Staring into the Barrel — Our Final Days in Belgium
What do they call craft beer in Belgium? Beer.
So many beers. So many personalities. Each a mirror of their brewer.
First, Tilquin, a “blenderie.” No production here. Just blending of some of the finest lambics Belgium has to offer.
Pierre Tilquin, the proprietor, is the only blender to have the trust of Cantillon‘s Jean van Roy. 10% of Pierre’s blends use Jean’s lambic. He’s a doctor, a PhD in DNA-ology, or something similar, so the scientific method pervades.
(photo borowed from BelgianBeerSpecialist.blogspot.com)
This blenderie is impeccably clean. No spider webs here. Some 240 barrels lined up neat and tight, and there’s only one full time employee, which is Pierre. Tilquin’s brew is top tier. Especially good is the plum version, Quatsche.
Second, 3 Fonteinen Armand, the brewer, was microphone deep in an interview from Belgian national TV. Just as he was being asked whether his beers were popular in America, up lumbers us six Americans. The producer asked us to follow him, his camera crew, and Armand into his cellars.
Barrels aging. Rounds of Cheese on shelves. Once again, we learned how beer was made. We had a few cameo interviews filmed while drinking batches of lambics, guezes and krieks, and then later that evening watched ourselves on the country’s Flemish station.
Armand gave due credit to the bustling US craft beer market giving his brewery a new life. It had just reopened production after operating as a “blenderie” for several years. A gueuze generally blends two or more different years of lambics, the younger lambic contributes sweeter flavors, the older one balances it with acidity. The combination of the two also promotes fermentation in the bottle. Two years into their new production, 3 Fonteinen is about ready to release their first new brew. This place, its beer, the brewer — they are all class.
Then there is Urbain Coutteau of De Struise Brouwers. Big smile, big heart, long gray hair. He looks like the Belgian beer industry’s Keith Richards.
De Struise occupies an old school house in a tiny village not far from the venerable Westvleteren Abbey. Perhaps its being so geographically close to the “World’s #1 Beer” that gives Urbain the license to create something so untraditional. Unique ingredients, barrels used for sours…. and get this…. stouts!(Stouts in barrels? That’s crazy talk.)
A tasting room that takes up one of the school’s old classrooms, complete with desks and chalkboard, and a tap system with some 20 odd creations. The Bruery team was feeling quite at home, and even a bit uncomfortably too comfortable. Any doubt that we, The Bruery, had found our brethren soul dissipated as soon as Urbain’s lead brewer/son-in-law showed up in a t-shirt, flip flops, blond hair, and scraggly beard. Standing head-to-head with Tyler, they may as well have been separated at birth.
De Struise. What better place to brew a collaboration beer? Patrick, Tyler and The Brue Crew with Urbain and his entourage of his son-in-law, David and Phil, mashed in, grained out, lautered and boiled a batch of De Struise’s infamous Black Albert (named for the Belgian King) to be combined with cocoa, vanilla, and cherries (The Bruery’s fingerprint), and destined for a year in barrels.
During the boil, Urbain brought out some of the best of his cellar, including at 30-year old homebrew that would eventually become known as De Struise’s Dirty Horse. Looking ahead to next year, they’ll be bottling the collaboration beer. I hope we get to go pick it up in person.
On our last day, we hopped the border into France to see Brasserie Thiriez. Another tiny village, this time a converted farm house instead of a school house. Daniel Thiriez , had a small, but very automated system.
Like many others we’d met, this was a second career for Daniel. One of France’s first homebrewers, he opened his shop and now brews somewhere near 1,500 barrels per year. We tasted Dalva, a hoppy double IPA (oh, hops how we’ve missed you this past week), and then a barrel aged version which was excellent.
He sells all that he brews, mostly within France. Belgium is a harder sale, given the competition that the big boys put up. He’s chosen to grow slowly.
A few hop vines dot the property and surround a larger garden of artichokes and other fruits, flowers, and veggies. You can tell there is potential for more artisan goodies coming from this countryside farm. Cheese? Wine? Hopping on the cruiser for a short bike ride to the morning market, church steeple ringing in the air — it’s the life many of us dream for. Daniel dared to take the leap. His beers show it was worth the gamble.
We saw other breweries on the last couple of days. Boon‘s delicious Krieks. Rodenbach, with their airport hangar’s worth of foeders. They produce in a day what The Bruery produces in a week, and with only two brewers!
We then made the obligatory stop to The St. Sixtus Trappist Monastery Brewery (well at least the cafe), to taste and pick up Westvleteren 6, 8, and 12. I’ll drink those any day, but I’d rather hang with the Armands, Jeans, Pierres, Urbains, and Daniels of the beer world.
Post written by Carl Katz, our COO/CFO and resident bringer of Belgian gifts & treats.
De Striuse photos from Ben Weiss, champion of augmented reality.
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