Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Report from Tour de Geuze 2013

As mentioned in a previous post, I had signed up for one of the HORAL buses at the recent Tour de Geuze on April 21, 2013. This is a recount of a long day spent touring back and forth across the river Zenne in the heart of Flemish Brabant, with a brief detour into Wallonia for a visit to the newest geuze blender in Belgium. So buckle up.

Most of the HORAL buses departed from the south side of the train station in Halle, a city some 15 km south of Brussels, so when staying in Brussels the easiest way of getting there was by train, just a short 15 minutes train ride from Bruxelles-Central at the price of €3,50. I decided on an early train to make sure I made it for the 10 am departure of the tour buses, this gave me a chance to take hike around in the vicinity of the train station, discovering a former malt factory (Malteries Beeckmans) and enjoying the fine view of the Brussels-Charleroi canal.

Banner for Tour de Geuze 2013 at Gueuzerie Tilquin

Gueuzerie Tilquin
My bus left Halle more or less on time and headed south west, out of lambic heartland and across the border into the French speaking federal region of Wallonia. Historically, the Wallon region of Belgium is known for its Saison beers, not for lambic or geuze, but that changed in March 2009 when Pierre Tilquin founded Gueuzerie Tilquin in Bierghes, near Rebecq-Rognon in the north of Wallonia - just 1 km from the border with Flanders. His enterprise is the most recent geuze blending business to open up anywhere in Belgium.

Located in what looks like a large warehouse, Pierre Tilquin established his gueuzerie in Wallonia partly because he felt more comfortable there, as a native French speaker, but probably just as much because of the public funding and tax reductions available for those wanting to establish a business in this poor region. You may be surprised to learn that during the early phases of the industrial revolution Wallonia was second only to England and it remained the industrial and economical powerhouse of Belgium until World War II, when the industry went into decline. Today the Dutch speaking Flanders is the "economical engine" of Belgium.

Only in his late 30s, Pierre Tilquin has built up a very impressive résumé; in addition to a PhD in statistics and genetics he learned the art of brewing at Brouwerij Huyghe, famous for Delirium Tremens, before spending six months apprenticing at 3 Fonteinen, to learn the art of aging and blending geuze from Armand Debelder, and then six months at Cantillon, to learn about lambic brewing from Jean-Pierre van Roy. The latter is the reason why Tilquin, as the only Geuzestekerij ("geuze blender") in Belgium, has been allowed to purchase lambic wort from Cantillon to use in his oude geuze!

After releasing his first oude geuze in May 2011, just in time for the previous Tour de Geuze, Gueuzerie Tilquin has quickly gained popularity and market share, exporting draft geuze to many countries (including my own, Norway) and producing a very good old geuze called Oude Gueuze Tilquin à l’Ancienne. His production has rapidly increased too, after one year he surpassed De Cam and he is now looking at producing 500 hl of geuze and lambics annually, taking him past Hanssens too. And it may not stop there, with his background from brewing there is no reason why Pierre Tilquin shouldn't start his own brewery someday and brew his own lambics.

Like several of the other participating breweries and blenders at this year's Tour de Geuze, Tilquin presented a brand new beer for his visitors, a 6.4% sour ale made with plums: Oude Quetsche Tilquin à l’Ancienne. I picked up a couple of bottles to bring home after tasting the deliciously tart beer in the beer tent. Then it was time to move on to the next stop, as we only had five hours to spend.

Some of the foudres for aging lambic at the Boon Brewery

Brouwerij Boon
The next stop on the tour was just up the road from Tilquin, in the town of Lembeek on the historically "correct" side of the Flanders / Walloon border. If passengers on the highspeed Thalys trains from Brussels to Paris look out on the right side, as the train shoots past Lembeek, they might catch a glimpse of the new brewery building inaugurated just two days before this Tour de Geuze.

Back in the early 1970s the young Frank Boon fell in love with lambic and geuze. He became a good friend of René de Vits who had a small lambic brewery in Lembeek, the last one still in operation. Boon would buy lambic from de Vits and blend his own geuze, first while running a youth club but from 1975 commercially with his own blending business. When René de Vits retired in 1978, without a successor, Frank Boon decided to buy the brewery and found the Boon Brewery. In the 25 years since, Frank Boon has honed his skills as a lambic brewer and blender, making some of the most classic sour ales you'll find in Belgium - in particular the Boon Mariage Parfait series of Oude Geuze, Kriek and Framboise.

