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.


LambicLand

Just published is the second edition of LambicLand, a labor of love and extremely useful guide to the world of lambic. The new (English only) edition has three important elements rolled into one 128 page-long book: an introduction to the spontaneously fermented beers of the Payottenland, a complete overview of all the lambic brewers / geuze blenders and their beers, and a section on lambic tourism. The authors (Tim Webb, Chris Pollard and Siobhan McGinn) strike a thoughtful balance between understanding the commercial incentives to produce fake sweet lambics and the importance of preserving tradition and using the renewed (international) interest in lambic brewing to return to tradition. With the exception of the awful Belle-Vue brewery, I get the impression that many of the quasi-traditional lambic brewers are interested in returning to the more authentic styles and adding more “oude” and unsweetened lambics to their year-round bottled beers. Also encouraging is the rise of new gueuze blenders like Gueuzerie Tilquin. The only sad information in the book is 3 Fonteinen’s retrograde movement from brewer back to blender as a result of a number of unfortunate events. Surely, something can be done about this!

Even a rabid lambic fanatic as myself found some interesting tidbits of information that I was not aware of such as the origin of the word Brettanomyces, the story behind Boon’s Oude Geuze Mariage Parfait, and Hanssens’s memorable but exploding Mead the Geuze bottles. For friends of lambic beer, the most useful part is the tourism section with a comprehensive list of lambic-friendly pubs, museums, shops and hotels.

As the United States is drawing closer to producing real spontaneously fermented beers, a discussion about what should be called a lambic beer will  be inevitable at some point.  As I read it, the authors seem to agree that the survival of traditional lambic brewing may depend on the freedom to use the lambic label for all beers that are made in the traditional way employing spontaneous fermentation. Considering what is at stake, I do not see any reason to disagree, and hopefully some non-Belgian traditional lambics will be featured in a future edition of the book.

If you are interested in lambic beer, or unique beer history in general, purchase a copy of this information-rich, color illustrated book and use it during your next trip to Belgium.