There’s something odd about Belgium’s southeast corner, home to some of the country’s most distinctive beers. Joe Stange enters the Gaume Dimension
My theory is that the space-time continuum warps inside the Gaume. It’s the simplest way to explain the oddities that occur within. Tucked into Belgium’s south-east corner, this region is not like the others.
Villages appear near each other on a map – because they are, in theory – yet it seems to take 40 minutes to drive anywhere. Short trips stretch into elongated corridors of pines. People are scarce; the ones you meet might speak a vestigial patois of Old French, unlike Walloon and stubbornly lingering from Gallo-Roman times.
But the most surreal thing about the Gaume is the paucity of cafes. They exist if you know where to look – the main squares of the larger towns, mainly – but this is not like other parts of Belgium, where cafes are strewn about the roadside, multiplying as you approach a town’s outskirts. The ones you do see in the Gaume’s hinterland often look abandoned, many with a long-faded A vendre sign.
So there are many trees but few people and fewer places to drink, all of which makes it mysterious indeed that this little piece of the planet produces several of its finest, most distinctive ales. Broadly speaking, beers of the Gaume tend to be dryish and bitter with prominent hop character – traits that might be taken as a sense of place, the nearest thing beer has to terroir.
Unlike wine geeks who memorise appellations, beer aficionados know brewery names but are sketchier on the geography. So they know Orval, Rulles, Sainte-Hélène and Millevertus… but they may not realise that they all hail from the same, idiosyncratic little chunk of Belgium, an area that is home to fewer than 50,000 people.
“It’s a very small region,” says Rulles founder Gregory Verhelst. “But we have a big identity. The people, we feel different.”
He mentions the patois, and the proximity to France and Luxembourg making it relatively cosmopolitan for such a rural area. They embrace outsiders fairly easily – Gregory is from Tournai, it must be noted. We might also mention the Gaume’s medieval history as part of the influential County of Chiny, or its microclimate that tends to be a couple of degrees warmer than the neighbouring Ardennes.
But none of that directly affects the brewing. So what makes the beer so distinctive?
“I think the main reason is the presence of Orval brewery,” Gregory says. “Orval is the beer from the Gaume, really. Everybody drinks this beer and has this beer in their home.”
Even in nearby Bouillon, famous for its medieval castle, the popularity of Orval is such that the local drinks market limits customers to six bottles each. One cafe owner tells me he would love to stock a wider range of beers, but much of his fridge space is reserved for Orval. A frequent anecdote from fellow tourists is that the locals throw back Orval the way other Belgians drink pils. It’s not far off the mark.
So Orval may have helped to foster certain local tastes.
“We like bitter,” says Gregory at Rulles, whose house character includes fulsome hop flavour and moderate bitterness. The combination makes for drinkability that can seem effortless, as with Estivale. The stronger ones are tasty perils. Gregory says Sainte-Hélène brewer Eddy Pourtois walks a similar path. “Eddy and me, we make beers we like. He likes bitter, I like bitter, and Orval is bitter.”
As a brief aside, here is the answer to a trivia question: the southernmost point in Belgium is the village of Rouvroy, south-west of Virton. The latter is the unofficial capital of the Gaume, and on its outskirts is a village called Ethe, old enough to be mentioned in early medieval documents. That is the present home of Brasserie Sainte-Hélène… but not for long. Eddy is in the process of moving to a larger space in Florenville, with room for growth and a tasting bar.
Eddy studied as a mechanical engineer, and his self-built, ramshackle brewhouse has a certain Frankenstein quality. Some pieces don’t look like they quite match up, but the whole thing works reliably, and the proof is in his consistent and increasingly impressive range of beers. As we talk in the attic/tasting room, we sip the lush, herbally hopped, strong brown winter ale La Prime. It goes down easier than is sensible.
Like Gregory, Eddy says the influence of Orval goes far beyond bitterness. Here is a crucial point: all the breweries in the region have access to Orval yeast and analyses from the brewery’s impressive laboratory. “It’s a great advantage,” he says.
A serious lab like the one at Orval allows brewers to dial in their consistency a number of ways, such as measuring bitterness. As Gregory says: “When I say I have 32 IBUs in my beers, it’s true.”
One brewery in the Gaume has an even closer connection to the Orval lab. One of the lab’s employees, Vincent Habran, moonlights as brewer at nano-sized Gengoulf down the road. The operation is likely to grow as its dryish, herbal blonde flagship builds its reputation. Another brewery that may appear in the next few years is Semois, a firm that has been brewing at Sainte-Hélène. Its beers include the dry and bitter Petite Frangine, packing a resinous hop punch at 4.5% strength.
Then there is the influence of the Orval’s particular yeast, used by many of the region’s brewers and likely evolved from an English strain. Some describe its profile as spicy; in my view it’s relatively clean compared to other Belgian strains, helping to accentuate hop aroma and flavour. The yeast at Rulles – where Gregory uses open fermenters, developing fruity character that dovetails with his judicious use of American hops – evolved from Orval’s primary strain.
Like Sainte-Hélène, Millevertus has grown stronger and more professional with time. But thankfully it maintains a frivolous streak. Personal favourites include the sturdy blonde La Bella Mère, which fits the local taste for ample hopping, and the smoothly smoked amber La Fumette. But it wouldn’t be Millevertus without the playthings spiked with saffron, black pepper, lemon zest, or Szechuan chilies. All the funny ones are worth trying; whether they reward repeat drinking is beside the point.