When I arrived at Boon, the brewery buildings and surrounding grounds were teaming with visitors, many aiming for the degustation or tasting tent where they could sample most of the Boon beers, both sour and non-sour (Boon also brew the Duivel, an 8% Belgian strong ale). I headed straight for the new brewery, to take the tour, which started with a look at the old coolship, the only piece of equipment still in use after the new brewery opened. A coolship, known as koelschip in Dutch, is a shallow, open metal vessel, the size of a small swimming pool, which is used to cool the lambic wort over night and allow the wild yeast in the ambient air to inoculate the wort to spark the spontaneous fermentation.

When the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, who is a good friend of Frank Boon, cut the ribbon on April 19 he marked the opening of a hightech marvel of a brewery, designed to be highly automated and environmentally friendly. As an example we were told that the hot vapors from the boiling of the wort is collected back in a large 65,000 liter hot water tank and reused for the next mashing. Clever! For the brewing, Boon uses malt from Dingemanns and they hop their lambics with 1 year old whole cone hops, not pellets or extract.

Frank Boon at his brewery in Lembeek

According to our guide, the first batch was brewed at the new brewery in mid March 2013 and with the new brewhouse in operation, Boon can brew three times more lambic than at the old brewery. But their goal for 2013 is a more modest increase - from 20,000 hl in 2012 to about 30,000 hl or 3 million liter this year. The tour ended in the cool storage cellar, where we got to see the impressive array of foudres - large oak barrels of 8,000 liter - in which Boon ages their lambics for up to three years. In all, Boon has 117 large oak foudres, in which about 1 million liter of lambic is aged at any time. In addition to aging their own lambics, Boon also sell lambic wort to geuze blenders such as Tilquin, De Cam, Oud Beersel, Hanssens and 3 Fonteinen who age it for their own oude geuze and oude kriek.

At the end of the brewery tour I caught sight of Frank Boon, beaming with pride as he gave a group of visitors a tour of the brewery. Frank Boon, who will turn 59 years in September, cuts a strapping figure with his graying hair and pair of glasses hanging in a string around his neck, looking more like a distinguished professor than the man who helped preserve traditional geuze, together with Jean-Pierre van Roy of Cantillon and Armand Debelder of 3 Fonteinen. His new brewery will place Boon at the forefront of the ongoing geuze revival in Belgium and the future of the brewery seems to be in good hands after his son, Jos Boon, recently joined his father upon completing a Master degree in Brewing and Malting.

For the inauguration of the new brewery, a special oude geuze had been made. Brewed to a very high gravity on 3-4 December 2008, it was aged in a single foudre (Vat 44) before being bottled in August 2010. These bottles were then aged for almost three more years before release in April 2013 as Oude Geuze Boon VAT 44. Only 20,520 bottles of 375 ml were made, so this is a rare treat indeed.

I would have loved to check out some of the many beers sold at the tasting stand, but the huge crowd and my own restricted time schedule forced me back on the tour bus.

Geuzestekerij De Cam
Next the bus headed north to the small town of Gooik, about 20 km south west of Brussels. Historically, Gooik has had many lambic brewers and geuze blenders but they were all gone by the time Gooik local and Palm Brewery production manager Willem van Herreweghen got the idea to start up a geuze blending business. When it opened in June 1997, Geuzestekerij De Cam became the first new geuze blender to open in Belgium in several decades.

Karel Goddeau with a glass of kriek at De cam

Because of the workload at Palm, in 1998 van Herreweghen enlisted the help of another local, the 25 year old brewer Karel Goddeau. Llike Pierre Tilquin, Goddeau spent some time with Armand Debelder at 3 Fonteinen to learn the art of aging lambic and blending geuze, and he has since become a well respected and experienced lambic blender. Since the year 2000 Goddeau has been in full charge of De Cam, but this is actually a part time business for him - his regular job is as a brewer at the Slaghmuylder brewery. Thus, Goddeau basically works nightshifts and weekends to keep De Cam running!

Geuzestekerij De Cam is located in an impressive, old brick building right next to Volkscafé De Cam on Dorpstraat in Gooik, so naturally the café oftens serves De Cam lambics on draft and the bottled geuze as well. When I arrived, the café and the small geuzestekerij were crowded with visitors so I barely managed to get inside for a peek of the barrel storage. Together with 3 Fonteinen, Goddeau has bought his oak barrels from the famous Pilsner Urquell brewery in the Czech Republic. With a total of 45 barrels of 1,000 liter capacity, he can age up to 450 hl lambic, resulting in an annual production of just 150 hl - 15,000 liter - sour ales, which makes De Cam the smallest geuze blender in Belgium. Goddeau currently buys his lambic wort from Boon, Lindemans and Girardin, but I would think that once 3 Fonteinen get started he'll also buy lambic wort from them.

While checking out the barrel storage I spotted the master himself, right next to a stainless steel maceration tank, in the midst of a photo session with the American beer blogger Chuck Cook. I fired up my own camera before moving on, the small place was filling up quickly so I made my escape to In De Groene Poort, just up the street, for a quiet lunch and a glass of fresh Boon Kriek on draft. And then it was time to move on, now to one of the biggest lambic breweries.

