Monday, May 19, 2014

Night of the Great Thirst

Nacht van de Grote Dorst or Night of the Great Thirst is a biannual beer festival held to promote and celebrate one of the most unique Belgian beer traditions: Lambic. The 2014 edition of this festival, held on Friday April 25th, marked its ten year anniversary and was the biggest to date.

Saint Ursula church in Eizeringen with some festival tents

Some background
The first Nacht van de Grote Dorst was held in 2004 as a protest against the Federal Food Agency (FAVV) in Belgium who wanted to close down a number of lambic breweries because they thought that fermenting beer in open coolships were unsanitary. The main problem was that the FAVV food inspectors were unfamiliar with the age old brewing process of spontaneous fermentation.

Fortunately, since then the FAVV has backed down and the relationship is now good between the lambic brewing community and the food inspectors. But the original festival turned out so successful that the organizers decided to hold it every second year from then on, in order to celebrate and promote the lambic way of life.

The festival is arranged by HORAL (the High Council of Artisanal Lambic Beers) together with the famous lambic café In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst in the village of Eizeringen, just off Ninoofsesteenweeg (N8) - the long straight road that heads west out of Brussels to Ninove:

Eizeringen is located about 15 km west of central Brussels

Café In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst, Flemish for "In insurance against the great thirst", is located opposite the Saint Ursula church and has the look and feel of a 1940s era Flemish café, there is no modern technology visible inside - even the bills are tabulated on a piece of paper. As mentioned in an earlier post, the café is only open on Sundays and church holidays when the owners - the brothers Kurt and Yves Panneels - have time off from their regular day jobs. For them, the café is a labor of love, a way to keep an old tradition alive.

The festival is usually held at the café, but this year the organizers had acquired the use of the entire church square as well as the church lawn, for erecting big party tents and movable toilets, as it was expected that some 3,000 visitors, from all around the globe, would show up. Apparently, the café had been turned into a gallery for famous Belgian cartoonist Erwin Vanmol, displaying his drawings of beer related topics.

Getting there
In the late afternoon on Friday April 25th, a friend of mine and I got on the bus (line 128) at De Brouckère, a few blocks from Grand Place in Brussels, and enjoyed a scenic 30 minutes bus ride west, passing along the way the red brick stone buildings of the old Eylenbosch lambic brewery in Schepdaal, before getting off the bus at Eizeringen Kruispunt. From there it was just a five minutes walk to the church square.

The festival
I arrived about an hour before the 7 pm opening, so I got the chance to look around the festival area to find a suitable table but also speak with some of the volunteer helpers before things got hectic. It seems that most of the inhabitants of Eizeringen had been called upon to help organize this event, helping with the selling of tokens, the pouring of beer, carrying stuff around, cleaning up etc.

All the beer stands were in the big tent on the church square

In order to get beer you had to purchase a small 15 cl tasting glass, with the Nacht van de Grote Dorst logo printed on it, as well as some tokens to pay with at the different stands. Beer prices varied from 1 token for lambic from cask to 8-10 tokens for a bottle. Some of the rarer bottles could cost as much as 20-30 tokens. Because you had to buy a full bottle to taste a beer it made sense to join a group of people to share with, so my friend and I invited a couple of American visitors, sitting on the neighboring table, to share the bottles we bought. And they did vice versa for us, so that we managed to taste more beers than if we had been on our own.

This year the festival had outgrown the small café so guests either had to find seating outside or stand around the tall tables inside the big beer tent. The latter becoming very packed a few hours into the festival, making it difficult to get more beer. Another novelty this year, one I'm not particular fond of, was the stage next to the big beer tent where live music was played from 8 o'clock. For me, such a festival is all about meeting like minded people and enjoying good beer, so loud music really is a nuisance. I hope the organizers will skip that part of the program for the next festival, just let us talk - that will be noisy enough.

The food was catered for by a butcher that has been at several of the previous events at De Grote Dorst, he had a big food stall on the church lawn where burgers, meat and that traditional dark blood sausage of Flanders were grilled and served. It was really tasty beer food!

... and the beers
At the 2014 festival lambic based sour ales from all the traditional lambic producers in Belgium were available, mostly in bottle but a few also offered lambic or kriek from small casks or bag-in-box systems. With 14 different brands, each with multiple beers, I certainly didn't stand a chance to get through the entire selection in one night. Here follows a summary of lambic breweries and blenders that had beers at the festival.

