to-go beers then was allowed. Overhearing the conversation, dad walked over and asked if he can purchase a couple for them, seeing as we’d only have luggage space for a single six-pack. The gentleman doing the buying was stoked. He shook dad's hand vigorously and asked if there was anything he could do for us. Dad proposed having him take a picture of the two of us. On his iPad, of course.
Before departing, the family asked what we thought of the beer and how our travels had gone.
“Amazing,” dad said. “This has been the trip of a lifetime.”