The best moment to marvel at all these Gaumais jewels in one spot is the annual Brassigaume festival in the village of Marbehan. Organised by Gregory, local brewers welcome friends from the Ardennes and farther abroad each October – there were 26 brewers at the 2015 edition, all of them smaller independents. Beer for beer it’s easily one of Belgium’s best festivals, but thankfully the Gaume is inconveniently remote. A few scattered foreign drinkers join devoted locals to pack the large tent with convivial chatter.
Time inside the Brassigaume tent passes rapidly, even as the region outside it moves glacially. Culturally speaking the Gaume straddles the French border, which seems newfangled and arbitrary in these parts. Orval is popular on the French side too, and since 1986 Stenay has been home to the worthwhile and undersung Musée Européen de la Bière. Its exhibits and tavern are in Stenay’s old fortress, converted to a maltings in the late 19th century.
The museum is only about 30 minutes’ drive from Orval. In theory. But watch out for those space-time disturbances.
Taking up the food-pairing challenge is Els Debremaeker, a private chef who also works for home-furnishings chain Dille en Kamille doing food styling and creating recipes. She’s the author with her sister Iris of two books: Brunch and Ingemaakt (Preserved). Given three beers from Omer Vander Ghinste to work with, she drew inspiration from her family’s food memories.
The beer: Vanderghinste Oud Bruin
The dish: Fresh grilled mackerel with roasted rhubarb
This is our aperitief and it’s the perfect way to wake up the senses. Those bold mackerel flavours are balanced by the tanginess in the roasted rhubarb and this in turn goes very well with the balanced sweetness and milk sourness of Vanderghinste Oud Bruin. Overall this pairing offers assertive flavours in the dish balanced with by a thirst-quenching, refreshing and delicately sour beer.
The beer: OMER blond is now the brewer’s most successful brand. Perhaps coincidentally, the former Bockor later decided to change its name back to the original Omer Vander Ghinste.
The dish: Boudin blanc, fennel and apple chutney, crusty bread.
“The minute I opened the beer I thought kermis [the annual fair held in every small town in Flanders]. My grandfather was a butcher in Halle, and for me the smell of kermis is the smell of boudin. The beer reminds me of this.”
The boudin is served simply pan-fried, with a loaf of crusty nut bread. “Normally I would bake it myself but there wasn’t time.” It’s accompanied by a chutney of green apple and fennel, made according to a recipe from Els’s second book. The first, Brunch, went down so well the publisher came looking for a second.
“They asked me to come in for a chat and said they wanted to bring out a second book, and I could choose what it would be about. I said when I was travelling I used to make chutneys and pickles, in China I learned how to make kimchi and they said, ok, let’s do that. It wasn’t at all fashionable then. Now the trend for fermentation and pickling is everywhere, I’m getting a little bit sick of it.”
The boudin has a distinctive peppery flavour, so the chutney is light and fresh – absolutely fresh, as it happens. In three weeks or so the preserve will be at its best.
Boudin is fatty, however, and the Omer, with its light orange and lemon notes and lively carbonation, is perfect for cutting through that fattiness, and cleansing and preparing the palate for the next mouthful. It feels like the kind of beer you could sip all the length of a sunny afternoon, or a typical kermis day, but watch out: at 8% ABV, this one packs a punch.
The beer: Brasserie LeFort
The dish: Pastéis de nata, hazelnuts, Greek yogurt flavoured with verbena.
“The beer has a very nutty flavour, which immediately made me think of pastéis de nata. My grandmother used to make custard tarts. The way I went about this whole challenge was really just to go with the idea that first sprang into my head.”
The free association – something most chefs will tell you is a major source of their influence – led to the celebrated egg tart pastry popular in Portugal and known wherever Portugal had an influence, from Angola to Brazil to even China via Macau. Also known as pastéis de Belém, they’re the sort of delicacy nobody but one’s own (grand)mother can make properly, which doesn’t stop people who are not Portuguese from spending a fortune on them wherever they are found.
Pastéis are all about mouthfeel: flaky, buttery pastry and unctuous egg custard. A beer like Brasserie LeFort, which is nutty and fruity at once, complements that rather bland flavour, together with its roasted malts balanced by pale, a caramel note that echoes the brown patches on the tart where the egg has caramelised. Le Fort, with its subtle alcohol warmth (8.5% ABV) is also well-suited to ending a meal on a high note.
Brasserie de Bastogne is the smallest in the Belgian brewers federation, but their brewery is bursting at the seams
By Alan Hope
The Belgian province of Luxembourg – not to be confused with the Grand Duchy next door – is the country’s least populated, with the largest proportion of agricultural land and a virtual monopoly of forest. The abundance of nature tends to make everything man-made seem small, but the fact is, the Brasserie de Bastogne is small by any measure. We all drove past it and had to turn around, so easy was it to miss – and no thanks to the signpost that reads Brasserie La Trouffette.
The entire brewery is housed inside a prefabricated hangar that sits in the yard of a dairy farm in the municipality of Sibret, not in Bastogne at all. Everything is crammed inside, from mash kettles to bottling line to stacks of boxed-up beers ready for shipping. You can stand at the entrance and literally take in everything there is to see, so for once we’re able to forgo the pleasures of an installation tour and move straight to the tasting.
