Monday, May 13, 2013

Around Bruges in less than 80 Beers

During a trip to Belgium in April 2013 I spent two days in the beautiful city of Bruges, which has witnessed a revival of the local beer scene with a number of great pubs and cafés opening up. Plus the odd brewery or two. An indication of this revival is the recently published "Around Bruges in 80 Beers" by Chris Pollard, who has visited 80 drinking establishments in Bruges. My goal was much more modest, to spend two days just enjoying the history and rich beer culture of Bruges. This post is a recapulation of my experience as a beer tourist in Bruges.

A great way of getting around Bruges in 80 beers?

Bruges for dummies
Bruges (for once the French and English agree on the spelling of a name, while the locals insist on Brugge) is the capital of West Flanders in the north west of Belgium. Receiving its city charter in 1128, new canals were dug out connecting Bruges with the sea, and the city quickly became an important trading port for ships from the Hanseatic League. For the next three centuries, trade was good and wealth amassed in Bruges - resulting in many of the spectacular buildings seen in old town Bruges today.

In the early 16th century most of the canals connecting Bruges with the sea had silted up or were in the process of doing so and the city lost its position as the favored trading port in the Low Countries to Antwerp, causing a slow but lasting decline which saw the population dwindle from 200,000 around 1500 to only 50,000 by 1900. In hindsight, this decline was very fortunate for the preservation of old town Bruges as it meant that there was little money for new projects or renovations to demolish the impressive, old buildings.

Luckily, Bruges also made it virtually unscatched through two destructive world wars, which ruined so much old history in Europe, leaving old town Bruges one of the best preserved late medieval cities in Europe. Today, the entire old town is classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Belgium.

Cafés and pubs lining the Grote Markt in Bruges.

Bruges tourism
There seems to be two modes by which tourists get to Bruges. The one favored by many tour groups, in particular those with elderly folks or Asian tourists, is by bus from Zeebrugge, the port of Bruges, where large cruise ships dump their passengers by the thousands, resulting in dozens of buses heading into Bruges and large tour groups crowding the same streets, squares, churches and buildings. For more adventurous tourists, traveling alone or in small groups, train is the preferred mode of travel. Bruges is located on the main railway line from Brussels to Ostend, about an hour from the capital.

While I was in Bruges I heard that two large cruise ships had arrived in Zeebrugge, both sending multiple groups of tourists into Bruges, so it was no wonder that Grote Markt and most adjoining streets were so crowded that locals and single tourists had to walk in the streets when they tried to pass.

I'm not sure if there are any slow months for tourism in Bruges, April certainly wasn't, and with two million visitors every year you'll either have to tolerate some crowdiness or stay away from the Grote Markt area. Which means you'll also miss out on some of the better pubs and shops.

De Kelk was closed during my visit

Enjoying beer in Bruges
I certainly didn't have time to check out 80 different drinking establishments and I sacrificed some of the more famous ones because of the crowds of tourists, such as Staminee de Garre and 't Brugs Bertje - two highly rated beer bars close to Grote Markt. I was also recommended De Kelk in Langestraat, by a nice bartender I spoke with. De Kelk opens late, at 7 pm, unfortunately it didn't seem to open at all on the Tuesday I was there. I still managed to visit some great and some not so great beer places, in this section I'll focus on the pubs and save the breweries for the next.

Café Rose Red
On my first night in Bruges, after giving up on the crowded places near Grote Markt, I found myself walking through a quiet side street named Cordoeaniersstraat, which seemed more like a residential area than a place to find a good beer bar. Outside number 16 I spotted a blackboard with chalk letters listing several quality draft beers and in the hallway there were many metal placques of great Belgian beers and breweries, including all the trappists. When I peeked inside the first thing that caught my eye was a hundred red roses hanging from the ceiling. I had arrived at Café Rose Red.

The bar at Café Rose Red is tucked away in a corner

Café Rose Red has actually been around since 1987 but I've got the feeling that their focus on good beer, in particular trappists and lambics, are of a later date. Inside, Café Red Rose provides a cozy and fairly quiet atmosphere, sitting well with the slogan "Trappist Beer - Taste the Silence". It opens at 11 am every day and closes at midnight, except Sundays when they close at 10 pm.

