Bavik Brewery is not shy about pushing a good product
By Robyn Boyle
Imagine you’re in line to eventually take over at your great-great-grandfather’s brewery from 1894. You’re young; you’ve finished your studies, so naturally you set off to work for… Heineken. Wait, what? It may sound like an impossibly surreal Belgian tale but it’s one with a happy ending, I promise.
Twenty-eight-year-old Bert De Brabandere did indeed work for the Dutch brewing giant, but with good reason. He did it to learn from the best. Not how to brew, of course, for that’s something the De Brabandere family has been doing for four generations, and very well at that. No, the clever successor took from Heineken the best education it could offer him: beer marketing on an international scale.
And just in case there were any gaps in his brewing knowledge, De Brabandere also studied intensively as a Brau and Malzmeister in Münich, something that might explain his obsessive focus on beer quality.
During my tour, the fresh-faced new owner shows that he’s learned a thing or two, talking rapidly and with great passion about his ambitions for the brewery. “Our beers are very popular in France, the Netherlands and the US,” he says. “But there’s room to grow, which is why we plan on investing further in the brewery. But the idea is to always keep the focus on quality.”
‘Quality, ’ it’s that word again and it comes up several times during my visit. I can tell that De Brabandere is proud to be continuing the family tradition. And he’s eager to show off its wares. Bavik, while known primarily as a pilsner brewery (Bavik Pils is regularly in the spotlight for taking home numerous world beer awards), produces an impressive line-up of various beer styles, from the well-known Petrus range to specialty beers like Wittekerke and Piljaarbijter, among others.
I have to sample a few different kinds before finding my fancy, but in the end there are three Bavik beers that jump out and grab me. First, the Petrus Aged Pale. This one is tapped straight from the oak barrel (where it spends 20 months maturing) and into the bottle, so it’s a pure, unadulterated wild ale. And it packs a punch at 7.3 abv. Unlike most barrel-aged beers, Petrus Aged Pale is light in colour, almost golden. When I ask why it’s not reddish-brown in colour like other beers of its type (Rodenbach, Duchesse de Bourgogne, etc), De Brabandere explains that the Aged Pale’s unique colour comes from the exclusively pale malts used in the brewing process. It can also be attributed to the use of calvados barrels from the Brive-la-Gaillarde in France. Whatever the reason, I’m adding Petrus Aged Pale to my short but ever-growing list of favourite sour ales.
Next up, the Petrus Old Brown is already remarkable for its deep reddish-brown colour. It pours a lovely mahogany brown with a beige head and has a mildly acidic aroma that entices you to take a sip. Aged in oak barrels for 24 months, the Old Brown is a top-fermented dark beer with character. Because it is mixed with 33% of the Aged Pale and two other top-fermented beers, Petrus Old Brown is not as sour as the Aged Pale, making it considerably more palatable and thirst-quenching.
Finally, it’s the Kwaremont Blonde that gets my attention, mainly thanks to its label which features two cyclists climbing up a hill with a church at the top. Bavik brews this beer since 2010 at the request of the municipality Kluisbergen in the Flemish Ardennes. The town’s toughest hill (“mountain” by Belgian standards), the Kwaremont, is especially known as one of the most gruelling slopes in the annual cycling Tour of Flanders. The 1600m-long paved road is a protected monument. Kwaremont is a blonde high-fermentation beer with a reasonable 6.6 abv. The initial aroma is yeasty and slightly spicy, the first sip sweet and malty. And while the mouthfeel is creamy and sticky, it saves itself at the finish with a grainy, slightly bitter aftertaste.
As one of the biggest small family breweries in Belgium, Bavik, under the lead of the young De Brabandere, is producing many quality brews while keeping tradition alive.