Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Visit to BrewDog Aberdeen

Aberdeen, Scotland, is probably best known as the oil capital of Britain and a former fishing harbor on the North Sea coast. More recently it has also gained a reputation for beer, more specifically as the home base for the infamous punk brewery BrewDog.

Martin Dickie and James Watt.
BrewDog Aberdeen, May 2011.

Starting up a punk brewery

Back when he was still captain on a fishing boat, James Watt would dream of hoppy and full bodied beers. Like his friend, Martin Dickie, he was tired of the "insipid, mass produced chemical products churned out by big companies". In the end they got so fed up with what they could buy locally that they bought a brewing kit and started brewing American inspired pale ales in James' garage. They slowly honed their brewing skills.

In 2006 Martin and James went to London to seek out the opinion of Michael "The Beer Hunter" Jackson, one of the most influential persons in the beer world at the time. He tasted their IPA, looked searchingly at them and uttered the profound words "It's time to quit your day jobs". The two duly did, spending the rest of the year securing loans to build a brewery in their hometown Fraserburgh in the far north of Aberdeenshire.

In April 2007, named BrewDog after after James’s dog Bracken, the brewery was ready for operation. But, as they've admitted since, that's when the real problems began.

Punk's not dead or how to survive in brewing

Trying to make a break in the UK beer market turned out to be easier said than done for Martin and James, their BrewDog beers were all made after the American craft beer mold - hoppy, flavorful and high in ABV. The average British beer drinker is not known for his willingness to try new flavors and even less for trying a beer much above 3.5% ABV. Thus, BrewDog immediately faced an uphill struggle in getting their beers sold.

Another problem was that many pubs Martin and James contacted were already tied to large breweries and those that weren't didn't think BrewDog beers would sell enough to warrant a spot in their bar, partly because of the 30% higher price.

Punk IPA - the original BrewDog success.
Sales were slow and after eight months the firm was only selling around ten cases a month, which didn’t cover the costs of making the beer. They started to fall behind on the loan and things did not look good, until they got a surprising call.

Shortly after starting BrewDog, they had entered Punk IPA in a tasting competition for Tesco - the British multinational grocery retailer. Six months later it turned out they had won, and Tesco called them asking about selling BrewDog beers in 400 stores across Britain!

Brewdog made the Tesco order and soon got another big order from Systembolaget in Sweden who started selling Punk IPA in the spring of 2008 (which was how I got my first taste of it). By the end of 2008, they had sold beer for £800,000.

Today, Punk IPA remains their flagship beer, sold on bottle, can and keg all over Europe. And it has been followed by dozens of other beers in all styles and manners, from the darkest imperial stouts to the hoppiest india pale ales. BrewDog has also launched the experimental Abstrakt series where new and often strange recipes are tried out, sometimes very successful other times just plain weird. But what has caused most media attention have been their strong beers.

The new media kings

BrewDog have never played by the books and have a love / hate relationship with the media, which can be traced back to the July 2009 release of their "intergalactic fantastic oak aged beer" Tokyo* of 18.2% ABV.

BrewDog Tokyo* - hardly a teens drink.

British journalists were outraged, calling BrewDog irresponsible and asking what was the point of such a high ABV? They claimed teenagers would drink this beer just to get clobbered every weekend. Little did the journalists reflect over the price of a BrewDog Tokyo*, which would deter most teenagers from considering this a good way to get drunk. Secondly, the massive flavors of this beer would have been more than a mouthfeel for British teens used to drinking pale, tasteless bitters or lagers. But, no, the media would not listen to that kind of arguments.

BrewDog never let the media reactions stop them. Instead they hit back, creating a ridiculously hoppy beer of just 1% ABV - Nanny State - which packed more punch than all Bitters in Britain combined, but with hardly any alcohol. Today, an even lower alcohol version of Nanny State is sold as a non-alcoholic beer at many pubs across Europe.

The story doesn't end here though, oh no, BrewDog was just warming up to their own personal media war that would see them go head to head with a German brewery and finally animal activists around the world.