La Trouffette is the name of the basic range of the brewery’s beers, explains Catherine Minne while her husband Philippe dashes here and there, giving their brewer Marc his tasks for the day. He’s only 23 years old, and he’s the only salaried employee they have, so his tasks basically cover everything. Philippe is the ideas man; Marc puts the ideas into practice.
“Philippe was always a hobby brewer. His grandfather was a brewer in Val Saint-Lambert where the crystal gets its name. There are so many people in this part of the world who have a brewer among their ancestry. He’s from the Liege area, and I’m from Walloon Brabant, but I’d been working in bookshops in Brussels when we met.”
Had she always been a beer drinker? “When I was growing up, when I was studying, everyone drank beer, no question about it. Boys and girls alike. I think it’s funny now to hear all this talk of beers made by women for women. There’s no beer for men, is there? You and Philippe might have widely differing taste preferences, but you can both find a beer you like. Why should women be any different?”
The range includes a blonde at 6%, the Rousse (amber) at 7.8%, the Brune (brown) at 7%, the Belle d’Eté (a wheat beer but stronger than the usual blanche at 6%) and the Givrée, a Christmas-type beer at 8%. They’re all perfectly competent beers, with the Belle d’Eté particularly interested, but let’s single out three other products for special mention.
Bastogne Pale Ale (BPA) launched in 2011, the Walloon version of an IPA, using a portion of malted spelt, and made with Hallertau and Cascade hops. This is a style of beer that’s become common in Belgium, dry-hopped for a bitter edge, but nevertheless balanced and very drinkable. If you’re looking for IBU levels that will strip the enamel from your teeth, this is not the place.
Ardenne Saison, created in 2014, this version of a Belgian saison is dry-hopped, also using Hallertau and Cascade, but it’s special character comes from refermentation with the addition of Brettanomyces. The mixture of bitter and sour ought not to work, theoretically, but it does. We visited in January, but you’ll have to wait until the height of summer to experience this beer at its best. It’s simply crying out for a summer afternoon.
Ready to drink right now and at any time is the Ardenne Stout, an Imperial stout aged in oak barrels, made with roasted spelt, Mosaic and Belgian Golding, and dry-hopped with Hallertau. The beer is jet black, as lustrous as black velvet, and the head is the colour of fresh-baked rolls. It resembles nothing so much as an espresso made in an Italian station buffet, the head as dense as the crema on the coffee. There’s a strong flavour of coffee, too, as well as woodsmoke and a hint of the crispy edges on a well-fired loaf.
Aside from those three standouts, Philippe also let us taste a couple of his ongoing experiments, which may or may not come to market at some point, but which – without giving away any details – will be worth watching out for should that occur.
In the meantime, space is running short while the sales curve continues to climb. From less than 100 HL when they started in 2008, sales grew to 600 HL by 2012, 737 HL in 2013 to finally break the thousand barrier with 1014 HL in 2014. The figures are relatively tiny, of course – they’re the smallest member of the Belgian Brewers Federation when measured by volume, but the growth is remarkable, especially since it’s mainly been by word of mouth.
“We’ve been lucky in that the trend has been moving our way, though Philippe has nothing to do with fashion. He just follows his own passions. My skills don’t lie in marketing, either. That sort of thing, negotiating and all that, is a talent all by itself.”
Exports make up 55% of sales, almost half to Italy alone, where they go mad for the BPA and the stout, and latterly also for the Belle d’Eté. Further growth, though, is going to force a change of address.
“That’s a problem Philippe is already beginning to address,” Catherine says. “Every square centimetre is now being used for something, including the ceilings there. We’ve nowhere left to turn. If we move, it’ll have to be within the next two years.”
That seems inevitable, and another thing that’s for sure: when they move to new premises, nobody any more will be at risk of driving by without noticing.
Think you know Chimay? Think again, as Belgian chef Jan Tournier of the Michelin-starred Cuchara unearths surprising flavors using the famous Trappist beer and cheese, during a demonstration for Belgian Beer & Food’s John Rega
While Jan Tournier may cook in his grandparents’ house, he’s certainly not preparing their food. The 34-year-old chef has remodeled his childhood home in Lommel, northern Limburg, into Cuchara, one of the upstarts of Flemish cuisine. Adventurous takes on his classical training won Tournier a star from the Michelin Guide, which calls his cooking style “full of youth and creativity”. Now Belgian Beer & Food is challenging the chef to create a menu incorporating Chimay products. The venerable Trappist brewery and cheese-maker poses a particular dilemma for Tournier: how to revisit an icon that connoisseurs know so well.
“Normally I don’t cook a lot with beer,” Tournier prefaces, before explaining his fresh approach to Chimay’s ubiquitous products. “But for some of these dishes, the combinations are really awesome.” Tournier opens with a cream he’s crafted from the À la Chimay Rouge cheese. He pipes it into coal-shaped husks of crisped pizza dough. The richness contrasts with the charcoal taste of the bread, with a lash of heat from the juice of jalapenos. The Chimay gives an earthier, funkier flavor than his usual version with Mimolette cheese. Still tweaking, he may someday substitute beer for the milk in the concoction.
Tournier is clearly excited for what’s next, as he slips into his dining room, which has just taken shape in a year-long renovation. In black t-shirt and sweatpants, he could almost disappear in front of the black-painted walls — except for his spiky blond hair, electric-blue trainers, and a box of Marlboro reds peeking from his pocket.