Entrance to the 230 year old Timmermans brewery in Itterbeek

Brouwerij Timmermans
Located in the village of Itterbeek, on the western outskirts of Brussels, Brouwerij Timmermans is the oldest and one of the largest lambic breweries in Belgium. The brewery has been part of the John Martin Group since 1993 and is probably best known for its sweet fruit beers though they have recently re-introduced some traditional sour ales. Anyhow, my expectations were not that high when the bus arrived in Kirkstraat in the heart of Itterbeek, but boy was I in for a surprise!

The first thing that impressed me was how well they've kept the old brewery buildings, where Timmermans, or Brasserie de la Taupe as it was known until 1961, has been brewing since 1781. It's a white painted brick building with beautiful murals on the front, showing typical lambic inspired scenes. Once inside, the impression of an old, traditional brewery was strengthened by the fact that Timmermans have kept much of their old brewing equipment and, like Cantillon and Oud Beersel, have turned parts of the brewery into a museum, showing old brewing equipment, mechanical stirring vats, simple bottling machines and an old grain mill with a massive and well worn mill stone.

What impressed me most of all though was that Timmermans were actually brewing a batch of lambic that day, which gave me the opportunity to finally see a coolship in action, with the hot vapors drifting across the surface like banks of sea mist. If I read the thermometer correct, the wort was about 90 degrees Celsius hot so it had a lot of cooling to do before it could get inoculated by wild yeast from the air. The coolship at Timmermans was huge, almost like an Olympic swimming pool, with a capacity of 220 hl (22,000 liter). I could barely see across it through the hot vapors, and the smell of wort was just mesmerizing - I had to force myself to move on to see the rest of the brewery.

Hot lambic wort in the 220 hl coolship at Timmermans

Like Boon, Timmermans have a big, cool cellar for aging lambic in oak barrels. Some of them had obviously just been filled with lambic wort and were still undergoing primary fermentation, because foam was covering the bunghole at the top of the barrel and could often be seen running in streams down the sides. During this phase, the fermentation is so violent that the brewer can't close the barrel or else it might explode from the pressure! However, there is no need to worry about infections since the thick foam turns fairly solid and acts like a cap, stopping particles and infections from entering the barrel. Only when the violent primary fermentation ends is the barrel capped with a plastic or wooden bung (a type of cork), to seal the barrel and allow the lambic to go through the slower secondary fermentation, during which lactic bacteria takes center stage and adds sourness to the beer.

Though Timmermans is part of a large company and is best known for sweet fruit beers, they have realized that traditional lambic is making a comeback, so in 2009 they re-introduced an Oude Geuze and the year after an Oude Kriek. Both were well received by lambic fans. The brewery also make a very decent sour ale called Bourgogne des Flandres, I spotted some oak barrels in the cellar where this beer was aging. Though sour, it is not a pure lambic but a mix of 50% lambic and 50% Scotch ale. Bourgogne des Flandres is not an original Timmermans beer but was taken over when Brouwerij De Os in Bruges closed in 1985. A couple of days after Tour de Geuze, while visiting Bruges, I learned that a new brewery is being built in Bruges to allow Bourgogne des Flandres to "return home" in September this year.

After the tour of the brewery and cellar, I made a quick stop at the pub located inside the brewery, which looked very cozy except that it was so full of visitors I could forget about ordering a beer. Besides, my tour bus had a tight schedule to follow, there was still one more lambic brewery to visit. My favorite. So I left.

Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen
The last stop on my tour was the one I had looked most forward to visit, Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen on Hoogstraat in Beersel, about 10 km south of Brussels. And I was not alone with this sentiment, as the small brewery and its brewery shop was thronging with visitors, eager to see the shiny, new coolships and purchase some bottles of the exclusive, new beer: Intense Red Oude Kriek.

This was not my first visit to 3 Fonteinen (see this post) so I focused mainly on the changes that they had made over the last year, ripping out the old brewery shop, closing the wonderful Lambikodroom tasting room and installing the brand new brewery. The old tasting room has now been turned into the brewery shop, while the old brewery shop houses brewing kettles and the coolships.

In the sea of people, while stubbornly holding on to my bottles of Intense Red, I caught a brief glimpse of Armand Debelder, smiling from ear to ear, as he waded through the brewery shop. On that day of Tour de Geuze, his brewery shop must have sold more 3 Fonteinen beer than during a regular month, it was wild! And the tour of the brewery was equally chaotic with people speaking a multitude of languages waiting for the appropriate guide.

