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JUN/JUL 2006 | REGIONAL | INTERNATIONAL

Small Size, Big Taste : Seven Belgian Standouts
By Chuck Cook

Among the roughly 125 breweries operating in Belgium today, there are a number that qualify for either microbrewery (small) or picobrewery (really small!) status. I had the pleasure of visiting seven of these breweries recently. Each produces fewer than 1,000 hl (about 850 U.S. barrels) per year.

Brouwerij Achilles, which opened in 2001, is located in Antwerp province in a converted garage in the small town of Itegem. Brewer-owner Achilles Van de Moer makes about 300 hl of beer per year under the brand name Serafijn. Van de Moer has a small but sophisticated setup. The Serafijn Blond is the biggest seller, followed by the Tripel, Donker and Christmas beer.

Brouwerij Achilles brews five times per month, using whole hop flowers. Hallertau, Northern Brewer, Perle and Saaz are the varieties. Spices are used as well, though in moderate amounts. I found the Serafijn beers very tasty, well-balanced and worth seeking out. At present, Brouwerij Achilles exports to Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Italy. Van de Moer told me last October that he would soon be sending Serafijn beer to the Michael Jackson Rare Beer Club in the U.S.

Brouwerij Achilles has a small but high-tech Italian bottling line capable of filling 33- and 75-cl sizes. Twenty-liter kegs are also available. A proper tasting cafe is planned for the future. See serafijn.be for more info.

If you like dark, strong brews, then a visit to the brewery/ tasting room at ’t Gaverhopke, located in Stasegem, near Kortrijk, in West Flanders, will be well worth your time. Brewer/owner Erik Ameye used to work at the Westvleteren Trappist brewery, and it shows in the quality of his brews. The Gaverhopke Den Bruin and Den Twaalf (the latter meaning “the 12,” with 12% abv) are worthy of high praise, with rich, contemplative flavors and a very pleasing aroma. The Blond, Easter beer and Kriek are very good as well. A Kerst/Christmas beer is also brewed in season.

The brewery is located in the back half of a modern building behind the tasting cafe. Here Ameye crafts the beers, using French malts and real Belgian hops from Poperinge. He brews every two weeks and produces about 160 hl of beer per annum. The Blond is the top seller, followed by the Bruin. Both have 8% alcohol. The tasting café offers light snacks to pair with these brews and is open on weekends from 2:00 p.m. on. If you show interest in beer and ask nicely, Ameye might give you a tour of the brewery!

Heading into East Flanders province, Kleinbrouwerij de Glazen Toren (small brewery, “The Glass Tower”) opened in the village of Erpe-Mere, near Aalst, in 2004. Run by Belgian beer writer Jef Van den Steen and his two partners, Dirk de Pauw and Mark de Neef, this microbrewery has been producing some superb new beers in a short time. The first beers were the Ondineke Tripel (with a fine malty, yeasty character and mild hoppiness) and Saison de Erpe-Mere (7%), which is described as a Flemish saison. It contains 20% unmalted wheat and is hence a very dry brew. It is hopped with Hallertau Mittelfruh, grown in Belgium.

A dark offering from the brewery is the Canaster Scotch Ale. Weighing in at 8.5%, this rich, complex beer is brewed with caramel, barley, wheat malts and dark candi sugar, and it’s hopped with Hallertau. Another new beer is Jan de Lichte, which is brewed with buckwheat, barley, oats and wheat. It is described as a “double white” beer and has a deceptively light body for its 7% alcohol.

All the de Glazen Toren beers are unfiltered, unpasteurized and refermented in 75-cl bottles, which are crown-capped and have paper labels. About 300 hl of beer was produced in 2005.

De Glazen Toren is located in a new building in a residential area, and it is already drawing many visitors on Saturdays. The tours given by the de Glazen Toren crew are very hands-on and informative. A 20-hl brewhouse is currently in use with 22-hl conditioning/lagering tanks. The original brew-kettle had only a 50-liter capacity. Perhaps another new building will be needed soon! See glazentoren.be for more info.

The next brewery is in completely different surroundings. Brouwerij Kerkom is located near St-Truiden in Limburg province. Here brewer/owner Marc Limet crafts the Bink line of brews in buildings dating to the 19th century. Limet uses a direct-fired brew-kettle, something rarely seen these days. The results are the very refreshing, dry-hopped Bink Blond (5.5%), which is one of Belgium's hoppiest brews; an impressive Tripel; Bink Bloesem, a unique beer with local honey and pear syrup in its recipe, leading to a slight sweetness and fruity character; a Bruin with solid malt character and noticeable hops, which drinks stronger than its 5.5% abv would suggest; and the dark, rich Winterkoninkske, a superlative winter brew of 8% abv that is brewed with juniper berries and lavender, among other things.

In an interesting collaboration with lambic brewer Armand Debelder, a beer called Reuss is produced for the Bink festival in August. Limet blends aged lambic from Drie Fonteinen with a less bitter version of Bink Blond (38 IBUs versus 52 IBUs). Reuss was the name of the first beer brewed at Kerkom in 1878.

All the brews are unfiltered, unpasteurized and bottle-conditioned. Almost all of the hops in the Kerkom beers are Belgian, grown in Poperinge. Limet has also been known to use American-grown Cascade hops on occasion for special brews.