The dining room – a converted garage – is as effortlessly cool. Lightening all that black brick are floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a courtyard. Their industrial frames carry over inside to the bar nook and wine cellar. Pale wooden flooring continues as paneling up one wall, while low-slung, mid-century seating offers unfussy comfort. The focal point is a chandelier in the form of a tree trunk blown from golden glass.
Tournier reappears from a hidden door with a jug of steaming liquid nitrogen and an air of certainty. “This dish is going on my next menu,” he promises, before heading back into the kitchen to form quenelles of lobster salad. “For sure.” The claw meat and herb mixture Chimay is dressed with a hollandaise sauce incorporating Chimay Triple. Also called White Cap, it’s the bitterest of the abbey’s brews. Tournier is using that edge to enhance the sweetness of the lobster, while the golden ale’s slight acidity brightens the dense hollandaise. Over the quenelles go creamy veils of buttermilk, set solid in his jug of coolant. He tops with pebbles of fragrant white radish and places a morsel of flash-frozen apple foam on the side.
“I like new techniques, but don’t overdo it,” Tournier says of the gadgets in his sleek kitchen. “It must be in balance.” The elements combine in petite yet luxurious bursts of flavor, familiarity yielding to surprise. The beer does its work without standing out. Next up is oxtail cooked for 12 hours in Chimay Red Cap. Tournier is again finding new depths, even with the flagship that made Trappist beers world famous. Now it’s the sweetness of the copper ale bringing a harmonious contrast to the beef. Tournier recalls his grandmother making the dish with beer, albeit as a variation rather than a staple. As ever, he’s finding new ways to express tradition. Swapped for the Cognac in his usual recipe, the Chimay adds something distinct yet, for Tournier, indefinable.
A first attempt, with half a bottle, cried out for more, so the dish was perfected with the whole 75cl. Yet he insists that the target is the point of balance. “Enough is enough,” he says while plating the ruby beef, glossy with natural gelatin. A pumpkin cream nods to the season. Ribbons of fried parsnip add the crunch that Tournier insists on for every dish. After two beers used in opposite ways to contrast classic flavors, things turn enigmatic with the Chimay Blue Cap. But to Tournier, “This dish is the most successful.” He’s sautéing king oyster and cep mushrooms in a sauce of soy, vegetable stock and garlic. Plus, of course, the beer, decanted earlier to dissipate its carbonation.
The ale’s port-like depth is often paired with desserts and cheeses. Here, the dark brew is used to heighten the “earthy flavors” of soy and fungi, Tournier muses. “With the mushrooms, it just fits. I don’t know why,” he shrugs. “It’s a very cool combination and one I’ve never heard of before.” Novel pairings with classic ingredients sounds just like the Belgian brewing mantra of innovation balanced with tradition. “It was fun to do and gave me some new inspiration, as well,” Tournier says of his Chimay challenge. Soon, Cuchara’s diners will get to taste the reinvented Trappist icon for themselves.
Frank Boon opened his new brewhouse in March 2013, which means that when we visited, they were about a month away from reaching a landmark age. Three years means a lot to lambic brewers: it’s the age at which you have your old lambic, which when blended with young lambic gives you the uniquely Belgian beer known as geuze.
Boon is the largest of the remaining traditional lambic brewers, although he’s dwarfed by the big breweries making fruit beers – people like Lindemans and Mort Subite. He not only blends his own geuze, he also makes an Oude Kriek and supplies lambic wort to blenders including Tilquin, Hansen, Oud Beersel, De Cam and 3 Fonteinen. His fingerprints, then, are all over the Belgian lambic world.
The new brewhouse was needed to increase production and improve efficiency, as well as being more energy-efficient, a consideration he thinks will become more and more important as time goes on. “You won’t be able to be a brewer in the future if you don’t think about saving energy,” he says.
Boon started in 1975, at a time when it must have seemed that the gueze and lambic trade was on its last legs. Now it’s the trendiest beer on the planet, with brewers worldwide trying to replicate its unique character. The question is: was he incredibly foolhardy, or remarkably prescient?
His first enterprise was a brewery in Halle, just one stop down the railway line from Lembeek, where he is now based and which allegedly gave lambic its name (though opinions vary). His parents thought he was mad. “We’d had a brewery in the family that closed in 1970 and my parents were so happy it was gone, but my father told me OK, you do what you want, but not one franc from the family.”
He went ahead, and within two years had gathered enough capital to convince the banks to lend to him, and he bought the brewery owned by Rene De Vits, one of two lambic brewers who he considered at the time to be producing a worthwhile product. Rene had a brewery and blending shop. His sister ran an adjacent cafe, which received his very best output, and there was a small shop selling to the public.
“He had no successors and he put the brewery up for the price of the building, so that’s how I started. It was very old-fashioned. There was no electricity on the first floor. When I asked him why, he asked,’are you planning to work through the night?’” He moved finally from Halle to Lembeek five years after acquiring De Vits, but still owns the property. The whole building is full of boxes of Mariage Parfait ageing, he says.
“People thought I was crazy,” he says. “The only guys who were still active or saw a certain future were Jean-Pierre Van Roy of Cantillon and Henri Vandervelden (the third generation of the founding family of Oud Beersel, who stopped brewing in 2002, to be restarted three years later by Gert Christiaens and Roland De Bus), but they saw it more as a museum, with geuze as a thing of the past.”
