Monday, March 12, 2012

Visits to 3 Fonteinen

At the beginning of March 2012, I made my third pilgrimage to 3 Fonteinen, the former lambic brewery but still active geuze blender ("geuzestekerij"), located in the municipality of Beersel in Flemish Brabant, Belgium, about 15 minutes south of Brussels by taxi.

Café 3 Fonteinen on the town square in Beersel since 1961.
Historically, Beersel was one of many communities with a strong lambic brewing and geuze blending tradition, but today only Oud Beersel (closed in 2003, but re-opened with new owners in 2005) and 3 Fonteinen remain. But it's 3 Fonteinen, among all Belgian sour ale breweries, that makes the sour ales closest to my heart, with some amazing oude geuze and equally complex and tasty oude krieks.

The story of the current 3 Fonteinen goes back to 1953 when a Gaston Debelder took over the 3 Fonteinen café from Jean-Baptiste Denaeyer, the mayor and supposedly best geuze blender in Beersel. Gaston continued what Denaeyer had done, purchasing lambic and blending geuze which he sold at his café. In 1961, Gaston moved his café to its current location, on the village square in Beersel, right in front of the church.

3 Fonteinen Kriekenlambik at café 3 Fonteinen.
Gaston Debelder had two sons, Guido and Armand. The former fell in love with cooking food, the latter with all things lambic. In 1982, the time had come for Gaston to retire and let his sons take over the daily running of the café - with Guido focusing on the kitchen and Armand taking charge of the geuze blending. 

Up until the late 1990s, Gaston would help Armand hone his geuze blending skills. In 1999, Armand did the unthinkable, in a time of massive brewery closures all over Belgium, he opened his own lambic brewery in a building on the back of the café. For the next ten years, Armand would rely more and more on his own lambics than on those he and his father had purchased from other lambic brewers. 

Where a number of geuze blenders went with the flow and started sweetening and pasteurizing their geuze, Armand went back to the roots, creating traditional, unsweetened and unpasteurized guezes and krieks, such as the rare Schaerbeekse Oude Kriek - made with sour Schaerbeekse cherries, the even rarer Hommage - made with raspberries filtered over cherries, the faro inspired Straffe Winter and the Oude Geuze Vintage beers. 

As for lambics, 3 Fonteinen Lambik and Kriekenlambik are often available on hand pump at Café 3 Fonteinen, but never on keg - Armand absolutely loaths kegs; that is not the way geuze or lambic was served in the old days and so he won't either!

In 2009, a thermostate failure at 3 Fonteinen caused an entire year's worth of lambic to be ruined. For a small lambic brewery this spells catastrophe. Brewing lambic means you're investing a lot of money for the future, binding the capital for 2-3 years as the lambic matures. Losing a year means a lot of money, but more importantly, it means you can't make the important geuze - a blend of 1, 2 and 3 year old lambics - for the next three years! Armand was faced with bankruptcy and saw no other way out than to sell his ten year old brewery equipment.

Even after selling his brewery, Armand struggled financially. Without the 2009 vintage of lambic he would not be able to blend more beer. And the banks were not willing to borrow him any money, citing the difficult times for brewing and his age (Armand has just turned 60) when declining to borrow him money. Luckily, Armand had some good friends and advisors. The first clever thing he was talked into was to have the ruined lambic distilled, instead of pouring it down the drain. Thus was born Eau de Vie van Oude Geuze aka Armand's Spirit - a limited release 40% abv lambic liquor, suprisingly tasty, sold at the brewery shop and elsewhere to raise money for 3 Fonteinen.

Eau de Vie van Oude Geuze aka Armand's Spirit.

The other lucky break came when an American friend suggested that Armand should make a special, limited release of geuze, blended from the remaining lambics - the 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages - in order to raise even more money. So, in early 2010, Armand made four distinct blends and ordered 17 thousand bottles of a special and very expensive design, in which he bottled his new creation: Armand '4 Oude Geuze.

The Armand'4 Oude Geuze came in four different blends, Lente (spring), Zomer (summer), Herfst (autumn) and Winter, released roughly at the start of the corresponding season in 2011. The bottles were mainly sold at the brewery shop, for €24 per bottle. As Armand said, he would not sell it through big distributors because they would press him on price while also turning up the price for the consumer. So, with a few exceptions, this limited release was only sold in Beersel. 

Armand'4 Oude Geuze Lente.
The Armand'4 Lente was released in time for Tour de Gezue at the start of May 2011 and its popularity spread quickly by word of mouth. Even without any hype it ended up as the 14th highest rated beer in the world when RateBeer published their annual list at the start of 2012! It and the following 3 releases sold so well that by late autumn 2011, Armand could take stock of the situation and declare that 3 Fonteinen was saved. 

Another worry that Armand has been facing lately was that of a successor, a person who could take over 3 Fonteinen and keep its proud traditions alive when he is gone. Well, just as the financial situation got sorted out he also succeeded in signing an apprentice and future partner - Michaël Blanckaert. This young man will be an apprentice to Armand, learning all there is about brewing lambics and blending geuze in the traditional way. It will still take a few years, and Michaël will take a 2 year brewing school too, before he is ready to become the new master of 3 Fonteinen. 

In the meantime, Armand intends to construct a new lambic brewery. On my visit in March 2012, Armand mentioned that the old LambikOdroom tasting room will be closed at the end of March, in order to move the brewery shop there. The reason is that the old brewery shop will be converted into a brewery with larger capacity than the old one, including two new 1,000 liter coolships. The new brewery could be operational late this fall or early 2013.
Armand Debelder of 3 Fonteinen.

In the meantime, Armand will continue to buy lambic from Girardin, Boon and Lindemans to age and blend his own geuze and kriek. It will take at least three years before he will be able to blend his very own geuze and kriek again, three years that will see Michaël Blanckaert grow in experience and confidence of his own skills.

However, Armand has one final gift to offer us, from his old lambics. He had some left of the 2008 vintage, four years old lambic(!), which he has now blended with some younger lambics from Boon, Girardin and Lindemans to produce the Oude Geuze Golden Blend - to my knowledge the only geuze in the world made with a four year old lambic! Bottles of 3 Fonteinen Golden Blend will be sold at Zythos at the end of March and also at the Sour & Bitter festival arranged by Drikkeriget in Copenhagen on May 10, 2012, where Armand plans to attend.

3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze Golden Blend, a
blend of young lambics with a 4 year old.

Photo sets from my visits to 3 Fonteinen can be found at Flickr: May 2011, November 2011 and March 2012.

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