The brewing world is a small one — one or two degrees of separation, tops — but by my reckoning it feels smallest in the village of Mont, in the southeast Ardennes.
Consider Belgium, which packs in a lot of brewers for its tiny size. In Mont we find that trait in microcosm. Despite a population of only 156, the village boasts five brewers in residence — one brewer for every 30 non-brewers.
The group includes Tim Gobron, who, along with his father Pierre Gobron — co-founder of Achouffe — brews Lupulus at Trois Fourquets; Chris Bauweraerts, the other co-founder of Achouffe; his son Benjamin Bauwerearts, who also works at Trois Fourquets; and Philippe Fransolet, current head brewer at Achouffe.
Last but not least is Pol Ghekiere, who — despite all these neighbours involved in making beer elsewhere — owns the village’s only actual brewery: Inter-Pol.
Ghekiere marvels at how many brewers live within a couple of hundred metres. “That’s fun. This is a place where the streets have no names.”
Or rather, this is where the streets have only one name: Mont. And at Mont No. 33 we find the Vieille Forge bed and breakfast, with five rooms and a table well provisioned by Ghekiere and his wife Tine Vangheluwe.
The ‘old forge’ shed out front is now home to the Inter-Pol brewhouse — all 60 litres of it — as well as the tiny, cosy weekend bar they call the Grand Café. That’s the ideal place to try Inter-Pol beers. While Pol and Tine hold court, you rub shoulders with B&B guests and neighbours — with every chance that a brewer or two is among them.
Ghekiere and Vangheluwe keep a separate ‘brewers’ only’ guestbook for visitors who work in the beer trade. Flip through its pages and you’ll read messages from the likes of Allagash, Brooklyn, Deschutes, Duvel, Firestone Walker, Left Hand, Westmalle and Stone. The brewing world must seem even smaller when a significant portion of it comes to your remote neck of the woods to drink your beer, sleep under your roof, and join you for breakfast in the morning. “From all over the world,” says Ghekiere.
The brewing life was not what this couple, married now for 36 years, expected when they moved here in 1999. For 18 years they ran a restaurant in Dadizele, West Flanders, east of Ypres. That restaurant was the Spaans Dak, now under different ownership, which stocked as many as 120 beers at the time.
One of those beers was La Chouffe. Afterwards the couple moved to their current farm in Mont — “We were just looking for something, it could have been La Roche or Vielsalm or something else. But we saw this farm and we said, ‘Wow. That’s it.’ So we bought it for the view.”
One day they went for a walk in the rolling hills. “The first village we come across was Achouffe,” Ghekiere says. “And we said, ‘Man, this is a brewery.’ We hadn’t realised Achouffe was near Mont.”
See? Small world.
Soon enough Ghekiere was working at the brewery part-time, leading tours for Dutch-speaking visitors. Gradually he learned more about the brewing process. After tinkering a bit with kitchen brewing, Bauweaerts loaned Ghekiere a small pilot kit. Since then Ghekiere has installed his own equipment, whilst still receiving assistance from the lab at Achouffe. “They do it for me because I know them. I know a lot about beer, for such a small home brewer. I’m very lucky.”
Ghekiere brews on his 60-litre kit two or three times a week, with fermentation capacity of a few hundred litres. He does the packaging himself, in embossed 75cl corked bottles that bear his caricatured likeness.
Most of his beers were inspired by another that charmed him. The Witte Pol, representing about 60% of his production, was inspired by the Hoegaarden of his youth. “I have a very good feeling with older beers such as those Pierre Celis made,” Ghekiere says.
Once, he had the chance to visit Celis in Hoegaarden for the elder brewer’s 80th birthday. Ghekiere brought him a Witte Pol. “He said, ‘Finally, we have good white beer in Belgium, just like the Pierre Celis from the ‘70s and ‘80s.’”
The Witte Pol gets coriander and orange peel, like a typical Belgian Witbier, but it leans fruitier, less herbal, and slightly more acidic than most.
The Zwarte Pol is Inter-Pol’s take on a milk stout, inspired by Chocolate Indulgence from Ommegang — a New York state brewery now owned, like Achouffe, by Duvel. He adds cacao powder and milk sugar, which adds sweetness to the chocolate taste. Recently he inadvertently used the wrong hops, making it more bitter — and he found that people liked it better that way. So he stuck with it.
Ghekiere also has tinkered with an off-dry, grainy Saison du Mont as well as Peated Pol, an ale brewed with whisky malt. But his favourite plaything, lately, is Hops ‘n’ Roses. The inspiration here was a beer of the same name from New York’s Captain Lawrence. It has flavours of rose petals, hibiscus and elderflower — decidedly floral in the nose and pinkish in colour — then is dry-hopped with Amarillo for an aromatic boost of citrus.
“I’m very proud of it,” Ghekiere says. “Also the white beer, but the special one is the Hops and Roses. That’s very special. There are many people who make a white beer, but I don’t know so many beers with flowers.”
“But it’s trouble,” he added, since the beer finishes at 8.2% strength.
He has tried and abandoned experiments with having his beer, specifically the Witte Pol, brewed elsewhere. Proef in Lochristi brewed a special version for Delhaize, and until recently Bastogne also was brewing some Witte Pol too. But Ghekiere says he wasn’t totally satisfied with how those beers turned out. And so he decided that bigger is not necessarily better.
“We don’t do it anymore.” Ghekiere says. “We have a nice life. And there’s also more to life than beer. I’m nearly 60 years old.
“And also, we like it this way. Why go bigger?”
– By Joe Stange –