Meticulous Experimentation

The first batch went down the drain. “It was god awful. I never understood what happened to the beer, it had the most weird off-flavour,” says Bokkereyder’s Raf Souvereyns. That was in 2013. Acquiring a wine barrel from the winery he worked at and filling it with Girardin wort, the final piece of this glorious failure came when a phone call from a friend asked if he wanted to harvest some sour cherries from a friend’s garden. Despite the poor initial results, Souvereyns was hooked and Bokkereyder was born. Today, Bokkereyder is one of the hottest beers at elite festivals and with lambic hunters around the world.

By Christopher Barnes

(c) Matt the List

After dumping his first experiment, he tried again with Girardin wort and his friend’s backyard Schaarbeekse cherries. This time, the results were much better, but instead of packaging it and selling it, he removed the spent cherries, refilled it with the following year’s harvest of cherries, put the kriek beer back in the barrel, and topped it off with some more Girardin wort. The next year, he repeated the process with a new vintage of cherries.

“So it’s Schaarbeekse harvest from 2014, 2015, and 2016. Now there are three vintages of cherries and five vintages of lambic combined into one beer. It sounds good. It sounds like a really good story. But what’s in the glass is what really counts. It’s disgustingly good! I’m going to bottle a part of it, but I’m going to keep the other part to keep it going,” explains Souvereyns.

It’s this sort of experimentation and unique thinking that is creating a special niche for Bokkereyder’s lambics. “I never really make a neutral [wood] gueuze, as much as I really love it.” Souvereyns isn’t trying to replicate the work of his colleagues in the Pajottenland, he’s forging his own path with a unique blend of lambics, fruit lambics, and experimental gueuzes aged in various alcohol barrels.

Even then, the meticulous nature of the young blender dives deep into the characteristic flavors of the lambics he’s buying: “Gin barrels are really good. If you look at the flavor profile of gin, it wouldn’t work if I put too much Girardin in it. It’s a lambic with soft acidity and is full of character, fantastic body. So full and big and bold. That wouldn’t work really well with gin. So for the gin blend, I used a lot of De Troch which is a dry and refreshing, crisp, citric lambic. It works really well and fits in the flavor profile of gin. When I used Oloroso Sherry barrels, if you use a lot of De Troch, it absolutely won’t work. So that blend is a very Girardin forward blend, because Girardin has a big body and the character of Girardin fits very well with the sherry. So all those barrels have their own blends of beer that go into them. It’s just how far I want to take it. It’s fun to see how that works.”

(c) Matt the List

Souvereyns meticulous experimentation doesn’t stop with the various barrel experiments but extends to the fruit he uses, fulling exploring all the varieties available to him. When developing his Framboos, it took him three years of experimenting with every variety of raspberry he could get his hands on. Over those three years, he blended tiny batches of raspberry lambics with the different varieties until he settled on three Belgian varieties that worked well in combination to create the beer he wanted to present.

“One of the three gives a lot of colour. It’s a very intense colour for a raspberry beer. It doesn’t have that much flavour actually, just a lot of colour. There’s one that has a lot aroma. One has tartness and flavour. The combination of those three in the right ratio, that’s what I love doing! It’s only when you go through all those tests with so many different varieties that you can see how different raspberries are, how every variety is different,” explains Souvereyns.

This attention to detail has paid off very quickly. His account list extends to five bars in as many countries: one each in Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and the United States. Everything he produces is sold to those accounts and he’s not even close to meeting their demand for his product. As he expands, he hopes to provide more lambic for his few selected loyal accounts while being able to add another bar or two to the list. He’s hoping to be able to add Norway into the fold commenting on how the Norwegians felt left out since their fellow Scandinavians were getting his lambics but they weren’t.

One of the biggest feathers in his cap came in the form of an invitation to the renowned Copenhagen beer festival put on by Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Mikkeller Beer fame: “I’ve known Mikkel for several years now. We did some business. I just gave him some beers, and he liked them! Then he invited me [to CBC Copenhagen 2016]. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the invitation. He invited me to come to CBC.” It was his first festival.

Success has come quickly for the young blender, but it hasn’t come without work as Souvereyrns detailed his 7-day-a-week work schedule which too often includes missing a night of sleep here and there. “It’s a big sacrifice,” says Sourveryns. “It’s worth it, I think. It’s so much fun. It’s so rewarding to see those people drink and enjoy the beer and hang out with you.”