Fermentations with indigenous yeast and bacteria are the focus of a new farmhouse brewery. Breandán Kearney visits Antidoot to explore its philosophical origins.
Tom Jacobs erects a roof-like structure over the coolship of his newly installed brewery, a frame of untreated oak filled out by grape pruning from the 2017 crop of his vineyard. At the centre of the construction, freshly dug from its grave behind his house, is the skull of a dead lamb, one that didn’t make it the previous year.
In the late 2000s, Jacobs was living in the centre of Leuven and teaching philosophy and ethics at the UCLL Hogeschool to groups of nurses, chemists and biomedical lab scientists. During his classes, he would produce a copy of “The pasteurisation of France”, by Bruno Latour, a resource he used to discuss the concept of “purity”. Jacobs described how modern brewers often sterilise everything, killing to limit the influence of terroir. “As a modern culture,” he asked his students, “Why are we so obsessed with blank slates, with artificial design? Why do we want to control everything?”
Jacobs and his wife Kristien Justaert were growing unhappy with life in the city. In 2009, Justaert became pregnant just as a property in the village of Kortenaken became available to buy, a family house and patch of land in the traditional farming region of Flemish Brabant. They took the opportunity to move to the countryside and daughter Juno arrived a few months after moving in. Jacobs and Justaert embarked on a change of lifestyle which would see them grow their own vegetables, farm much of the meat they would consume and try to create their own drinks. “I wasn’t a beer geek in that I didn’t go out and search for exclusive beers,” he says. “But there was always an Orval in storage.”
As part of the lifestyle change, Jacobs wanted to make his own wine, cider and beer, so he enlisted the help of his brother Wim—a gastroenterologist based in the Jessa hospital in Hasselt—and the brothers started homebrewing in the summer of 2011.
They experimented with natural fermentations, agreeing never to add commercial “pure-culture” yeast strains. Instead, they tried to establish terroir by fermenting their wort with yeast and bacteria indigenous to their surroundings. Their inspiration was the spirit of “alchemy”, the medieval forerunner to chemistry which often showcases a skull as a symbol of both life and death. “Classical thought establishes a hierarchy,” explains Jacobs. “But alchemy is about keeping two sides together. It’s about a natural balance. Light and darkness. The sun and the moon. Life and death.”
In 2012, Juno gained a sister, Danse. Wim Jacobs had two kids of his own—Roos and Wannes. The future required more serious thought. Tom Jacobs decided that he would work towards quitting his job as a philosophy teacher and put all his time into creating beers that are “wildly fermented with 100% indigenous yeast”.
The name of the brewery would be “Antidoot”, or “Antidote” in English, a remedy to counteract a poison, or any evil, unwanted condition. Jacobs offers a second translation, one that he prefers. “In Old or Middle Dutch,” he says, “It translates as ‘Anti-Death’.”
Largely due to a lack of experience, the attempts of the Jacobs brothers to harness the flavour profile of their environment in homebrew between 2011 and 2017 delivered “mixed results”, some experiments failing dramatically. There were few people they could ask for advice and fewer that were open to advising. “The lambic brewers in Belgium couldn’t help us much with the questions with which we were struggling,” says Jacobs.
The Lambic producers were occupied. When American brewery Jester King attempted to protect the tradition of spontaneous fermentation by creating the designation “Méthode Gueuze” last year, the High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers (HORAL)—whose membership includes most of Belgium’s lambic breweries—sent a letter to the Texas brewery to the effect that they had shown “a lack of respect” for the origins of true lambic and gueuze. Within a few weeks, HORAL and Jester King had agreed on a different, more compromised designation: “Méthode Traditionelle”.
In his online research, Jacobs came across a facebook forum called ‘Milk the Funk’ which played host to fermentation enthusiasts from around the world. The group communicated various techniques Jacobs could use to more effectively collect “wild captures”, the indigenous strains which they would first use to produce their Saison, a Belgian farmhouse ale they conditioned in oak barrels.
The result was a dry, fruity beer with a soft lactic acidity, some phenolic spice, a herbal earthiness and a slow-developing brettanomyces note. Some bottles of the Antidoot Saison made their way into the hands of members of the ‘Milk the Funk’ group, generating an excitement about the two Belgian brothers and their wild fermentation project in Kortenaken.
They began growing herbs, opting not for classical kitchen varieties such as thyme or basil, or those commonly used in Belgian ales such as ginger or coriander, but those which Jacobs describes as “playful and aromatic, or esoterically bitter”: yarrow, mugwort, wormwood and archangelica. These “gruit” experiments presented several challenges, the lack of preservative qualities provided by hops allowing lactic acid bacteria to flourish to undesirable levels, especially in the heat of the summer. Worse, acidic acid bacteria started to become more present, leaving some experiments tasting like vinegar, the beers completely undrinkable. On several occasions, Jacobs took beers on which he had worked for six months, sometimes a year, and poured them down the drain.