Michaël Blanckaert as tour guide at 3 Fonteinen

I joined an English speaking tour, headed by none other than Michaël Blanckaert, the future master of 3 Fonteinen but still learning the trade of brewing lambic and blending geuze from his mentor, Armand Debelder. Michaël showed us the new 4,000 liter boiling kettle and the new stainless steel coolships of which there are four, all of 1,000 liter capacity to match the batch size of 4,000 liter. Built in Germany, the four coolships are assembled in a rack, because of floor space limitations, with two coolships at the bottom and two at the top. A large fan is used to blow away the hot vapor from the lower coolships, so as to avoid heating the upper ones.

With the new coolships in place, 3 Fonteinen can now brew four times more beer than at the old brewery so the limiting factor is not the brewery anymore but the number of oak barrels and storage space available for aging lambic. The latter is a serious problem because the lambic must age for 1-3 years before use, so in order to follow up the expanded brewing capacity 3 Fonteinen will need four times as many barrels as they currently have and a lot more storage space. According to Armand Debelder, this is an issue for the future, in the next couple of years they will just brew what they need to fill up their current generation of 1,000 liter oak barrels.

After almost a year of constructions the new brewery went into operation in March 2013, almost to the day four years after the last batch was brewed at the old brewery. To celebrate the opening of the new brewery, 3 Fonteinen released a brand new beer - a 5% oude kriek named Intense Red that was made with 40% sour cherries (i.e. 400 g cherries per liter lambic).

Two of the four German built 1,000 liter coolships at 3 Fonteinen

Despite having celebrated his 60th birthday, Armand Debelder can feel more confident about the future of 3 Fonteinen than in many years. Not only has he managed to construct a new lambic brewery but a successor has been appointed, Michaël Blanckaert, who is still in his 20s but well under way in his apprenticeship to become a traditional lambic brewer and blender, ready to take over 3 Fonteinen the day Armand Debelder retires.

Tour de Geuze after-party
Tour de Geuze officially ended at 5 pm and the HORAL buses returned to the starting point by Halle railway station. However, the fun was not over yet, because I had signed up for an after-party BBQ event held at the famous lambic café In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst in the small village of Eizeringen, about 15 km west of Brussels.

Together with three fellow Tour de Geuze participants I took a taxi the almost 20 km from the railway station in Halle to the church square in Eizeringen, both to save time and to get there before it became too crowded. The café is located on the church square and is usually only open on Sundays, from 10 am to 1:30 pm, or during funerals. The reason for this is that the current owners, the brothers Yves and Kurt Panneels, have regular daytime jobs and only run the café in their sparetime.

In 1999 the previous owner, a remarkable woman named Marguerite, decided to retire, at the ripe old age of 85. To preserve her lambic café, the two Panneels brothers, both longtime fans of lambic, decided to take over the business from Marguerite. They renovated the place keeping it in the style of a 1940s Flemish café and moved their amazing sour ales collection, gathered over many years, to the cool cellar underneath.

Inside lambic café In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst

Today, it feels like traveling back in time when you walk in through the front door; the walls are plastered with old lambic and geuze signs, there are no TV-screens or loudspeakers tucked away in the corners and there is no electronic cash register or computer at the bar, all tabs are calculated by hand on a piece of paper! The beer menu is the most impressive I've seen when it comes to lambic, ranging from 30 year old bottles of geuze to rare lambics from long gone breweries, such as Eylenbosch or Belle Vue (the old one!). For special events the café may also serve lambic on cask, at the Tour de Geuze after-party the lambic on cask was a blend of 12 and 18 months old lambic from Oud Beersel.

The BBQ focused on local specialities, such as Flemish blood sausages, pork ribs and chicken, served with hot mustard, mayo and various sauces. The food was hearty and tasty and went surprisingly well with geuze. Despite two busloads arriving, the small café managed to handle the crowd and I had a great evening, talking with locals as well as people from far away countries, while enjoying some amazing sour ales. To clinch the evening, when I failed to get a cab (none were available in the area!), the butcher responsible for the meat at the BBQ offered to drive my friends and me back to Brussels!

All in all, Tour de Geuze 2013 was a great experience for me and I must thank HORAL, the Hoge raad voor Ambachtelijke Lambikbieren, for arranging this wonderful event every two years. I must also thank the breweries and blenders for opening their businesses to outsiders, curious to see how each ply their trade and tasting their sour ales, and café In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst for hosting the great BBQ at the end of the day.

Though at times very crowded, I would love to return for the next Tour de Geuze, in 2015, but I will probably rent my own car in order to be more flexible with regards to the time schedule and not be limited by that of a tour bus.

Yves Panneels opening a bottle of geuze

More photos from Tour de Geuze 2013 can be found at this Flickr set.

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