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I am impressed by the face-lift but Jef is modesty personified. “My grandfather was a real visionary,” he remembers. “In 1997, two years before I started working at the brewery, he installed a brewing hall with a capacity of 240,000hl. At the time, our annual output only just reached 40,000hl. You only do something like this if you have complete faith in your own product.”
Jef represents the sixth generation of this brewing family. Their Augustijn, Gulden Draak and Piraat beers have all proved themselves over time. Nine-day wonders are not what this family business is about. “Above all, we want our beers to be pure and balanced in the glass,” Jef Versele explains. “It takes a lot of work to get that far. Brewing is not an exact science. You pick it up as you go along and it takes years to hone your knowledge. Our beers are far more consistent now compared to when I started out. Grandad introduced re-fermentation in 1981 so our beers could be stored for longer. We have continued to spend money on quality control, which also helped to reduce the impact of oxygen. We are also now brewing in a more sustainable way. We have reduced our water usage and on the whole, we waste far less beer.”
“Our beers are brewed with six different yeasts, all cultivated by us on the premises,” Jef Versele explains. “We have complete control of the fermentation and re-fermentation process. The yeasty aromas form an important part of the soul of our beers. The ‘craft brewers’ tend to use dry yeast bought in from other suppliers. This means that they have a tendency to add additional herbs or to ‘dry hop’ and consequently, this often results in extreme beers that lack balance. In the world of craft beers, the brewer is the star. With us, it’s the beer that shines.
It may not come as a surprise that Belgians are fond of their own favourite beers and brands. They know them inside out and if anything is different from what they’re used to, the brewer will get to hear about it!” Also, the brewer is her or his own worst critic. If they launch a new beer, the (7.5% ABV) Fourchette for example, it must enrich the beer style to which it belongs. Fourchette is an unfiltered, zesty triple developed with gastronomy in mind. Jef is not just inventing new concoctions willy-nilly. “We specialise in top-fermented beers and are confident that there is a great future for strong beers, like our new Gulden Draak Imperial Stout,” he clarifies.
“We are too large for the small ones and too small for the large ones,” the brewer sums it up. The Van Steenberge beers have never been so popular. Abroad, they are considered a luxury item; in their own country the beers are viewed as a social lubricant, a drink that brings people together and relaxes them.
The identity of this beer brand has strengthened over time. “In some hipster bars, you may come across a ‘mystery keg’ from time to time, produced by a mystery brewer. That is unlikely to happen to us any time soon,” Jef Versele smiles.
The success of this brewery is firmly grounded in its consistent quality and strong history, but the odd story told by a bar stool raconteur does no harm to the brand. “They will never take our history away from us,” the brewer assures us. He concludes by saying that, as a brewer, you have to love your own product. “And above all, don’t call this a factory, it’s a brewery!” is his parting shot, said with great pride.
Several types of beer, including lambic, pils and white beer, contain added fruit juices or syrup to make fruit beers. Rodenbach Alexander, a mixed fermentation beer, falls into an entirely different category as it is based on Rodenbach Grand Cru.
This degustation beer contains 1/3 part young beer and 2/3 parts beer that has matured in an oak foeder for two years, steeped with the natural juices of ‘noorderkrieken’ cherries.
Without a doubt, with its uniquely balanced palate, fruity touches and complex finish this is one of the best sour ales from this Roeselare brewery, that specialises in this traditional beer type.
Rodenbach Alexander was created in 1986 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Rodenbach, co-founder of the brewery and ‘spiritual father’ of Rodenbach’s sour foeder beers.
Rodenbach Alexander is a member of the extended family of Rodenbach ‘sour ales’ that also comprises the accessible, light Rodenbach Fruitage, the refreshingly tart thirst quencher Rodenbach Classic plus three degustation beers: Rodenbach Grand Cru, Caractère Rouge and Vintage.
Flemish red-brown beers, Rodenbach Classic for example, were first brewed in the Middle Ages. In those days no hops were used to preserve beer. Lactic acid and acetic acid were used instead to prolong a beer’s storage period.
