Monday, December 30, 2013

Het Anker - golden beer of the emperor

The modern city of Mechelen, located about halfway between Antwerp and Brussels in Belgium, may not be that well known to modern Europeans and it certainly attracts a lot less tourists than cities like Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels. But it has a long and proud history and, for beer lovers, it is home to one of the oldest and proudest family breweries in Belgium: Het Anker. This blog post recounts my October 2013 visit to this amazing brewery, which offers guests a small hotel, a well stocked brasserie and a great brewery tour.

Cathedral St Rumbold seen from the roof of Het Anker.

Getting there
Situated halfway between Brussels and Antwerp, Mechelen is within easy reach from both if you consider a daytrip only. From Brussel-Centraal it takes about 25 minutes by the InterCity (IC) train and about 15 minutes by the InterRegio (IR). Both train services run several times per hour. From Antwerp-Centraal both IC and IR trains take about 22-25 minutes.

The railway station in Mechelen is in the south east quadrant of old town, at the start of Leopoldstraat, while Het Anker is located in the north west, at Guido Gezellelaan 49, which means you've either got to take a taxi around the center of Mechelen or walk through it. Walking distance is about 2 km, so it's actually not that far.

It's a 2 km walk from the train station (A) to Het Anker (B)

Het Anker - also a brasserie and hotel
If you're not in any hurry to get back to where you came from, I suggest spending at least one night in Mechelen. Partly because that gives you the chance to stay as long as you like at the excellent brasserie but also to give you the chance to explore some of the beer bars within a short walk in old town Mechelen. And where better to stay than Het Anker's Hotel Carolus?

Hotel Carolus opened up in August 1999, the only hotel in Belgium on the site of an operating brewery, offering 22 guest rooms. These rooms can be very popular at times, so the safest thing is to book ahead if you want to stay the night. Prices per room per night are €65 in weekends and €83 on week days, but that's really worth it as you practically live inside the brewery. What better way to wake up than to the smell of sweet wort (on brewing days) and then peek out of your room at a working brewery? Besides, staying here means you can stay at the brasserie until closing time, allowing you to meet the manager and possibly a brewer too.

The brasserie, which was renovated a few years back, has its main entrance from Guido Gezellelaan street, at the front of the brewery, but guests at the hotel can enter from the brewery yard. The interior is kept very simple and rustic, with creaking wooden floor boards, wooden tables and furniture. There are usually 8 beers on draught, all of them brewed at Het Anker, as well as some bottled Het Anker beers, including the world famous Cuvee van de Keizer when that beer is in season. There is a special dining room upstairs, but for that you need to book a table ahead of time as these brewery dinners are very popular.

Note that the brasserie is closed on Mondays.

Brouwerij Het Anker and its brasserie on Guido Gezellelaan

Het Anker - a brief history
The historical roots of Brouwerij Het Anker can be traced back to at least 1369, when it was mentioned in the records of the city of Mechelen, making it one of the oldest breweries in Belgium. For a long time the brewery was operated by a community of Beguines and it wasn't until 1872 that the current owner family enters our history, when one Louis Van Breedam and his sister bought the old brewery from the Beguines. Van Breedam had the brewery renovated and modernized, and on 31 December 1904 the brewery was named Het Anker - after the historical Mechelen brewer Jan in den Anker.

In 1912, Victor Van Breedam, the son of Louis, built the first maltings out of reinforced concrete in Belgium. Here, Het Anker produced so much malt that they could even sell to other breweries in Mechelen. Things were going really well but then World War I started and the Germans occupied Mechelen, shutting down most of the breweries, including Het Anker, stripping them off their copper to melt down as ammunition. Het Anker survived on its malt business alone. After the war, Het Anker installed a new brewery and started up again, but also trying to diversify by looking for ways to produce dry food and diet meals based on wheat, which came in handy during World War II.

After the end of World War II, Charles Van Breedam - the third generation - decided to focus solely on the art of brewing beer, closing down the malting business. He installed a brand new brewhouse, with big copper kettles - the same that are in use today, and relaunched the brewery under the slogan "Ankerbieren, zegevieren" ("Anchor beers gain the victory"). It was under Charles Van Breedam that the first Keizerbier, "Emperor's beer", was brewed in the 1950s. In 1961, Keizerbier was renamed Gouden Carolus after the silver coins minted under the reign of Charles Quint aka Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Charles Quint was born in Ghent, in 1500, raised in Mechelen and was a great patron of beer from Flanders all his life - according to legend he ordered beer to be sent from Mechelen to Spain while he resided there.

With the growing success of Gouden Carolus, Het Anker stopped brewing lagers to focus on top fermented beer only. When Charles passed away in 1968, his son Michel took over the brewery and for a time did really well, making Gouden Carolus one of the best known beers in Belgium and also signing a license with the Abbey of Floreffe to brew and commercialize their beers. Het Anker lost this license in 1982, which marked the start of a decade long decline which didn't end until the 5th generation took over.

Gouden Carolus Cuvee van de Keizer Blue

Since 1990, Het Anker has been run by Charles Leclef, the fifth generation of the Breedam-Leclef family. He knew something drastic had to be done to save his family brewery, first he tried to do so by teaming up with the Riva brewery in 1991 to help Het Anker brew and bottle their beer. But this union only lasted two years. In 1995, he allowed the John Martin Group to buy 50% of the shares in Het Anker in order to get their help selling Het Anker, but this enterprise also failed so in 1997 he bought back the shares, making Het Anker fully independent again.

Leclef the  realized that the only way to save Het Anker would be through the beers they brewed, so with a renovated brewery at his disposal he went on a creative spree launching a number of new beers at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s - such as Cuvee van de Keizer, Gouden Carolus Tripel, Hopsinjoor and Ambrio. Since then, Het Anker has bloomed once more and is today a healthy family owned brewery who gets its share of suitors every year but turns down all offers in order to remain independent.