He received support – which was difficult to overestimate in those days – from beer expert Michael Jackson, who referred to lambic beers as “the champagnes of the beer world” and brought Frank together with other luminaries of the beer world for lunch in his series The Beer Hunter, in an episode called The Burgundies of Belgium, which can still be seen on YouTube.
“I had a lot of discussions with Michael Jackson. He visited in I think it was 1977; I was still a blender and I advised him to visit the lambic breweries,” he says. “The discussion was always about the technical side of making quality products as well as the visual side. He said people like the wooden casks with cobwebs and sun shining through the dusty windows, old glasses and enamel bottles. If you’re too modern it will handicap your sales. I argued that quality is important: you can’t sell third-rate beer with a nice story. I think some brewers made the mistake of thinking it wasn’t possible to achieve quality in lambic. For many of them, time stopped in 1880 or 1890, and they just kept on doing what their fathers and grandfathers had done.”
His brewery looks nothing like a museum, but he’s managing to produce beer of the highest quality, in demand not only from the beer-loving public but also industry insiders. So where does he go next?
“I’m not chasing hectolitres. I’ve been doing this for forty years, and the balancing act makes me crazy; just to do fine-tuning, to make it more elegant, to make it more fantastic,” he says. “If I want to experiment it would be with another cherry variety. Cherries are more interesting. I know there are still a lot of chapters on kriek still unwritten, so there’s still a lot of work I can do.”
Sweet, sweet sour
For anyone who ever dreamed of getting into the business of making lambic beers, here’s a piece of advice: Don’t be crazy.
Not only are you at the absolute mercy of a bunch of micro-organisms for a result that’s either success or disaster. Not only do you have to be based in a small part of a small country for those organisms even to be present. But if it all works out with your lambic base, you won’t be able to even make your geuze for three years, which means you’ll need space to stock the casks you’re filling in the meantime. Pierre Tilquin had to work in a bank to live during that time, while storing the lambic he bought in the meantime.
You’ll also be facing stiff competition. As you can read elsewhere, existing brewers and blenders are ramping up – with the exception of Girardin, who certainly could if they wanted to. Frank Boon is increasing his production in his new custom-made brewhouse : “The place was specially built to our own design,” he says. “The companies who sell brewhouses aren’t geared up to supply a lambic brewery.” Tilquin is thinking seriously of starting to brew as well as blend.
Other than that, it’s all fairly simple. Take a mixture of 40% unmalted wheat and 60% lambic malt. Mix it with hot and cold water to the right viscosity then pump it into the mash tanks, adding aged hops for their preservative function, making sure they remain below the taste threshold. Now boil the lot for four to five hours.
Boon uses a process known as turbid mashing, in which a kind of milky wort is drawn off into another tank, boiled and then returned to the mash tank. The aim is to maximise extraction from the large proportion (40&) of unmalted grains, to saccharify the wheat and remove most of the glutens. “If the wort is too rich, it’s overtaken by bacteria,” Frank said. “It has to be a poor wort for the making of lambic, which is selected for wild yeasts. You can make lambic with any kind of mash and you will always have a kind of result.”
But it won’t be a lambic as we know it, which is the product originating in this part of the world, and produced by this traditional method. Just as Champagne and Parma ham are defined by their process and their origin, so lambic made elsewhere by another system would not be genuine lambic.
“Those who only drink lager might think that lambic is a way to make sour beer, but in the old days, every beer that was brewed went sour after only a few days. Lambic was a way to make a beer with a balanced sourness. Not too sour – about the same level of sourness as a good glass of wine,” Frank explains. “The lambic process aims to make a beer with very high stability that can age for one, two or three years without problems.”
A beer that was too sour was considered poor quality, and if there was acetic acid or vinegar developing it would be sold not for drinking, but as gueuze cuisine, a sort of malt vinegar for use in the kitchen.
Then the lambic goes to the casks, or foeders, and there begins a whole new process of maturing and fermentation, and a whole new skill set on the part of the brewer or blender. The wild yeasts brought in from the cooling vessel survive in the oak of the casks, using an enzyme to break down the wood sugars allowing them to live in the first millimetre of the wood. That microfloral environment is crucial: Boon has three foeders he bought in 1986 which are still in service, used only to mature three-year lambic.
An old foeder like that is filled with fresh wort from the cooling vessel, and starts to develop. “But if you use it for only three-year lambic then the soil it grows in, the medium in which it develops, is three-year beer, and that combination produces lots of other enzymes that develop a wonderful taste. That’s why very old foeders are so fantastic for lambic. They give a taste that you can’t develop in a new foeder. That’s why we care a lot about old foeders.”
Lessons of history
One of Belgian Beer & Food’s aims is to tell the stories of Belgian breweries, but the truth is that we can only scratch the surface, dealing with the few that are still around today, while neglecting thousands that have been and gone, in some cases leaving barely a trace. An example is Brasserie LeFort. Once a dominant feature in the prosperous town of Kortrijk, it sat on the city’s old fortifications and sold its beer though its network of pubs in the city and surrounding area. As you’d expect, owner Felix Verscheure was a man of status and lived in an elegant townhouse adjacent to the brewery, itself one of the richest in the city. However it seemed that his brewery’s legacy would die with him. Felix outlived his two children, and when he died in 1911 his grand-daughter Marguerite Vandamme inherited the brewery. In those repressive times that could have been the end of the story, except that she was married to Omer Vander Ghinste, who himself owned a brewery in the village of Bellegem, on the outskirts of Kortrijk. Omer’s brewery was a much smaller concern, a local village brewery like thousands of others across Belgium.
