Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Het Anker in Mechelen

If you're visiting Antwerp, the second largest city in Belgium, and have some extra time on your hands it is worthwhile to take a quick daytrip to the city of Mechelen about 25 km to the south. Getting there is both fast and easy, as trains leave frequently from Antwerp Centraal and takes only 21 minutes to Mechelen.

There are several good reasons for going to Mechelen, aside from getting out of the most polluted city in Belgium. One is to visit an important historic center for art in Flanders, known from the Northern Renaissance when composers, painters, printmakers and illuminators were attracted to this area by rich patrons. Another could be to visit the impressive Sint-Romboutskathedraal near Grote Markt, an example of the Brabantian Gothic architectural style. Finally, and most dear to my heart, Mechelen is home to the old Het Anker, one of a handful of independent Belgian Family Brewers and world famous for its Gouden Carolus beers.
Het Anker Family Brewery in Mechelen.

Het Anker is first and foremost a brewery, its roots stretching back to the 15th century, but in the late 1990s a brasserie and an Inn, with 22 guest rooms, were added to the brewery. The brasserie allows vistors to enjoy some hearty Flemish dishes while sampling the brews from Het Anker.

There is also a small but well stocked brewery shop on the premises, selling t-shirts, glasses, chocolate made with Het Anker beer and, of course, all of their bottled beers - including the rare Cuvée Van De Keizer which is made only once a year (more about that later).

Anyhow, the history of the current family brewery goes back to 1872 when one Louis Van Breedam purchased the Beguinage brewery in Mechelen and built one of the first modern steam-operated breweries of his time. In 1904 the brewery got its current name, NV Het Anker, which means "The anchor", after the historic brewer from Mechelen, Jan in de Anker. In 1912, Louis' son Victor had a maltery constructed at the brewery, to allow them better control with the malt they used.

Het Anker survived both World Wars but the third generation Van Breedam, Charles, worried that the brewery was too small to survive in the long run. He installed a new, state of the art brewery and closed the malting facility. Charles wanted to focus on making beer, and in the early 1950's he launched Keizersbier inspired by the historic Mechelsen Bruynen - said to have been the favorite beer of emperor Charles V, who was brought up in Mechelen in the first decades of the 16th century.

Gouden Carolus Classic on draft at Het Anker.
In 1961, Keizersbier was renamed to Gouden Carolus, after the golden coins of Charles Quint (V). Thanks to a distribution agreement with the Lamot brewery, Golden Carolus became a massive success in Belgium and in many foreign beer markets. Because of this financial success, the brewery decided to quit producing lager!

Charles, the man behind the Gouden Carolus adventure, did not live to see the huge success, by then his son, Michel, was in charge of Het Anker.

Michel had inherited a brewery on the way up, and success usually spawns more success. In 1968 Het Anker acquired the authorization for brewing and selling the Abbey beers of Floreffe, a former abbey in the Namur province of Wallonia. This was a great deal for Het Anker and they kept the brewing licence until 1982 (today these beers are brewed by Brasserie Lefebvre).

However, in the late 1980s Het Anker went into a serious decline. They had lost the Floreffe income and their own beer sales were dropping, so when Charles Leclef, fifth generation Van Breedam-Leclef, took over the brewery in 1990 he was faced with some serious headaches. After a few attempts at partnerships, with Brouwerij Riva (now part of Moortgat) and John Martin (now Scottish & Newcastle), Charles gave up this idea and decided to remain independent, brewing their beers only at Het Anker.

In order to get Het Anker back on track, Charles started a thorough reconstruction of all the buildings, modernizing the production process, installing new fermentors and lagering tanks. He also expanded the Het Anker beer range: Gouden Carolus Tripel, Gouden Carolus Ambrio, Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor, Gouden Carolus Noël and Gouden Carolus Cuvée van de Keizer. The Cuvée is a special beer only brewed once a year, on February 24th - the birthday of Charles V (born in 1500). It's a sweet and potent strong ale of 11% abv, sold in large 75 cl bottles and is great for cellaring.

In 1997, Charles opened the brasserie and a year later the Inn, completing a stunning revitalization of Het Anker and bringing the family brewery into the 21st century.

Brasserie Het Anker in Mechelen.

In 2010, Charles purchased a 17th century gin distillery in Blaasveld. After having two pot stills installed, the production of Gouden Carolus single malt whisky could start - giving Het Anker another leg to stand on. It's future now looks much brighter than just twenty years ago.

So, if you have the time, do make that trip to Mechelen and visit Het Anker - a thriving family brewery - to taste some of their delicious beers from draft while enjoying a hearty dish at the brasserie.

Photos from the visit to Het Anker can be found at Flickr.

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