Tag Archive for: Belgium

The weekend the clocks go forward 2002 and Jester King Spontan is guest pour at Dukes Bar, Halifax. That’s if there’s any left after the Friday being designated as ‘Sponzee Day – celebrating the iconic spontaneously fermented barrel sour’. Unimaginable even a few years ago for such an event in a provincial craft beer outpost; even now a big hand to bar owners Ellie and Sean.

This three year blend (18-19-20 vintages) from a farmhouse brewery outside Austin, Texas pays its dues to the Gueuze brewing style of Belgium. Yet another example of America’s magpie adoptions that have spread the word about niche beers once threatened with extinction.

Sponzee Day comes just three weeks after the death of Armand Debelder, whose Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen kept alive the Belgian tradition of gueuzes and the wild lambic beers from which they are blended. The man nicknamed ‘Grandfather Gueuze was just 70 and, suffering from cancer, had already handed over the reins to trusted associates. The brewery’s own website pays an affectionate homage https://www.3fonteinen.be/en/and there’s a fitting obituary on the Good Beer Hunting website,https://www.goodbeerhunting.com/blog/2022/3/10/goodbye-to-grandfather-geuze-armand-debelder-dies-at-71 which recounts how back in the Eighties he took over blending work at the family restaurant, Drie Fonteinen at a time when lambic seemed in terminal decline with small brewers swallowed up by multi-nationals. 

In tandem with brewer soulmate Frank Boon, Armand rallied the rearguard in the Pajottendland region south west of Brussels. In 1989 he found equipment and, despite family qualms, started brewing his own lambics.

So what are Lambics? Beers left in open vats where wild yeast and bacterias are allowed to take up residence. Once the fermentation process begins, the beer is stored in barrels and left to age for up to three years.

The rescue act was boosted by a kind of symbiotic serendipity. The doyen of British beer writers, Michael Jackson, developed a unique affinity with Belgian beer culture, exploring even its most arcane corners. We owe to him, in part, the survival of Saison, Flemish red ales and all the wild yeast styles.

In a 1996 interview Jackson surmised why he spent so much time documenting Belgium’s beer culture: “I think the motivation was almost like the motivation of some of those musicologists like Alan Lomax who went down to the Mississippi Delta in the ’50s and recorded old blues men before they died. I wanted to kind of record Belgian beer before those breweries didn’t exist anymore. I certainly didn’t see it as a career possibility, but I think all, or many, journalists have in them a sort of element of being an advocate.”

All this culminated in his Great Beers of Belgium (1991), whose sales across various editions have topped 150,000. It’s 15 years since his untimely death his digital legacy The Beer Hunter website is still a valuable resource despite its outdated lay-out. Here’s its summation of Gueuze:

“A bottled, sparkling, style that is much easier to find. Can have the toasty and Chardonnay-like notes found in Champagne. The word Gueuze (hard “g”, and rhymes with “firs”) may have the same etymological origins as the English words gas and ghost, and the Flemish gist (“yeast”), referring to carbonation and rising bubbles.

“The carbonation is achieved by blending young Lambic (typically six months old) with more mature vintages (two to three years). The residual sugars in the young Lambic and the yeasts that have developed in the old cause a new fermentation.… References to “old” (oud, vieux, vieille) on the label indicate a minimum of six months and a genuine Lambic process. Without these legends, a Lambic may have been ‘diluted’ with a more conventional beer”. 

Jackson’s describes the Drie Fonteinen beer as “creamy, aromatic, with a clean, teasing, perfumy fruitiness and a faintly herbal tartness”. I can concur with all that after refreshing my memory with a bottle at my favourite Calder Valley bar, Coin.

Armand Debelder reciprocated the appreciation, lamenting in one interview: “It’s a shame on Belgian brewers that there’s no statue of Jackson. He was the first to start describing lambic with words such as ‘horse sweat,’ words others may not have considered or perhaps been afraid to use. He was a friend of the Lambic producers. We have photos hanging in our brewery of when Jackson visited us. We were always happy to give him the opportunity to taste something special when he visited. He never asked for it. But because of his simple being and calmness, it was more than normal to offer him something exceptional.”

Survival remained perilous for a while. With the Debelder Lambics and Guezes on the up, an act of nature nearly destroyed the whole mission. On the morning of May 16 2009, a faulty thermostat caused the warehouse to heat up and because of the pressure the bottles started exploding one by one. 80,000 were los in one night. Bankruptcy loomed, but bottling and selling rare stocks helped the brewery bounce back.

My own conversion to Gueuze

What clinched it was the gift of a ‘2021 Horal Megablend’ . Over the years, encouraged by friends’ enthusiasm, I had dipped my toe (so to speak) in the Lambic pond and I was aware of the High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers  (Horal), founded by Armand in 1997, to safeguard and promote the tradition. He quit as chairman in 2015 but 10 other members of this loose confederation of Lambic and Gueuze brewers and blenders around the Senne Valley have continued the biennial ‘Toer de Gueuze’, where they produce a celebratory ‘Megablend’ (blendedand open their doors to visitors. Last year’s Tour was necessarily a virtual version, but the event will return in 2022. Meanwhile check the site for virtual videos.