In addition to the red roses (all in plastic, by the way) hanging from the ceiling, the café is kept in a simple, rustic style with well worn wooden tables and chairs and a small bar counter, with the beer taps, tucked away in one corner. The walls are decorated with beer signs, there's a cabinet - almost like a religious shrine - with bottles of Westvleteren XII and a mirror doubles as an information board for Belgian sour ales. I felt at home!

Except for some finger food, Café Rose Red doesn't offer much for the hungry, this is a beer café more than a place to go out to eat. But the beer selection is immaculate. On draft, they had Dupont Rédor Pils, Lefebvre Hopus Blond, Het Anker Gouden Carolus Triple, Malheur Novice Triple Black and the Straffe Hendrik Quadruple from local brewery De Halve Maan. The bottled beer menu was even more impressive, with a large selection of geuze and trappist beer. In fact, the menu said that Café Rose Red is an official ambassador for Orval in the years 2012 and 2013!

Gouden Carolus Tripel on draft at Café Rose Red

I was also impressed by the dedication and knowledge shown by the bartenders, they really cared about the beer they sold. At one point I asked about the vintage of an oude geuze, since the bottle I'd ordered didn't say, whereupon the owner, Veireman Kris, actually called the blender to find out for me! (For those curious, it turned out to be the 2010 vintage of Hanssens Oude Gueuze.)

Because I enjoyed the atmosphere so much and still had many beers to try after the first night, I returned the second night to enjoy some excellent bottles of De Cam Oude Geuze, Engelszell Benno (the new Austrian trappist brewery) and Dupont Avec les Bons Voeux. I can safely say that this place came closest to my heart in Bruges.

If you're planning to stay in Bruges for a few nights you may want to check out Hotel Cordoeanier which is located at the same address and with the same owner.

't Brugs Bieratelier
The latest addition to the Bruges beer scene is named 't Brugs Bieratelier or 't Brugsche Bieratelier (as it says on the sign above the entrance). This is a small beer pub which opened up five months ago, on December 1st 2012. It would have remained below my beer radar if I hadn't met a nice fella from Australia, at Café Rose Red the night before, who gave me the rough directions as "close to De Halve Maan". So the next morning I walked around Walplein and several side streets until I found it, in Wijngaardstraat 13.

The bar opens at 12 o'clock every day (and closes whenever the last customers have left) so after a quick stop at De Halve Maan, which opens two hours earlier, I was waiting outside the Bieratelier when the doors opened. This gave me the chance to get a good impression of the bar as well as keep up a long conversation with the young bartender.

View of the bar at 't Brugs Bieratelier

Though just five months old, the Bieratelier has already acquired the atmosphere and the looks of a really old drinking establishment. Much thanks to its old, rustic interior. I was told that the well worn bar counter was 150 years old and had been purchased from the Netherlands, the rest of the wooden furniture also looked old and the floor had been laid with old, wooden boards, almost like on an old sailing ship. The most surprising feature is the low bar counter, when you're sitting on the stools at the bar you feel you're almost siting on the bar! This, combined with the tinyness of the place, about 20 people can sit comfortably by the bar and another 20 in the adjoining room, makes for an intimate bar experience.

Regarding the beer selection, the Bieratelier have a very simple philosophy - they want to provide high quality Belgian draft beer. Period. They don't have a bottled beer menu because they don't sell beer on bottle and there are only 12 taps, but each one has a unique, well crafted Belgian ale. The taps remain unchanged for a full month, the next month they change most if not all to showcase another set of quality draft beer. When I was there in April, they had St Bernardus Prior 8, Hercule Stout, Timmermans Tradition Lambicus Blanch and a number of other excellent beers on draft. I could easily have spent the entire day there, but had to move on to visit other places - though from now on it was going downhill.

By the way, 't Brugs Bieratelier also arranges guided beer tours "to discover the most original pubs in Bruges" every Monday and Saturday at 1 pm. Just sign up in the bar and for €39 you'll be taken around Brussels to sample the atmosphere and beers of the best pubs in the city.

The 17th century home of Bierbrasserie Cambrinus

Bierbrasserie Cambrinus
After my visit to the Bieratelier it was time for lunch which I decided to have at Bierbrasserie Cambrinus in Philipstockstraat 19, since they open at 11 am every day. I was hoping that this beer restaurant would offer a menu of good beer and food pairing. And with windows declaring that they've got 400 types of beer, this seemed like the perfect place for a lunch (or dinner).

