De Proefbrouwerij is regarded as one of the most innovative breweries in Belgium. Breandán Kearney hears stories from inside its walls.
Earlier this year, singer Rick Astley, famous for his 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up”, teamed up with a Danish beer company after rumours surfaced online that the English pop star was living in Copenhagen. The collaboration was ‘Astley’s Northern Hop’ by Mikkeller, an amber lager of 4.7% ABV with the addition of ginger.
The brewery chosen to host this high-profile collaboration was in Belgium, a contract facility near the town of Lochristi in East Flanders.
De Proefbrouwerij – founded in 1996 by Dirk Naudts and his wife Saskia Waerniers – has worked with a raft of popular beer ‘architects’ and is regarded by many in the beer community as one of the most innovative and technically excellent breweries in Belgium.
International clients include Brewdog, who had their Abstrakt AB:01 Quadrupel produced there in 2010, and Sweden’s Omnipollo, who attracted attention recently for their hazy IPAs and striking artwork. Well-known Belgians use De Proef too: Viven, L’Arogante and Caulier produce their beers here, as do the Musketeers, whose Imperial IPA Troubadour Magma (9% ABV) has enjoyed some success. Even Drie Fonteinen entrust their top-fermented Beersel Blond to Dirk Naudts.
The ways of working at De Proef have evolved over time as the current business model emerged and as Naudts got to know his clients.
“Our relationship developed slowly,” says Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Mikkeller, the Danish client of De Proef since 2007 known for its experimental recipe formulation. “There was a period of adjustment. In the beginning, Dirk was not into brewing crazy stuff. After four fairly straightforward beers, I asked him to brew a fifth. He wanted to stay with the four. But I kept pushing him. He realised that’s how I work. He found the experience interesting. Now he’s the most anti-conservative, innovative brewer there is.”
Naudts’ high level of technical expertise and know-how makes him a valuable partner. “Dirk and Mikkel are absolutely complementary,” says international beer judge, Joris Pattyn of the relationship between De Proef and its client. “It’s the right type of fusion. In any kind of business, somebody has the ideas and the plan, and the other one knows how to do it technically. It’s a common principle found in industries other than brewing.”
Despite the prominent nature of those who have their beer produced at De Proef, Naudts is keen to stay in the background. He never gives interviews – he politely declined to contribute to this article – or engages in promotional activity, instead deferring to the commercial talents of his clients and focussing his attention on the research, development and production of a huge range of beers.
Growth has been rapid. “It started off as Dirk and his wife selling their own Reinaert beers and attending festivals,” says Koen Van Lancker of Brouwerij ‘t Verzet, an employee in the conditioning and packaging departments of De Proef for 8 years. “I was the tenth employee in 2008. When I left in 2016 there were over 35 employees. He’s one of the best brewers in the world. He wanted to stay out of the limelight, but in doing so, he has become famous.”
De Proef still brews relatively small batches, between 10 and 140 hectolitres per order for their beer architect clients. But they have three brewhouses to choose from, with over 100 fermenters of various sizes. Three bottling lines, two kegging lines and a canning line offer flexibility when it comes to packaging options.
Andy De Wilde won a Belgian homebrew competition in 2011 and has since worked with Naudts to have the winning beer, Préaris Quadrupel (10% ABV), produced in Lochristi. “I’m so glad I chose De Proef,” says De Wilde. “I was one of the last to get in. Now if you want to work with them, there’s a waiting list of 2 to 3 years. Dirk looks at your recipe and your story before working with you. He gets new recipes sent to him almost daily and he can see immediately whether it will be a good beer or not, just by looking at the recipe.”
De Proef – whose name in Flemish can mean ‘taste’, ‘test’ or ‘try’ – boasts not only a state-of-the-art production facility, but also an R&D department where four scientists engage in a variety of applied research projects in cooperation with external knowledge centres such as universities and other companies. Their Single Hop Technology project, for example – supported by the Flemish Institute for Innovation through Science and Technology (IWT) with cooperation from university college KaHo Sint-Lieven – set out to better understand the hop in all its aspects.
A criticism of contract beers by some Belgian brewers is that beers produced in one facility – no matter how technically proficient – have little soul and are thus a threat to Belgium’s diverse brewing culture. “I think it’s a fear of something new,” responds Mikkel. “We live in a global world. A lot of companies in different industries contract out production. It just so happens that I have the idea and Dirk has the knowledge and equipment to execute something that I couldn’t do on my own. That’s what a global and modern world looks like.”