Toer de Geuze 2013

Toer de Geuze, a Belgian beer tour celebrating the regional gueuze beer style, is held in Flanders every two years. This year’s tour was held on April 21, 2013. And while Aschwin has taken the tour a couple of times before with his father Theo, this was my first time to tag along. Since we have been enjoying the style in general and beers from breweries on the tour specifically for at least 5 years now, I am actually quite happy that I was not able to attend earlier. I was able to appreciate the tour that much more, and with considerable knowledge already at my disposal.

We attended a music festival in the Netherlands before going on the tour, but since that is not the subject of this review I will start with our arrival in Dworp the evening prior. Aschwin’s father, Theo, met us in Leiden late in the evening and drove us to our lodging – a massive building on a large estate, all of which gave me the impression of it being the home of a wealthy English family. Since we did not want to incur international or roaming charges on Theo’s Dutch mobile phone, Aschwin had written down directions to our destination. Somehow, though it was the dead of night and we used no GPS, we made it to the hotel flawlessly.

The next morning did not go as well. Using the same strategy, we quickly became lost and began going in circles. Aschwin and his father argued in Dutch the whole time, occasionally pulling over to accost a pedestrian and inquire for information. Finally, someone was able to guide us to our destination.

Aschwin and Theo prepare to mount our trusty steed, Tour Bus Number 6.

Aschwin and Theo prepare to mount our trusty steed, Tour Bus Number 6

We pulled into the parking lot and got on the appropriate bus for the route we had chosen. We had decided to take the tour visiting Hannsen’s, 3 Fonteinen, Oud Beersel, Boon, and Tilquin. Everyone on the bus looked pretty happy and excited. The tour guide came over the loud speaker and, thankfully, addressed us in English, the universal language. “Are you awake? Yes? Are you ready to start drinking?” he asked. It was 10:00 am, and time to get the show on the road.

Hanssen’s

Enjoying the farm scenery at Hanssen's

Enjoying the farm scenery at Hanssen’s

Our first stop was Hanssen’s, where we visited from 10:20 – 11:00 am. Hanssen’s is an old brewery housed in a barn and surrounded by farm animals. Our first beer was a “straight” lambic – one which has not been blended – tapped directly from a cask into into our waiting glasses. I was not able to ascertain the age of the brew, unfortunately. It was very straightforward, being quite still (i.e., uncarbonated) and tart, the defining characteristics of a straight lambic.

A very old bottling machine still in use at Hanssen's today.

A very old bottling machine still in use at Hanssen’s today

We followed the straight lambic with a gueuze, which we carried with us as we wandered the brewery observing the old machines that are still used to bottle Hannsen’s brews and rows of ancient barrels crusted with the foamy eruptions of the beer fermenting inside. Some newer barrels were in use too, which looked oddly out of place in what was otherwise a display of ancient brewing tradition.

Fermentation in a very old barrel.

Fermentation in a very old barrel

Outside, there were a few booths offering edibles. We decided to have some sausage, thinking it wise to put something in our bellies before continuing our long day of alcohol consumption.

3 Fonteinen

Staff poured gueuze and straight lambic for thirsty tourists.

3 Fonteinen staff poured gueuze and straight lambic for thirsty tourists

After quick ride down the highway to the town of Beersel, we were allowed 50 minutes at our next stop, 3 Fonteinen. Some of you may have heard about the storage place thermostat disaster at this brewery in 2009 which resulted in the loss of close to 100,000 small bottles of beer. I remember wondering if they would be able to recover from this event.

The good news is that they eventually did. An all new brewery, financed entirely by beer sales, enables them to produce more great beer than ever – up to 4,000 liters at a time. I savored a 1 year old straight lambic while I took the English tour and heard about the new equipment and the design of the brewery.

4 x 1000 liter coolships at 3 Fonteinen

4 x 1000 liter coolships at 3 Fonteinen

Four enormous 1,000 liter capacity coolships were among the most impressive sights. In the barrel room we also saw washed rind cheeses aging on a rack. At the end of the tour, we saw these cheeses for sale along with 3 Fonteinen beers.

Jotting down some notes while enjoying an Oude Gueuze on our 3 Fonteinen stop

Jotting down some notes while enjoying an Oude Gueuze on our 3 Fonteinen stop

A venue across the road was also open and serving beer to accommodate the unusually large number of people visiting the brewery. We stopped in to enjoy an Oude Gueuze before leaving. The crossing guard was happily directing traffic with a beer in his hand. Only in Belgium!

Oud Beersel

Though Oud Beersel stopped brewing in 1992, they do still produce and sell beer. Here’s how: they give their recipe to another brewery, Boon, which brews the wort. Oud Beersel then obtains the wort from Boon and blends their own gueuze in small batches. In fact, they are one of the smallest “breweries” on the tour, as evidenced by their coolship, which resembles a very large bathtub.