Named after the legendary Cambrinus (Gambrinus in English), king of Flandres and patron saint of brewers, Bierbrasserie Cambrinus is located in a beautiful red brick building from 1699, with that common Dutch crow-stepped gable street facade. Inside you'll find a long bar on the right and a number of wooden tables for both larger and smaller groups.

On draft they offered ten beers. Unfortunately, the beer selection revealed a strong preference for InBev and the pub was out of several interesting bottled beers, so in the end I had my lunch, a rabbit stew, with a glass of Blanche de Namur from draft. The food was decent, but not impressive. The three women working in the bar showed little interest in the beers I asked about and were also fairly slow in looking my way when my glass was close to or empty, even though it was just a handful of other guests in the restaurant. Thus, after finishing my lunch I walked over to the bar, asked for the bill, paid and departed the place as quickly as possibly.

Despite a high rating on RateBeer (Bierbrasserie Cambrinus is currently number 3 in Bruges with 93 points), I found the beer restaurant lacking in every possible way; poor draft selection, the most interesting bottled beers were sold out, uninspired food, slow and ignorant service.

De Struise Brouwers beer shop on the Burg square

De Struise Brouwers Beer Shop
While in Bruges I also made a point of checking out the shop that De Struise Brouwers, one of the highest rated Belgian craft breweries, opened up on the Burg square, right next to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a couple of years ago.

From the outside, the shop looked really well stocked and nice but I had to wait until 1 pm for it to open. When I entered, I was apalled by how warm the shop felt, it was certainly above 30 C. This is not good for storing beer, and most of the bottles stood in uncooled shelves, so I decided not to buy anything as I didn't know how long the bottles had been stored warm. For such a great craft brewery I am surprised they don't take better care of how their bottled beer is sold!

La Trappist
In addition to the pubs and cafés mentioned above, I heard talks to the effect that Bruges will soon also get a dedicated trappist beer pub. Supposedly, it's going to be called La Trappist and open up in May. But there's one worrying fact, it's owned by InBev.

Brouwerij de Halve Maan is the oldest in Bruges
- founded by Leon "Henri I" Maes in 1856

Something's brewing in Bruges - about breweries and festivals
In addition to the pubs mentioned in the previous section, Bruges also offers visitors old and new breweries as well as an annual beer festival. Let's start with the old.

Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan
There has been a brewery on Walplein in old town Bruges at least since 1564, when it was known as Die Maene ("The Moon" in English), but it's with Leon Maes that the story of the modern brewery starts. Affectionally known as Henri I, Leon was an entrepreneurial spirit and in 1856 he purchased the old brewery, with some help from his uncle Canon P.J. Maes. He quickly threw out the old equipment and constructed a new and, for that time, very modern brewery. Brouwerij De Halve Maan was born.

De Halve Maan, which means "The half moon", was one of several breweries in Bruges, but as the years went by so did the other breweries. When Brouwerij De Os closed in 1985, De Halve Maan became the only brewery left in Bruges, but they were not about to give up. And almost thirty years later, the sixth generation of the Maes-Vanneste family is running a very popular brewery and tavern on Walplein, where tour groups tired of walking the streets of Bruges can stop by for a quick brewery tour and some cold beer in the tavern.

Despite looking like a large brewpub from the outside, and they do serve their own beer fresh from tank in the tavern, De Halve Maan is actually a fairly big brewery by Belgian standards, with an annual production of 30,000 hl beer.

The bar at De Halve Maan brewery tavern on Walplein

There are two good reasons for visiting De Halve Maan rather than just buy their beer at pubs elsewhere. One is to attend a tour of their brewery, which takes place every hour around the day, and the other is to have their Brugse Zot Blond from draft, which is only served unfiltered at the brewery tavern. Everywhere else, or so I'm told, you'll get the inferior filtered version.

In addition to the Brugse Zot, which comes in Blond and Dubbel versions, De Halve Maan brew several types of beer in their Straffe Hendrik series, including a delicious 11% Quadrupel and a more ordinary 9% Tripel. If you can find these on draft, and in Bruges the chances are pretty good, they tend to be a lot more full bodied and flavorful than on bottle.

