Tastings School - Out and about in the heart of Belgium

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Out and about in the heart of Belgium

Ben McFarland hits the road in rural Belgium in search of the perfect pint

When a French-speaking Belgian pours himself a beer, chances are it’s brewed in Wallonia.

Earthy, rustic and full of character, Walloon beers truly embody their refreshingly rural and unheard of homeland which occupies the southern half of Belgium.

Wallonia has lived long in the shadow of Flanders, its more ostentatious, cosmopolitan and Flemish-speaking counterpart in the north and word of both its beers and its striking landscape has sadly struggled to reach beyond its borders.

But that may be changing. The year 2005 was officially declared ‘Year of the Beer’ in Wallonia. As an exercise in stating the bleeding obvious, this is surely up there with popes wearing funny hats. Surely every year is beer year in Wallonia?

Well, not quite. The romantic ‘brewtopian’ vision of a thriving artisanal Belgian craft brewing scene has become increasingly fuzzy of late thanks to a number of factors.

Stricter drink-driving laws have reduced the annual beer consumption of the average Belgian to a mere 90 litres, the brewing Goliaths InBev and Alken-Maes have the lion’s share of distribution and the small, brewing Davids rarely have the means or the money to let those beyond a 50 mile radius know about their smashing beers.

While word-of-mouth is all very well, whispering to your mates is hardly a modern marketing strategy on which to build a longterm future.

So, in an effort to champion the region’s lesser-known life-enhancing liquids and introduce them to a wider audience, the ‘Year of Beer’ initiative has rallied brewers both big and small, crammed a calendar full with a series of tastings, beer fairs, open days, exhibitions and, best of all, a number of ‘Belgian Beer Routes’ for both thirsty tourists and beer boffins to pursue.

Wallonia is made up of five provinces – Wallonian Brabant, Liege, Luxembourg (no, not the country), Hainaut and Namur – yet it is from the last two where the density of breweries is the greatest.

As we drove south east along one of the recommend routes from Brussels towards Namur, avoiding the motorway in favour of some stunning scenery, what whizzed past our window certainly didn’t match up with the clichéd preconceptions of Belgium.

The panorama is far more voluptuous than the rolling plains of Flanders. We marvelled at the meandering Meuse river and its towering valleys and gorges, admired the beauty of the countryside, chuckled at the signs for a town called Dave and the world’s only strawberry museum and wondered to ourselves how Wallonia had remained so wonderfully untainted by the tourist hordes.

Lest we forget, it was brews not the views that we were there for and so it was with a dry mouth and no small amount of enthusiasm that we arrived at our first destination.

BRASSERIE DU BOCQ

The Brasserie Du Bocq in Purnode, situated in a quaint little village off the road from Namur to Dinant, was founded in 1858 by a farmer Martin Belot.

The brewery remains in family hands and the rather grandiose Belot home is still situated opposite the brewery. Du Bocq is a big niche player that’s retained the craft brewing traditions of yesteryear yet remains unashamed in its embrace of modern machinery.

It thinks nothing of showing a bit of thigh to other breweries on the look out for a capable and knowledgeable contract brewer.

However, it’s the Gauloise range of top-fermented beers with secondary fermentation for which Du Bocq is most famous – and rightly so. The Gaulouise Brune, 8.1% ABV, is a wonderfully complex ale brewed with Pilsner, Munich and Caramunich malts; English hops and spiced with sweet orange peel and aniseed.

The Blonde and Ambree (amber) versions, added in 1994, are worth a try, too, while the Blanche de Namur, at 4.3% ABV, is a hugely refreshing and spicy wheat beer made with bitter orange and coriander, and it went down with ease.

British readers should take note that Blanche de Namur has now made it across the Channel in a 75cl corked bottles courtesy of distributor Vertical Drinks – well worth hunting down.

BRASSERIE LA CARACOLE

From one of Wallonia’s biggest independent brewers we headed for one of the smallest. The Brasserie La Caracole is in the tiny village of Falmignoul south of Dinant, where Adolphe Sax, creator of the saxophone was born.

Driving from Brasserie Du Bocq to Dinant, we passed the famous and extremely impressive Leffe monastery. Although you can visit the monastery, the thin-on-top clerics no longer brew the eponymous abbey beer on-site so we gave the boys a wave and carried on through to Falmingnoul, close to the French border.

The Brasserie La Caracole is less state-of-the-art and more falling apart. The Brewery Tap is a glorified dusty drinking barn with cobwebs, cast-iron chandeliers, lots of logs and, on our visit, a crooked old lady jealously guarding her bottle of beer to the tune of Duran-Duran blaring out from a battered old radio.

Caracole is the Naurois word for ‘snail.’ Caricatures of snails getting up to all kinds of mischief adorn all Caracole bottles yet the attitude of its founders Francois Tonglet and fellow home brewer Jean- Pierre Debras is better defined as laid back than sluggish.

The pair has begged, borrowed and pilfered equipment from various other breweries to create a ramshackle production which, for its modest size and means, produces an extraordinarily rich and varied selection of beers. Unfiltered and unpasteurised, these are classic Wallonian beers. Nostradamus, a 9.5% winter warmer sure to put hairs on your chest, is Caracole’s strongest brew made with five different malts. It’s deliciously fruity, brimming with toffee and caramel flavours and, so says Francois, perfect for after-dinner.