Brouwerij Boon
Brouwerij Boon is a lambic brewery and blending business in Lembeek, founded in the 1970s by Frank Boon who still runs the company. Frank Boon is one of the reasons we still have traditional lambics; together with Jean-Pierre Van Roy of Cantillon and Armand Debelder of 3 Fonteinen, Frank Boon worked hard to promote traditional lambic in an era when some of the biggest names sold out and started making sweet fruit based ales. Boon brought along the famous Geuze Mariage Parfait and Kriek Mariage Parfait to the festival, and I swear I also saw a few bottles of Oude Geuze Boon VAT 44, released for the Tour de Geuze 2013, though it wasn't listed in the official program.

Geuzestekerij De Cam
Founded in Gooik in 1997, this is a small lambic blending business run by Karel Goddeau on his sparetime (his real occupation is as a brewer at Slaghmuylder!). Gouddeau learned the art of blending lambic from Armand Debelder (while he tought Armand how to brew), and today makes some of the best oude geuze available. For Nacht van de Grote Dorst, he sent along De Cam Kriek Lambiek and Oude Lambiek, but unfortunately none of the excellent Oude Geuze.

Founded in 1900, when gueuze was all the rage in Brussels, Cantillon is a small, family owned and operated brewing and blending business in the Anderlecht area of Brussels. It is also a working museum in the sense that visitors can go on tours to see all parts of the brewery, from the mechanical mash tun on the ground floor to the shiny copper coolship just underneath the ceiling. Since 2009, the brewery has been in the hands of the 4th generation of the Van Roy-Cantillon family, the dynamic Jean Van Roy. Cantillon sent along a number of exciting beers to the festival, such as the Vigneronne made with white wine grapes and Saint Lamvinus made with red (Merlot), Fou'Foune made with apricot and the rare Lou Pepe Gueuze - a geuze made with 2 year old lambic only. To complete the line-up, there were also bottles of the regular Gueuze, Rosé de Gambrinus and Grand Cru Bruocsella.

Brouwerij de Troch
This old lambic brewery, founded and based in Wambeek since 1795, was the first to add fruit to geuze and is mainly known for their Chapeau series of fruit beers which is largely exported to the US. For this festival, Brouwerij de Troch sent their Oude Geuze and Kriek.

Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen
Beersel based Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen, headed by HORAL co-founder Armand Debelder, is one of the most traditional lambic producers in Belgium, refusing to offer geuze on draught since that is historically incorrect (as Armand likes to say, "You won't find good Champagne on tap, so Geuze shouldn't be either"). For the festival, 3 Fonteinen sent along several fairly new creations, such as Intense Red, a kriek relased for Tour de Geuze 2013 and made with 400 gram cherries per liter beer and the brand new Golden Doesjel, made by blending 75% of Doesjel and 25% of Golden Blend. 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze Vintage 2007 and Schaerbeekse Kriek 2005 were also available at the festival.

A bottle of 3 Fonteinen Golden Doesjel
- at Nacht van de Grote Dorst 2014

Hanssens Artisanaal
Located on a farm in Dworp, this small lambic blending businesses is run by a husband and wife couple on their sparetime. When lambic brewer Jean Hanssens retired in 1997, his daughter Sidy and her husband, John Matthys, decided to keep the old business alive and established Hanssens Artisanaal. They stopped brewing but has kept up the blending business, purchasing their lambic from other brewers. Hanssens was the first blender to start using the Oude Geuze and Oude Kriek denomination for its beers. Both of these were brought along to the festival, along with the weird strawberry lambic - Oudbetje

Brouwerij Girardin
Located in Sint-Ulriks-Kapelle, Brouwerij Girardin is a small family business but still one of the most important lambic breweries in Belgium, not mainly because of its own beers but because they sell lambic wort, for aging and blending to others; both 3 Fonteinen, De Cam, Hanssens and Tilquin buy their lambic from Girardin! Of their own beers, Girardin sent along the Oude Lambiek, Kriekenlambiek, Gueuze Black Label, Faro and Framboise to the festival.

Brouwerij Lindemans
This old family brewery in Vlezenbeek stopped making traditional geuze when the market folded in the midt 20th century, but the new EU designation of traditional lambic and the awakening interest in old style geuze caused Brouwerij Lindemans to start up production again in 2005. Lindemans may be best known for the sweet Lindemans Kriek, the first sweet kriek to become popular in the early 1970s. But Lindemans now also make some decent sour ales - two of which were available at the festival: Oude Lambiek and the Oude Geuze Cuvée René.

Brouwerij Moriau
There was a stand for Brouwerij Moriau at the festival, a lambic brewery in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw that was known for their Moriau Geuze but which closed in 1992. Recently, the beer has been revived by the Boon brewery which blends and release the Moriau Geuze.