This gave rise to the tradition of ‘soured beers’ that are made by ‘cutting’ (blending) a quantity of young fermented beer with old, mature beer. This brewing method has remained unchanged since these early Middle Ages.
Before the introduction of the hop plant, brewers were using a herbal blend called ‘gruut’ and beer was matured in oak barrels to ensure it could be kept for longer.
This particular soured beer does not taste of gruut or hop bitter although it does contain some hop from Poperinge.
Rodenbach is considered a classic example of Flemish red-brown ale, hence the ‘Classic’ in its name.
Some of the beer will mature for 24 months in one of the 294 oak ‘foeders’ in the foeder chambers at the Roeselare brewery. Once matured, this foeder beer will be ‘cut’ with young beer to make up a blend containing 75% young beer.
Rodenbach Classic, a veritable thirst quencher, is red-brown in colour thanks to the coloured malt and derives its slightly sour taste from the maturation in oak foeders.
Michael Jackson, the late British beer connoisseur, declared Rodenbach Classic to be ‘the most refreshing beer in the world’.
The Rodenbach beer family now counts quite a few members, from the light Rodenbach FruitAge all the way to the degustation beers - Rodenbach Grand Cru, Caractère Rouge and Vintage – plus a fruit beer, Rodenbach Alexander. The Rodenbach brewery is owned by Swinkels Family Brewers, who are also the owners of Palm.
The taste of these beers is quite tart which makes them not really that different from wine.
The process of fermentation, maturation and development happens in much the same way. After six months the beers grow in complexity and, thanks to the slow refermentation that takes place inside the bottle, they continue to evolve for years on end.
The production of Lindemans Oude Kriek Cuvée René does not require any blending. The brewer adds whole krieken cherries to a lambic that has aged for at least six months old in oak ‘foeders’ (huge barrels made of wood).
These krieken cherries will then ferment in the barrel for at least another six months until they produce a lovely ‘kriekenlambiek’. This lambic is then transferred into 75cl bottles where it will continue to ferment.
The fermentation in the bottle produces carbon dioxide, which accounts for the delicate bubbles and almost translucent collar of froth. Lindemans Oude Kriek Cuvée René takes on a ruby-red colour in the glass covered by a a pinkish-red cloud of froth.
This kriek is a thirst quencher par excellence. Its slightly sour and sparkling taste turns it into an ideal aperitif. The range of this brewery also includes a Gueuze, Oude Gueuze, Faro and Kriek.
When it comes to fruit beers, it also offers a Lindemans Pecheresse (peach), Framboise (raspberry), Cassis (blackberry) and Apple.
Timmermans, the oldest lambic brewery in the world still in operation, offers an amazing range of lambic beers enriched with the aromas and flavours of strawberry, raspberry, blackthorn, peach and krieken cherries.
The lambic, which is quite sour by nature, is turned into a refreshingly fruity drink that is just perfect for when you are soaking up the first rays of spring on an outdoor terrace.
Timmermans Kriek Lambicus is a real thirst quencher. Kriek is the most traditional amongst Belgian fruit beers.
It is like a gueuze with a lovely fruity taste as a bonus.
The brewers add the juice of krieken cherries as well as krieken extracts to the lambic to enhance its aroma. What’s more, the cherries speed up the fermentation of the brew.
Lambic beer has its origins in the Brussels area. From times immemorial, large quantities of krieken cherries (in a proportion of 20kg per 100 litres) were added to the naturally tart beer at the fermentation stage.
The remaining pulp is filtered out.
Krieken cherries have a naturally tart taste, something they have in common with lambic.
Therefore, people got into the habit of melting sugar into the beer to make it milder.
Timmermans Kriek belongs to the category of pleasant, accessible, freshly sour fruit beers.
As its name suggests, Timmermans Lambicus Blanche is a cross between a lambic and a white beer. This refreshingly sour thirst quencher is reminiscent of the traditional farm beers brewed in the valley of the river Senne and the Pajottenland region to the south-west of Brussels.
Herbs and spices such as coriander and dried orange peel contribute to the fruity, light, subtly ‘spicy’ taste that is characteristic of white beer. Lambic is a flat beer (low in carbon dioxide) that is made through spontaneous fermentation. It is brewed with barley, wheat and aged hop.
