Belguim’s Rediscovered Traditions

Thirst takes a look at one of the world’s great brewing nations, Belgium, and talks to the new breed of craft brewers and lambic merchants who are putting their own stamp on these classic beer traditions: Pierre Tilquin (Tilquin Gueuzerie), Alex Dumont Chassart (Brasserie de Jandrain-Jandrenouille), Julien Gobron (Brasserie Les 3 Fourquets), Jef Hanssens (Brouwerij Hof Ten Dormaal.

Like Belgium’s four other gueuze blenders and a dozen or so lambic brewers, Pierre Tilquin cannot keep up with demand for his beers. There is an unquenchable thirst for the strange, funky and complex beers he makes by blending beers from five different breweries.

Lambic and gueuze beers are in the ascendancy. Hugely sought-after in North America and increasingly in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and other established beer-loving markets, these beers are closer in character to Champagne than an English bitter. They have a sour aftertaste, are tart and dry, challenging and complex and, to the seasoned beer lover, immensely rewarding.

But these are not new styles like a black IPA or mocha porter. More than any other type of beer, lambics and gueuzes can trace their origins to the birth of brewing, when warm wort was left outside to cool and the miracle of fermentation kickstarted thanks to wild yeast lurking in the air.

There’s no single reason for the growing popularity of these beers, for years under the shadow of Belgium’s Abbeys, tripels, saisons and blondes. A greater understanding of complex beers is one reason, as is the hunger for something new, especially among beer connoisseurs. Fashion and fads play their part too of course, as does the growing appreciation of food pairing: these tart beers with their big acidic kick and cleansing finish are a joy with pretty much any food.

Established in 2009, Pierre Tilquin’s Gueuzerie Tilquin is Belgium’s newest gueuze blender.  In the years since launching his first gueuze in 2011 he’s seen sales rocket, with demand outstripping supply, even if he does have about 400 wooden casks in a shed filled with maturing lambics from Boon, Lindemans, Timmermans, Cantillon and Girardin breweries. Once ready, these lambics are blended into geueze, then refermented in bottles.

Pierre explains the surge in popularity for his beers: “People look for more special products, something new. With the traditional gueuze more people are discovering this type of beer and becoming more familiar with it. A lot more drinkers of speciality beers like to drink something new, so we take advantage of this.”

He also sees the rise in popularity as more restaurants start selling beers. “Gueuze is perfect for foods,” he says; a sentiment echoed by Alex Dumont Chassart from Brasserie de Jandrain-Jandrenouille.

“Sours, lambics, gueuzes go so well with food,” Alex declares. “Food pairing is the future of beer. Wheat beer, for example, with fish is wonderful; you have all these wonderful flavours in your mouth!”

Alex also reckons there’s a pragmatic side to having beer with your meal. “With wine there are sulphates that don’t always agree with you body.

“And besides, sharing a bottle of wine between two will put you over the drink-drive limit!

“Beer is safer, natural if made in the craft way, but it’s also wonderfully refreshing; it’s a social ingredient that gets people – strangers – talking. You don’t get that so much with wine.”

For the craft beer market to keep on growing, Alex suggests, it needs to tackle wine’s stranglehold on restaurants. “That is where growth is and where the future of craft beer lies. Otherwise there will be blood. Breweries will close down,” he warns.

His foreboding seems at odds with the international love affair with Belgian brewing. With so much of Belgian beer being exported (some 60%, though this includes Ab InBev’s Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and Leffe), particularly to the US, it seems unlikely Belgian breweries are going to start cutting their cloth any time soon. But a shift in US import policy or duty, however, could quickly jeopardise the reliance many breweries – not just Belgian – have on trade to the American markets.

And it’s not just Belgian beers that are being exported; it’s also the styles. Breweries such as Allagash in Maine, US, and Elgood’s in Cambridgeshire, UK are making their own lambic-style beers with some great results, though their characters are different because they have their own “terroir” – a term associated with wine grape regions but which can equally apply when talking about spontaneous fermentation due to that area’s airborne wild yeasts and bacteria.

Belgian lambics hail from Pajottenland, an area south of Brussels that was once rich in cherry orchards. These long-gone fruits still lend character to the wild yeast brettanomyces (different from the traditional brewers’ Saccharomyces yeast strains) and help define the area’s terroir.

But regardless of whether it’s Somerset, Pajottenland or California, these wild beers start life in pretty much the same way: wort is left out overnight to cool in large flat trays. Wild yeast in the air inoculates the wort and kick-starts the process of spontaneous fermentation, beginning the miraculous process of turning wort into beer.

And as these innovative “wild” breweries look to Belgium for inspiration, so the new wave of Belgium brewers have looked to other countries for their own ideas … or at least for their hops.

