We know their beers and tend to take them for granted – La Chouffe, Oerbier and a few others – but it’s easy to forget that the founders of contemporary Belgian artisan brewing also fought against prevailing trends and the dominance of big breweries.
In recent years we have heard a lot about the pioneers of US craft beer and how they kickstarted a beer renaissance virtually out of nothing in the 70s–80s. The story of the American trailblazers has, for many, become the official narrative of microbrewing – although a similar movement was seen at the same time in Europe, also in reaction to the cost-cutting and computerised production methods of big brands.
Britain probably saw the first signs of awakening even earlier than the United States since homebrewing was legalised in the UK in 1963. Already a few years later, the first movements defending traditional beer as well as the first new microbreweries got started.
In Belgium, Pierre Celis, the man who saved Hoegaarden wheat beer, can be considered a forerunner of the new microbrewing movement. He started brewing in 1965, the same year as Fritz Maytag took the reins of the old Anchor Brewery in San Francisco. The USA allowed homebrewing as late as 1978, after which the first new breweries began to appear at an accelerating pace – as they would in Belgium.
There is no shortage of good literature describing the roots of the now flourishing microbrew cultures of the US and the UK. To my knowledge, however, a fundamental work on the first wave of modern Belgian microbrewers does not yet exist. This article is therefore my attempt to look at what we can ascertain of those times.
Who were the Belgian beer pioneers?
The young generation who became interested in microbrewing in late 1970s and early 1980s in Belgium were not only thirty years younger than Pierre Celis but differed from him also in other respects.
Celis (1925–2011) was a milkman by occupation and had experience of working at the long-defunct Tomsin brewery located in his neighbourhood in Hoegaarden. By contrast, Kris Herteleer, who founded the De Dolle Brouwers brewery in West Flanders, was an art school graduate with no former experience of brewing.
‘My brother had brought a beer kit from England and that was actually our first experience of making beer’, Herteleer says. ‘It led to us homebrewing as a hobby and we eventually moved from malt extracts to real malts and hops and substituting tap water with spring water.’
Although the first attempts didn’t bring the desired results, the enthusiasm of the Herteleer brothers was not so easily cooled. Three years of persistent experimenting followed, and the brothers also turned to what few manuals were available to improve their technique.
According to Kris Herteleer, homebrewing was not very common in Belgium at the time. Finding supplies was not easy. ‘We were students, and when we went to a maltings to buy a 50 kilo bag of malts, the salesperson inquired suspiciously what we would do with it. Brewing beer at home was not forbidden but he perhaps thought we were planning to sell our beer without a licence.’
Setting up your own brewery was considered a crazy idea at the time. Virtually no one apart from Celis had founded a new brewery after the war. The microbrewing boom took flight much slower in Belgium than in the UK. A total of 86 new breweries were established across the Channel in 1980–82, compared to a mere two in Belgium.
A decade later you would not be able to count the new Belgian beer makers with the fingers of your two hands. Even Michael Jackson complained in desperation that it was impossible to keep up with the accelerating trend.
Oerbier, the first commercial product of De Dolle Brouwers, saw daylight in November 1980. The Herteleer brothers gave it that name (meaning ‘ancient, original beer’) because they wanted to bring customers genuine tastes made of genuine ingredients, instead of the bland products of the big breweries. Seven different malts were used, and local character was brought in by Poperinge hops and Rodenbach yeast.
The gnome challenges the yeast man
At the same time, in a different part of Belgium, another young duo was practising brewing with a kettle made out of an old laundry drum. Chris Bauweraerts was originally from a town north of Brussels but in the early 80s he was setting up his equipment with brother-in-law and future business partner Pierre Gobron in the latter’s hometown in the Ardennes hills.
The adventurous wannabe brewers experimented without a precise plan of what the end product should be like. In August 1982, the first brew of the future Brasserie d’Achouffe saw daylight. The size of that minuscule batch was 49 litres.
‘To be honest we didn’t have a clue of how beer should be brewed’, Bauweraerts now reminisces. ‘It was all by trial and error, and information was scarcely available. We later got some tips from Pierre Celis, but even he had learned his trade largely through experimentation.’