The wort is boiled for two to five hours before cooling down overnight in an open cooling basin. During this cooling-down period, the wild yeasts that are found in the ambient air permeate the wort.
The main yeasts are of the Brettanomyces bruxellensis and the Brettanomyces lambicus varieties.
They play a major role in determining the taste and are resistant to alcohol. Once cooled down the beer is transferred to horizontal wooden barrels, usually made from oak, which are commonly known as pipes or used to fill large foeders. In either case, fermentation continues for several more months, if not years.
Lambic is traditionally brewed from late September to late April at a temperature below 15°C, as these circumstances ensure that the wild yeasts are present in the right proportions.
It’s all in the name. Waterloo Triple Hop, an amber-coloured beer, is brewed with three different kinds of hop: Magnum bitter and two aroma varieties, Cascade and Citra, that in the dry hopping give an additional aroma boost. This Belgian Triple Hop is the perfect addition to the range of Waterloo beers and joins the ranks of Waterloo Blonde, Strong Dark and Récolte. The Waterloo beers commemorate the world-famous battle that was fought here by the troops of Wellington, Blücher and Napoleon Bonaparte in the year 1815. The entirely restored, historic Ferme de Mont Saint-Jean, just on the edge of the battlefield, is home to a microbrewery and distillery. When the battle was raging in 1815, this traditional farm built in the shape of a square was converted into a field hospital to treat the British soldiers. Nowadays you can tour the brewery and its distillery and pay a visit to the museum that tells you all about the Battle of Waterloo.
Beer lovers know the way to historic city brewery Het Anker, located just on the edge of the beguinage. And this year, 80 experts are flocking towards the Lamot building, a former pils brewery on the banks of the river Dijle, to take part in the 7th edition of the international beer contest known as the Brussels Beer Challenge.
The numbers are promising: we can look forward to over 1,400 beers from 29 countries spanning the globe. Participating breweries this year come from far-flung countries such as Brazil, Australia and China but also include stalwarts from the USA, the UK, the Netherlands, France and Germany.
All of the beers entered are divided into 68 categories based on origin and typical characteristics before being expertly judged in blind tasting sessions. At the end of the three tasting days the top beers in each category are awarded a gold, silver or bronze or else a Certificate Of Excellence.
Year after year, this is evidenced by the final scores achieved in the Brussels Beer Challenge. Also, quite often it gives us great pleasure to see that lesser-known players as well as some newcomers manage to scoop awards in their own chosen category. Look no further than Oud Beersel, a ‘geuzestekerij’ with great expertise at blending gueuzes of different vintages. This small operation gained the accolade of Belgian Revelation for its Bzart Lambiek 2016.
Overall, the harvest reaped by Belgian brewers comprised 13 golds thanks to their ‘classics’ entered in the following categories: Pale & Amber Ale (Spéciale Belge), traditional lambic beers and fruit beers as well as saison, dubbel (strong dark) and tripel (strong blonde).
In Belgium we excel at developing new brews that remain firmly rooted in tradition all the same. A prime example is the golden gong awarded to a hoppy white beer in the White IPA category. The 20 silver medals awarded include a strikingly high number of new market players. You will also find some classics, the Moinette Bio and Oude kriek Boon for example, as well as a mix of traditional Belgian beer styles.
As to bronze medals, the tally now stands at 15. Once again we see a wide range of styles, including abbey beers, score highly. New market trends have made an impact. Belgian brewers do well with alcohol-free and low-alcohol beers and their DubbelWit/Imperial White is also widely appreciated.
To conclude, 16 Certificates Of Excellence were awarded. Belgium is doing very well when it comes to Pale & Amber Ale, known to us as a 'Spéciale Belge’. Nevertheless, we also more than hold our own when it comes to beer styles originating further away, Stout/Porter for example.
So, what about it? For next year, shall we continue to steer the same course? Let’s take another look in Antwerp at the Brussels Beer Challenge 2019.
Curious about all of the Brussels Beer Challenge 2018 winners? All the results, bronze to gold and certificates of excellence, can be found here.