The producers involved are Boon, De Oude Cam, De Troch, Hanssens, Tilquin, Lambiek Fabriek, Lindemans, Mort Subite, Oud Beersel and Timmermans. They all contributed young and old Lambics that were then mega-blended by Frank Boon (whose own Oude Gueuze is benchmark stuff).

My personal bottle I owe to an old friend, Anita Rampall, from Visit Flanders. I couldn’t resist opening the 75cl bottle and it was a revelation – tart lemon then biscuity with a spicy floral hop note that lingered and lingered. You’d be hard pressed to buy a bottle now. Beer geeks will have squirrelled theirs away to see how they age. Fascinatingly, I wager. I now wish I had. Still, now it’s time to work my way through all the other Gueuzes on the planet.

It’s a 30 mile meander across the West Flanders fields from Dranouter in Heuvelland to Dottignies in French-speaking Wallonia. You’re always just in Belgium but aware that this is border country, in the hinterland of France’s fifth largest city, Lille. On a squally Saturday afternoon up on the Pennine Moors there’s a decided gustatory ley line connecting us to both these distant municipalities.

It’s all about food rooted in the Tyke terroir but with an undertow of new wave Belgian influences forging a bond with a powerful dark beer that similarly reflects the zest of a groundbreaking generation in that country.

In the bar of the Moorcock Inn at Norland there’s a well-thumbed copy of Kobe Desramaults’ eponymous cookbook. Moorcock co-owner Alisdair Brooke-Taylor was Kobe’s right hand man at his Michelin-starred In de Wulf at Dranouter, in a region poignantly dotted with Great War cemeteries.

When In de Wulf closed in 2105 Al and his sommelier partner, Aimee Tufford, brought back to the UK – among much else – an affinity with Belgian beer. That’s why if you look beyond hand pulls dispensing Yorkshire cask ales from Timothy Taylor and Vocation you’ll find a bottled beer list of dubbels and trippels, saisons, geuzes and lambics. Even different ages of Orval, if you’re lucky.

The Brouwerij De Ranke XX is on of my go-to beers in my quest for a true bitter finish. The hop freaks of contemporary Belgian brewing Nino Bacelle and Guido Devos have been brewing this 6.2 per cent pale ale since 1996. Unfiltered, unpasteurised, using only whole hops, not pellets. The only compromise is in the address. Dottignies, site of the brewery they built in 2004, is in Wallonia but the De Ranke official HQ is a mile or two away in Flemish territory.

• Listen to a Belgiansmaak podcast interview with De Ranke co-founder Nino Bacelle.

The XX is not on the Moorcock beer list but, to our surprise, there’s a limited edition 750ml sharing bottle of a De Ranke Back To Black, originally brewed for the 10th anniversary of another forward-thinking Belgian brewery, lambic specialists Moeder. Remarkable value at £16, it is billed as an imperial porter and it pours almost black. Brewed with seven different malts and aged in barrel for nine months, it is as complex as you’d expect, with a nose of oak (obviously), dark chocolate and figs/raisins, yet its smooth cherryish taste combines sourness and bitterness in perfect balance.

 Not quite what you’d expect but a Eureka moment. It is a quite perfect match for the Moorcock menu de jour (as they don’t say in the hills above Sowerby Bridge). When Kobe Desramault moved from farmhouse-based In de Wulf  to open Chambre Séparée in Ghent he took foraging and fire with him to an urban setting. The five-ton smokehouse and industrial-grade grill in the Moorcock car park seems a better fit here. So too, as the website proclaims, “250 acres of productive moorland, providing plenty of plants, berries, mushrooms and game”…. and an onsite organic kitchen garden.

Pick of the dishes off the blackboard were both fish-led. A mackerel tartare with preserved chestnuts and radish (£8), a combo I’ve never encountered before, tasted as distinctive as it looked – autumn on a plate, while the under-rated grey mullet becomes a star in treatment Al calls a ‘bouillabaisse’ that is a remove from the Provencal stereotype. Chunks of the line-caught fish are cooked en papillote with fennel and preserved lemon, both of which scent it marvellously. At £18 it is the second most expensive dish on a menu that usually contains only a couple of meat ‘mains’ these days. My companion is a vegetarian/pescatarian, so we veered in that direction.

The porter had a particular affinity with wood-roast kabucha (Japanese) pumpkin gnocchi (£13.50), strewn with a walnut pesto and curls of house ricotta. Not the prettiest dish and as substantial as it sounds, it felt a proper antidote to the inclemency of the weather.

Perhaps we were being greedy ordering the crispy smoked potatoes that are a Moorcock constant as well as a confit Jerusalem artichokes, wood-roast mushrooms in another intriguing marriage with laverbread and miso-pickled beans. I’m not quite sure this gelled, but then where else for miles around would you find any chef as consistently inventive. The drinks list put together by Aimee is equally special. 

Do make the trip up. On foot’s best for the sheer adventure. But definitely choose the right day! Captain Smidge (below) was the very definition of ‘wet dog’.

Moorcock Inn, Moor Bottom Lane, Norland, Sowerby Bridge HX6 3RP. 01422 832103.