So, how are Palm and Rodenbach doing? Palm, Cornet and Rodenbach are part of the Swinkels Family Brewers international family which comprises eight brands. The new owner is investing in infrastructure, innovation and in the brand portfolio.
There will always be pils (Bavaria) but the emphasis is increasingly on premium. Rodenbach Vintage and the Caractère Rouge spring to mind as well as the re-launch of Rodenbach Alexander and the introduction of the Rodenbach FruitAge (re-named from Rodenbach Rosso).
Stronger beers make a great fit for those moments when you really want to taste your beer and an alcohol-free beer is ordered when the situation demands. Also, there is a stronger emphasis on health and moderate alcohol consumption. Across the globe, light specialty beers including the so-called session beers are gaining ground. Swinkels Family Brewers strives to have a suitable beer for every occasion.
Beer in gastronomy, as a valued addition to wine, is a prime example. It is not a question of either/or, rather, you could opt for one and the other. It is perfectly possible to choose either one depending on the occasion, the season or just based on what’s on the menu.
Beer makes for a perfect accompaniment to many different dishes as it is so exquisitely varied and contains so many different aromas. Another great advantage is that beer has a lower alcohol content than wine which means that your chosen dish does not fade into the background. Beer fits perfectly into a lighter way of cooking that does not suffer from a multitude of tastes.
In recent years at Palm and Rodenbach the focus has been on innovation. Our De Hoorn microbrewery is a genuine innovation lab, where we carry out experiments without putting any blinkers on.
This is where the Cornet saw the light. We always aim to create balanced beers.
Daring, I won’t deny that, but we never lose sight of our DNA. There is not much point in provoking just to be provocative. The focus has to be on taste and balance.” After all, Belgian beer is a quality benchmark. You have to respect its origin, roots and heritage, the brewer concludes.
Just look at some of the recent takeovers where small breweries were absorbed into larger ones. Authenticity took centre stage at the very first The Brewers Of Europe Forum in Brussels. And when it comes to being authentic, many Belgian brewers already know what it’s all about. Lambic brewer Frank Boon is a prime example.
As early as the mid-1970s he started the anti-industrialisation trend by promoting traditional lambic beers, which over the years have gained in appreciation. In those days, over 80 per cent of lambic breweries had ceased trading. Beer was all about pils and lambic beers were considered ‘old hat’.
Boon bucked the trend and continued to spend money on equipment, high-quality ingredients as well as analysis. Frank Boon: “Authenticity is all about building trust. You deliver consistent quality and gain people’s trust.” His brewery is now highly rated as a reference for lambic production around the world.
If the magic ‘craft’ word drops into the conversation, it turns out that this definition can be interpreted in many different ways. Are you ‘craft’ if you brew up to 200,000 hectolitres – quite a lot by Belgian standards – or are you still ‘craft’ with a volume of up to 6 million hectolitres? It’s not long before the smell of marketing permeates the air. When do you start talking about industrial production? And who is the beer aimed at?
The average beer drinker expects consistent quality; the adventurer wants variation in his glass; the genuine beer geek is in search of anything approaching the extreme and exclusive and will be ‘uberkeen’ to try the very latest innovation. Amongst all this, the brewer does his best to look after his existing customer base. Does his range fit the aroma and taste profile his customers want? Is he going for mass market appeal, is he just targeting a niche or is he trying a dual approach? And what is his story?
People experiment with different brews and beer styles and are busy talking about hops, malt, barrel ageing… We can see a global shift from pils beers to premium and craft. In other words, we are drinking less by volume but what we are consuming is of a higher quality.
Carlos Brito, the CEO of AB InBev, can see plenty of opportunities on the horizon: “Beer is now enveloped by a romantic aura. People are happy to pay a bit more for a higher quality beer.
They like variety when it comes to tastes and styles. They also want to see natural ingredients to incorporate their beer into a healthy lifestyle.” Brito states his focus will be on beer & food pairing and promoting beer to a female audience. But, above all, beer remains the ultimate social lubricant. At the bar, in the sports club or at a concert, beer loosens the tongue. Beer connects people.
We are living in a world of screens and we shut ourselves off from one another. We would like to encourage people to have real, face-to-face meetings over a good glass of beer. We would like to contribute to people’s well-being and a better world in general.” As stated by the top man of the brewery that accounts for 32% of global beer production.
Ath is the city of giants. You can watch them on parade during the annual Ducasse d'Ath procession held over the fourth weekend of August. Goliath – Gouyasse in the local dialect – always heads the march.
Not far from the parade route is the medieval fort of Irchonwelz, dating back to the 12th century. This is where Pierre Delcoigne and Vinciane Wergifosse set up the Brasserie des Légendes. The first Gouyasse flowed from the tanks in 2000.
Brasserie des Légendes uses natural ingredients only, hops from Poperinge for example, and re-ferment their beers without any added sugar.
In the brewery your eye is first caught by the wood-clad, cast iron mash kettle from 1890, and the imposingly tall copper boiling kettle that was installed in 1930.