If Kris Herteleer considers his De Dolle Brouwers as the ‘first new brewery’, Chris Bauweraerts of Achouffe claims the same thing of his own brewery. Bauweraerts argues that De Dolle Brouwers merely continued the operations of an older brewery, Costenoble, which had been located in the same building. Should it thus be considered a new brewery? Surely the gentlemen are allowed their amicable discord over this matter.
One of the many things these two pioneering breweries have in common is a fascination for cartoon-like art in their beer labels. The little yellow man of the De Dolle Brouwers labels, bearing some resemblance to the Michelin Man, depicts a stylised yeast cell holding a traditional roerstok in his hand. La Chouffe bottles feature the red-capped gnome carrying bunches of barley and hops on his back.
This is the silent rebellion of the 80s microbrewers against the conventions of the previous generations. ‘I wanted to avoid having ruddy-cheeked monks, imaginary saints or Gothic lettering on our bottles’, admits Kris Herteleer. Similar ideas guided the designing at Achouffe.
I have tried to goad both brewers into telling me what inspired them to make the first La Chouffe or the first Oerbier just the way it was. This is not easy. Talking about beer styles with these sexagenarian Belgians is also well-nigh impossible – it is not a subject they are very interested in!
This is not to say they didn’t have any paragons. The legend that Chris Bauweraerts spins in his book My Chouffe Story about him and Gobron having got the recipe for La Chouffe from an ancient local gnome can surely be disregarded. It is more likely that the ghosts of some memorable real beers were influencing their subconscious when they created the original La Chouffe.
One such beer was apparently Duvel. The Moortgat brewery had a depot in the vicinity of Chris’s home in Brussels in the late 70s, and he went there every now and then to buy some crates. Duvel had not yet begun its global conquest and it was not even known very well in the more remote parts of Belgium. When Chris Bauweraerts took some Duvel with him when visiting his in-laws in the Ardennes, the strange beer took the family a little bit of getting used to, and they first called ‘Duve’.
Another beer that really shook young Chris’s world was something that La Houblonnière, a beer café on Brussels’ Place de Londres, introduced as a new tap beer in those years of the late 1970s. This was the original Pierre Celis creation, Oud Hoegaerds, still much closer to that traditional, tart and nuanced white beer of Hoegaarden than the current AB-InBev interpretation.
Kris Herteleer, on the other hand, remembers liking some Trappist beers in his youth, but goes on to complain that special beers were available almost nowhere in the late 70s, early 80s.
‘A typical drinks menu in a pub contained a Pils, an Export, a Pale Ale, a Scotch and an abbey beer, as well as coffee, water, lemonade, tea and Chocomilk.’ All of these could be produced in a major drinks factory. As an exception, however, Rodenbach beer was also quite often available in pubs.
Beer cafés, shops and drinks distributors
‘There was a handful of so-called regional beers made by older small breweries when we started, but they were really only sold within eyesight of the local church tower’, Herteleer says. ‘If a pub was tied to one of these local breweries, it carried their beers. However, such beers would be unknown in other parts.’
Slighly surprisingly, Herteleer mentions the old Thomas Hardy Ale as one of the beers that left an impression on him in those early years. An Antwerp beer shop, Den Boemelaar, had managed to import some to sell to its customers. ‘I still have a couple of those bottles in my cellar.’
For the rest, Kris Herteleer concludes – as does Chris Bauweraerts – that Belgian beer fans were almost completely unaware of foreign microbrews at the time. Therefore such beers also did not have much of an influence on the early Belgian artisanal ales.
But the young generation that had found special beers was also active on other fronts besides founding new breweries. The Antwerp couple, Dirk Van Dyck and Leen Boudewijn, who now run the legendary pub Kulminator, founded their first beer café, Bodega, in 1974.
It was originally supposed to be a wine bar, but the owners realised that the customers were not warming to the idea, so they soon switched to beer. They zig-zagged all over Belgium to source local abbey beers, saisons and lambics, and sometimes also a strong German beer might be available at Bodega.
To my knowledge this is the first of the specialised beer cafés where the idea is to gather an extensive selection of interesting beers from small breweries from across Belgium. (It had predecessors such as Den Gouden Leeuw with an excellent but smaller beer selection.) This type of pub is one of the great innovations of the modern Belgian beer scene.