The name Brugse Zot, by the way, means "Bruges Fools" and is said to originate with the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I, who had acquired Flanders through his marriage to Mary of Burgundy (the lady celebrated with Duchesse De Bourgogne). At one time, in the late 15th century, he was staying in Bruges to watch the famous annual Holy Blood Procession, in which the locals jump around and make mad gestures. The next day some citizens had approached Maximillian to ask him about sponsoring an institution for the mentally ill. Maximillian had replied, "Just close the city gates and Bruges will be one big mad house". Since then, the citizens of Bruges have been known as Brugse Zot.

Brouwerij Fort Lapin
Just north of old town Bruges, in Koolkerkse Steenweg 32, a new brewery called Brouwerij Fort Lapin made their debut early 2012 with the Fort Lapin 8 - an 8% abbey tripel beer. Their beer labels carry a pair of rabbit ears above the "o" in Fort, which harks back to the French meaning of the name - "fort lapin" means "strong rabbit".

Fort Lapin is a really small brewery, producing just 300 hl beer annually, and so far they've only got two types of beer in their lineup, the aforementioned tripel and a very tasty 10% abv dark quadrupel named Fort Lapin 10.

The Fort Lapin beers should be available at the better beer pubs in Bruges, but I've also found their beers as far away as Leuven.

A bottle of Fort Lapin Tripel in Bruges

Brouwerij "Bourgogne des Flandres"
In September 2013 a new brewery is scheduled to open up in Bruges, I don't know what it will be called but it will be a brewery dedicated to the famous beer that used to be made by Brouwerij De Os: Bourgogne des Flandres - "The Burgundy of Flanders".

Bourgogne des Flandres is a sour ale made by mixing 50% lambic and 50% Scotch ale, so when De Os closed in 1985 the recipe was picked  up by lambic brewery Timmermans in Itterbeek. Timmermans, since bought up by the John Martin Group, still makes the beer but this fall production will move back to Bruges, the original hometown of Bourgogne de Flandres.

Brugs Bier Festival
If you're planning a visit to Bruges and cold winter weather doesn't sound too scary, you may want to consider the annual Brugs Bier Festival which is held in De Halletoren, the big tower by Grote Markt, usually in the first weekend of February.

The festival, which is also known as the BAB-festival after the organizers Bruges Autonomous Beertasters, was first held in 2007 and typically attracts some 70+ Belgian breweries, serving several hundred beers to the visitors.

A glass of Brugse Zot at De Halve Maan

For more photos of pubs and beers in Bruges, see this Flickr set.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Report from Tour de Geuze 2013

As mentioned in a previous post, I had signed up for one of the HORAL buses at the recent Tour de Geuze on April 21, 2013. This is a recount of a long day spent touring back and forth across the river Zenne in the heart of Flemish Brabant, with a brief detour into Wallonia for a visit to the newest geuze blender in Belgium. So buckle up.

Most of the HORAL buses departed from the south side of the train station in Halle, a city some 15 km south of Brussels, so when staying in Brussels the easiest way of getting there was by train, just a short 15 minutes train ride from Bruxelles-Central at the price of €3,50. I decided on an early train to make sure I made it for the 10 am departure of the tour buses, this gave me a chance to take hike around in the vicinity of the train station, discovering a former malt factory (Malteries Beeckmans) and enjoying the fine view of the Brussels-Charleroi canal.

Banner for Tour de Geuze 2013 at Gueuzerie Tilquin

Gueuzerie Tilquin
My bus left Halle more or less on time and headed south west, out of lambic heartland and across the border into the French speaking federal region of Wallonia. Historically, the Wallon region of Belgium is known for its Saison beers, not for lambic or geuze, but that changed in March 2009 when Pierre Tilquin founded Gueuzerie Tilquin in Bierghes, near Rebecq-Rognon in the north of Wallonia - just 1 km from the border with Flanders. His enterprise is the most recent geuze blending business to open up anywhere in Belgium.

Located in what looks like a large warehouse, Pierre Tilquin established his gueuzerie in Wallonia partly because he felt more comfortable there, as a native French speaker, but probably just as much because of the public funding and tax reductions available for those wanting to establish a business in this poor region. You may be surprised to learn that during the early phases of the industrial revolution Wallonia was second only to England and it remained the industrial and economical powerhouse of Belgium until World War II, when the industry went into decline. Today the Dutch speaking Flanders is the "economical engine" of Belgium.