Alex’s Brasserie de Jandrain-Jandrenouille was one of the first of Belgium’s breweries to start regularly using US hops in his beers, and when he brewed a saison using a heap of imported American hops, he had no idea that a few years later his IV Saison would be – without irony – described as a modern classic and inspire umpteen clones.

For him, keen to challenge preconceptions about Belgian beer, brewing is not about spices and candi sugars; it comes down to four things: water, hops, malt and yeast.

“Everything must be drinkable so medium strength – you don’t have to be drunk on one beer,” he says. “It’s more important to satisfy the thirst, yet it should also be pleasing for a connoisseur. It’s all about balance. Balance is everything for a beer.”

He adds: “People don’t drink with their nose and mouth; they drink with their brain; and if they have a good understanding of the product they can understand the taste.”

Tilquin Gueuzerie may not find much use for Mosaic or Centennial hops in its blends, but owner Pierre clearly has an eye on the good beer renaissance across the Channel. He’s a massive fan of modern British brewing, so much so that he’s again hosting an English beer festival at his brewery (April 30-May 1), with the likes of Beavertown, Brew by Numbers, Burning Sky, Buxton, Cloudwater, Magic Rock, Moor, Partizan, Siren, The Kernal, Thornbridge, Weird Beard and Wild Beer Co attending.

Though Pierre insists on keeping his gueuzes strictly traditional (and is no fan of those who use artificial sweeteners), it’s refreshing to see such a well-respected gueuze blender look beyond Belgium for influence; an outlook that has also worked very well for Julien Gobron, of Brasserie Les 3 Fourquets, whose father Pierre set up and then sold the famous Brasserie d’AChouffe.

A proponent of marrying tradition with the modern, Belgian styles with new world hops, Brasserie Les 3 Fourquets’s hop-heavy Lupulus beers have helped grow the brewery way beyond the expectations they had when they launched in 2004. Back then it was simply a desire to “make a top quality beer with a little bit more bitterness then we have normally in Belgium”.

Their beer list shows off this ability to take in Belgium’s rich heritage yet look overseas; again, indicative of Belgium’s brewers awareness of the world around them (this sponge-like philosophy perhaps why Belgium has such a rich brewing culture in the first place). As breweries globally look to Belgium for inspiration, so Belgium’s brewers absorb ideas from all over … though speak to any of them and they’ll tell you the focus – always – has to be on balance.

Julien’s series of Lupulus beers, for example, includes a Tripel as well as a pale ale made with US and Australian hops. He says he likes the big hoppy beers but, hammering the point, balance has to be there.

A new brew house and bottling line (the old one’s off to the hop-farm brewery Plukker) gives Julien “lots of possibilities in terms of recipes as well as packaging, but it’s important we keep the recipes artisanal and natural”.

He admits that although there’s been a lot of change in recent years (though not to the scale experienced in the UK and US), now “everybody wants to make beer”. This is encouraging, he says, “because the more there are little breweries with special or craft beers, the more people learn what is beer and become a connoisseur and the more they appreciate our product”.

For Jef Hanssens of Brouwerij Hof Ten Dormaal, it’s about catering to the beer connoisseurs. “We can’t make enough sour beer, and almost all of it is exported to the US since there’s a massive hype there for the moment.”

Jef reveals they’re working on a dry-hopped brown sour apple/cheery beer, and adds: “We pride ourselves in getting new stuff out there, doing it our own way. Tradition doesn’t mean anything to us. We are a very young brewery [established 2009] and unlike most Belgian breweries, we don’t think Belgium is ‘the beer land’.”

Hop farmer turned brewer Joris Camie is similarly unapologetic, though in his case it’s about distribution. If you want his beers – and people do – you have to come to his Plukker hop farm and brewery and pick them up yourself. Instead, he’s focused attention on his equipment and brewing, and has just bought an improved bottling line from Julien Gobron’s Brasserie Les 3 Fourquets.

Joris too has merged modern with the traditional. His organic farm grows Cascade, Challenger, Goldings, WGV and Pilgrim hops, and it’s these that form the bedrock of his five core beers, including his Single Green Hop amber beer. It’s made using Challenger hops picked seconds before being added to the boiling wort. You can’t get fresher, he proclaims. It’s impossible to disagree.

His All Inclusive IPA meanwhile uses all five hops and is made at the end of the hop-picking season, its character and taste dependant on that year’s harvest. But despite the focus on hops at Plukker, Joris is also adamant about the importance of balance – his single-hopped IPA might reek of fresh hops but it’s held together by a soft malt backbone.

Balance is everything for these Belgian brewers, regardless of whether it’s a blonde, tripel or gueuze. There might be an unrivalled diversity of styles and character in Belgian beer, but look behind the variety and you’ll see that the understanding and appreciation of balance runs throughout.