In the Goliath range are this Tripel, the Goliath Blonde, and Winter. Brasserie des Légendes also produces Quintine - the witches’ beer that is brewed at the brewery’s Ellezelles site - Hercule Stout, Saison Voisin, Ducassis (an organic, gluten-free fruit beer) and Legends Harmony.
Strong blonde tripels are extremely popular in Belgium, so most brewers offer their own version, as Brasserie des Légendes do in the name of the giant Goliath.
In 2006, Brasserie Ellezelloise, in the village of the same name, merged with Brasserie des Géants from Ath and Brasserie des Légendes was born.
Both breweries already had something in common in their love of the unique folklore in their native Hainaut. This brewery with its visitors’ centre is located in the beautiful Pays des Collines natural park.
Quintine Blonde is barrel-aged and comes in a flip top bottle. The beer is named after a so-called witch who was burned at the stake in 1610.
Brasserie des Légendes is strongly rooted in Hainaut’s agricultural scene. Brewer-owner Pierre Delcoigne is a sixth-generation farmer, and he wants to increase people’s appreciation of his home province’s outstanding produce.
He brews with locally grown ingredients, his own untreated brewing barley for example, and Belgian hops.
His unfiltered, unpasteurised beers are characterised by their full body and moderate hoppiness. There are no herbs, just water drawn from a well with a fairly high mineral content; house yeast; malt, and hops.
Alongside Quintine Blonde, the Légendes beer family comprises Quintine Ambrée, Bio, and Noël.
The Goliath beers are named in homage to the giants of the nearby city of Ath. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is brought back to life in the Hercule Stout. The list finishes with the Saison Voisin, Goliath Triple, Ducassis (an organic, gluten-free fruit beer) and Legends Harmony.
This heritage shows in the care with which everything, including the Casanova brewing yeast the brewery uses, is cultivated sustainably and to exacting quality standards. After his studies Pierre trained as a brewing engineer, sharing the lab bench with Grégory Verhelst of Brasserie de Rulles.
Pierre is justifiably proud of his origins, his region, and its products. Local folklore is a tangible link between both of his breweries and their beers, reinforced by the medieval castle that serves as the company headquarters.
This is a brewer with a strong regional and personal identity. Goliath, an eminently quaffable beer, has turned into a favourite in Ath, the ‘city of giants’.
Quintine, a degustation beer full of character, is popular with the numerous walkers and cyclists who flock to the Pays des Collines.
Brasserie des Légendes is represented by fully fermented, fairly dry beers. Armed with his new brew hall, Pierre can produce up to three brews of between 4,000 and 6,000 litres every day.
One hundred Belgian breweries and beer firms took part in this festival. If you were up to the task, you could taste over five hundred Belgian beers. It’s hard to keep up when you see the explosive growth of microbreweries and beer firms.
Adventurous beer drinkers feel under pressure to tick off yet another beer on the list of new arrivals.
Are they getting a ‘kick’ from what they are tasting? Is this beer the umpteenth ‘one taste stand’ or is it good enough to be slotted into the standard range of a particular brewery?
At any rate, the craft beer movement has spurned on the existing breweries to be more creative. You are overwhelmed by the huge array of limited editions and niche beers with plenty of character. After all, you come to Zythos to increase your profile, particularly if you have something new to offer.
Some established names in the market decide not to attend when they have nothing new to offer. Nevertheless, the main Belgian classics remain reliable beacons in the tumultuous beer sea. Just join the Trappists, lambic brewers or gueuzestekers or enjoy a ‘spéciale belge’ amber beer, a saison, tripel or Flemish red-brown ale.
Whilst all of this is going on, there are a few breweries that make substantial additions to their ranges or launch their own ‘session’ beers. Barrel-aged beers are being promoted by several breweries: Amburon (Tungri Walk On The Wild Side), Silly (Scotch Silly Whisky Barrel Aged) and Huyghe (Delirium Christmas Oak Aged).
We also came across several strong barley wines influenced by spirits, including those produced by Het Anker (Gouden Carolus Cuvée van de Keizer Whisky Infused), Abbaye des Rocs (Triple Impériale), Wilderen (Cuvée Clarisse Whisky Infused) and Van Steenberge (Gulden Draak Calvados), whereas Val-Dieu (Rader Ambrée) prefers to use barrels made of young oak.
An example of a ‘new sour ale’ with the addition of wild yeasts (Brett) is the Straffe Hendrik Wild 2018 produced by De Halve Maan. Roman is proud to present its Sloeber IPA, Duvel Moortgat introduces its Blue Pearl Russian Imperial Stout and Bertinchamps invites us to a meeting with its Bertinchamps Brune Porter.
The tradition of farm beer was revived by the saison from Dupont. This year they have launched a ‘provisiebier’ or storage beer called L’Hirond’Ale. De Kazematten joins the farm tradition with its (Saison Tremist). Palm Belgian Craft Brewers plays several variations on the theme of amber beers.
In brief, the Zythos beer festival pays superb homage to Belgian beer culture, honoured by UNESCO as ‘intangible world culture’. All the same, the influence of the international craft beer movement is slowly making its way into your glass. This is where many Belgian brewers get their inspiration, without betraying the soul of the tradition. After all, what is the added value of the umpteenth uninspired copy of a ‘one hit wonder’? If a beer has been produced without undue hurry and haste, the taste bears it out.