Only in his late 30s, Pierre Tilquin has built up a very impressive résumé; in addition to a PhD in statistics and genetics he learned the art of brewing at Brouwerij Huyghe, famous for Delirium Tremens, before spending six months apprenticing at 3 Fonteinen, to learn the art of aging and blending geuze from Armand Debelder, and then six months at Cantillon, to learn about lambic brewing from Jean-Pierre van Roy. The latter is the reason why Tilquin, as the only Geuzestekerij ("geuze blender") in Belgium, has been allowed to purchase lambic wort from Cantillon to use in his oude geuze!

After releasing his first oude geuze in May 2011, just in time for the previous Tour de Geuze, Gueuzerie Tilquin has quickly gained popularity and market share, exporting draft geuze to many countries (including my own, Norway) and producing a very good old geuze called Oude Gueuze Tilquin à l’Ancienne. His production has rapidly increased too, after one year he surpassed De Cam and he is now looking at producing 500 hl of geuze and lambics annually, taking him past Hanssens too. And it may not stop there, with his background from brewing there is no reason why Pierre Tilquin shouldn't start his own brewery someday and brew his own lambics.

Like several of the other participating breweries and blenders at this year's Tour de Geuze, Tilquin presented a brand new beer for his visitors, a 6.4% sour ale made with plums: Oude Quetsche Tilquin à l’Ancienne. I picked up a couple of bottles to bring home after tasting the deliciously tart beer in the beer tent. Then it was time to move on to the next stop, as we only had five hours to spend.

Some of the foudres for aging lambic at the Boon Brewery

Brouwerij Boon
The next stop on the tour was just up the road from Tilquin, in the town of Lembeek on the historically "correct" side of the Flanders / Walloon border. If passengers on the highspeed Thalys trains from Brussels to Paris look out on the right side, as the train shoots past Lembeek, they might catch a glimpse of the new brewery building inaugurated just two days before this Tour de Geuze.

Back in the early 1970s the young Frank Boon fell in love with lambic and geuze. He became a good friend of René de Vits who had a small lambic brewery in Lembeek, the last one still in operation. Boon would buy lambic from de Vits and blend his own geuze, first while running a youth club but from 1975 commercially with his own blending business. When René de Vits retired in 1978, without a successor, Frank Boon decided to buy the brewery and found the Boon Brewery. In the 25 years since, Frank Boon has honed his skills as a lambic brewer and blender, making some of the most classic sour ales you'll find in Belgium - in particular the Boon Mariage Parfait series of Oude Geuze, Kriek and Framboise.

When I arrived at Boon, the brewery buildings and surrounding grounds were teaming with visitors, many aiming for the degustation or tasting tent where they could sample most of the Boon beers, both sour and non-sour (Boon also brew the Duivel, an 8% Belgian strong ale). I headed straight for the new brewery, to take the tour, which started with a look at the old coolship, the only piece of equipment still in use after the new brewery opened. A coolship, known as koelschip in Dutch, is a shallow, open metal vessel, the size of a small swimming pool, which is used to cool the lambic wort over night and allow the wild yeast in the ambient air to inoculate the wort to spark the spontaneous fermentation.

When the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, who is a good friend of Frank Boon, cut the ribbon on April 19 he marked the opening of a hightech marvel of a brewery, designed to be highly automated and environmentally friendly. As an example we were told that the hot vapors from the boiling of the wort is collected back in a large 65,000 liter hot water tank and reused for the next mashing. Clever! For the brewing, Boon uses malt from Dingemanns and they hop their lambics with 1 year old whole cone hops, not pellets or extract.

Frank Boon at his brewery in Lembeek

According to our guide, the first batch was brewed at the new brewery in mid March 2013 and with the new brewhouse in operation, Boon can brew three times more lambic than at the old brewery. But their goal for 2013 is a more modest increase - from 20,000 hl in 2012 to about 30,000 hl or 3 million liter this year. The tour ended in the cool storage cellar, where we got to see the impressive array of foudres - large oak barrels of 8,000 liter - in which Boon ages their lambics for up to three years. In all, Boon has 117 large oak foudres, in which about 1 million liter of lambic is aged at any time. In addition to aging their own lambics, Boon also sell lambic wort to geuze blenders such as Tilquin, De Cam, Oud Beersel, Hanssens and 3 Fonteinen who age it for their own oude geuze and oude kriek.

