When the Panneels family rescued their village cafe, they helped save lambic for the rest of us. By a grateful John Rega
The corner townhouse on the church square in Eizeringen was in rough shape when Kurt Panneels bought it in 1999.
A garden designer and village native, he’d been looking for an old farmhouse to restore as a family home. Then he learned of the imminent closure of the community pub, where he and brother Yves had whiled away childhood Sundays with a chocolate bar, as the menfolk played cards.
Kurt swooped in to make In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst his renovation project, and a family enterprise.
For five years, father Maurice overhauled the 1842 structure. Walls that had been resting on piles of bricks were tied into a proper foundation. Rotten floorboards were replaced. Old beams, now festooned with hop vines, appeared from behind plaster and wallpaper.
The Panneelses fitted wainscoted banquettes and other period furniture salvaged from disappearing local cafes. They polished up the Art Deco bar, with its smoothly curved blond wood, and the decoratively tiled floor.
Throughout, even when the building was open to winter elements, the brothers kept ‘In the Insurance against Great Thirst’ to its historical hours: Sunday 10am to 1.30pm, although holdouts can get in quite a few orders after the lock turns.
In the heart of the Pajottenland, it seemed natural – if not exactly fashionable circa 2000 – to orient the cafe toward lambic beers. The family had an affinity for the spontaneously fermented relics, and began stocking their vaulted brick cellars.
Two years into the remodelling, beer hunters had caught on to the peculiarly tart brews, and started finding their way up the hill from the Brussels-to-Ninove road.
Then a new crisis arose, this time for the beer. Food-safety authorities were questioning the wisdom of brewing in open vessels, at the whim of uncontrolled microbes. The threat to their heritage radicalised the Panneelses. Their response: the Night of the Great Thirst, in 2004. Their festival-cum-rally has sustained itself as a biennial fixture, to be held next on April 22. Celebratory days for kriek and lambic, plus the industry-wide Toer de Geuze, round out the calendar.
Along the way, the brothers have curated a selection of 250 or so geuzes, krieks, frambozen and other variants of the ancient brews. Their color-coded booklet of a menu runs the gamut of Belgian suppliers alongside a choice of draft lambics, sundry one-offs and collaborations, plus a few non-lambic worthies.
“Where else can you find some many lambics?” Ulrich Kremer enthuses on a recent Sunday. Uli, as he’s known by aficionados of his home-blended geuzes and other lambic mash-ups, has been a regular since first visiting a decade ago, when Yves introduced him to 1980s vintages from Eylenbosch and Felix, two among the too-many lambic houses lost to history.
Just don’t neglect the standard bottles, pleads Yves, a communications consultant by trade. “A lot of people want the whales, the rare beers, but a lot of fine beers are really underestimated,” he says.
Connoisseurs keep coming, splitting 75cl bottles and picking up orders from Yves’s affiliated webshop. But the locals still outnumber them, amen. Families play cards, commune with neighbours. The Panneelses juggle conversations in all corners of the place.
“It’s a very special place because you can find the foreigners but also people coming from church, or the region – a very good mixture,” Uli says.
The blending of locals and geeks shows in the laurels showered on the cafe. The brothers have been crowned the best pub owners of Flanders, and the bar RateBeer’s best in the world, two years running.
The family have saved the place for a generation, at least. Late this century, elderly Eizeringenaren will remember childhood afternoons here. The brothers have helped insure lambic’s future for the rest of us, as well.