We are given a taster at the very first Zythos Preopening Night organised by the Belgian Family Brewers in the historic Stella Artois brew hall in Louvain. The 21 Belgian family breweries who make up this association are justifiably proud of their expertise gained throughout many generations. This allows them to conjure up something new in the glass from time to time as, after all, to stand still is to move backwards.
The dark, full-bodied Val-Dieu Grand Cru is a powerful quadrupel with a lengthy finish, stronger than the same brewery’s tripel, which is usually blonde in colour.
This beer delivers surprisingly complex flavours and aromas, many of them really mild and subtle, including a gentle orange perfume. Under a café crème coloured head, impressions of caramel seamlessly complement mildly bitter coffee aromas.
The Val-Dieu range also includes Val-Dieu Blonde, Brune, Triple, Cuvée 800 and Noël. All of the Val-Dieu beers re-ferment in the bottle, which accounts for three weeks of a six-to-eight-week production cycle.
Local soft water from the Gileppe reservoir is used in a traditional infusion method that involves adding hot water to the mash until the temperature is raised to 75°C.
At this temperature the starches are released that will, in the next stage, be converted into the sugars that feed the yeast. The brewery uses its own yeast, cultivated in-house, for the main fermentation, and it’s a yeast that creates fruity aromas in the final product.
Monks live their lives to the rhythm of prayer. Vespers is the evening prayer said just before sunset, and it has served as the inspiration for the Cornelissen brewery’s Herkenrode Vesper Tripel.
Like the patient monks you should take your time with this new degustation beer, which will reward you with its striking golden-blonde colour and impressive, full-bodied character.
English hops make a major contribution to the very particular aroma of this abbey beer, a designation which Herkenrode has been allowed to carry since 2009. Herkenrode Bruin and Tripel were the first two brews under the label. Herkenrode Noctis, Herkenrode Vesper Tripel and Herkenrode Cister Blond were added to the range at a later date, with Herkenrode Vesper Tripel a stronger version of the earlier tripel.
The Herkenrode beers are named after the Abbey of Herkenrode near Hasselt. It is no longer a working religious house, but the 17th century abbey farm and stables still stand, now renovated and home to a tavern, alongside the herb garden.
The history of the abbey goes back to the 1182, and research has shown that brewing was done at the site so Herkenrode beers can be ‘recognised abbey beers’.
Robert Putman, former engineer-brewmaster at Cristal-Alken, joined forced with Patrick Gerits, the master brewer at the Cornelissen brewery to track down the recipes for all of the beers of the Herkenrode family.
You can judge whether brewery supremo Jef Cornelissen, Robert and Patrick have managed to meet their aim to ‘brew beers with the bravery of the Counts of Loon, the elegance of the abbesses of Herkenrode and the aromas of the herb garden.’
In 2016 the abbey of Val-Dieu, not far from the city of Liège, celebrated its 800th anniversary - 800 years young and still going strong. Among the celebrations was the launch of this light, refreshing blonde, Cuvée 800.
This beer’s hoppy character comes from dry hopping, which also enhances its citrus notes. The Val-Dieu beers are also noteworthy for the use of soft water, taken from a reservoir created by damming the river Gileppe in an area of Belgium that is known for the quality of its water.
The brewery also produces Val-Dieu Blonde, Brune, Triple, Grand Cru and Noël; beers that are all brewed in the grounds of the abbey.
Val-Dieu can look back on a tumultuous history. By some miracle, this former Cistercian abbey was the only one in Belgium to survive the French Revolution.
In 2001 the last three monks left Val-Dieu, but since then a lay Christian community that lives by the rules of St. Benedict has been living in the abbey. The surviving buildings, including the imposing church with its characteristic spire, date back to the 18th century.
This mission shines through clearly in its emblem: two intertwined rings with the motto ‘In Vinculo Pacis’ (in the bond of peace) that is almost omnipresent around the abbey and also appears on the glasses and beer mats of the abbey brewery.
Even in country that is as steeped in beer as Belgium is the Wieze brand is iconic. That’s in part down to the Wieze October festivals, inspired by the famous Munich beer fests, that were held for many years until 1987, winning a legendary reputation.
However, the roots of Wieze beers go back much further in time, more than a century in fact. In 1866 Petrus Josephus Van Roy started brewing on his farm in Wieze.
The eponymous brand was well known for its art deco ‘waiter logo’ designed by graphic designer Raymond Van Doren. After the Van Roy business went bankrupt the beer started on a journey around several breweries before it found a home at De Brabandere, best known for its Bavik pils, Kwaremont, Petrus Tradition and its sour beers.
De Brabandere is putting a lot of support behind this ‘beer recommended by the waiter’. Its Wieze has found an excellent fit within the tradition of strong Belgian blond beers that re-ferment in the bottle. It is a complex, zesty yet quaffable beer with a delicate bitterness and subtle hints of citrus fruits.
Wieze holds a great appeal for lovers of nostalgia and all things retro. If the waiter had the choice, he would still go for a Wieze - do you agree with him?
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