Oud Beersel's 2400 liter coolship

Oud Beersel’s 2400 liter coolship

Oud Beersel is known for their mild lambic, which we enjoyed as we took a guided tour through their gueuze museum. This little museum was quite spectacular, with lots of examples of old machinery, diagrams of traditional brewing practices, and even a couple of small rooms set up to resemble parts of the brewery in days gone by.

A room in the Oud Beersel museum

A room in the Oud Beersel museum

Like any good museum, the tour ended in the gift shop. There, Theo bought us shirts before we headed outside to enjoy Oud Beersel sponsored festivities across the street, which included a marching band, a bagpipe band, and a whole pig being roasted on a spit.

Boon

We arrived at Boon a little before 2:00 pm and were given an hour to return to the bus, which I think was not really long enough. Boon is a large brewery and there were a LOT of people there, making it a much more raucous affair than the breweries we had visited earlier in the day. After standing in line for 10 or 15 minutes, we were able to take a tour of the facilities, which included plenty of large volume stainless steel mash kettles, lauter tuns, fermenters, and other types of tanks as well as a fancy bottling machine.

Several large volume stainless steel tanks at Boon

Several large volume stainless steel tanks at Boon

The Boon brewery also hosted the largest barrels of any brewery on the tour. These positively enormous casks appeared to be around 10 feet in diameter and each brandished a label with its numerical identifier.

Boon's truly massive 10,000+ liter barrels

Boon’s truly massive 10,000+ liter barrels

After the tour, we had a few moments to enjoy some beer in the tented beer garden on the premises. We had a 3 year old straight lambic to start, followed by Boon’s Vat 44 “mono blend” (90% from “Big Barrel No. 44”). Vat 44 was brewed on December 3-4, 2008, and fermented in cask No. 44, an oak barrel of 10,300 liter capacity that is over 100 years old. On August 31, 2010, Boon bottled 20,522 bottles of this brew.

Boon's Vat 44

Vat 44 mono-blend

Vat 44 smelled of brett and dust, but also a bit fruity and sweet. The taste, however, was quite dry and tart with a short finish and a bitter end note. It’s light mouthfeel made it an easy drinker despite the 8.5% ABV rating. It was good enough that we grabbed a few bottles from the store on our way back to the tour bus. I like Boon lambics myself but Aschwin doesn’t quite appreciate the bitter notes in them.

Gueuzerie Tilquin

Our last stop of the tour was at the rather new business of Gueuzerie Tilquin. Located in Bierghes, in the Senne valley, Tilquin is the only gueuze blendery in the Walloon region. Since we were no longer in Flanders, this was also the only French-speaking gueuze site we visited that day.

Tilquin, like Oud Beersel, is a blendery. In 2009, they started purchasing freshly brewed lambic from various producers (including Cantillon!) and putting into old oak barrels they had acquired for fermentation for 1, 2, or 3 years. The lambics are then blended and bottled to produce their signature brew, the Gueuze Tilquin à L’Ancienne.

Tanks and barrels at Gueuzerie Tilquin

Tanks and barrels at Gueuzerie Tilquin

The tour for this small facility was actually rather long, and we wound up having to cut out of it early in order to make it back to the bus before it left us behind altogether. But the staff seemed very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. They’ve even begun making a beer from the spontaneous fermentation of destoned fresh purple plums (The Questsche Tilquin à l’ancienne). We did not have time to try it, but it sounds really interesting!

The Aftermath

While we were at least smart enough to eat a few things here and there throughout the day, we really didn’t have any other liquids (like WATER) besides beer the whole day. I honestly don’t even recall water being offered at any of the breweries we visited, but perhaps I wasn’t paying close enough attention. And though it seems the Europeans were all perfectly okay with this beer-only approach, I noticed a dull headache just before the last brewery visit.

I felt okay through the end of the tour, but as soon as we reached our car in the parking lot things took a turn for the worse. By the time we reached De Heeren van Liedekercke (which is known for its extensive vintage lambic and Orval menus) for dinner I was absolutely miserable. I am certain that this was the worst headache I have ever experienced in my entire life, as the pain was near-crippling.

The last smile I was able to muster, just as the throbbing in my head began

The last smile I was able to muster, just as the throbbing in my head began

Before heading to the bathroom to writhe in pain in private for a few moments I asked Aschwin to order some WATER for me. Upon my return, I was chagrined to find sparkling water in my glass. Still, I was thirsty. So I drank it.

Aschwin and Theo had ordered more beer (!!!) and were looking the menus over. I didn’t want anything – it all made my stomach turn. My head was throbbing. The common simile of a jackhammer on the skull would have been a royal understatement. I was increasingly sensitive to light, sound, and motion. Everything caused severe pain.

I must have looked pretty bad at that point. Finally, Theo offered the keys to the car so I could go lie down. But moving around so much did something to the carbonated contents of my stomach….

When it was over I felt quite a bit better (though certainly not great) and was able to lie down and get some rest until Aschwin and Theo returned. Riding back to the hotel with my head in Aschwin’s lap I marveled at what had happened.