Alternatively Troublette, a cloudy wheat beer jam packed with citrus aroma and less coriander than more renowned wheat beers, would make a suitable pre-prandial tipple or a palate soothing sorbet.

Meanwhile Saxo (7.5%), created to commemorate the centenary of Adolph Sax’s death, is a more robust triple white beer with strong hints of coriander while Caracole Ambree (7.2%), the best-seller, is a sensational liquid made with orange peel, caramel malt and a mix of Styrian, Styrian Golding and Hallertau hops.

The boys at Caracole are happy to show visitors round their traditional brewery in return for a very small fee. Get in touch before you go though.

BRASSERIE VAL DE SAMBRE

The Brasserie de Val de Sambre has returned the beers of the long-standing Abbey d’Aulne to their spiritual home.

The Abbey d’Aulne, which is now a rather grandiose ruin and tourist attraction, was once a hive of brewing activity but a fire and a slump in religious dedication meant its celebrated beers disappeared in 1850.

A century later, a brewery in Dinant breathed life back into them and having been passed around various breweries like a collection plate on Sunday they’ve been lovingly returned to their birthplace in 2000 when the Brasserie Val de Sambre moved into the abbey’s former stables.

The brewery, nestled in the beautiful countryside of the western Hainaut province, boasts a tavern and a brewhouse occupying the same room. The well-stocked bar is within clinking distance of the fermentation vessels and the mash tun meaning you can do a brewery tour without leaving your bar stool.

It’s certainly a relief that the Abbey’s brews, all made from recipes dating back to 1555, have not disappeared down a beery abyss. Ginger, anise, coriander, orange, grains of paradise, cumin and liquorice are all called upon to produce a selection of eyebrowraising and spicy abbey beers and a soft and smooth organic wheat beer – Blanche de Charleroi.

Special mention must be made of the Triple Blonde, a gloriously golden and sweet beer which, at 8% ABV, is like being floored by Mike Tyson wearing a velvet glove, only much more pleasurable. Don’t leave without persuading master brewer Frederick Collinet to let you have a taste, or better still a bottle, of his very own. Espirit d’Aulne, a deliciously fiery spirit made from distilled abbey beers and aged in oak barrels for a year.

Highly recommended.

BRASSERIE DE SILLY

And there we were thinking that Dave was the funniest name for a Belgian town!

The Silly brewery was once known as the Meynsbrugen brewery and dates back to 1850. With the original family name a bit of a mouthful and the village name a marketer’s dream, it was no surprise when the Silly moniker was taken up.

But there’s certainly nothing silly about the beers. They’re yeasty, spicy brews with lots of fruit flavour, wellhopped and bottle-conditioned. Apart from a fantastic Pilsner, which could show Stella Artois a thing or two, all the Silly beers are top-fermented of which Scotch Silly, Double Enghein Blonde and Saison de Silly are the highlights.

Silly Saison is a very fruity example of a Saison beer, distinctive to Wallonia. Originally brewed to slake the thirst of rural workers in the summer, saison beers are designed to be refreshing yet heavily hopped to withstand the vagaries of the warm weather.

“Saison beers are not as popular as they once were. People’s palates are calling for sweeter beers and no-one works in the fields anymore, they’re all in front of computers,” lamented Silly’s head brewer Didier Van der Haegen. “It’s a shame as they’re all wonderful beers and delicious with food such as rabbit or roast lamb.”

Scotch Silly was launched in 1920 and named after a big drinking Scottish soldier called Payne who was stationed in Silly during World War One. Toffee, vanilla, banana, chocolate and caramel all stand to attention in this marvellously smooth beer that comes complete with a dram fine finish.

Word of warning: steer clear of Pink Killer, a strange and unfortunate stab at the alcopop market made from beer and grapefruit juice.

It’s packaged in 25cl bottles with a caricatured pink Pitbull on the bottle. Now that’s Silly.

BRASSERIE CANTILLON

Belgian brewers tend to go a bit mental with their yeast strains - there are thousands of the little blighters and they experiment by adding all sorts of diverse strains at different stages.

However, it is the naturally occurring air-borne yeasts used to make the distinctive Lambic and Geuze beers that are the most distinctive and nowhere are these styles celebrated more vigorously or traditionally than at the Brasserie Cantillon, a brewerycum- working museum close to Brussels Midi station.

Neither the brewery nor the beers have changed at all since 1900, when Cantillon was founded.

The walls may be coated in dust, cobwebs and spiders and the machinery may be old verging on decrepit but if you like your beers sour not sweet then you simply won’t care.

Both the fruity lambics and gueuzes, which are drier than a pensioner’s elbow, are made entirely with natural ingredients and uber-traditional methods including open-fermenters, oak barrels and, gasp, fresh fruit.

To make lambic beers, wild yeast from the air attacks the freshly brewed wort and ferments it into alcohol. Fermentation and maturation then takes place for as long as two or three years in wooden casks followed by secondary fermentation in the bottle.

Gueuze is made from a blend of Lambics of different ages both young (typically six months) and old (two to three years). Once the blend is bottled, it undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle to create its unique flavour. It is then often cellared for another six to 12 months.

Geuze was once the traditional beer of Brussels with more than 50 breweries making it. Now, however, the only traditional brewery that still uses the traditional methods is Cantillon.

While purists may chase after Lambic and Gueuze beers like a salivating Benny Hill, they’re an acquired taste and don’t be surprised if you find them too dry, acidic or tart to begin with.