Towering inferno

The beer community pulled together in support of Hof Ten Dormaal after a fire gutted much of the brewery’s infrastructure. Breandán Kearney reports on the salvage operation almost a year on, including a festival dedicated to innovation in beer

On 6 January this year, fire destroyed the roof of the Hof Ten Dormaal brewery in Tildonk, Flemish Brabant. The entire bottling line, conditioning rooms and most of the stock were burnt to the ground. “My brother-in-law was getting up early to go to work in Brussels and he noticed it,” says brewer Jef Janssens. I heard some rubble falling but I was still asleep and didn’t know what was going on. He warned everyone and called the fire brigade. It was caused by a chimney fire from the climate chamber in the brewery. We were lucky no one was injured and that there was no damage to our living quarters. But financially, it’s still hard.”

 

Not long after the fire, the family launched a new event. “Maybe two days after the fire, we started talking,” says Jef. “We’d been thinking about doing a festival for quite some time, but never in concrete ways. Right after the fire at our place, we felt we should just do it. Now the time was right. We’d got quite a lot of attention and we wanted to do something unique in Belgium.”

That event was the Leuven Innovation Beer Festival. “We contacted the breweries and two weeks later we came up with the official idea.” Sixteen breweries from nine countries came to pour at the festival, including Goose Island from Chicago and New Belgium from Colorado. The festival took place at De Hoorn, the historic brewhouse in which Stella Artois was brewed for the first time in 1926.

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The theme was innovation. “We think the Belgian beer market is too common”, says Jef. “People believe we’re still the best beer country, which is in my opinion not true at all. Americans make awesome beers, Italians make awesome beers. All over the world the beer market is exploding and we’re still clinging on to tradition. For me that’s not the future in beers. The future is new things. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be drinkable. It has to be interesting.”

One of Hof Ten Dormaal’s most popular beers is their Wit Goud (‘white gold’). It’s a beer made from the chicory grown on the brewery farm. “We use a typical Belgian ingredient,” says Jef. “It’s the beer that sparked our recognition in the brewing world.”

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Goodwill poured in from the beer community in the immediate aftermath of the fire. A friend of the brewery set up an online fundraising page so people could donate to the costs of Hof Ten Dormaal’s recovery, while brewers offered the proceeds of collaboration brews towards the costs of rebuilding.

“The week after the fire, I went on a road trip to the Netherlands where I brewed with De Molen,” says Jef. “Then I drove down to Baarle Hertog to brew with Dochter Van De Korenaar.” The results were a “smoked imperial stout-ish” called Vallen & Opstaan (literally ‘falling and getting up’) and a red IPA called L’Amitié (‘friendship’).

Jef and his family also tried to salvage what was left of the stock. “Inferno was basically a mega-blend of all the beer we could recover from the damaged bottles. It was all different types of beer: sour beers, peated beers, barrel-aged beers, so we didn’t know how it would come out,” he says. “Thankfully, it came out really well.”

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Part of the roof of the brewery at Hof Ten Dormaal is still exposed today; another part is covered by a temporary tarpaulin. “When we started brewing after the fire, it was like getting to know the system again,” he says. “You have to get to know your water supply again. We had to rethink everything. Now, it’s ok, because we have three people. But we still don’t have a roof. Sometimes we have to pay for temporary shelter for a couple of weeks. Some money goes down pits that wouldn’t be there if there hadn’t been a fire.”

People believe we’re still the best beer country, which is in my opinion not true at all. Americans make awesome beers, Italians make awesome beers

The future is new things. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be drinkable. It has to be interesting