Het Anker beers
Brewery Het Anker is best known for their Gouden Carolus series, named after their oldest best seller, which includes these:

  • Gouden Carolus Classic: The original Keizerbeer, named Gouden Carolus in 1961 and now known as Classic, is an 8.5% strong ale with a rich malt character.
  • Gouden Carolus Cuvee van de Keizer Blauw: An 11% dark strong ale that has been brewed on the 24th of February, the birthday of Charles Quint, every year since 1998.
  • Gouden Carolus Tripel: First brewed in 2000, this 9% abbey tripel won gold at the World Beer Cup 2002 and is considered one of the top tripels of Belgium.
  • Gouden Carolus Ambrio: Supposedly brewed after a 14th century "Mechelen Brown" recipe, this beer was first brewed in 2000 or 2001. Originally it was 6.5% but since 2008 it's at 8% abv.
  • Gouden Carolus Noël: This is their 10.5% Christmas beer brewed every August since 2002, packing a big spicy punch with plenty of licorice. 
  • Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor: Introduced at the Zythos Bier Festival in 2008, this 8% pale ale is brewed with five types of hops and has a bitterness of 50 IBU.
  • Gouden Carolus Cuvee van de Keizer Rood: First brewed 2008, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Blauw, Cuvee van de Keizer Rood ("Red") is a 10% pale ale.
In addition to the Gouden Carolus beers, Het Anker brews a few other interesting beers:

  • Lucifer: This 8% blond ale, which resembles Duvel, was originally brewed by Liefmans but in 2009 Het Anker bought the rights and has brewed Lucifer ever since.
  • Maneblusser: Maneblusser or "moon extinguishers" is a 6.5% ale first brewed 2009 to commemorate an episode in 1687, when a drunken man thought the St Rumbold's tower in Mechelen was on fire. His shouts of warning caused many citizens to run to the tower to extinguish the flames, only to discover it was the light of the moon.
  • Dentergem's Wit: This 5% wheat beer was first brewed at Het Anker in 2011 and mainly for the US market, the beer used to be brewed by Riva but Het Anker has now acquired the rights to brew it.

Het Anker has also started brewing lagers again, though on a very small scale and only available locally, such as the Anker Pils and Anker Bok.

The koelschip on the roof of Het Anker, in use until 1991

A tour of the brewery...
It could be smart to book the brewery tour ahead of time, though there are several tours each day and I booked mine when I checked in at Hotel Carolus. For 8 Euro you get to see the internals of the brewery and many of the historical rooms and equipment that are no longer used - from the roof top coolship and malt attic to the beautiful copper brewing kettles and Baudelot cooler on the main floor.

The tour started, like most brewery tours, with an introduction to the art of brewing next to the large copper kettles on the main floor. A table stood on the middle of the floor, with hop pellets and grains of malt in small glass bowls, allowing guests to smell or even taste the content if we felt like it (but tasting hop pellets is never a good idea if you plan to taste beer shortly after). On the table were also a number of glass bowls with some other ingredients, only revealed to us later in the presentation, but it should come as no surprise, after all Belgium has never had a reinheitsgebot, that the other glass containers contained various spices used by Het Anker when brewing some of their beers - such as licorice, star anise, dried orange peel, caraway seed and even chamomile!

According to the guide, Het Anker brews four days a week and around 11 thousand liter each time. It takes four weeks to ferment and mature the beer, so at any time there is about 200 thousand litre beer in some stage of maturation at Het Anker which translates to an annual production of a little more than 2 million litre beer - so Het Anker is still a small brewery by international standards.

After visiting the brewhouse, the guide took us up to the roof where we got to see a well preserved coolship ("koelschip" in Dutch) in which the boiling hot wort used to be cooled from 100 to 72 degrees Centigrade before the wort was cooled further by a Baudelot cooler and then transferred to the fermentation tanks and pitched with yeast. However, in 1991 the European Union decided that this way of cooling wort in the open air was unsanitary (which it probably was) and banned it (except for lambic breweries, who rely on the wild yeast in the ambient air). The Het Anker coolship is one of the best preserved I've seen and could probably have been used for brewing still.

Another interesting stop on the tour was the old malt attic, where the fine dust of ground malt still covers the floor, roof beams and old equipment. When this malt attic opened up in 1912, it was connected to 12 large silos holding 40 metric ton each. Each day 90 large bags of malt would be hoisted up to the attic, using a simple pulley system. Today, the manual labor has been replaced by large pipes, through which the malt is blown up from street level, and only 3 out of the 12 silos are in use after Het Anker stopped providing malt for other breweries.

Barrels of  Gouden Carolus Single Malt Whisky at Het Anker

... and whisky storage
Het Anker may be best known for its beer, but historically the Breedam-Leclef family was actually known for distilling spirits in their hometown of Blaasveld. Something they did until 1927. So when the current owner, Charles Leclef, started up Stokerij de Molenberg in Blaasveld in 2010, the brewing family had come full circle.

Mr Leclef's idea was to make fine Belgian whisky, modelled after the best single malts of Scotland. For that he purchased two copper pot stills from Scotland and a large number of 200 litre oak barrels, previously used for aging Sherry, to age his whisky for the required three years. The first bottles of Gouden Carolus Single Malt Whisky were released just a couple of months after my visit to Het Anker, at the end of 2013.

According to the guide, there will also be a limited edition release, a whisky aged on Orsolo sherry barrels, but no date has been given for this edition.

Our tour guide next to a large copper tun at Het Anker

For more photos from the Het Anker visit check this Flickr photo set.

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