Tactical Nuclear Penguin - the arms race

After all the media attention, BrewDog was contacted by Kleinbrauerei Schorschbräu, a small brewery from Gunzenhausen in Bavaria, specializing in high ABV beers known as eisbocks. Eisbocks are made by freeze distilling bock beers, removing the frozen water from the chilled beer causes them to get a more intense flavor and a higher alcohol.

BrewDog was not interested in paying for German secrets, instead they read up on freeze distilling and went for the throat, launching the strongest beer in the world, Tactical Nuclear Penguin - a 32% ABV freeze distilled imperial stout, in November 2009.

BrewDog Tactical Nuclear Penguin - 32% abv.
The Germans responded with a stronger eisbock of their own. This again prompted another attack from BrewDog, this time a freeze-distilled imperial IPA - the 41% ABV Sink The Bismark, accompanied by a hillarious video showing Martin and James dressed up as Hans and Wolfgang, two Germans trying to sabotage BrewDog.

This part of the story ends in July 2010 with The End of History, a crazy freeze-distilled beer of 55% ABV and only made in a small quanity of 11 bottles! Each bottle was enclosed in a piece of road kill and sold for £500-700 at their webshop. Despite having been killed on the roads, animal activists fumed by the lack of respect BrewDog showed for the carcasses while beer writers fumed over the high abv, claiming that what BrewDog had made had nothing to do with beer.

Despite the negative press, guess who was laughing all the way to the bank? Yes, Martin and James! From being a small, obscure brewery on the outskirts of Europe, they had made BrewDog a household name even outside beer geek circles. Orders poured in from all over the world, even a few daredevil pubs in Britain started ordering a keg or two. Today, their beers are sold in 28 countries around the globe.

Punk is certainly not dead!

The BrewDog bars

Because of the lack of response from British pubs and beer drinkers, Martin and James conceived the plan that they should do like former English breweries - start their own chain of pubs, partly to be able to sell their own beer from draft but just as importantly to educate the beer drinkers in the new ways of craft beer.

BrewDog Aberdeen - the first BrewDog pub.

Thus, in October 2010 the very first BrewDog bar opened up at 17 Gallowgate in their home city, Aberdeen, followed half a year later by BrewDog Edinburgh. As of this moment they have five bars, all in the UK:
  1. BrewDog Aberdeen (opened: 19 October 2010)
  2. BrewDog Edinburgh (opened: 24 March 2011)
  3. BrewDog Glasgow (opened: 23 July 2011)
  4. BrewDog Camden (opened: 10 December 2011)
  5. BrewDog Nottingham (opened: 25 February 2012)
In addition, they expect to open up bars in Newcastle (contract signed), Leeds and Manchester later this year and there's even talk of finding a city in Scandinavia - most likely in Stockholm or Copenhagen - for the first BrewDog bar outside the UK.

The bar at BrewDog Aberdeen.
The BrewDog bars have a common design, so whether you visit BrewDog Camden or BrewDog Glasgow you should get the same feel and roughly the same types of beer.

The bar in Aberdeen is stacked with board games, chess and other forms of games that people can play at their tables, while enjoying good craft beer and a tasty pizzy or a cheese & sausage platter from the kitchen. The staff behind the bar seemed very knowledgeable about craft beer in general and the BrewDog beers in particular, so whether you come as a rookie or a seasoned beer veteran there's always helpful advices on what to try.

During my visit in May 2011, BrewDog Aberdeen had 7 BrewDog beers on tap, including Tokyo*, Alice Porter and Hardcore IPA, and four guest beers, from Stone Brewing Co and Evil Twin. All was properly poured and tasted fresh and good. There is also a good bottle selection to choose from once you've exhausted the draft beer menu, so you can easily spend several days here and just try new beers.

Like most bars in the UK (and elsewhere), BrewDog Aberdeen can get fairly packed at night, especially on Fridays and Saturdays, but it's a really great place for a beer or five in the early afternoon, since they open at noon on weekdays.

Photo sets from the BrewDog pubs can be found at Flickr: Aberdeen (and Edinburgh).