But the marriage brought Vander Ghinste a distribution network, equipment and property, and laid the foundations for the brewery that continues today as Omer Vander Ghinste, until recently known as Bockor. Today’s owner, who’s also called Omer Vander Ghinste, remembers family members speaking about Brasserie LeFort with hushed reverence. “It was certainly something in the town of Kortrijk, and integrating it into our brewery was a big deal. Really it’s what allowed us to become who we are now.” And what better way to preserve an old legacy than by creating a new beer: Brasserie LeFort. “Our brewers got to go off and exercise their creativity on a new product,” says Nicolas Degryse the brewery’s marketing manager. “It’s not a recipe from that time, but we have found documents that say Brasserie LeFort was very well known for its beers of high alcohol content.
That changed later in the 1880s or 1890s when taxes were increased on high alcohol beers. The brewery also made dark beers, but we don’t have a lot of information about that.” Although it has 8.5 percent ABV, the beer’s alcohol is not overpowering in the mouth. Instead it’s a smooth, balanced, almost retiring brew, dark red with a fruity sweetness from the roasted malts, and deeper down notes of toffee and chocolate. Omer Vander Ghinste says that restraint was an important element in the making of this beer. “After Omer (a blond beer released in 2008) we decided to look at to look at a different segment and started trying dark beers. Actually compared to blond beers there aren’t many out there so we wanted to add something new. You know it’s not so difficult to make a beer with roasted-malt over-powering the other flavors. We wanted something more delicate, more subtle and complex.” There is roasted malt in Brasserie LeFort but there’s also pale malt, pils malt as well as wheat, an unusual ingredient in a dark beer. “Wheat gives a softness to the beer, and when you drink it it’s very smooth. Hops on the other hand play a minimal role, it’s the malty, chocolate and coffee taste that come through, with the hops adding a gentle bitterness but not much more than that.
“So as a tribute to the old Brasserie LeFort, you get a delicate beer, and in fact quite a modern one. “We had a blond beer of high fermentation (Omer) and now we have a brown beer of high fermentation. Normally we would have waited, but we found it so good. I don’t know if it’s the cleverest move. Maybe it would have been better to wait. But if you have the product and you have the story, why wait?
He’s been through personal tragedy, but as he explains to Paul Walsh, Palm’s Jan Toye still has a lot to be thankful for
As he sits down for our interview, Jan Toye counts his blessings. “To be a part of the beer world, to create a product that gives people pleasure, to have inherited all of this,” he says, nodding to the brewery across the street.
Toye – managing director of Palm Belgian Craft Brewers – is a fortunate man, I suggest. “That’s right,” he says. “Well, I lost a son…”
His son Christophe killed himself in 2004 at the age of 21 and Toye often speaks openly about the tragedy, and how it changed his life, not just personally but also professionally.
Today our discussion touches on his son’s death, suicide prevention and the meaning of life, but also hop varieties, wood ageing, beer distribution and a brewery that has changed radically since the glory days of the 1970s and 80s. Then, as Toye puts it, everybody had to have Palm Special Belge: his responsibility was to not so much to create demand but to meet it, through investment, expansion, innovations and, above all, hard work.
At the back of his mind, were there niggling apprehensions that this beer would fall out of favour? “Honestly, no. The train was just steaming ahead, and I found it wonderfully natural. One large brewing hall, another brewing hall, extra tanks, bottling lines, warehouses. As an engineer, I thought it was fantastic. It was exponential growth, and it wasn’t planned. It just happened. We did diversify: buying Rodenbach and buying fifty percent of Boon. But for a long time people couldn’t get enough of Palm Special Belge. I just needed to increase production. Streamline it. That’s how I saw my role.”
But during this frenzy of growth, tastes were slowly evolving. Palm, once the homegrown alternative to industrially produced pils, was starting to look old-fashioned. People wanted to expand their horizons to Trappist beers, strong blond beers and even traditional sour beers. This evolved to today’s phenomenon in which people are attracted by everything that’s small and local.
Now, however, Palm – or, I should say, Palm Belgian Craft Brewers – aren’t going to miss out. Toye and his team are making their brewery smaller so people can participate in creating beers through tastings and focus groups.
“I have a very clear picture of our raison d’être,” he says. “The bottom line is that everyone who works with us – our brewers, our sales people, marketers – should all be innovative and creative. They should be able to interpret our story, and to talk about how we work with our ingredients to make great beer.”
The flagship beer of the new Palm Craft Brewers is Cornet, a drinkable beer brewed from pale malt with the addition of Saaz and Target hops. In the brewing process they use oak as ingredient, which brings soft vanilla touches.
Another innovation is Arthur’s Legacy, a range of limited edition beers, each based on one particular discipline: hops, fruit, herbs or wood. The name refers to Jan’s great-uncle Arthur Van Roy, a brewer who always believed in the success of high fermentation beers.
The brewery is also innovating in how it interacts with the market. “Our pub owners are our ambassadors; we don’t evaluate them on volume. We’re looking for people with passion for beer, people who can infect others with that passion. Money isn’t coming easily but we’re learning a lot and becoming much more connected with the consumer.”