At the end of the brewery tour I caught sight of Frank Boon, beaming with pride as he gave a group of visitors a tour of the brewery. Frank Boon, who will turn 59 years in September, cuts a strapping figure with his graying hair and pair of glasses hanging in a string around his neck, looking more like a distinguished professor than the man who helped preserve traditional geuze, together with Jean-Pierre van Roy of Cantillon and Armand Debelder of 3 Fonteinen. His new brewery will place Boon at the forefront of the ongoing geuze revival in Belgium and the future of the brewery seems to be in good hands after his son, Jos Boon, recently joined his father upon completing a Master degree in Brewing and Malting.

For the inauguration of the new brewery, a special oude geuze had been made. Brewed to a very high gravity on 3-4 December 2008, it was aged in a single foudre (Vat 44) before being bottled in August 2010. These bottles were then aged for almost three more years before release in April 2013 as Oude Geuze Boon VAT 44. Only 20,520 bottles of 375 ml were made, so this is a rare treat indeed.

I would have loved to check out some of the many beers sold at the tasting stand, but the huge crowd and my own restricted time schedule forced me back on the tour bus.

Geuzestekerij De Cam
Next the bus headed north to the small town of Gooik, about 20 km south west of Brussels. Historically, Gooik has had many lambic brewers and geuze blenders but they were all gone by the time Gooik local and Palm Brewery production manager Willem van Herreweghen got the idea to start up a geuze blending business. When it opened in June 1997, Geuzestekerij De Cam became the first new geuze blender to open in Belgium in several decades.

Karel Goddeau with a glass of kriek at De cam

Because of the workload at Palm, in 1998 van Herreweghen enlisted the help of another local, the 25 year old brewer Karel Goddeau. Llike Pierre Tilquin, Goddeau spent some time with Armand Debelder at 3 Fonteinen to learn the art of aging lambic and blending geuze, and he has since become a well respected and experienced lambic blender. Since the year 2000 Goddeau has been in full charge of De Cam, but this is actually a part time business for him - his regular job is as a brewer at the Slaghmuylder brewery. Thus, Goddeau basically works nightshifts and weekends to keep De Cam running!

Geuzestekerij De Cam is located in an impressive, old brick building right next to Volkscafé De Cam on Dorpstraat in Gooik, so naturally the café oftens serves De Cam lambics on draft and the bottled geuze as well. When I arrived, the café and the small geuzestekerij were crowded with visitors so I barely managed to get inside for a peek of the barrel storage. Together with 3 Fonteinen, Goddeau has bought his oak barrels from the famous Pilsner Urquell brewery in the Czech Republic. With a total of 45 barrels of 1,000 liter capacity, he can age up to 450 hl lambic, resulting in an annual production of just 150 hl - 15,000 liter - sour ales, which makes De Cam the smallest geuze blender in Belgium. Goddeau currently buys his lambic wort from Boon, Lindemans and Girardin, but I would think that once 3 Fonteinen get started he'll also buy lambic wort from them.

While checking out the barrel storage I spotted the master himself, right next to a stainless steel maceration tank, in the midst of a photo session with the American beer blogger Chuck Cook. I fired up my own camera before moving on, the small place was filling up quickly so I made my escape to In De Groene Poort, just up the street, for a quiet lunch and a glass of fresh Boon Kriek on draft. And then it was time to move on, now to one of the biggest lambic breweries.

Entrance to the 230 year old Timmermans brewery in Itterbeek

Brouwerij Timmermans
Located in the village of Itterbeek, on the western outskirts of Brussels, Brouwerij Timmermans is the oldest and one of the largest lambic breweries in Belgium. The brewery has been part of the John Martin Group since 1993 and is probably best known for its sweet fruit beers though they have recently re-introduced some traditional sour ales. Anyhow, my expectations were not that high when the bus arrived in Kirkstraat in the heart of Itterbeek, but boy was I in for a surprise!