Friday, March 23, 2012

Visit to Cantillon

World famous lambic brewery Cantillon in Brussels, Belgium, is also famous for being a keeper of traditions. The brewery acts as a living museum, with equipment from the early 20th century still in daily use, allowing visitors to experience the history of lambic brewing and gueuze blending.

The iconic Cantillon sign outside the brewery. 

Early history - the founding

Located in Rue Gheude 56 in the Anderlecht district of southwest Brussels, just a couple of blocks from the Gare du Midi train station, Cantillon was founded at its present address in 1900 by one Paul Cantillon.

Paul was the son of a Lembeek brewer and had purchased an old warehouse, dating back to 1874, to start blending gueuze which was all the rage in Brussels in those days - most cafés would blend their own gueuze from lambics bought from lambic breweries in Pajottenland - just outside the city.

Initially, there were no plans of brewing lambic at Cantillon. It was Paul's sons, Marcel and Robert, who took this next step. They set about purchasing some second hand equipment and manufacturing a copper mash tun, and in November 1937 the first lambic wort flowed into the coolship at Cantillon - a new lambic brewery was born, and inside the city of Brussels.

In 1962, the twenty year old teacher Jean-Pierre Van Roy met a lovely young girl, Claude Cantillon, without realizing she was the daughter of Marcel Cantillon, then owner and head brewer of Cantillon. Claude and Jean-Pierre fell in love and eventually married, in 1967. The same year they received a son and a future brewer, Jean. Two years later, his father-in-law told him "either you take over or I close the brewery". Jean-Pierre duly did, learrning the art of brewing lambic from his father-in-law.

A copper brewing kettle from 1937 still in use at Cantillon.

Recent history - sticking to traditions

When Jean-Pierre took over the brewery in 1969, he decided to stick with the Cantillon name. For several decades, Jean-Pierre battled an uphill struggle to keep the lambic tradition alive in Belgium, at a time when most other lambic brewers either closed or started producing sweet, fruit beers.

The classic Cantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic Bio.
Only in the last 10-15 years, after the US market discovered his amazing traditional gueuze, tart and sour, has he been repaid for his labor. Cantillon is now recognized, across the world, as a keeper of Belgian lambic traditions.

In September 2009, Jean-Pierre brewed his last batch of lambic, leaving the brewing and gueuze blending to the great-grandson of the brewery's founder: His own son, Jean Van Roy. Jean has learned the art of lambic brewing and gueuze blending by his father's side, over the last twenty years, even introducing some of his own ideas - such as the famed Zwanze series - before taking over as the new head brewer of Cantillon.

Jean Van Roy has shown a greater will to experiment than his father, creating a number of new sour ales and even introducing Roman-style ceramic amphoras for maturing lambic instead of the traditional oak. As of 2012, the Cantillon brewery seems to be in very good and capable hands with the fourth generation of the Cantillon-Van Roy family in charge.

Public Brewing Session

Twice a year, one Saturday in March and one Saturday in November, Cantillon hosts a Public Brewing Session, where visitors can come in and watch the entire process of brewing a traditional lambic. On November 12, 2011, I attended one such brewing session and here follows a few photos and a brief account of that experience.

Brewing a lambic is a time consuming enterprise, because of the unusually long boiling times of 3-6 hours, so the brewing day starts early. At cantillon at 7 am. So get up early if you want to witness it all. Here's a typical brewing schedule:

Hot water and ground malt going into the
mash tun at Cantillon. Notice the leakage!
07-09: Mash-in
Witness the ground malt getting mixed with hot water and poured into the mash tun to extract the fermentable wort. Pay attention to all the cranky mechanics used to close and open ancient valves, and look for sudden leaks that are handled by placing a bucket on the floor.

09-12: Transfer to brew kettle
Witness the filtration and hopping of the wort as it gets ready for transfer to the brew kettle.

12-15: Boil-in
The hopped wort is boiled in two large copper brew kettles for at least three hours, reducing the liquid from 10,000 litres to 7,500 in order to raise the gravity of the wort, break up starches and reduce the bitterness of the hops.

