As a dry run for the newly formed AleHunters and something that I’ve wanted to do for such a long time, I arranged to host a small group where we could take on the biennial Toer de Geuze in Pajottenland last May 2019. Our group consisted of big Dan, Seth and Casey – all lovers of craft beer but not all currently working within the industry – a great mix of peeps tbh. Dan and I had arranged to stay in Ninove, west of Brussels and the others in downtown Brussels.
Taking advantage of being in Belgium I obviously picked up supplies on the way to Ninove and popped in to a couple of breweries for a catch up, namely Jef Pirens at D’Oude Maalderij in Izegem and then on to see Glenn Alvinne at his eponymous brewery in Zwevegem. I thought that I was being good only having a sip of Jef’s beer as I was driving. That wasn’t the case at Alvinne as the guys there had some special treats for me, including rare Oak Melchior courtesy of one of the brew team. It would have been extremely rude of me not to have accepted their hospitality of course.
I must admit that I was running late getting to Ninove, what with Glenn’s hospitality and rush hour traffic but I managed to hit Ninove at 6pm, check into Hotel Croone and to meet up with Dan. He’d travelled over earlier on Eurostar and had already been enjoying himself at Moeder Lambic and in one of the bars in Ninove. Certainly he looked in a cheerful state when I met up with him.
We had a great evening taking in Taverne Grambinus and In Den Keizer (a particular favourite of mine) and enjoying the local beers from Brouwerij Slagmuylder. It was the latter who recommended a new flemish restaurant Eethuis De Koepoort. Heading over there we were diverted by the excellent Trappist bar which does exactly what is says it does – serves great Trappist beer along with many others.
The Koepoort didn’t disappoint and Dan and I enjoyed a wonderful shared Cote a Los, though being mainly plant-based for five months, the one and a half kilo of beef was a bit of a shock. A nice shock though, beautiful Ardennes beef in a green pepper sauce with Belgian frites. Wonderful. The evening ended with my dropping Dan off at the hotel and visiting the new bar Gonzo for a nightcap.
So the big day arrived and after a suitable breakfast and rousing Dan we had some time to kill before the Toer. Nothing for it but to take a drive over to Brouwerij Girardin which isn’t part of the weekend. Located in a beautiful setting, Girardin brews and blends all their beers on their compact farmyard site. They also send out lambic wort to other blenders. It is truly a stunning place and I am not surprised that they don’t wish to be overrun by beer geeks though it is a shame as I would love to get into the brewery and taste their lambic.
Another short drive and we arrived at Drie Fonteinen’s Lambik-O-Droom in Lot. The brewery is based in Beersel as is their bistro. They don’t offer tours at the brewery. They don’t consider that interesting when compared to the blendery in Lot as this is where the magic happens. They were gearing up for a busy weekend (even though they are not part of the Toer), with lots of lambic available via beer engine, merchandise and food. I was keen to check out the recently planted cherry trees and bee hives out the back – to be used for future projects no doubt.
Time to head over to Brouwerij De Troch in Ternat to catch up with Seth and Casey. The Toer’s logistics are pretty challenging with breweries and blenderies opening at different times and not always on both days so planning the routes over both days takes a bit of time to ensure we had as much time as possible to enjoy each site.
The brewery and blendery has been established since the 18th century and is still a very small family business. Beer geeks in general have an issue with their beer as the most successful ones are produced under the Chapeau label, a range of super-sweet fruit lambics that use syrups and lose much of the lambic characteristics. These were introduced in the 1980s which kept the brewery going. I tasted the base lambic used in these beers and it was excellent. The brewery is also a living museum and well worth visiting and I had a great chat with Pauwel who runs the place with his wife Kristel. The boom in ‘sour’ beers has been encouraging for De Troch with extra casks being brought into the brewery. Seek out their Oude Geuze Cuvee and do visit when you have the chance. Unless you have a sweet tooth, give the Chapeau beers a miss.
While we were at De Troch the forecasted rain appeared – when I say rain I mean horizontal rain, hail, wind, almost biblical. Probably good we were staying indoors most of the time. Next up was Brouwerij Timmermans in Itterbeek, another brewery/blendery and the self-styled oldest lambic brewer. This is tenuous as the ’17th century’ brewery was called De Mol (The Mole) and wasn’t a lambic brewery. The brewery was acquired by John Martin in 1991. However, the old brewery is stunning and well worth a visit. As is De Troch, Timmermans are known for sickly sweet syrup beers but they started to produce Oude Geuze again in 2009 and have won awards. Again, the lambic that I tasted here was excellent, just avoid the sweet stuff.
