Ronald Mengerink’s vinous brews reflect their composite heritage. Alan Hope visits the Belgian town located within the Netherlands’ borders where they are produced.
The Belgian town of Baarle-Hertog is not in Belgium. It’s in the Netherlands – a tiny fragmented enclave of Belgian territory inside the Dutch border. On the map, it looks like a handful of Belgian jigsaw pieces thrown down on a Dutch carpet. You might think it’s a real territorial oddity, except for the fact that just up the road, inside the territory of Belgium, the Dutch town of Baarle-Nassau is exactly the same, only reversed.
Ronald Mengerink, the owner of the brewery Dochter van de Korenaar, is also a citizen of a Europe without borders – a Dutch brewer working in Belgium doing his bit to disrupt the beer world from within.
“I had a market business in the south of Holland, selling Mediterranean specialities, olives, salami, Italian cheeses and so on. I came down here from Groningen looking for a place to live. I was staying with a friend in Tilburg, and one Sunday I was driving around and we ended up in Belgium, and saw a house to rent here, an apartment there, a farm over there. And so I decided to come and live in Belgium.”
He has been making beer since before he was even old enough to drink the stuff.
“I started brewing at the age of 15 as a hobby. At 21 I started a brewery in Groningen, itself an old beer city. People thought I was crazy, but I pushed on. I was selling beer for a while but I was young and naïve, and I thought as soon as the brewery gets started I’ll make a profit. Now I know better. It takes 18 months to two years before you make even a little profit – if you’re lucky. I didn’t have any financial breathing space, the bank wouldn’t give me any more credit and I had to shut up shop.”
People used to come from Amsterdam to Groningen – a drive of about 200km – to pick up his beers, so he was sure he was doing something right. At the time he produced a blond beer not dissimilar to the Noblesse he produces now and a three-grain tripel. A heavy beer based on an old Brussels Braspenning recipe had been in the planning but was never executed before the shutters came down.
It took more than seven years of travelling to France to renovate an old house, winter and summer and weekends in-between, while working as a constructor of swimming pools, before the dream could be revived. Mengerink sold his house in France, and with the profit opened the Dochter van de Korenaar brewery nine years ago. In the third year of operations, his Peated Oak-Aged Embrasse won the consumer prize at the Zythos festival. “That’s when I decided to go all-in with the brewery,” he says.
By 2016, the brewery has won three more Zythos consumer prizes (including this year’s) and sales are growing by a phenomenal 100% a year: proof he was correct to think he was doing something right.
A word about the name: Dochter van de Korenaar translates as “ear of corn”, and comes from a saying attributed to Charles V, the best-loved of all of Belgium’s foreign occupiers. Charles was born in Ghent in 1500, heir to the throne of Castile, and grew up in Mechelen with his aunt Margaret of Austria, who was also his regent after his father died in 1506. Charles was thoroughly integrated in local life, to the extent that he preferred beer to the wine typically favoured by Spanish nobility. “I would rather drink the juice of the ear of corn than the blood of a bunch of grapes,” he declared.
Ironically, the beers of Dochter van de Korenaar are a marriage of beer and wine: ripened in wooden wine barrels. “I make beers I like to drink myself. I like beers with a bit of character, and I like to make beers that have ripened for more or less time in wooden barrels. I like doing it, and it delivers mainly very surprising results. I think that’s what makes our beers a bit special.”
“I like to use something special, and something good. I use white wine barrels from Pouligny-Montrachet, a very highly rated white wine with a real earthy mineral flavour. That’s where the La Renaissance [the beer that won this year’s Zythos prize] is matured. If you taste the wine and the beer beside one another, if you can even get your hands on a bottle of the wine, then you can taste that they’re like brother and sister. It’s amazing.”
Part of the problem of using wine barrels is cost, another is storage space while the beers are maturing, and another is availability.
“I used to have to go to France myself to pick up barrels because [people there] didn’t respond to email. They’re all small wine producers. Over the course of time I made some good contacts there, let them taste the beer, and now there’s someone down there who gathers the barrels together during the vendange and puts them on a truck, so I don’t have that problem any more. I can be more confident that I’ll have barrels when I need them.”
The brewery now has a wide range of beers, and is moving shortly to new larger premises elsewhere in the town, where Mengerink will be able to produce more and enjoy more room for storage of about 600-700 barrels, to cope with growing demand.
Does he have anything new in the pipeline?
“I have some interesting ideas. I’d like to experiment more with tea. A lot of brewers try things with coffee. I was in China recently, and I had the chance to taste some fantastic kinds of tea, and those flavours are much more subtle than coffee – less bold and less aggressive. I think the right kind of beer and the right tea combined could produce some very surprising results. That’s something I’d like to look into. You can’t make a hoppy beer with tea, because then the hops would overwhelm the subtle flavour of the tea. I’m thinking more of a sort of wheat beer, perhaps with rye malt, then combined with Oolong tea. I think that could be pleasant. So there are plenty of things I’d still like to discover.”