15:30 Coolship
After the long boiling, the wort is pumped to the coolship upstairs, just underneath the ceiling, where the wort is allowed to cool overnight and become germinated with the wild yeast - Brettanomyces bruxellensis - living in the walls of the old brewery. The next day, the cooled wort will be transferred into big oak barrels, formerly used for aging red wines in Bordeaux or Rioja, for primary fermentation, which may take a couple of months, and then aging for up to three years.

The coolship at Cantillon is located right under the ceiling.

The Cantillon Public Brewing Sessions are very popular events in Brussels so the small brewery will quickly feel swamped by people, so it's smart to be there when the brewery opens at 6:30 am and take the very first tour, before the line of people with cameras gets too long. If you do that, you can sit down at the brasserie section and enjoy some of their lambics and gueuze while watching new visitors line up for the later tours.

Cantillon is also open for visits outside the Public Brewing Sessions, both the brasserie and the brewery / museum (self-guided tours). On Mondays to Fridays they're open from 9 am to 5 pm and on Saturdays from 10 am to 5 pm.

A bottle of Cuvée Saint-Gilloise and gueuze cheese at Cantillon.

Photo sets from my visits to Cantillon can be found at Flickr: May and November 2011.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Haand 2012

As reported earlier, HaandBryggeriet will host Norway's first major craft beer festival - Haand Craft Beer Festival 2012 - with breweries from all over Europe attending. This post brings some new and updated information about this beer festival.

The first Haand Craft Beer Festival will be arranged on May 4 and 5, 2012, at the new HaandBryggeriet brewery, which opened up in Sundland, Drammen, in December 2011. The festival starts at 4 pm on Friday and at noon on Saturday, closing at 10 pm on both days.

Tickets are now available through for NOK 300,- plus tax, limited to only 400 tickets on Friday and 600 on Saturday. So be quick and order before they run out!

Which breweries will attend?

Sadly, De struise Brouwers and Birrificio di Montegioco will not be able to come, so the list of attending breweries now looks like this:

- Picobrouwerij Alvinne (Belgium)    
- Aass (Norway)                      
- Brouwerij De Molen (Netherlands)  
- Bierbrouwerij Emelisse (Netherlands)
- HaandBryggeriet (Norway)
- Kinn Bryggeri (Norway)            
- LoverBeer (Italy)                  
- Nynäshamn Ångbryggeri (Sweden)    
- Närke Kulturbryggeri (Sweden)      
- Nøgne Ø - Det kompromissløse bryggeri (Norway)                  
- Brasserie Artisanale de Rulles (Belgium)

How about food?

To go with all the great beer, HaandBryggeriet has arranged for some pretty impressive pub grub:

- Sausage platter, with sausages made from deer, duck and wild boar.
- Home made rye bread with Akvavit marinated salmond in a mustard sauce.
- French fries in aioli.
- Cured deer meat in wraps, with a cream cheese from Den Blinde Ku.
- Cheese platter with three types of cheese from Eiker Gård, figs and spicy crackers.
- Home made chocolate truffles.

Should be something to fit most beer styles :)

How to get to the festival?

Sundland is an area in Drammen located east of the Drammenselva river, about 1.5 km east of the railway station as the following Google Maps satellite view shows.

Google Maps satellite view of  the Sundland area in Drammen.
"A" marks Strømsø Torg , "H" building H in Sundland Industripark.

If you come by car (which you shouldn't, unless driven there) it's possible to park by the entrance to Sundland Industripark at Skogliveien 4.

If you come by train, like most sane people will do, get off at Drammen railway station and either get a taxi at Strømsø torg or walk. If walking is an option: Follow Konnerudgata from Strømsø Torg for about 900 m to 2.Strøm Terrasse where you take right and follow that road for 300 m until you reach Skogliveien on the right hand side, which is the turn off to Sundland industrial park. HaandBryggeriet is located in building H, at the back of the industrial park.