Onwards to Vlezenbeek and Brouwerij Lindemans and the sun came out. Good thing too as this brewery and blendery is based within another stunning setting next to a stream in a valley of farmers’ fields. Founded in the early 19th century Lindemans is run by sixth generation cousins Dirk and Geert Lindemans. Another producer that moved to sweet, syrupy beers for commercial reasons, they are now producing authentic lambics and creating new beers with unusual ingredients. This brewery was also showcasing a brewday during the Toer. I was ridiculed for filming the lauter and boil but had a great chat with Jan their brewer who explained that the brewday was nine hours! They are making really great beers again and I tried the Goyck collaboration with Varenbroek – delicious! Guests were also able to blend their own lambics and the size of the site meant that there was much more to keep children and non beer bores occupied. There was even a hot air balloon with a small bar counter around the bottom. The balloon went up and you then toasted each other with lambic while up in the sky. Not sure about that. There was plenty of space to sit, drink beer, eat local food and listen to live music. Well worth visiting!
Our final stop for the day was back in Lembeek to visit Brouwerij Boon. Frank (who I was honoured to meet while judging at World Beer last summer) is a legend in the lambic-world, purchasing the brewing equipment from Rene De Vits in 1975 and learning his secrets up until Rene retired three years later. The lambic brewery was originally known as Brasserie Hygiena in Lembeek. Committed to a beer style that was threatened with extinction, Frank set about perfecting his skills and improving the brewery.
In 1982 Frank relocated to a site on the Senne river and after constructing a brewing hall brewed the first beer there in 1990 and by 1992 was self-sufficient. Other blenders also started to purchase lambic wort from Frank at this time. In 1997, with Frank’s help ‘Oude Geuze’ and filtered ‘Geuze’ became protected within the EU. Also, HORAL was founded by Armand Debelder, Dirk Lindemans and Frank. That year also saw the first edition of the Toer De Geuze. In 2000 and 2011 two new foeder warehouses were installed increasing the amount of lambic in barrel to over 1 million litres. In 2013 a new, fully automatic and more sustainable brewhouse was opened. By 2016 production increased to 2.1 million litres with 2.5 litres of lambic in barrel. Frank is joined by his sons Jos and Karel (who runs the brewery) and a fourth warehouse is being built on the opposite bank of the Senne.
At the brewery we enjoyed guided tours of the brewhouse and foeder halls and tasted fresh lambic from the barrels. The rear of the brewery was like a party in a massive tent, plenty of food options, live music and a rammed bar featuring all of Frank’s heavy-hitters. It was cool to bump into Breandan Kearney from Siphon Brewing who was with one of the team from Garage Project in Barcelona. I also met Stu Stuart from Belgian Beer Me! tours in the States. I’m afraid that by now my thirst was getting the better of me. You see while the lads were busy buying new and exciting bottles of lambic, I was restricting myself to the free thimble-sized samples of lambics on offer – it was time to make a move and have a beer myself.
Dropping the car off in Ninove we managed to locate a taxi to take us to Eizeringen in Lennik – not an easy task. When I enquired at our hotel where the taxi rank was, the owner just smiled and said he would find us a taxi. This was to prove a problem later. You see, Lennik is the home of one of the most amazing cafes I’ve visited. In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst (Insurance against a Great Thirst) has been voted gold and winner in the best beer bars in the world by Rate Beer since 2011. I’d also stumbled across an ad for a beer festival in Eizeringen, Pajottaleland craft beer fest, so a visit seemed a no-brainer, we could worry about getting home later.
The cafe is opposite Saint Ursula Church in this tiny village. It was in the grounds of the Church that around 14 tiny producers set up to sell their beers including our friends Alvinne and Lambiek Fabriek. Some very unusual and tiny producers, many one-man bands. This is where I was given an espresso stout which the brewer proceeded to top the liquid with beer foam from an espuma gun – the result was like a nitro head something that I’d never seen before or since!
Back at the cafe which was much warmer than outside, the place was rammed. This being a Saturday, the bar would normally be closed. They currently open once a week, every Sunday from 10am – 8pm. Prior to 2017 it had only opened for three and a half hours per week. We were lucky as this evening was billed as the Night of the Great Thirst, so we were able to enjoy this fantastic pub. The cafe was founded in 1842 and part of the existing building was a sweet shop so the original cafe would have been smaller. Moving forward to 1999, 85 year old Marguerite De Maeght who ran the pub decided to retire that Christmas Eve. Fortunately, Eizer and Kurt Paneels bought the pub and spent five years renovating and restoring it. Kurt, his brother Yves and their parents run it today. You need to visit if you haven’t done so. Where else can you buy a six year old bottle of Orval for 5 Euro? And where else can you find 4 types of Methode Goat?
Anyway, it was time to leave and when I enquired of Kurt if he could call us a taxi he laughed. Not a good sign. The locals advised that there MAY be a bus passing through and could be reached via a complicated set of directions in pitch black darkness. I was about to ask if Alvinne could give us a lift when we met a couple of guys who offered each party a life back to their hotels – in exchange for beers of course. Luck was smiling down on us and Dan, myself and our new mate enjoyed a couple at Gonzo in Ninove before bed.
Tomorrow we had five more breweries and blenderies to visit. To be continued…