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.


Geuze en kriek: de champagne onder de bieren

One of the reasons for starting this blog was that, as a native Dutch speaker, I would be able to review and consult (historical) Dutch documents about traditional lambic brewing and share this information with English readers. In the coming months I will be reviewing a number of Dutch (Flemish) books about lambic brewing. The first review concerns the book Geuze en kriek: de champagne onder de bieren by Jef van den Steen. Geuze and Kriek was published in 2006 by Uitgeverij Davidsfonds in Leuven (with support of the province of Vlaams Brabant) as a large format “coffee table” book and covers the history and production of lambic beers and their producers and concludes with a chapter on cooking with lambic. The book is lavishly illustrated and includes some of the most beautiful color photography ever collected in a book about beer.

Geuze en kriek starts with a long and engaging historical treatment of the history of beer brewing in the Brussels area and the development of lambic brewing in particular. The author mentions that even in the original Reinheitsgebot there is no mention of the addition of yeast. Also of interest is the large role that rye played in medieval brewing in West-Brabant. These chapters gave me a better understanding of the fact that the history of brewing in Belgium was not a straightforward change from spontaneous fermentation to the domination of bottom-fermented beers, but a complex interplay of natural forces (such as the Little Ice Age), particular circumstances, and regulatory and trade policies.

Contrary to popular opinion, traditional lambic brewing did not exclusively rely on aged hops but utilized fresh hops as well, preferably in a 50%/50% proportion. The addition of fresh hops was possible because some local hop varieties, such as Coigneau, contained low alpha-acids and thus added little to the bitterness of the resulting brew. With the growing popularity of hop-driven bottom-fermented beers, the demand for such low bitterness hop varieties declined and traditional lambic breweries were forced to utilize 100% aged hops to prevent the beer from becoming too bitter – an undesirable characteristic in lambic brewing (for a notable exception, see Cantillon’s Iris). The author also mentions that the spontaneously fermented low gravity beer meerts excludes the  presence of brettanomyces – a claim that I had not read before. The meerts wort was cooked much longer (twelve to fifteen hours) than that destined to become lambic, after which it was transferred to barrels for spontaneous fermentation and storage. Meerts was the cheapest beer of the lambic family, followed by faro and lambic, and consumed as a session beer, or as a beer for children (!) and ladies, and was also served in hospitals and homes for the elderly. Today’s readers of these facts should keep in mind that in those days beer was greatly preferred to water, due to the the lack of clean and healthy water.  As mentioned by other writers on the history of lambic brewing, the immensely popular sweetened lambic called faro was often abused as the vehicle to produce beers of dubious composition, including beers with no or little contribution from spontaneous fermentation.

Baudelaire was not the only writer who composed poetry about faro. As a response to the distinct aversion of Baudelaire to faro, the Parisian journalist Vaughan composed a tribute to faro in 1875 that was even sung by children in Mechelen when it rained:

‘t Gaat regenen, ‘t gaat regenen
‘t Gaat regenen dat het giet,
En als we gene faro hebben
Dan drinken wij lambik!

Which can be loosely translated as:

It’s going to rain, it’s going to rain
It will be raining cats and dogs
And if there is no faro
Then we will drink lambic

Promotion of geuze as a health drink is a common theme in the lambic literature. Jef van den Steen describes the mayor of Brussels writing in 1941 “…I am recovering from a serious illness and to get me back on my feet again my doctor advises me to drink a glass of geuze every day, or even better, a glass of kriek.” He adds that the mayor was by no means the only one in those days of great scarcity who procured his geuze through a doctor’s recommendation. The chapter on geuze also has a useful list of geuze blenders that still existed after 1975 with their date of closing:

1986: Van Malder in Anderlecht;
1981: Moriau in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw (produced until 1992 by De Neve in Schepdaal and by Boon in Lembeek until the present day);
1980: Wets in Sint-Genesius-Rode (produced until 1993 by Girardin in Sint-Ulriks-Kapelle);
1978: De Koninck & Proost in Dworp and Arthur Troch in Schepdaal (produced for some years at Lindemans);
1997: De Koninck in Dworp, De Vidts in Lembeek (succeeded by Boon), de Vidts in Asse en Van den Houtte in Groot Bijgaarden;
1976: Mosselmans in Dworp.