The Jacobs brothers hooked up a trailer to their car and drove 600 kilometres to Poligny, a town in the Jura department of eastern France. They visited the vineyards of natural wine maker Valentin Morel and asked if he had any wooden barrels they could buy. A few days later, they returned to Belgium with an oak foeder, 3,000 litres in capacity, a huge wooden vat for the slow acidification of beer. The plan was to continuously feed the foeder fresh wort—“Solera style”—with the production of ‘Oud Bruin’ in mind.
More and more bottles of mature Antidoot homebrew were making their way out of Kortenaken to those in the ‘Milk the Funk’ forum and to beer geeks around Belgium. At the beginning of 2017, the Jacobs brothers were invited to deliver a tasting at Carnivale Brettanomyces, an acclaimed beer festival in Amsterdam featuring Europe’s most prominent producers of wild beer, natural wine and cider. With the skull of a dead lamb sitting on the table beside him, Jacobs announced the plans for construction of a ten-hectolitre brewery in the winter of 2017, with a launch date set for some time in the summer of 2018. “We had to follow through after announcing at the festival,” says Jacobs. “There was no going back after that.”
The Jacobs brothers continued to work on the ‘Saison’, ‘Gruit’ and ‘Oud Bruin’ variants, but it would be a fourth category that they hoped would become the showstopper of their portfolio. Jacobs had successfully cultivated fruit behind his house and beside the brewery space, establishing grape vines, blackberry plants, blackcurrant prunes and trees bearing apples, apricots and Mirabelle plums. Their dream was to create spontaneously fermented fruit beers.
With “wild captures” at the ready and the promise of coolship microbes, Jacobs now needed to source other ingredients for commercial brewing, and quickly. He secured aged hops for spontaneous fermentation from Poperinge organic hop grower Joris Cambie. Benedikte Coutigny of the Hoppecruyt farm in Proven mentioned that it was possible to buy recently discovered hop varieties which were indigenous to Belgium and which virtually no other brewer was using: ‘Groene Bel’, a classic Aalst bittering variety which was popular in the 19th century; and ‘Record’, a pleasant fruity aromatic variety from the Pajottenland region. Jacobs placed an order for both.
Flemish Brabant was traditionally a wheat farming region—the indigenous style of the region is the witbier—and the village of Hoegaarden, which both saved the style and spawned its most famous commercial brand, lies only 23 kilometres to the south west of Kortenaken. Jacobs found out about a trained palaeontologist, Fabian Daniel, who for the previous 10 years had been organically cultivating hemp, straw, onions and cereals on a farm 30 minutes away in Hélécine. Jacobs paid him a visit and left with a car full of wheat.
At the end of the summer of 2017, a few weeks after construction work on the brewery building had begun, a Japanese vinegar fly variety called ‘Drosophila Suzukii’ began attacking the soft fruit in Tom Jacobs’ Kortenaken fruit field. The fly punctured some of the berries of Jacobs’ trees and layed its eggs in the fruit, causing a rotting process inside which resulted in vinegar production. Jacobs’ blackberries were heavily infected, along with some of the grapes. There had already been damage the previous year due to frost and through a devastating funghal disease called Botrytis. “Organic fruit-growing in Flanders is not the easiest endeavour,” he says.
Jacobs began wrapping nets around the vines and branches of the plants to protect the fruit, particularly the grapes, from the attention of the ‘Spotted Wing Drosophila’ fly. The nets—small meshed cloths—would have to be carefully placed, one by one, over individual vines. The manual labour involved was so intense that Jacobs decided he had time to cover only the bigger bunches. “Because of the nets,” he says “we managed to save around 75% of the grapes.”
Tom Jacobs collects vegetable waste in a compost heap at the bottom of his fruit field, dead organic material, nutrient rich, decomposing over time. “In a way, compost is the perfect example of ‘alchemy’,” says Jacobs. When the pile of rotted compost is large enough, he uses it to fertilise his other plants—the herbs in the garden and the fruit on his trees—and it is this dead matter which ends up feeding the organisms he needs for fermentation. “Death and life provide each other with balance,” he says.
In January 2018, Jacobs mashed in for the first time on a commercial Antidoot beer. Since then he’s been brewing regularly, filling oak barrels and foeders to generate stock for blending. Other brewers, curious about the project—Raf Souvereyns of Bokkereyder and Dimitri Van Roy of Brussels Beer Project—have stopped by to help. No-one, not even Tom Jacobs, can be certain about how the beer will turn out in commercial quantities, particularly the spontaneously fermented batches, uncontrollable by their nature, created under the shadow of a dead lamb’s skull.
But a launch party is planned for late summer 2018 to thank supporters and to introduce the first Antidoot bottles. Jacobs will be there in the brewery building behind his house with his brother Wim, his wife Kristien, and his daughters Juno and Danse. When asked what he might call the resulting creations, Jacobs initially shrugs his shoulders. Will it be ‘fruit lambic’? Or ‘wild ale’? Or ‘beer of spontaneous fermentation’?
An answer comes, eventually. “Méthode Antidoot,” he says.