Alright Toer de Gueuze, I’ve learned my lesson, but I’m not going to let it get me down. I’m bringing some water bottles with me next time.


Notes on Toer de Geuze 2011

For the second time in a row I attended the biennial Toer de Geuze event in Belgium. During one day, all lambic brewers and geuze blenders that are part of HORAL (with the exception of Girardin) open their doors to the public. If you decide to do the tour by tour bus you cannot visit all locations and must make a selection. In 2009 I opted for the most traditional brewers and blenders with the exception of geuze blender De Cam. This year I skipped Hanssens (which is among my favorites) and visited De Cam. I also substituted De Troch for Mort Subite. A selection of photos that I took prior to and during the event can be seen here.

Like 2009, all buses were completely booked in advance — although there were some empty seats due to some people not being able to attend or arriving late. The major advantage of doing the tour by bus is that it permits one to sample the products of all the brewers and blenders without having to be concerned about drinking and driving. Since I had attended the Toer de Geuze before, I wondered how much there was to gain from attending two of them in a row. Having seen most of the breweries and blenders now, I am inclined to say that one gets most of the benefits from the first visit. But there were three things that stood out for me during the most recent edition.

First, it seemed quite a bit busier than the previous tour. This was later corroborated when I saw a news item on Belgian television noting this was the best attended Toer de Geuze to date (they estimated more than 10,000 visitors). As a matter of fact, the crowd at 3 Fonteinen was a little excessive in my opinion. Admittedly, in most cases there is not a whole lot the organizers and breweries can do about this and it simply reflects the growing popularity of traditional geuze — which is an exciting development. Since the event seems to confer meaningful benefits to the brewers and blenders involved, making this an annual event might provide some relief.

I have always been aware that many of the sweetened and faux fruit lambics still involve traditional techniques and equipment during the initial stages in order to conform with rules concerning use of the word lambic. But seeing the beautiful brewery, equipment and barrels at De Troch it really struck me how strange it is to see these breweries jumping through many of the same time-consuming hoops as the traditional breweries and then to manipulate (some might say ruin) the final product to make it confirm to contemporary taste. In their defense, many of these brewers would like to make a traditional product and the tour guide at De Troch indicated that the pendulum may be swinging in favor of tradition again.

The biggest surprise awaited me at Boon. Boon had scheduled to brew (or continue to brew) during the event and at one point I found myself staring into the boiling wort with a sublime view of an adjacent coolship. Regular readers of this blog know that I am not the biggest fan of Boon and I have been quite disappointed with most of their products. There is a lack of tartness plus a substantial bitterness (not to mention the often excessive carbonation) in most of their beers, including their two traditional geuzes, that does not resonate with me.  I was therefore not prepared for the excellent old (unblended) lambic that was served for free to the visitors. Some writers have alluded to the oxidized / sherry / Vin Jaune-like qualities of old lambic, but I do not recall having tasted a sample that captured those qualities so well as Boon’s. As far as I am concerned, Boon should just leave their lambic as-is and bottle it after 3, 4, or 5 years! More realistically, they could at least consider bottling some of their aged lambic for the consumer.

Not much later, I found myself  again admiring a Boon product when I (reluctantly) ordered a glass of their Mariage Parfait Kriek 2008. True to form, Boon’s attempt to make a state of the art Kriek did not depart from their low-tartness approach, but in this case it worked for me. After sampling a lot of different krieks during the previous weeks, I noticed a fascinating deep vinous quality to this kriek, more reminiscent of some of the wines I drink than beer.  After these truly unexpected surprises, I made the revolutionary decision to purchase two 375 ml bottles of this Boon release, which I hope to review in conjunction with 3 Fonteinen’s Schaerbeekse Kriek.

Later that day I was tempted to purchase the 5 (!) liter bag-in-a-box Oud Beersel young lambic but restrained myself from doing so by considering the logistical challenges of taking it with me back to the United States. One nice feature of this year’s event is that I had more time to visit the Pajottenland area. Highlights included seeing the old, now inactive, Eylenbosch brewery in Schepdaal (where I spotted a big Toer de Geuze sign) and having dinner at De Heeren van Liedekercke. This restaurant completely deserves its reputation as offering the best beer-based cooking in the Brussels region and they have, by far, the most impressive vintage lambic / geuze / kriek list that I have ever seen in my life (not too mention a breathtaking number of Orval vintages).


Toer de Geuze 2011


Gueuze blender Pierre Tilquin

The Belgian beer blog Hier Stroomt het Bier! has an extensive photo report on the birth of a new Gueuze blender from Bierghes in the French speaking part of Belgium (Walloons). Brewer Pierre Tilquin, who has learned the skills of traditional lambic brewing at 3 Fonteinen and Cantillon, expects to release his first Gueuze in mid-2011.  Lambics are obtained from Boon, Lindemans, Girardin, and Cantillon (the first time this brewer is making its lambic available for blending) and will be aged in used Crozes-Hermitage of Cornas barrels.


Toer de Geuze 2009