Usually, a brewery is passed from father to son. In the case of Oud Beersel, as Alan Hope finds out, the next generation took matters into his own hands
“At the end of 2002, the Oud Beersel brewery closed down,” explains Gert Christiaens, who now runs the operation. “At the beginning of 2003 I was sitting in a pub in Brussels: the Zageman in Rue de Laeken, which is now closed, but then it was famous for its old-style gueuzes and krieks. I used to go there often to drink with my friends.
“The owner told me, ‘These are the last bottles of Oud Beersel; next time you come I won’t be able to serve you because the brewery has closed down.’ I always used to drink Oud Beersel, because I used to come here when I was a little boy with my dad when he was buying beer. My parents don’t live far from here.
“A couple of days later I looked up the number in the Yellow Pages and called the old brewmaster, who told me his nephew had been keeping the brewery going for the last ten years but was fed up: the brewing installation wasn’t workable any more, there had been no investments for the last thirty to forty years, so everything was old and hard to work with. And he was also managing the bar next to the brewery, where the flower shop is now.”
The owners sold the bar and everything in it, including a valuable old organ and all of their bottled and barrelled beer.
“I went to see the old brewmaster, because I was interested in keeping the lambic beer tradition alive. I had to start learning how to make lambic beers, here with the old brewmaster and at a course in Ghent every Saturday morning for two years. I had studied economics with IT management, so I knew nothing about beer production. I was a good consumer but I didn’t know how to make beer. I started learning with the aim of safeguarding the traditional lambic beer culture, and that’s still what we want to achieve today.”
By Belgian brewing standards, Gert is still wet behind the ears, with barely a decade of experience in a world that counts its background in generations, not years. Maybe there really is something magic in the air in this part of Belgium known as the Pajottenland, reputed to be the only place in the world where the micro-flora is perfect for the creation of the uniquely Belgian style of beer known as lambic, which is the basis of gueuze and kriek.
Something is going right, because Oud Beersel keeps on winning awards, most recently gold and silver at the Brussels Beer Challenge in November (for oude kriek and oude geuze respectively) and gold and silver at the European Beer Star 10 days later, for oude kriek and Bersalis Tripel.
And the business is doing well.
“We launched lambic beers in 2007 again, and then the brewery was completely dependent on me. If I had a problem we had to stop. It’s very important that the brewery can run by itself. For that you need to be profitable, and we’ve been breaking even for the last five years and made a profit for the first time last year. Now we have three employees, for administration, a sales representative and one person responsible for production. That also allows us to take things to a higher level.”
That higher level is no more and no less than the preservation of an old tradition, with a passion seen more in recent converts to a cause rather than those who are to the manner born.
“We’re known for our mild lambic beers. That vinegar acidity is not for us. You have some producers who want to make extreme beers. Our aim for the brewery is actually to safeguard traditional lambic beers, and if you want to safeguard them you have to produce them, and people need to buy them and enjoy them. If they don’t enjoy them then you don’t have customers any more and the traditions will disappear. For me it’s very important that we can present beers that are enjoyable not only for beer fanatics.”
We’re tasting a young lambic, about fourteen months old, which has been ripening in a first-use barrel from Chateauneuf du Pape. Unlike some lambics, it’s dry but not biting, not overly sour but also not sweet.
“This is pure 100% traditional, but we work very hard to keep our lambic mild. Making sour lambic with vinegar acidity is easy: if you expose your lambic to oxygen and high temperatures you have vinegar, it’s very simple. We treat our barrels very well, we take a lot of steps to make sure our lambic stays mild. Not all breweries do that.”