Friday, March 16, 2012

De Molen Borefts Beer Festival

The Netherlands may not have the same ring to it as Belgium, when it comes to beer and beer festivals. While Belgium has long and famous brewing traditions, with its trappist beers, sour ales, fruit beers, strong ales, saisons and wits, the Netherlands have had to rely on La Trappe as their main source of pride. Until recently. And while Belgium has a number of famous beer festivals, such as Zythos and the Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation, those in the Netherlands have been few and far between. Until recently.

Bouwerij de Molen uses real casks for their cask beers.
However, the times they are a-changing. The last few years have seen a number of new breweries appear in the Netherlands, of which Brouwerij de Molen is the most successful example. In just six short years, Menno Olivier has taken his small craft brewery, located in an old windmill in the town of Bodegraven, to world reknown (#12 on RateBeer's Best Brewers In The World 2012). The massive success and demand for his beers forced De Molen to construct a larger brewery, which opened up in the summer of 2011.

In 2009, Menno Olivier and his De Molen helpers did a very brave thing and invited craft breweries and beer geeks to a beer festival at their own brewery, then located in the aformentioned windmill: Borefts was born!

The first Borefts festival became such a success that they decided to make it an annual autumn festival. And with each passing year, Borefts has become a little bigger and a little better known, attracting serious beer fans from all over Europe and even from America. Still small, by American standards, 2011 saw the Borefts festival expand to the new brewery - which allowed guests to walk back and forth the hundred meters between the windmill and the new brewery, to check out different beers and breweries.

Unlike many festivals I've been to, Borefts has a very relaxed, almost tranquil, atmosphere, there's hardly a queue to be seen, you get your fill of beer in seconds, and people remain relaxed and seated. There's no non-beer related show and circus, and the brewers are either found behind their own taps or, just as often, at other stands, sampling beer from fellow craft brewers.

Närke Kaggen! Stormaktsporter on draft @ Borefts 2010.
The quality of the breweries is high. Some of the very best European craft breweries show up year after year, such as Thornbridge, Marble and The Kernel from England, Mikkeller, Midtfyns and Amager Bryghus from Denmark, De Struise Brouwers and Alvinne from Belgium, Revelation Cat from Italy, Emelisse from the Netherlands, Närke from Sweden (who had their famous Kaggen! Stormaktsporter on draft at the 2010 festival) and Nøgne Ø and HaandBryggeriet from Norway. And, naturally, De Molen themselves usually have a large number of unique, barrel aged beers - usually several imperial stouts - available on both keg and cask.

2012 will be the 4th year the Borefts festival will be held. So far just a few breweries have signed up for the 2-day festival on September 28 and 29: Alvinne, Mikkeller, Evil Twin, HaandBryggeriet, Emelisse, Thornbridge and The Kernel are old-timers at Borefts, while Buxton from England and Mommeriete from the Netherlands will make their debut this year. Expect more brewery names to be published over the next six months.

I can hardly wait to go back to Bodegraven and Borefts.

The old windmill of Brouwerij de Molen.

Photos from the two previous Borefts festivals can be found at Flick: 2010 and 2011.

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.

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.

Friday, March 9, 2012

At Alvinne Craft Beer Festival 2012

View of the storage tanks of the new Alvinne brewery.
As reported in a February blog post, Belgian brewery Alvinne hosted their 5th Alvinne Craft Beer Festival on March 3rd and 4th, 2012. I attended the first day, together with a group of friends, and this is my personal impressions of that day.

Because they were still constructing the new brewery last spring, ACBF 2011 was held in De Kasteelhoeve restaurant in Outrijve, which was too small to accommodate all the visitors (I remember having to stand for hours due to lack of seating arrangements). But this year, the festival was being held at the new Alvinne brewery in Moen, which I knew would be more spacious so I was anticipating a nice festival.

Moen is a small village in West-Flanders, about 12 km south of Kortrijk and just north of the border to the Walloon Region in Belgium. We got there via train from Brussels to Kortrijk (1 hr and 20 min) and taxi from the train station to the brewery in Moen (15 min). A small queue had already formed half an hour prior to the opening at noon.

