Totem: Poles Apart

Totem, a start-up selling to just a handful of clients, has garnered online acclaim as one of Belgium’s best new breweries, with rather un-Belgian brews. John Rega chats to the founding couple.

STORY

If you can find a Totem beer, the beer geeks would advise you to grab it.

It’s not just that it’s rare — though it is, as the start-up brews once a month, 50 to 60 cases a pop, with no ambitions for more. The point is, it’s a novel brew every time.

“Brewing is a hobby for us and we want it to remain a hobby,” says Klaas Dellaert, co-proprietor with Liesbeth Van Raemdonck. An item since university, they’re both employed in information technology. “If we brew the same beer twice, it becomes work.”

Nonetheless, in January this year, Totem garnered acclaim as Belgium’s “best new brewer” on the RateBeer website.

That’s “Belgium’s”, not “Belgian”. Totem’s brews, all named after Mayan gods, are decidedly not of the country’s monastic brewing tradition.

The 2014 home-brew contest winner that launched them: Zipacna, a rye stout with chipotle peppers, matured on oak chips. The pepper doesn’t burn but elongates the flavour, while the wood adds complexity in the background, all in balance, almost quaffable.

If you can find a Totem beer, the beer geeks would advise you to grab it.

“We want to make beers that are not available in Belgium but that we’d like to drink,” Klaas says while pouring Votan, a blond ale made of buckwheat, rye, spelt and wheat. “We just decided to make them ourselves.”

Xbalanque is an imperial pilsner, a homage to the Czechs yet brewed to 9% alcohol, to see how far lager yeast could go. “That makes it fun for us, pushing the limits,” says Klaas, who also ran the Ghent Beer Festival for a half decade.

Cojico is a low-alcohol India pale ale, packed with the sort of fruity hops prized in the US. The moniker is the Mayan nickname for the rain god Chac — which was an earlier version of a session IPA by Totem.

The fire god Tohil lords over a Bamberg-style rauchbock of beechwood-smoked malt. The twist — there’s always a twist — is Lapsang Souchong tea. Besides tinting the red lager slightly brown, its adds tannic bitterness plus an additional smoky note. “Bacon for vegetarians,” Klaas proclaims after a taste.

“It’s quite meaty,” agrees chef Vincent Florizoone, who stocks it at his Brasserie Edison in Koksijde, along with two other Totems. “It fits perfectly with the steak tartare.”

Florizoone, who also organises the Flemish Food Bash, is worried about replenishing his supply. “Maybe he’ll make it a second time — I need it,” he says.

“We also really like the beer and food pairing,” Liesbeth says as she and Klaas tuck into stylish comfort food at Kantien in Ghent, a short walk from home and one of only three or four cafes serving Totem. “We’re also foodies.”

But a remake doesn’t sounds likely. They’re marching onto a series named after Viking gods.

Totem remains a sideline, the couple insist, even as they describe their new fixer-upper house in Ertvelde, with an outbuilding that will — someday — hold their brewhouse. For now, they make the monthly batch at Bryggja Brewery.

There’s no grand expansion plan, they say, happy to sell out their brews to friends nearby.

“We like brewing,” Liesbeth says. “Sales guys, that’s not us.”

Klaas affirms, “If we increase production, we’ll have to start selling it.”