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.