ACBF 2012 was ticket-less, all you needed was to pay for a 13 cl tasting glass and the tokens. The "start package" cost €10 and gave you a tasting glass and 16 tokens, after that you paid €0.50 for each token you wanted. Most beers at the festival cost 2-4 tokens, some rare ones cost 5 and a few expensive ones 7 or 8.

The new Alvinne brewery is really spacious and they had erected tables and benches in the adjoining warehouse building as well as on the second floor, above the storage tanks, so the venue became a lot less crowded than last year and most people got the chance to sit and take notes. The main problem this time was that some of the areas were difficult to get to when the number of visitors grew. For instance, the stairway up to the second floor was steep and narrow, causing queues to form both ways, and it was hard to navigate even without full beer glasses in your hands.

But the rest of the festival was a real charm. The food was a better fit this year, with stands in the backyard selling delicious bratwurst sausages, hamburgers and warm fries in mustard sauce - all great beer grub. By spreading people out on a larger area, it also felt less crowded and noisy than last year, giving people a chance to talk, compare beer notes and sit down on a bench.

So, what about the most important thing - the beer? Well, the great thing is that the beer selection this year was even better than last year, with a great mixture of old timers and new breweries, of sweet, sour and hoppy beers, dark, red and pale and beer from cask, keg and bottle.

Hair of the Dog founder, Alan Sprints, at ACBF 2012.
Like many others at the festival I was excited about seeing Portland, Oregon, based brewer Alan Sprints at a beer festival in Europe. He had brought three different Hair of the Dog beers with him, all on cask, the freshly hopped 7% abv Blue Dot double ipa, the 10% abv Adam and the 11.5% abv barley wine called Doggie Claws. All delicious beers that had people line up for more.

Another very popular stand was that of Belgian brewery De Struise Brouwers who had a long queue of people waiting to try their much touted 25% abv Five Squared, a sweet and in my view a bit alcohol-tasting triple (or quadrupel?) IPA. I liked their hoppy imperial IPA a lot better - the 15% Hopverdomme combined fresh hops, bitterness and sweet malts really well and was much more drinkable.

Menno Olivier, to the right, at De Molen's stand at ACBF 2012.
The cask, to the left, contained the 11% Bakker wort Brouwer. 
My favorite stand though, like at previous festivals, was that of Brouwerij de Molen from just across the border in Bodegraven, Netherlands. Founder and head brewer, Menno Olivier, manned the De Molen stand, together with an assistant, serving a series of well crafted imperial stouts from keg as well as cask. Among my favorites, of the entire festival, was the smooth and delicious 11% abv Bakker wort Brouwer served from cask and the amazingly well balanced Mooi & Machtig 2012, a 17.4% abv barley wine aged on Cognac barrels. It was so dangerously easy to drink that I took it for a 6% pale ale and had three before I knew it :)

As for discovering new breweries I had certain hopes about a new London brewery, Brodie's Beers, founded by Jamie and Lizzie Brodie in 2008. Their beer list looked very promising and when I got my first taste, of the 6.1% abv Hackney Red IPA from cask, I knew I was onto something great. It had the hop aroma of an American IPA but with a good amber malt body. Next one out, also from cask, was the 7.1% abv Dalston Black IPA which turned out equally impressive with its liberal use of Galaxy hops and a nice dark malt flavor. Finally, when I got to try their 12.1% abv Romanov Empress Stout aged on Whisky barrels I realized that another star had appeared on the English beer scene. Watch out for Brodie's Beers - their coming with Galaxy to a Universe near you soon :)

Other honorable mentions include Twickenham Fine Ales with a very nice collaboration beer called Sour Puss, a 7% abv Flanders red type of ale, made together with Alvinne and De Struise. Dutch brewery Emelisse brought a very good Black IPA made with brettanomyces, while German geuze blender Uli brought a number of bottles from his own h.ertie label, blends of various lambics and geuze from such luminaries as Cantillon, Orval and 3 Fonteinen! Finally, HaandBryggeriet from Norway brought several lovely sour ales, including the brand new 7% Sur Megge sour blond ale and the 2010 vintage of HaandBakk at 8.5% abv.

The lads from HaandBryggeriet - Egil, Arne and Rune - at ACBF 2012. 

