I first met Marc Coesens of Brouwerij Liefmans about 3 and a half years ago. While enjoying his generous hospitality and in particular the refreshingly quaffable Oud Bruin, Marc lamented the decline in popularity of this wonderful beer. Oud Bruin is a blend of old and young beer which provide a harmonious balance of mature malt aromas, sweet youthful flavours and a subtle refreshing sour backbone which is both thirst-quenching and addictive. He reflected that it was viewed as an old-fashioned beer and that younger beer enthusiasts overlooked it for more exciting modern beers. A few weeks ago I took some industry colleagues on a tour of mixed fermentation breweries in Flanders – rood bruins – and lambic breweries and blenderies in Pajottenland. I asked Marc if he still wanted to update the Oud Bruin brand by renaming it Odnar which is a heritage brand from the brewery’s past. Marc pointed out that Odnar was named after previous owners of the brewery and was an abbreviation of the brewery name around the turn of the nineteenth century. Marc lamented that the younger beer market wouldn’t get excited by a beer called ‘old brown’ and was hopeful of a re-brand in the future. I can see what he means about the name. But the beer remains a delight and there is no better place to enjoy it than the tasting bar at Liefmans while Marc is in full storytelling flow.
My colleagues and I were in Belgium for the Dag van de Oude Geuze festival which was back after a Covid-enforced hiatus (more about this on a later post). On our way to our base in Halle we popped in to Brouwerij Verhaeghe in Vichte where we met retired teacher and local historian Pol Ostyn for a history lesson held in the old horse stables which is now a tasting cafe and tour of this amazing brewery. Founded in 1885 by Paul Verhaeghe the brewery became a popular supplier of beer to Brussels due to its location next to the Vichte train station. The First World War ended the brewery’s association with Brussels and they focussed more regionally, producing their first bottom fermenting beer. Karl and Peter Verhaeghe now run the brewery, Karl on the management side and Peter in the brewhouse. Today, Verhaeghe is better know globally for its rood bruin Duchesse de Bourgogne, a blend of 8 month and 18th month old beers matured in oak barrels and name after Duchesse Mary of Burgundy who was born in Brussels. Locally, Vichtenaar another rood bruin is the beer of choice. Of course the Foeder Hall was the highlight of the brewery tour before we settled back in the old stables where Pol gave us a very generous tasting of Verhaeghe beers. Well generous to the others, I was driving!
Our next stop just had to be Brouwerij Rodenbach in Roeselare and not just because this year they celebrate their 200th anniversary! In fact the anniversary relates to when the Rodenbach brothers bought an existing brewery on Spanjestraat (one of two located there at the time). The site has been brewing since the 17th century and back in the day they brewed lambic. One can never get tired of visiting Rodenbach, especially the majestic Foeder Halls but this visit was to be extra special as Rudi Ghequire was to give us a private tour, including the original brewhouse which was closed in 2002. It was quite an honour to walk in Rudi’s steps and experience the old brewhouse – the mash tuns, kettles, lauter vessels, and possibly the largest koelship I’ve ever seen. And he’s been treading these steps for almost 40 years. The whole experience was a privilege.
Of course, no visit to Rodenbach is complete without a walk through the breathtaking Foeder Halls. 294 of these magnificent wooden structures exist, some of which are 150 years old. It is from these foeders that beers are matured to create Rodenbach Classic, Grand Cru, Vintage, Charactere Rouge, Alexander and Rosso. Rudi shared another special treat – his new beer which has been produced especially for the 200 year anniversary Rodenbach Red Tripel is an 8.2% abv tripel blended with a two year old beer. Its an extremely clean beer and drinks way below 8.2%. Refreshing, malty, fruity and lots of complex malt and wood character. A little know fact is that Eugene Rodenbach carried out some brewing training in England prior to taking over the brewery as manager in 1878. It is here where he learned the art of maturing beer in wooden casks and blending young and old beers. You can learn all about it from the anniversary book ‘Rodenbach 200 years: History Poured in a Bottle, History Written in a Bottle’
So Marc at Liefmans was lamenting the decline of his beloved Oud Bruin and reflecting that younger consumers struggle to get excited by a beer called ‘old brown’. This could be true but seems to have been lost on the team at Brouwerij ‘t Verzet in Anzegem. These dudes first appeared on the scene as gypsy brewers 10 years ago – they were known as Brouwers Verzet back then as they didn’t have a brewhouse of their own. That all changed in March 2016 when their brewery produced its first beer. Known foremost for their devotion to oud bruin, Koen and Alex also produce a range of blonds, porters, IPAs and anything they find interesting. Their thirst for experimentation has also taken the oud bruin style to another level. Each year sees the release of their celebrated range of oud bruin infusions, using additions of different fruits and even oak leaves. And it doesn’t end there. Kameradski Balsamico is a Russian Imperial Stout/Oud Bruin hybrid at 13.5%, while Super Boil extends the time in the kettle from 1.5 hours to 16 hours, producing a much richer and caramel-forward beer. A method that is rumoured to have taken place in the distant past. For their 10 years anniversary the team will also be hosting their first Oud Bruin Festival in Kortrijk held over 2 days Friday and Saturday 10th/11th December. The event will feature 33 breweries and includes a number of masterclasses presented by the visiting breweries. Not to be missed!
Brouwerij Liefmans was the last mixed fermentation brewery of our trip. Experiencing Marc Coesens’ hospitality, driven by his infectious personality is a real delight. Marc clearly loves to entertain guests with stories regarding the brewery and his life in beer. After over 21 years at Duvel in Moortgat where he ran the brewery lab he moved close to home to take over Brouwerij Liefmans in July 2008 when Duvel bought the then bankrupt brewery and brought it back to life. The history of the brewery began in 1679 in the centre of Oudenaarde. In 1750 Jacobus Liefmans relocated the brewery to its current site on the banks of the river Scheldt and it took until the 20th Century before Liefmans began adding cherries to their tanks and launched their kriek beers. Things took off under the eye of Rosa Merckx who joined the brewery in 1946. It was Rosa who recognised that to increase their popularity, the mixed fermentation beers needed to be less tart and she reworked many of the breweries recipes. She became the first recognised female brewmaster in Belgium and took over the management of the brewery in 1972. Madame Rosa still lives next door to the brewery and regularly pops in to pick up a bottle or 2. A true beer legend.
Part 2 of this blog will focus on Dag van de Oude Geuze and the breweries and blenderies that we visited along the way. Cheers!