Survive and thrive

By Paul Walsh

De Halve Maan is on one of Bruges’s main tourist trails and has become the most visited brewery in the Benelux region. Yet far from the sweetened crowd pleasers that you might expect at such a location, its beers are complex and finely balanced, tending to the dryer end of the spectrum, and often surprising in their inventiveness. This might be part of the plan: a tourist brewery that makes beer for connoisseurs. It’s a place beer lovers would visit even if it lay in the remotest corner of West Flanders and not in the centre of Belgium’s largest tourist hub.
Then again, De Halve Maan was brewing beer long before it became a tourist attraction. It dates back to the 15th century, with current owners the Maes family becoming involved in 1856 and pushing the brewery forward in the face of industrialisation and standardising tastes.
It’s not entirely clear how they succeeded, but today De Halve Maan is the only brewery in a city that had at least 20 at the start of the last century.
“For a long time, the story of Belgian breweries has been one of constant decline,” Managing Director Xavier Vanneste says. “It’s only very recently that the number has started to increase again. And for the most part it’s only the ones that were innovating and keeping up with trends that survived. You saw this with the brewers who got into bottled beer first, and then larger beer and more recently speciality beer.”
But De Haalve Maan still felt the strain of market pressure, and 20 years ago it was forced to sell its biggest brand, Straffe Hendrik, and everything connected with it.
This wasn’t the end of the story, though; just the beginning of a new chapter.
“My family always believed in running an independent small brewery,” says Xavier whose mother and sisters are very much involved in the operation. In 2005 the family restarted brewing on the original site, with a new brand called Brugse Zot, which has since become their biggest seller. It’s given them the means to buy back the rights to Straffe Hendrik.
Not only did they restart the old range, they also expanded it with limited-edition beers that are clearly not directed at the mass market. The first was Straffe Hendrik Heritage, a version of Straffe Hendrik quadruple aged for one year in oak barrels, which brings together the original’s spicy and bitter flavours with a touch of wine and oak from the aging process.
“It started as an experiment: we bought forty tuns, and it was really interesting to see what happened because every barrel has a different evolution,” says Xavier. “We always work with French oak, and this year we’re working with barrels from different houses. We’re also using new barrels, because we’d like to have our own barrels eventually. But it’s a very limited edition. We have a small cellar where we age the beer in barrels and we fill it once a year.”
The Heritage is certainly not something you’d guzzle during a walking tour of Bruges, although it is something you could buy and take home as a souvenir, perhaps.
Then there’s Straffe Hendrik Wild: the original Straffe Hendrik tripel, bottle-conditioned with wild Brettanomyces yeast. This creates an aroma and taste of grapes and apricots, but the tripel’s delicate dry finish remains.
Most high-fermentation brewers will do whatever they can to avoid wild yeast lest it contaminate their equipment. At De Halve Maan they only add the strains at the bottling plant, which is in a different location to the brewery. But this doesn’t mean the process was easy.
“It was another experiment, and I know that bottle-conditioning with brett is dangerous, because you never know how far the brett will go,” Xavier explains. You just need to taste a lot because there are so many kinds of brett and they develop all kinds of flavours. We selected one type, but it’s an ongoing process. It keeps us sharp and interested.”
The beer itself is unique, although the use of wild yeast and the fact the beer rounds out with age mean that comparisons with Orval are unavoidable. “The Orval of Bruges” was how sommelier Sofie Vanrafelghem described it at a recent tasting.
It’s clear that Xavier is keen on innovating, but only in a way that respects the tradition of his brewery. So it’s perhaps no surprise that he’s also President of the Belgian Family Brewers, an organisation that promotes independent family breweries that have been making beer for at least 50 years. Their slogan is “where innovation meets tradition,” and while they all respect tradition, Xavier says that the interpretation of innovation can be different from brewery to brewery.
“There are a lot of breweries, with a lot of history and tradition, and you can be innovative in several ways. In the way you market your beer, in the ecological measures you introduce… Now we have 22 members. But there is so much diversity there.”