Sip, Cycle, and Repeat: Bicycling for Beers in West Flanders

Ypres location in Belgium

There is no better way to experience Ypres and the surrounding countryside of West Flanders than by bicycling for beers. Ypres is a charming small city in Belgium that offers up sobering World War I history, scenic biking routes, and vibrant beer culture.

While beery biking was undoubtedly the reason for my visit to the area, a much bigger driver of tourism here is World War I history and memorials. Ypres is home to the In Flanders Fields Museum, which tells the story of World War I in the Ypres Salient (the other battle of the bulge). The Menin Gate in the center of Ypres is a beautifully conceived memorial to the fallen soldiers of WWI. For decades, the Menin Gate has hosted a nightly ceremony called “Last Post Ceremony” that brings the center to a reflective standstill. Military units, honor guards, and musical groups travel to Ypres to take turns as the star actors in the nightly event beneath the gate. When I was there it was a unit from Scotland accompanied by a bagpipe corps. Very moving. The countryside in the area is dotted with small military cemeteries (more than 100) that are beautifully maintained. They offer quieter places for reflection. The Yorkshire Trench site had me imagining bleak life in the trenches.

Click anywhere on image for interactive Google route map

Ypres is a graceful, laid-back town with lots of pubs, sidewalk cafes, and people-watching. Keep an eye out for those redheads! I swear I saw more redheads per kilometer than anywhere I have ever been. I took the Air BnB route for this stay and it was excellent.

The countryside around Ypres offers several cycling routes that take you through its beautiful landscapes and picturesque towns. I made up a route, presented in the interactive Google map in this article, that loops to the west around and through the hop-growing region of Poperinge. The route is relatively flat and fairly easy to navigate. I was there for a few days so I rode it in parts, and some of the parts I traveled on multiple times. My bike was a loaner from my Air BnB host that worked out just fine although there are rental places in the towns.

This is a great place to explore the West Flemish countryside and take in some stunning views. The scenic bike riding takes you past hop fields, farms, and historic landmarks. You’ll see bikers of all stripes — spandex-clad, experienced-looking cyclists as well as casual riders. It doesn’t really matter.

As for beer culture, monks began producing beer in local abbeys in the Middle Ages and Ypres’ strategic location along a trade route between France, Flanders, and the Netherlands helped to establish it as a center of beer production. Over the centuries, wars (many breweries were destroyed during WWI), fires, and economic shifts have changed the brewing scene, but the area remains home to several breweries that produce a wide range of styles, from traditional Belgian ales to experimental craft brews. There is also a healthy pub culture with beer tenders who still have the time for chatting and giving beer and biking recommendations. More about the beers after a brief mention of the biking.

There is a big range of breweries in West Flanders from a darling of the craft crowd, De Struise Brouwers to the venerable and traditional St. Sixtus Abbey, home of the famous Westvleteren Trappist beers. Each produces its own renditions of what are some of the rarest and most coveted beers in the world.

In Ypres proper, the Brasserie Kazematten (a pub) and the Kazematten Brewery (the actual brewery) are located a few blocks from each other, both in large casemates (bunkers) beneath the city wall. A flagship beer, Wipers Times, takes its name from a wartime British military newspaper published in the bunker. The story goes that the Brits had a hard time pronouncing “Ypres” so took to just calling it “Wipers.” Kazematten is owned by St. Bernardus in Watou.

Breweries and beer venues sampled for this story: Kazematten BreweryLeroy BreweriesDeca BreweryDe Struise BrouwersBrouwerij de Sint-SixtusabdijBrouwerij St.BernardusBrouwerij De PlukkerWaterfields BreweryBrouwerij WestkwartierBrouwerij Omer Vander GhinsteVanuxeem BreweryBrasserie KazemattenSt ArnoldusBiking BarThe TimesIn de Vrede‘t HommelhofDe HelleketelPlukker Pub at Hopmuseum Poperinge

Saint Bernardus Brewery brews “Abbey beers”, Trappist-style beers that aren’t brewed in an Abbey anymore. Many regard their flagship beer, the Abt 12 to be among the best beers in the world. The most famous brewery in the area is at the Sixtus Abbey, which produces the world-renowned Westvleteren Trappist beers. The Abbey only sells their beer direct to consumers and when I arrived, there was somewhat of a traffic jam Cars were backed up along the country road waiting to enter a driveway into a drive-up beer stand. Across the country road is a modern pub that acts as the local thirsty person’s refuge for trying the Westvleteren beers.

There are multiple Leroy Breweries along the route. Their Hommelbier, a Strong Golden Ale is a great refresher. De Plukker Brewery & Hop Farm, located in the countryside near Poperinge uses only organic, locally sourced ingredients in their brews and was another favorite of mine. Their taproom is the pub immediately adjacent to the Hops Musem in the town. Poperinge is just West of Ypres and is the end of the train line that passes through Ypres. Poperinge is known as the “hops capital of Belgium” and is home to over 50 hop farms that supply the country’s breweries with the key ingredient.

West Flanders is truly a paradise for beer lovers and cyclists alike. With its rich brewing history, picturesque countryside, and vibrant culture it was a great few days. So grab a bike, grab a beer, and say cheers to a memorable adventure.