Several other places were opened in the subsequent years, of course: Le Miroir in Brussels and De Hopduvel in Ghent, to name a couple. Many such beer cafés have since closed or changed concept, but some also still remain, such as Brussels’ Moeder Lambic and Bruges’ ’t Brugs Beertje, both founded in 1983.
Besides the first breweries and beer cafés, beer shops and distributors specialising in local beers emerged. The owners of Bodega/Kulminator remember having relied on the beer shop Den Boemelaar to stock up on specialities from little known breweries in the late 70s. In Brussels, the Beer Mania shop founded by Iranian-born Nasser Eftekhari has operated since 1983 and is still thriving.
The Ghent-based Dranken Geers was one of the first drinks distributors who took upon them to offer the clients microbrewed beers from outside their own region. The Geers family stocked the La Chouffe beers right from the start. They were also one of the earliest distributors of Pierre Celis’ Hoegaarden beers.
An anecdote that catches the spirit of those times: when Dominiek Geers visited the Van Eecke brewery near Poperinge to ask them if he could distribute their Hommelbier in the Ghent area, the brewery owners were highly sceptical about the possibility that anyone outside Poperinge would have much interest at all to drink Hommelbier!
A cellar course to become an objective beer-taster
The network of beer-lovers would not be complete without a dedicated association of beer consumers, and such an organ was created first in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium in 1985. The association was called De Objectieve Bierproevers (OBP), and its activities are continued today by the consumer federation Zythos.
The word ‘objective’ in the association’s name referred to a philosophy refined by founding member Peter Crombecq whereby the practice of beer-tasting should be ridden of the pretentious language used by wine snobs. The beer tasters should instead concentrate on absolute sensory observations.
‘OBP had a huge significance in bringing together the masses of beer fans who lived all over Belgium’, says Joris Pattyn, one of the early OBP actives and well-known beer writer, rater and judge.
Pattyn himself was more of a wine drinker in his youth. His road to beer fandom started in the family cellar, where two dust-covered champagne bottles piqued his curiosity. His father told him they were not wine but gueuze beer and should not be shaken. The adventurous youth who had never heard of such a beer got the permission to open one of the mysterious bottles.
He was to find out that the beer the bottles contained was in fact kriek rather than gueuze. Nonetheless, this was the start of a voyage of discovery to the strange world of lambic beers. They had long been in decline in Belgium, but the tide was turning. The 1970s generation had started to develop an interest in traditions and genuine, hand-crafted products.
What did lambic beers taste like? The OBP beer guide cites Cantillon Gueuze, for instance, as having a ‘slightly sour and bitter aroma and a very acidic taste’. The density was ‘light’ and the beer ‘did not develop a secondary taste’.
Assessing beers purely based on senses and using a set of pre-defined qualifiers was perhaps a novel approach back in the day, but it bypassed many essential aspects that affect our impression of beers in reality. These include history, local culture, previous experiences, tasting situation and personal preferences.
‘It is possible that the association drove itself into something of a stalemate because of the strict approach’, Pattyn ponders. ‘Nonetheless, many important projects that Zythos now lobbies for have their roots in the OBP days, including the push for better information on beer labels.’
When you discuss today’s beer trends with Joris Pattyn, it soon becomes obvious that thirty years as a beer activist have done nothing to assuage his passion for the subject. For an active beer taster and rater, the past few years have been a feast, as a multitude of new beers from various European countries and other continents have become available in Belgian pubs.
‘If I had to mention one thing that is very different now compared to those early days, the answer would be simple. The Internet has changed everything!’, Pattyn says. ‘It is not only a platform for rating and discussion but also a tool that allows you to discover almost in real-time which new beers are available in your neighbourhood or somewhere furter afield.’
In the 1980s you would have had to wait for the quarterly membership bulletin!
Text: Teemu Vass
This article was first published in Finnish in Olutposti 2017:2. All photographs are published courtesy of Chris Bauweraerts unless otherwise indicated.
Sources: (a) Interviews with Chris Bauweraerts, Joris Pattyn and Kris Herteleer, (b) Brew Britannia by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey, (c) My Chouffe Story by Chris Bauweraerts, (d) ”Moving up the Geers” by Breandán Kearney on BelgianSmaak.com, (e) ”Before Kulminator, There Was Bodega” by Chuck Cook on BeerAdvocate.com, (f) Les goûts de la bière [Biersmaken], 1985, by Peter Crombecq.