The first thing that impressed me was how well they've kept the old brewery buildings, where Timmermans, or Brasserie de la Taupe as it was known until 1961, has been brewing since 1781. It's a white painted brick building with beautiful murals on the front, showing typical lambic inspired scenes. Once inside, the impression of an old, traditional brewery was strengthened by the fact that Timmermans have kept much of their old brewing equipment and, like Cantillon and Oud Beersel, have turned parts of the brewery into a museum, showing old brewing equipment, mechanical stirring vats, simple bottling machines and an old grain mill with a massive and well worn mill stone.

What impressed me most of all though was that Timmermans were actually brewing a batch of lambic that day, which gave me the opportunity to finally see a coolship in action, with the hot vapors drifting across the surface like banks of sea mist. If I read the thermometer correct, the wort was about 90 degrees Celsius hot so it had a lot of cooling to do before it could get inoculated by wild yeast from the air. The coolship at Timmermans was huge, almost like an Olympic swimming pool, with a capacity of 220 hl (22,000 liter). I could barely see across it through the hot vapors, and the smell of wort was just mesmerizing - I had to force myself to move on to see the rest of the brewery.

Hot lambic wort in the 220 hl coolship at Timmermans

Like Boon, Timmermans have a big, cool cellar for aging lambic in oak barrels. Some of them had obviously just been filled with lambic wort and were still undergoing primary fermentation, because foam was covering the bunghole at the top of the barrel and could often be seen running in streams down the sides. During this phase, the fermentation is so violent that the brewer can't close the barrel or else it might explode from the pressure! However, there is no need to worry about infections since the thick foam turns fairly solid and acts like a cap, stopping particles and infections from entering the barrel. Only when the violent primary fermentation ends is the barrel capped with a plastic or wooden bung (a type of cork), to seal the barrel and allow the lambic to go through the slower secondary fermentation, during which lactic bacteria takes center stage and adds sourness to the beer.

Though Timmermans is part of a large company and is best known for sweet fruit beers, they have realized that traditional lambic is making a comeback, so in 2009 they re-introduced an Oude Geuze and the year after an Oude Kriek. Both were well received by lambic fans. The brewery also make a very decent sour ale called Bourgogne des Flandres, I spotted some oak barrels in the cellar where this beer was aging. Though sour, it is not a pure lambic but a mix of 50% lambic and 50% Scotch ale. Bourgogne des Flandres is not an original Timmermans beer but was taken over when Brouwerij De Os in Bruges closed in 1985. A couple of days after Tour de Geuze, while visiting Bruges, I learned that a new brewery is being built in Bruges to allow Bourgogne des Flandres to "return home" in September this year.

After the tour of the brewery and cellar, I made a quick stop at the pub located inside the brewery, which looked very cozy except that it was so full of visitors I could forget about ordering a beer. Besides, my tour bus had a tight schedule to follow, there was still one more lambic brewery to visit. My favorite. So I left.

Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen
The last stop on my tour was the one I had looked most forward to visit, Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen on Hoogstraat in Beersel, about 10 km south of Brussels. And I was not alone with this sentiment, as the small brewery and its brewery shop was thronging with visitors, eager to see the shiny, new coolships and purchase some bottles of the exclusive, new beer: Intense Red Oude Kriek.

This was not my first visit to 3 Fonteinen (see this post) so I focused mainly on the changes that they had made over the last year, ripping out the old brewery shop, closing the wonderful Lambikodroom tasting room and installing the brand new brewery. The old tasting room has now been turned into the brewery shop, while the old brewery shop houses brewing kettles and the coolships.

In the sea of people, while stubbornly holding on to my bottles of Intense Red, I caught a brief glimpse of Armand Debelder, smiling from ear to ear, as he waded through the brewery shop. On that day of Tour de Geuze, his brewery shop must have sold more 3 Fonteinen beer than during a regular month, it was wild! And the tour of the brewery was equally chaotic with people speaking a multitude of languages waiting for the appropriate guide.

Michaël Blanckaert as tour guide at 3 Fonteinen

I joined an English speaking tour, headed by none other than Michaël Blanckaert, the future master of 3 Fonteinen but still learning the trade of brewing lambic and blending geuze from his mentor, Armand Debelder. Michaël showed us the new 4,000 liter boiling kettle and the new stainless steel coolships of which there are four, all of 1,000 liter capacity to match the batch size of 4,000 liter. Built in Germany, the four coolships are assembled in a rack, because of floor space limitations, with two coolships at the bottom and two at the top. A large fan is used to blow away the hot vapor from the lower coolships, so as to avoid heating the upper ones.

