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St. Bernardus and DeStruise
West Flanders Breweries Produce Superb Beers
  Urbain Cotteau draws a sample of “Struiselensis” from an open fermenting tank at the Deca Brewery.
“Welcome to the brewery. You’ll see there have been a lot of changes since your first visit in 2002. And there are more on the way in the future!” Marco Passarella, sales and marketing manager of Brouwerij St. Bernardus, told me in late February 2007.

St. Bernardus, located about two miles outside the beautiful village of Watou, is perhaps best known for its dark, complex and satisfyingly rich Abt 12 (and rightly so!). The Pater 6 and Prior 8 are also world-classic brews. All three were patterned after the beers of De Sint-Sixtus Abdij van Westvleteren during the time Saint Bernardus held a contract to brew the Westvleteren beers.

The arrangement ended in 1992, but the commitment to producing very high-quality ales has remained a bedrock principle at St. Bernardus. Fast forward to 2007, and the beers have become so popular that the brewery exports to about 20 countries. Its production jumped about 15 percent in both 2005 and 2006, to over 13,000 hl. Of that figure, 750-ml bottles and 20-liter kegs account for about 2,000 hl each.

“We produced a 60th Anniversary Ale last year called Abt 12 Special Edition. At 11% alcohol, it was the strongest and perhaps most complex beer we have ever created. It could probably age for many years. It was offered in a special tin container,” Marco told me. Having tasted a few bottles of this brew, I can vouch for its special character!

“We are expanding the brewery soon. We are installing more fermentation tanks and other new equipment. We may be able to produce about 15,000 hectos a year by the end of 2007, if all goes well,” Marco continued.

“However” he added, “We will not change the brewing process here. Our beers gain complexity by a number of factors. A big one is the fermentation and lagering times: seven to 14 days for primary fermentation, and six to eight weeks of lagering [cold-conditioning], depending on the beer. There is also a further period of three weeks of warm-conditioning before the beers are released for sale. Plus, our beers are unfiltered, unpasteurized and bottle-conditioned.

“Additionally, we are happy to still be using the copper brew-kettle, which dates to the 1960s. In fact, we have an eye for history here: We plan to open a Visitors Center in the next few years, which will house a very old bar. We will stock this bar with all the glasses, signs and other things from the brewery’s past that we can find.” Another plan is to eventually have the brewery set up for regular tours. At present, the quarters are tight, so changes are needed before this will be feasible.

In Belgium, when hospitality is offered, it is usually an occasion to remember. This night was no exception.

The “newer” beer lineup of the brewery includes the superb Tripel, at 8% abv, and the delicious Watou Tripel, slightly lighter at 7.5%. The legendary Pierre Celis has been involved with the brewery for several years now and helped create the Witbier, a fine, refreshing beer in the style Celis resurrected in Hoegaarden in 1966; as well as the Grottenbier, a dark brown brew whose complexity belies its 6.5% abv.

“We have also revamped the packaging for the U.S.A., as it is such an important market for us. Additionally, we have just introduced the St. Bernardus Christmas Ale. It is the newest of our illustrious line of abbey ales. It has a very thick, creamy foam, dark color, and unique, complex taste. We hope you enjoy it Stateside!” Marco exclaimed.

There is another reason to come to St. Bernardus: the bed-and-breakfast is often ranked as one of the best in Belgium. There is an elegant parlor where guests can enjoy the range of brews that are crafted just yards away. Watou, only a short ride (or walk) away, offers a pair of excellent cafés/restaurants, Het Ovenhuis (owned by St. Bernardus) and ’t Hommelhof. For more info, see and — and visit Watou!

Located just a few kilometers away in Woesten, the Deca Brewery is where De Struise Brouwers craft highly sought-after ales. The name Struise has roots in the Flemish word for ostrich — the brewers also manage an ostrich farm near the French border in West Flanders — and the Dutch word for sturdy — hence the brewery's nickname, “the sturdy brewers.”

Urbain Cotteau, Carlo Grootaert, Phil Driessens and Peter Braem are the partners who have created several cult classic brews (such as Pannepøt) in just a few short years.

Urbain invited me and a couple of friends to visit the farm where they innovate and create (and raise ostriches), and to taste their beers. He added, “We also rent the resort to groups of up to 25 people.”

Who could refuse such an invitation? In Belgium, when hospitality is offered, it is usually an occasion to remember. This night was no exception. Urbain started with the Struise Witte, a very refreshing witbier. Another exceptional offering is Tsjeeses, a blond ale of 10% abv. This Christmas beer is lagered for eight months and is brewed with several malt and hop varieties. With about 30 IBUs, it has a pleasant bitterness to balance the alcohol and subtle spicy character.

“Pannepot was really the first brew that put us on the map with beer lovers,” Urbain said as he opened a bottle. “As you can see, it is nearly black in color. We use six different malts in this one. We also add candi sugar. All these factors, and the mash schedule used, gives us a beer with a very big mouthfeel. There are also a few spices added.”

“As you can see, we have another beer called Pannepøt. This beer was originally meant as a tribute and thank you to the Danish beer lovers who supported our products. It is 10% alcohol, the same as Pannepot; however, we use cane sugar and different yeast strains, and some of the malts are different. It is brown in color, not as dense and uses different spices,” Urbain explained.

We soon tasted another spectacular beer, Aardmonnik (Earthmonk), which is a Flemish sour ale — a nearly extinct style! Earthmonk is a blend of 30% old and 70% young beer, aged in French oak barrels (that formerly held Burgundy wine) for at least 18 months. The result is an 8% brew that left me nearly speechless the first time I tasted it! Urbain pointed out, “You tasted this same batch of Earthmonk six months ago at De Kulminator. As you can see, it has more carbonation now and leaves a fine Belgian lace on the glass. This is because the Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Pediococcus cerevisiae yeasts continue to eat all the sugars, making for a very dry beer. I think Aardmonnik could probably age for 15 years in a good cellar.”

The hoppiest beer in the lineup is Mikkeller, a brew created out of cooperation between the Danish brewery of the same name and De Struise. It is a double IPA, with 9% abv and 130 IBUs. “We think it has the best of two worlds: good balance and drinkability, yet very complex and hoppy!” Phil exclaimed. Indeed, I enjoyed it!

When we visited the Deca Brewery, Carlo told me, “We brew here because we like the facility. They still use copper brew-kettles, which we feel can produce more complex beers. Also, it is a large brewery with a lot of hidden fermentation rooms.”

Urbain said, “We have an experiment to show you: our Struiselensis beer. The base is our Kloeke Blonde. We have infected the wort with Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Pediococcus cerevisiae yeasts. It will age for a year in these open copper fermenters before being bottled, and will have about 7% abv.” A taste showed that the brew would be another winner!

In August 2007, the Sturdy Brewers ventured to this side of the pond, where they collaborated with Chris Lively of Ebenezer’s Pub in Maine to produce a batch of thick, rich imperial stout called Black Albert (13%) that reportedly was very well received.

De Struise Brouwers released a batch of Pannepøt Grand Reserva in late October. This batch was aged in new French oak for 14 months, then transferred to secondhand wooden vessels that previously held Calvados, for another eight months. As for this brew, Carlo said, “It will certainly be an intensely complex beer!” I can’t wait to try it. See for more information.




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