Listening to Toye, it’s tempting to be cynical about his attempts to restyle Palm as a local, craft brewery. After all, these days everyone seems to want to be craft. But he appears entirely sincere. Does his tragic story mean we should give him the benefit of the doubt?
In an interview with a Flemish trade union organisation in 2012, Toye mentioned his son’s belief about consumerism being a new form of slavery. “That’s what he thought. The Western model is a predatory model. We plunder mines, forests and seas. We use fossil fuels without thinking what we’ll do when they’re exhausted. Meanwhile, we’re heating the earth with predictably destructive consequences. Moreover, nature is increasingly concentrated in the hands of power structures that exploit them so they can sell expensive products to consumers. And people just keep on consuming; creating their own, accelerated destruction.”
Bleak as it may sound, this is not end of the story. The answer, according to Toye, is to return to local production. “Flowers and beans that can be grown in Belgium are in fact flown in from Kenya. It’s quite incredible,” he says. “So we have to evolve into a model in which we can reach high prosperity with a low carbon footprint: a new eco-economic model, which again will be more local.”
He could go on all day. This is Jan Toye the optimist, the idealist: the 67-year-old entrepreneur who still feels he has to prove himself as a businessman. It remains to be seen whether he will turn Palm Craft Brewers into a successful venture that’s also ethical, local, ecological and credible. But given everything that he’s been through, you can’t help but admire the effort.
I arrive to interview Anthony Martin about Martin’s IPA, but it appears there’s little to talk about. I’ve received the brochure, which summarises everything neatly and effectively. “What more is there to add?” he asks. A lot, as it turns out, and our conversation runs well over the allotted hour, taking in the history of his company, the origins of Belgian beer styles and John Martin’s maritime theme. But the thing that gets him talking is something that touches a nerve in many Belgian breweries: the American IPA. “This is not the IPA as it was originally intended. The US craft beer movement has reinvented it as something completely different.” Martin is nodding vigorously towards my notepad and I get the impression
that he is bothered by the development. Then again, this is personal, going back to Martin’s grandfather John Martin, who came to Antwerp in the early 20th century and established a drinks distribution company. One of the first beers he developed was an IPA, although comparing this to the tongue-scraping IPAs we know today is like comparing two different beer styles. It was brewed in the UK first by Simonds Brewery and then by Courage, and came to be regarded as a classic in the British brewing tradition. But as bitterness fell out of fashion, the easier-drinking Martin’s Pale Ale took its place. It wasn’t until the company’s 100th anniversary that Martin decided to resurrect an old favourite. “With American brewers taking the IPA in strange directions, I wanted to set the record straight and relaunch Martin’s IPA as a signature product,” he says. “Not to sell big volumes, of course, but to set it up as a reference, so that people knew what an IPA should be like. “We had the original recipe, so it seemed a shame not to use it. And it’s an extension of the Pale Ale, which we’ve been brewing in Belgium for the past few decades.” The brewing method for the IPA is complex, centring on a triple hopping process, with hops added at the beginning and end of the boil and after fermentation. It’s hard to pull off, and the result is pretty special. The beer pours a dark, amber-orange colour with a decent layer of frothy head. It gives off both floral and fruity hop aromas and the taste is of bread and malt, offset by a gentle bitterness. This is a beer with character, but it’s also delicate; as Martin would say, it’s an IPA as it was supposed to be. The branding relies on John Martin’s famous maritime theme. “We use the symbol of the ship to represent my grandfather’s passage to Antwerp. And then of course we’re using the ship for IPA, because of the tea clippers that used to provide IPAs to India’s Malabar coast.” And if Martin were to sum up the difference between Martin’s IPA and American IPAs?
In a word: balance. “Belgian beers are much more balanced than American beers,” he says, “and rely more on traditional fermentation processes, which are inherited from the English.” Hang on a minute. The received wisdom is that Belgians developed these methods themselves through centuries of research and craft in monastic breweries. “Not true,” Martin says. “The Belgians did give hops to the English, but the English developed the pale ales, the scotch ales and the stout. Belgian special beers were made from these recipes. Duvel was originally an English beer; so was Bush. In terms of yeast, fermentation and style, the English beer tradition spawned the Belgian one.” Martin adds that his grandfather had 55 percent of the special beer market 50 years ago and was one of the pioneers. “At that time there were a few Trappist beers, which were distributed locally, and a few Lambics, but not much more than that. “But the English influence was huge. World War I had a lot to do with it, and there was another big burst after World War II. My grandfather, and others like Bass and Whitbread, started brewing in Belgium.” Before he raises too many hackles, Martin is quick to add that the Belgian special beer market has surpassed its roots. “The pupil has overtaken the teacher. These breweries were taken over by Belgians themselves, and the tradition took on a new life.” “So the Belgian special beer heritage is a recent one, although it’s one that Belgium can be very proud off and something that we have to fight to preserve.”
