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There’s something odd about Belgium’s southeast corner, home to some of the country’s most distinctive beers. Joe Stange enters the Gaume Dimension
My theory is that the space-time continuum warps inside the Gaume. It’s the simplest way to explain the oddities that occur within. Tucked into Belgium’s south-east corner, this region is not like the others.
Villages appear near each other on a map – because they are, in theory – yet it seems to take 40 minutes to drive anywhere. Short trips stretch into elongated corridors of pines. People are scarce; the ones you meet might speak a vestigial patois of Old French, unlike Walloon and stubbornly lingering from Gallo-Roman times.
But the most surreal thing about the Gaume is the paucity of cafes. They exist if you know where to look – the main squares of the larger towns, mainly – but this is not like other parts of Belgium, where cafes are strewn about the roadside, multiplying as you approach a town’s outskirts. The ones you do see in the Gaume’s hinterland often look abandoned, many with a long-faded A vendre sign.
So there are many trees but few people and fewer places to drink, all of which makes it mysterious indeed that this little piece of the planet produces several of its finest, most distinctive ales. Broadly speaking, beers of the Gaume tend to be dryish and bitter with prominent hop character – traits that might be taken as a sense of place, the nearest thing beer has to terroir.
Unlike wine geeks who memorise appellations, beer aficionados know brewery names but are sketchier on the geography. So they know Orval, Rulles, Sainte-Hélène and Millevertus… but they may not realise that they all hail from the same, idiosyncratic little chunk of Belgium, an area that is home to fewer than 50,000 people.
“It’s a very small region,” says Rulles founder Gregory Verhelst. “But we have a big identity. The people, we feel different.”
He mentions the patois, and the proximity to France and Luxembourg making it relatively cosmopolitan for such a rural area. They embrace outsiders fairly easily – Gregory is from Tournai, it must be noted. We might also mention the Gaume’s medieval history as part of the influential County of Chiny, or its microclimate that tends to be a couple of degrees warmer than the neighbouring Ardennes.
But none of that directly affects the brewing. So what makes the beer so distinctive?
“I think the main reason is the presence of Orval brewery,” Gregory says. “Orval is the beer from the Gaume, really. Everybody drinks this beer and has this beer in their home.”
Even in nearby Bouillon, famous for its medieval castle, the popularity of Orval is such that the local drinks market limits customers to six bottles each. One cafe owner tells me he would love to stock a wider range of beers, but much of his fridge space is reserved for Orval. A frequent anecdote from fellow tourists is that the locals throw back Orval the way other Belgians drink pils. It’s not far off the mark.
So Orval may have helped to foster certain local tastes.
“We like bitter,” says Gregory at Rulles, whose house character includes fulsome hop flavour and moderate bitterness. The combination makes for drinkability that can seem effortless, as with Estivale. The stronger ones are tasty perils. Gregory says Sainte-Hélène brewer Eddy Pourtois walks a similar path. “Eddy and me, we make beers we like. He likes bitter, I like bitter, and Orval is bitter.”
As a brief aside, here is the answer to a trivia question: the southernmost point in Belgium is the village of Rouvroy, south-west of Virton. The latter is the unofficial capital of the Gaume, and on its outskirts is a village called Ethe, old enough to be mentioned in early medieval documents. That is the present home of Brasserie Sainte-Hélène… but not for long. Eddy is in the process of moving to a larger space in Florenville, with room for growth and a tasting bar.
Eddy studied as a mechanical engineer, and his self-built, ramshackle brewhouse has a certain Frankenstein quality. Some pieces don’t look like they quite match up, but the whole thing works reliably, and the proof is in his consistent and increasingly impressive range of beers. As we talk in the attic/tasting room, we sip the lush, herbally hopped, strong brown winter ale La Prime. It goes down easier than is sensible.
Like Gregory, Eddy says the influence of Orval goes far beyond bitterness. Here is a crucial point: all the breweries in the region have access to Orval yeast and analyses from the brewery’s impressive laboratory. “It’s a great advantage,” he says.
A serious lab like the one at Orval allows brewers to dial in their consistency a number of ways, such as measuring bitterness. As Gregory says: “When I say I have 32 IBUs in my beers, it’s true.”
One brewery in the Gaume has an even closer connection to the Orval lab. One of the lab’s employees, Vincent Habran, moonlights as brewer at nano-sized Gengoulf down the road. The operation is likely to grow as its dryish, herbal blonde flagship builds its reputation. Another brewery that may appear in the next few years is Semois, a firm that has been brewing at Sainte-Hélène. Its beers include the dry and bitter Petite Frangine, packing a resinous hop punch at 4.5% strength.
Then there is the influence of the Orval’s particular yeast, used by many of the region’s brewers and likely evolved from an English strain. Some describe its profile as spicy; in my view it’s relatively clean compared to other Belgian strains, helping to accentuate hop aroma and flavour. The yeast at Rulles – where Gregory uses open fermenters, developing fruity character that dovetails with his judicious use of American hops – evolved from Orval’s primary strain.
Like Sainte-Hélène, Millevertus has grown stronger and more professional with time. But thankfully it maintains a frivolous streak. Personal favourites include the sturdy blonde La Bella Mère, which fits the local taste for ample hopping, and the smoothly smoked amber La Fumette. But it wouldn’t be Millevertus without the playthings spiked with saffron, black pepper, lemon zest, or Szechuan chilies. All the funny ones are worth trying; whether they reward repeat drinking is beside the point.
The best moment to marvel at all these Gaumais jewels in one spot is the annual Brassigaume festival in the village of Marbehan. Organised by Gregory, local brewers welcome friends from the Ardennes and farther abroad each October – there were 26 brewers at the 2015 edition, all of them smaller independents. Beer for beer it’s easily one of Belgium’s best festivals, but thankfully the Gaume is inconveniently remote. A few scattered foreign drinkers join devoted locals to pack the large tent with convivial chatter.
Time inside the Brassigaume tent passes rapidly, even as the region outside it moves glacially. Culturally speaking the Gaume straddles the French border, which seems newfangled and arbitrary in these parts. Orval is popular on the French side too, and since 1986 Stenay has been home to the worthwhile and undersung Musée Européen de la Bière. Its exhibits and tavern are in Stenay’s old fortress, converted to a maltings in the late 19th century.
The museum is only about 30 minutes’ drive from Orval. In theory. But watch out for those space-time disturbances.