A great place to drink the Bink brews in top condition and special ambiance is right at the brewery. There is a courtyard with outside seating for quite a few people in warm weather, as well as a very cozy winter tasting café. Limet and wife Marina Siongers run the whole operation. Siongers gave my group a brewery tour while also running the café last November. Excellent multitasking! See brouwerijkerkom.be for more info.

Heading back to West Flanders province, Brouwerij Regenboog ("Rainbow") is located in Assebroek, not far from beautiful Brugge (Bruges). Brewer/owner Johan Brandt has been crafting special beers here for 10 years. These brews, labeled ’t Smisje, have just started becoming known in the U.S.

Regenboog’s U.S. importer has commissioned a number of beers especially for the American market, such as Calva Reserva, which was brewed with Champagne, port and ale yeast and achieved 12% abv. ’t Smisje Dubbel is another formidable brew, with fresh dates and honey as ingredients, weighing in at 9% abv.

Brandt has created a number of enticing, eclectic brews over the years, such as Halloween, brewed with pumpkin and packing a punch with 10% alcohol; Wostyntje, brewed with mustard seeds; and BBBourgondier, a rich, dark amber beer of 12% worth savoring over a roaring fire. This brew contains valerian, lemon balm and candi sugar, though you're unlikely to be able to pick out these spices as they meld so well with the beer.

Therein lies the key to Johan Brandt's success: He has a very deft hand and rarely overspices his brews. "If you can pick out the spice present when tasting a beer, then too much was used," he told me during a visit to the brewery last year.

Brandt has been inspired by a number of hoppy U.S. brews he has tasted over the years, and he created the Cuvée ’t Smisje as a 10th anniversary beer. The brew uses Challenger, Cascade, Magnum and Newport hops, and it is dry-hopped with Cascade. It also uses Belgian yeast and candi sugar and weighs in at 10% abv.

Brandt has a retail shop selling the Regenboog beers and other items in the front of the brewery building. While there is no tasting café here, a great place to sample a range of ’t Smisje beers is at the world-famous beer café ’t Brugs Beertje in Brugge.

Located far on the other side of Belgium in Luxembourg province, Wallonia, is Brasserie Fantôme. In the small town of Soy, brewer/owner Dany Prignon has crafted numerous different brews in an old barn since 1988. Many of his beers have a light to pronounced sour character, and these brews often find favor with lambic and gueuze lovers. Count me among them!

Prignon was milling spices in a small hand-grinder on my visit last November while a brewery worker milled bags of grain in an old hand-cranked mill. Fantôme is a truly hands-on operation; the 75-cl beers are all bottled, corked, capped and labeled by hand. The brewery also uses an old, direct-fired brew-kettle, as well as short, closed fermenters.

Prignon has revealed that he uses many different types of ingredients in his beers, though he usually won’t give specifics. “The Fantôme never reveals its secrets” is a saying well known to fans of the brewery. Most of Prignon’s beers are roughly in the saison style — or, perhaps, a style all their own. Of late, BBBrrr, Black Ghost, Noël and Printemps have been standouts. A new beer brewed with the Burgundian Babble Belt Internet message board in mind is “BBB Dark White” (8% abv), which will hopefully make it to U.S. shores this summer.

There is a small, cozy tasting room at the brewery, where Prignon usually has a couple of brews on tap. The Automne was very good. See fantome.be for more info.

In the same province is Les Trois Fourquets ("The Three Mashing Forks"), a new brewpub and restaurant opened in Courtil-Gouvy in 2003. A joint venture between Chris Bauweraerts and Pierre Gobron of Brasserie Achouffe and chef Gilles Poncin, Les Trois Fourquets has been producing an interesting range of beers. La Fourquette, a witbier, is brewed to a refreshing 5% abv and uses Saaz and Tomahawk hops. The house pilsner is the pleasing La Pilsette. Both beers are available year-round.

Things are kept interesting by the "Bière du Moment," or “Beer of the Moment.” Guest brewers are invited to come to the brewery to create a beer that will be served until it runs out at the impressive two-level restaurant just yards away; it is also served at beer fests and at the Achouffe brewery café/restaurant. Some big names have already worked their magic at Les Trois Fourquets, including Pierre Celis. Celis helped brew a beer called Celisette, which was crafted to the recipe of pre-InBev Hoegaarden Grand Cru. The brew met with much appreciation at the Zythos beer fest. The Beer of the Moment for spring/summer 2006 is “La Riboulette.”

Les Trois Fourquets breaks with the norm of small Belgian breweries by brewing lager beers. Good ones. When I visited in December 2004, an amber lager called Jeanette was on tap, made by a Danish brewer.

The total production of the brewery was about 225 hl in 2005. The brew system is Italian, made by Velo. There is seating for about 200 people at Les Trois Fourquets, plus a beer garden and terrace for use in the summer.

Les Trois Fourquets is as much about handcrafted food as beer of the same quality. The upstairs area is a sort of relaxed bar/bistro with a smaller menu than the full-service, white-tablecloth restaurant downstairs. There is usually a dish cooked with the "Beer of the Moment" available. The food was excellent on my visit. See les3fourquets.be for more info.

As you will have to drive to get to this area, you could make it a destination visit and stay at the Hotel St-Martin, located just 500 meters away. Brasserie Achouffe is only 20 km away.

I hope you enjoy the efforts of these small breweries!

Chuck Cook is a freelance writer living in Richmond, Va. His passions are beer and travel, and he has written for various beer publications. He can be reached via e-mail at chuck@beerandtravel.com.

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