A beer geek walks into a bar and asks for the newest release. She drinks it and then asks for a beer from a local micro-brewery. Unfortunately for some Belgian brewers, this isn’t a joke, but a trend led by beer lovers around the world who are both insatiably curious and enamored with local products. You see Belgian brewers are going in the other direction; becoming increasingly dependent on export markets and selling beer that isn’t homegrown and usually isn’t new, either. The quality of their product has given them a competitive edge thus far, but as upstarts in the US, the UK and other parts of the world hone their craft, there’s the worry that this might not last. On the bright side, the range of Belgian beer styles is remarkably diverse, so that even the most dedicated beer hunters can find something that will impress their friends. We’ve seen that recently with American drinkers becoming acquainted with lambic beer, which in turn has kicked off something called sour beer mania, a phenomenon that one day might even make its way back to Brussels. To find the next big thing, perhaps it’s worth moving beyond Brussels and Pajottenland to the mixed-fermentation red and brown ales of East and West Flanders. These beers are present in the minds of some drinkers, but they still add up to a largely undiscovered and underappreciated set of styles: in other words, exactly what beer lovers are after. Indeed, figuring out the difference between the Eastern and Western varieties might already be enough to set you apart from your geeky friends. At the same time the hidden-gem status of these beers could change, especially as red-ale brewers, led by the indefatigable Rudi Ghequire of Rodenbach, are speaking out and explaining their sophisticated production methods. So seek them out, although you’ll have to live with the fact that they’re not new, and, unless you’re in East or West Flanders, aren’t local either. On the other hand, they taste great: wine-like and complex, yet refreshing and highly drinkable. They’ve got a rich history behind them and our editorial team is so convinced that we’ve devoted a hefty chunk of this issue to discussing them. One thing that we’ve learned is that while local is all well and good, it should never stop you from drinking great beer
By Paul Walsh
De Halve Maan is on one of Bruges’s main tourist trails and has become the most visited brewery in the Benelux region. Yet far from the sweetened crowd pleasers that you might expect at such a location, its beers are complex and finely balanced, tending to the dryer end of the spectrum, and often surprising in their inventiveness. This might be part of the plan: a tourist brewery that makes beer for connoisseurs. It’s a place beer lovers would visit even if it lay in the remotest corner of West Flanders and not in the centre of Belgium’s largest tourist hub.
Then again, De Halve Maan was brewing beer long before it became a tourist attraction. It dates back to the 15th century, with current owners the Maes family becoming involved in 1856 and pushing the brewery forward in the face of industrialisation and standardising tastes.
It’s not entirely clear how they succeeded, but today De Halve Maan is the only brewery in a city that had at least 20 at the start of the last century.
“For a long time, the story of Belgian breweries has been one of constant decline,” Managing Director Xavier Vanneste says. “It’s only very recently that the number has started to increase again. And for the most part it’s only the ones that were innovating and keeping up with trends that survived. You saw this with the brewers who got into bottled beer first, and then larger beer and more recently speciality beer.”
But De Haalve Maan still felt the strain of market pressure, and 20 years ago it was forced to sell its biggest brand, Straffe Hendrik, and everything connected with it.
This wasn’t the end of the story, though; just the beginning of a new chapter.
“My family always believed in running an independent small brewery,” says Xavier whose mother and sisters are very much involved in the operation. In 2005 the family restarted brewing on the original site, with a new brand called Brugse Zot, which has since become their biggest seller. It’s given them the means to buy back the rights to Straffe Hendrik.
Not only did they restart the old range, they also expanded it with limited-edition beers that are clearly not directed at the mass market. The first was Straffe Hendrik Heritage, a version of Straffe Hendrik quadruple aged for one year in oak barrels, which brings together the original’s spicy and bitter flavours with a touch of wine and oak from the aging process.
“It started as an experiment: we bought forty tuns, and it was really interesting to see what happened because every barrel has a different evolution,” says Xavier. “We always work with French oak, and this year we’re working with barrels from different houses. We’re also using new barrels, because we’d like to have our own barrels eventually. But it’s a very limited edition. We have a small cellar where we age the beer in barrels and we fill it once a year.”
The Heritage is certainly not something you’d guzzle during a walking tour of Bruges, although it is something you could buy and take home as a souvenir, perhaps.
Then there’s Straffe Hendrik Wild: the original Straffe Hendrik tripel, bottle-conditioned with wild Brettanomyces yeast. This creates an aroma and taste of grapes and apricots, but the tripel’s delicate dry finish remains.
Most high-fermentation brewers will do whatever they can to avoid wild yeast lest it contaminate their equipment. At De Halve Maan they only add the strains at the bottling plant, which is in a different location to the brewery. But this doesn’t mean the process was easy.
“It was another experiment, and I know that bottle-conditioning with brett is dangerous, because you never know how far the brett will go,” Xavier explains. You just need to taste a lot because there are so many kinds of brett and they develop all kinds of flavours. We selected one type, but it’s an ongoing process. It keeps us sharp and interested.”
The beer itself is unique, although the use of wild yeast and the fact the beer rounds out with age mean that comparisons with Orval are unavoidable. “The Orval of Bruges” was how sommelier Sofie Vanrafelghem described it at a recent tasting.
It’s clear that Xavier is keen on innovating, but only in a way that respects the tradition of his brewery. So it’s perhaps no surprise that he’s also President of the Belgian Family Brewers, an organisation that promotes independent family breweries that have been making beer for at least 50 years. Their slogan is “where innovation meets tradition,” and while they all respect tradition, Xavier says that the interpretation of innovation can be different from brewery to brewery.
“There are a lot of breweries, with a lot of history and tradition, and you can be innovative in several ways. In the way you market your beer, in the ecological measures you introduce… Now we have 22 members. But there is so much diversity there.”