Mort Subite
Named after the famous bar À la Mort Subite in Brussels, the De Keersmaeker brewery in Kobbegem was famous for brewing the Mort Subite sour ales until acquired by brewery giant Alken-Maes in 2000. Though the old Keersmaeker name is largely forgotten, the brewery still exists and do make sour ales in addition to sweetened beers (such as the terrible Mort Subite Xtreme series). For the festival, visitors were offered bottles of Oude Geuze and Oude Kriek - decent, unsweetened sour ales.

Oud Beersel
As the name implies, Oud Beersel is the oldest lambic producer in Beersel, founded in 1882 and in regular operations until 2003 when the aging brewer retired without a heir. Fortunately, two fans took it upon themselves to revive Oud Beersel and in 2005 the business re-opened but only as a lambic blender, the brewery equipment having been sold. Today, Oud Beersel is run by Gert Christiaens who travels to Boon for brewing the lambic which is then aged on oak in the cellar at Oud Beersel. For this festival Oud Beersel Oude Lambiek, Oude Geuze and Oude Kriek was on offer.

Gueuzerie Tilquin
The newest lambic blending business in Belgium, Gueuzerie Tilquin, was founded in 2009 by Pierre Tilquin, a young brewer from Wallonia who had studied under Armand Debelder at 3 Fonteinen and Jean-Pierre van Roy at Cantillon to learn how to brew, age and blend lambic. Located in from Bierghes, just south of the Flanders Walloon border, Gueuzerie Tilquin has grown quickly in fame and production volume with lambic bought from Lindemans, Girardin, Boon and even Cantillon (Cantillon usually never sell their lambic but made an exception for Tilquin). Tilquin Oude Lambiek, Oude Geuze and Oude Quetsche 2013-2014 were on sale at the festival.

Brouwerij Timmermans
Founded in 1702, Brouwerij Timmermans is the oldest lambic brewery in Belgium and one of the most spectacular, located in the heart of Itterbeek in a white painted brick building with what must surely be the biggest coolship in the world. The brewery was sold to the John Martin Group in 1993 and stopped making traditional geuze for a few years, until re-introducing the Oude Geuze in 2009 and the Oude Kriek in 2010 - both bart of the Timmermans Tradition series. For the festival, Timmermans offered several Tradition beers, such as Oude Gueuze, Oude Kriek and Blanche Lambicus - the last one a wheat lambic.

In addition to the above Belgian producers, the festival had an exclusive guest from America. What, you may think, an American brewery at a Belgian sour ale festival?! Yes, really - Allagash was present!

Allagash Brewing Company
Portland, Maine, based Allagash Brewing Co has been inspired by Belgian beer styles ever since its founding by Rob Tod in 1994. A few years ago the brewery acquired its own coolship, one of those shallow, open metal tanks where wort is cooled over night and inoculated by yeast from the ambient air - to undergo what is known as spontaneous fermentation. Which is exactly what traditional lambic brewing is all about! Allagash sent along three of their Coolship beers to the festival and they turned out so popular that Allagash was the first beer stand to run out of beer! Fortunately, I had been sensible enough to get a bottle of each, shortly after the festival opened, so I got to try all three of them.

A bottle of Allagash Coolship Cerise
- at Nacht van de Grote Dorst 2014

Allagash Coolship Red (5.7%): This is their version of a framboise, made by steeping raspberries for four months in a two year old, spontaneously fermented sour ale. It poured a reddish amber color and smelled and tasted strongly of raspberry, but with some funky notes and a good acidity.

Allagash Coolship Cerise (8.1%): This is their version of an oude kriek, made by steeping sour cherries for four months in a two year old, spontaneously fermented sour ale. It really tasted of sour cherries with notes of cherry pits.

Allagash Coolship Resurgam (6.6%): This is their version of a traditional geuze, made by blending a two year old spontanesouly fermented beer with an 18 months old and a 6 months old ("jonge lambik") before refermentation in bottle. The one I tried had been bottled in May 2011, making it almost three years old, it tasted of sour fruits, lemon peel and had some funky barnyard notes in the aftertaste - very tasty and refreshing.

Concluding remarks
A little before 10 pm, the beer tent was so crowded that I found it hard to get through to the beer stands to get more beer, and there were queues for the toilets, the food stall and to buy more tokens, so I decided it was time to call it a day and catch the next bus back to Brussels.

My overall impressions of Nacht van de Grote Dorst 2014 is that this is an excellent addition to the much older Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation festival in Buggenhout, the two festivals differ both in style and popularity so they complement each other really well. I will probably return for Nacht van de Grote Dorst 2016, but intend to do like this year - be there at the opening and call it a day as soon as things get too crowded for comfort.

Visitors queuing for tokens at Nacht van de Grote Dorst

More photos can be found at Flickr in this album.

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