The chapter on fruit lambics contains a lot of information on the history of fruit and kriek production in the Brussels region and the challenges traditional lambic brewers faced to obtain adequate amounts of  suitable fruit for their beer production. The kriek and raspberry lambics are by far the most popular fruits for traditional fruit lambic production but grapes (Cantillon and one 3 Fonteinen experiment) and strawberries (Hanssens) have been used as well. Over time the use of fruit in lambics became a mixed blessing because the growing popularity of (sweetened) fruit beers often altered the production methods and products of traditional lambic brewers, in some cases making their product almost unrecognizable as traditional lambic products. The popularity of faro, and the use of the “lambikstoemper’ to crush added sugar in lambic, indicates that there was always a demand for sweetened lambics and today’s  fruit lambics have replaced faro as the preferred product to depart from traditional lambic brewing.

The profiles of individual producers are rich with information on the traditional and not so traditional lambic brewers and geuze blenders. The history of Belle-Vue is an almost uninterrupted, and unfortunately, quite successful, mission to sweeten, filter and pasteurize the traditional product.  As of spring 2011, Belle-Vue and Cantillon are the only lambic producers that are not part of  the High Council of Lambic Beers, Horal, but for completely opposite reasons. Whereas Cantillon pursues a uncompromising approach to lambic production, Belle-Vue seems to have lost all touch with tradition. The section on Boon is surprisingly short, with an emphasis on the history of the producer without much discussion of its beers and relationships with other traditional lambic brewers in the region.

Some lambic writers mention the  harsher character of the older Cantillon products and van den Steen attributes this to the prior practice of using an open tank (geilkuip), closing of the barrels at the end of the brewing season (as opposed to 14 days after transfer now), and the use of a wooden blending tank. The chapter on De Keersmaeker (now known for its Mort Surbite beers) mentions the development of the ‘methode-DKZ’, conceived by Jacques de Keersmaecker, in which the wort is not transferred to a traditional coolship but, after cooling it with a heat exchanger, transferred to stainless steel tanks that do not contain CO2 but ambient air, further aerated with ambient air, to produce spontaneous fermentation. One advantage of this method is that it allows for year-round brewing of lambic.

The Mort Subite family of beers is not known for its traditional qualities but the brewery has now added a more authentic oude geuze and an oude kriek to its line-up as well. The profile of 3 Fonteinen that outlines the transition from cafe / restaurant / geuze blender to cafe / restaurant / geuze blender / brewer was written before the costly 2009 exploding bottles accident, the brief termination of its brewing activities and the recent resuscitation of its brewing activities. The section on Girardin is particularly helpful as the operations of this family brewer are mostly closed to the general public.

The story of Hanssens remains one of the finest examples of the continuation of traditional  lambic blending; until this day Hanssens (which is a part-time endeavor) uses traditional methods and archaic equipment (such as the manual cleaning and drying of bottles and the use of a wooden stick to blend the lambics). This has not prevented them from agreeing to a number of  interesting experiments such as the production of strawberry lambic and even a blend of lambic and mead. The section about spontaneously fermented beers from West Flanders contains some interesting information on the differences between lambic and the Flemish browns and reds. For connoisseurs of traditional lambic, there is not much of interest going on here, I think.

The final chapter has a number of recipes and profiles of the 3 Fonteinen, De Heeren van Liederkercke and De Witte Roos restaurants. The last two pages of the book feature a stunning full color impressionistic photo of lambic in a coolship.

Geuze and Kriek is a  fascinating book about the history and practice of lambic brewing that has enough detail to double as a reference work. The beautiful photography might even tempt English speakers to purchase it. For a fuller technical description of the lambic brewing process the reader should consult Jeff Sparrow’s Wild Brews. Tim Webb’s LambicLand includes a very comprehensive run-down of all the contemporary lambic products from individual producers.