With the new coolships in place, 3 Fonteinen can now brew four times more beer than at the old brewery so the limiting factor is not the brewery anymore but the number of oak barrels and storage space available for aging lambic. The latter is a serious problem because the lambic must age for 1-3 years before use, so in order to follow up the expanded brewing capacity 3 Fonteinen will need four times as many barrels as they currently have and a lot more storage space. According to Armand Debelder, this is an issue for the future, in the next couple of years they will just brew what they need to fill up their current generation of 1,000 liter oak barrels.

After almost a year of constructions the new brewery went into operation in March 2013, almost to the day four years after the last batch was brewed at the old brewery. To celebrate the opening of the new brewery, 3 Fonteinen released a brand new beer - a 5% oude kriek named Intense Red that was made with 40% sour cherries (i.e. 400 g cherries per liter lambic).

Two of the four German built 1,000 liter coolships at 3 Fonteinen

Despite having celebrated his 60th birthday, Armand Debelder can feel more confident about the future of 3 Fonteinen than in many years. Not only has he managed to construct a new lambic brewery but a successor has been appointed, Michaël Blanckaert, who is still in his 20s but well under way in his apprenticeship to become a traditional lambic brewer and blender, ready to take over 3 Fonteinen the day Armand Debelder retires.

Tour de Geuze after-party
Tour de Geuze officially ended at 5 pm and the HORAL buses returned to the starting point by Halle railway station. However, the fun was not over yet, because I had signed up for an after-party BBQ event held at the famous lambic café In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst in the small village of Eizeringen, about 15 km west of Brussels.

Together with three fellow Tour de Geuze participants I took a taxi the almost 20 km from the railway station in Halle to the church square in Eizeringen, both to save time and to get there before it became too crowded. The café is located on the church square and is usually only open on Sundays, from 10 am to 1:30 pm, or during funerals. The reason for this is that the current owners, the brothers Yves and Kurt Panneels, have regular daytime jobs and only run the café in their sparetime.

In 1999 the previous owner, a remarkable woman named Marguerite, decided to retire, at the ripe old age of 85. To preserve her lambic café, the two Panneels brothers, both longtime fans of lambic, decided to take over the business from Marguerite. They renovated the place keeping it in the style of a 1940s Flemish café and moved their amazing sour ales collection, gathered over many years, to the cool cellar underneath.

Inside lambic café In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst

Today, it feels like traveling back in time when you walk in through the front door; the walls are plastered with old lambic and geuze signs, there are no TV-screens or loudspeakers tucked away in the corners and there is no electronic cash register or computer at the bar, all tabs are calculated by hand on a piece of paper! The beer menu is the most impressive I've seen when it comes to lambic, ranging from 30 year old bottles of geuze to rare lambics from long gone breweries, such as Eylenbosch or Belle Vue (the old one!). For special events the café may also serve lambic on cask, at the Tour de Geuze after-party the lambic on cask was a blend of 12 and 18 months old lambic from Oud Beersel.

The BBQ focused on local specialities, such as Flemish blood sausages, pork ribs and chicken, served with hot mustard, mayo and various sauces. The food was hearty and tasty and went surprisingly well with geuze. Despite two busloads arriving, the small café managed to handle the crowd and I had a great evening, talking with locals as well as people from far away countries, while enjoying some amazing sour ales. To clinch the evening, when I failed to get a cab (none were available in the area!), the butcher responsible for the meat at the BBQ offered to drive my friends and me back to Brussels!

All in all, Tour de Geuze 2013 was a great experience for me and I must thank HORAL, the Hoge raad voor Ambachtelijke Lambikbieren, for arranging this wonderful event every two years. I must also thank the breweries and blenders for opening their businesses to outsiders, curious to see how each ply their trade and tasting their sour ales, and café In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst for hosting the great BBQ at the end of the day.

Though at times very crowded, I would love to return for the next Tour de Geuze, in 2015, but I will probably rent my own car in order to be more flexible with regards to the time schedule and not be limited by that of a tour bus.

Yves Panneels opening a bottle of geuze

More photos from Tour de Geuze 2013 can be found at this Flickr set.