My set of photos from ACBF 2012 can be found at Flickr.

Warm thanks to the Alvinne Brewery and its friendly staff for hosting ACBF 2012, and thanks to all the great breweries who attended! I really enjoyed myself in Moen and look forward to the next ACBF in March 2014.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst

About 15 km west of Brussels in the heart of Pajottenland in the Flemish Brabant region of Belgium lies the small village of Eizeringen. It may not be a place you've heard of and you will be forgiven for driving past it without noticing. But it has something quite unique to offer, the world famous sour ale café In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst, which is Flemish for "In the insurance against great thirst".

The story of the café goes back a little more than a decade to a remarkable woman named Marguerite. In October 1999, the then 85 year old Marguerite said to her faithful customers that on Christmas eve she would uncork her last bottle of beer. She had kept the local pub open for more than 51 years, but age was finally catching up with her. Things were looking bleak for the only pub left on the village square in Eizeringen.

Fortunately, two brothers decided to step in and save the old pub. Although both Yves and Kurt Panneels had full time jobs, Kurt as a garden architect and Yves running a communication consultancy, they decided to give it a try. They painstakingly restored the pub to look like a classic Flemish café of the 1940s and 50s, with a beer cellar full of great sour ales. By keeping the pub open only on Sundays, from 10 am to 1:30 pm, they could continue their full time jobs while also still be able to keep the village pub going.

Today, In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst is a must to visit for any budding sour ale lover, so it was with great anticipation I opened the door, shortly after 7 pm, during a "secret" BBQ event on Friday March 2nd, 2012.
What greeted my senses was a blast from the past, this really is a World War Two café. The atmosphere was quiet and familiar, with no music on loudspeakers, just some low chatter. The celiling was held up by large, well worn, wooden beams, decorated with dried hops. The furniture was likewise old and of wood, while the walls were decorated with empty beer bottles and old beer plaques.

As for beer, the café has an impressive sour ale cellar with bottles dating back severeal decades, often from breweries that has since gone extinct, such as Eylenbosch, or been bought up to become pale versions of themselves, such as De Keersmaeker Mort Subite.

As mentioned above, this was a special event. Usually the café is only open on Sundays, but because two large tour groups - an American and an Italian - wanted to visit the café, the Panneels decided to throw a "secret" BBQ event. For this event they had also gotten hold of 1 and 2 year old lambics from De Troch, Girardin, Lindemans, Timmermans and Oud Beersel, which they served out of casks in their garage.

This photo shows Yves Panneels and German geuze blender Uli, of h.ertie fame, helping him serve lambic in the garage of the café. The reason for using the garage was partly to reduce the queues inside the small café but also to keep the cask beer cold (the local air temperature was a perfect 9 degrees C that night).

I tasted all the different lambics and they were really different, both in age and expression. Some, like the Girardin and Timmermans lambics, were still fruity and mildly sweet, while others, like De Troch, had turned funky and pretty sour.

Inside the café it is worth looking through the extensive bottle menu, but beware that not everything is listed so you may want to ask the bartender if you're looking for a special brewery or vintage. If there is a place that could have a rare vintage sour beer, it is here!

Together with a group of friends I shared a number of rare bottles, including a 1988 Mort Subite Oude Geuze made by Brouwerij De Keersmaeker the year before they were bought by Alken-Maese. I also got to taste two new American "lambics" - two of the Coolship beers from Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, Maine: Their 6,6% abv Coolship Resurgam geuze and the 5,7% abv Coolship Red raspberry lambic. Both were simple but impressive for such a new sour ale brewery.

For me, the grand finale came with this bottle of Eylenbosch Faro Extra 1988, and for only 14 Euro it was a bargain. After 24 years the beer poured as clear as the day, with a red tinged golden color. The aroma was more like a fruity Sherry than a sweet faro and the taste was vineous with dried fruits and Sherry like notes. Smooth and harmonic. Delicious.

I will definitely be back for more sour ales at In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst, but most likely on a Sunday.

My set of photos from this visit can be found at Flickr.