The pride of belgium: those brewers that want no yeast

Let’s face it: despite the explosion of micro- and pubbreweries in Italy, during the last 15 years, your country is still essentially a wine-country: winegrowing, -making and –drinking. Belgium is mainly a beercountry – at least when it comes to brewing and (more and more) exporting. Notwithstanding all the beer, Belgium has always been a main importer of wine, for the largest part from neighbouring France  – just ask a French viticulteur of quality wines, what the Belgian market represents to him!
Consumption of beer in Belgium has, however, been falling steadily for as long as I care to remember, and this tendency shows no signs of stopping, whilst wine sales show no such decline. The most traditional styles of Belgian beer are those that are hit worst: Oud Bruin, Saison, the last couple of years even the resuscitated witbier, and, above all, the traditional lambic-based beers: oude lambik, oude gueuze, oude kriek and others of that ilk.I started to draw a parallel with your country, as those styles, during the latter half of last century, suffered from the same ailment that afflicted – and still plague, apparently – Italian wines. To use a typical British expression: they represent a flat cap image: rural, rustic, crude, unrefined – at least in the eyes of the younger generation of consumers.

Italy has a long-standing classification of wines (DOC/DOCG), and it is characteristic to this image, that young, new, latter-day Italian vintners will scorn the rules, and sell their – sometimes very experimental – wines as landwine, in some cases at prices double or treble those of the neighbouring DOCG. One might ask oneself with some reason, if this is truly very sound. Is the stainless steel-lagered, filtered & pasteurized wine, pressed from a jumble of hybrid winegrapes, really that much superior to the tannin-rich, very strong red liquid, with plenty of tartaric acid deposit in the bottle?

I leave the question to the Italian wine open, but I do have my opinion on the lambic beers. Lambic, to start with, is beer of “spontaneous fermentation”, meaning that no yeast needs to be added. Of course it does need yeast, but this derives from the environment in the brewery. Not just old Saccharomyces cerevisiae, but all sorts of strange beasts as Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, Kloeckera, and of course, Brettanomyces, the bane feared by every winemaker.

The uprooted bureaucrats that fit behind the desks at the European and other commissions, eat Nestlé, Unilever, Kraft, Danone products, and lunch at Mc Donalds; they want to control the whole way of the European food chain, starting from the growers of the grains, eaten by the chickens that shat the manure, used to fertilise the soil on which barley and hops grew, later to be used in the beer you order at the bar. If there’s a food scandal, it’s the lower end of the suppliers’ mass that suffers. The big concerns never do: there won’t be a Big Nut sold less at the next dioxine or ruminant-meat crisis. People that go to the local goatfarmer, know his goods are prime quality, but if some silly virus rages, his goats get slaughtered first, whilst the news on the telly yells again about some outbreak, and a suspicious sneeze from a local farmhand.

It cannot be a surprise, then, that those same confounded bureaucrats regard with horror the old breweries, their manner of working, and the woodwork within. They want to see stainless spotless steel, washable paint, and colour-coded ducts as from a space-shuttle launch pad. A bubbling vat of beer, foam streaming from the bunghole represents the ultimate in barbary to them. Yet nobody has ever been proven to fall ill from the brews of those breweries, while the same desk genii, will ooh and aah, if they see the same thing on an Atlantic island outside the Eurozone, and would call it quaint and characteristic.

Now, from the above, you might have gotten the idea that upon visiting on of those last remaining lambic brewers or gueuze blenders, you’ll find yourself timewarped, and have to enter their territories armed with miners’ lamp and first aid box, after having had all the necessary vaccination shots. Don’t be deceived; even the most traditional of brewers have adapted to modern times. No brewery will appear more clean that Girardin’s – and in order to keep it so, you’ll never get into their brewhouse. Frank Boon has halls of breathtaking wooden pipes, but in the back of his brewery, the kriek is lagering in computer-controlled stainless fermenting tanks, and he’s constantly monitoring levels of all kinds of microflora, in order to be able to steer them in the wanted direction.Even the worst die-hard of all, Cantillon in the Brussels’ agglomeration, is experimenting in his discreet way, by using American hops as Cascade or Amarillo, dismissing the age-old adage that the sour lambic does not suffer the bitterness of the hop, and the lambicbrewer only want the preservation quality of the hops, not their aroma. Actually, Jan Van Roy, headbrewer at Cantillon, admires the fruitiness of those C-hops. It goes along with the exotic berries and fruit, that have found their way more and more into this brewery, to be blended into the lambic. It is not just us, that discover Loganberries in the supermarket – so do Jean’s little Bretts!

Do you know what I distrust? I distrust what happens in Zuun. There’s a beer factory (probably fully EU-approved) there, that no-one but employees have seen from the inside, producing beer that has less and less affiliation with what’s apparently still lagering at the showcase at Henegouwenkaai, the lambicblending centre that InBev’s visitors get to see. You understand, if all the beer is hiding behind a forest of welding, ducts, faucets, and pressure gauges, then I’m missing the contact with the living beer. And so, in my opinion, do the people that are supposed to manufacture it. And then, I get distrustful. I’m probably a person, bearing the curse of a bygone age: the one of common sense.
So, if you visit our country, go to the beautiful Pajottenland, and to Anderlecht, to find those lambicbrewers with those exotic-sounding names: F. Boon, Cantillon, De Cam, De Troch, Drie Fonteinen, Girardin, Hanssens, Lindemans, Mort Subite, Timmermans, oh, and why not, Belle-Vue. Look, taste, and let your nose, your mouth, and above all, your heart tell you what is right, and what isn’t.


di Joris Pattyn