I’ve a confession to make. I like Stella Artois. That’s right, I’m a fan of a beer most closely associated with gross excess, brawls on the curb and rowdy football fans. What can I say?
As young men, there were few things me and my friends (sorry Mum, my friends and I) liked more than picking up a crate (or two) from the 24/7 in Kingsbury, going to our mates’ band room, playing guitars (okay, I watched people play guitars) and listening to music together. The times change, however.
Olivier de Brauwere is tall, garrulous and handsome and I’m here, in the once down-at-heel but now up-and-coming Brussels district of Dansaert, to discuss Brussels Beer Project, a brewery he founded in 2013 with Sebastién Morval. The two met whilst studying in Quebec, and later travelled the world in search of new beers and methodologies. When it was time to apply what they’d learned, they knew exactly where they wanted to do it. Right here. And not here as in Brussels, but Dansaert, once the heartland of Belgium’s brewing activities.
Once? Surely Belgium has always been littered with breweries, I ask. Even the most hop-averse punter will have heard of the likes of Stella, Hoegaarden and Leffe. Not according to Olivier.
“There used to be 150 breweries here,” he says, as we three large silver kettles nearby give off the yeasty smell of fermenting beer. “But eventually, there was only one. During the war (he forgets which one) the Germans took the copper needed for brewing and used it to make weapons.”
The void this left was eventually filled by a brewery in nearby Leuven; AB InBev. Now the biggest brewer on the globe, it’s put Belgian beers on the map, to the extent that some would argue its mass-market beers lack character and flavour, an opinion shared by Olivier and a cluster of other small brewers.
It’s one thing to want a better brew, a whole different ball game to achieve it. So how did it come about? BBP puts heavy emphasis on interaction with the local community, partially due to the success of its first foray into the market. Having initially struggled to raise capital, Olivier and Sebastién turned to Crowdfunding, incentivising investors to make a one-off payment of €130 in exchange for a beer every month –for life. Play your cards right, and that’s quite the pay-off. But did it work?
“It was even more successful than we’d hoped… when the banks saw how well the social media campaign had done, we got all the investment we needed.”
The location of the brewery is no accident either. Its symbolic setting is developing a reputation for trendy businesses and boho types looking for something a little different. Infamous but bustling Molenbeek is just across the water, while the area near Sainte Catherine boasts an array of bars, cafes, restaurants and design outlets. Here in Dansaert, kebaberies and small shops run largely by Brusseliers of Moroccan origin mix – at least on the surface – seamlessly with businesses at the other end of the cultural and economic spectrum. Signs of gentrification abound, but for now at least, the blend of old and new seems to work well.
BBP’s Crowdfunding initiative wasn’t the end of their ‘local’ approach. Several times a year, members of the public are invited into their premises to test beer – not easy to decline – and give feedback. They decide which beers are made, and choose names from a shortlist provided by BBP. Call that undemocratic if you will, but well, this isn’t Boaty McBoatyface. Or Brexit.
To date BBP has made beers with ingredients that include Earl Grey (a collaboration with indie-rock band Editors), cigars, camomile, oysters and stale bread donated by a local supermarket in a drive to cut down food waste. So all’s well in the world of Belgian brewing then? Not quite. BBP’s rise may have created a stir, but it hasn’t forged an esprit de corps with local breweries, some of whom take exception to BBP’s heavily marketed approach. Names like Cheeky Kamille, Grosse Bertha and I Like It Bitter are catchy, but some question the quality of their products.
“We are not best friends,” says Olivier, with a wry smile. This saddens him, as he’d like to see the smaller players club together to take on the big boys. Does the resistance stem from jealousy? He smiles again, diplomatically refusing to be drawn into criticising his rivals, saying only that it would be nice if they could work together.
After sampling a range of nostril-flaringly sour (but delicious) lambic beers at Moeder Lambic that afternoon, I stroll up to Brasserie De La Senne, a walk that takes me through the narrow, nervous streets of Molenbeek, less than two months following the attacks in March. Heads turn as a heavily armoured jeep sails through the streets, past clothes shops, bakeries and outlets selling discount jeans, plastic laundry baskets and knock-off electrical goods. Hidden away in a small industrial estate on the district’s edge, Brasserie De La Senne is about as inconspicuous as you can get, and yet inside I find a large, airy building teeming with activity. It’s there I meet co-owner Yvan De Maets.
He couldn’t be more different to BBP’s Olivier. Clad in a timeworn t-shirt and light denim jeans, he seems shy, bookish and retiring. But get him talking about beer – particularly the making of it – and he comes to life. He talks in depth about every aspect of the process. Worts, lagering, German kettles; terms which may sound dull fascinate him, and the enthusiasm is infectious. When I confide that I’ve been to BBP, however, his displeasure is evident. Why?
“When we make a beer, all the risk is on us,” he says, pointing to his chest. “If it’s a bad batch, we lose money. Their beers are made in another brewery, which takes on the risk.”
He nods. There is some truth to this. BBP makes around 200,000 litres at their Dansaert brewery, but its permanent beers are made at the Halen brewery in Ander, something Olivier puts this down to a lack of capacity (their premises are considerably smaller).
The contrast in philosophy is striking. So much for a band of brothers (also a beer made by Brasserie De La Senne, by the way). Think of craft brewers, and the image of meek, uncomplaining individuals comes to mind. With its various characters, Brussels’ beer scene, is a lot more like Game of Thrones.
Fortunately, Yvan is more interested in talking about his own beer than arguing about other breweries, and sheds further light on his philosophy. Hops are important, he says, but not as important as people think.
“Ten percent of IPA’s are good. But most are too pungent. The hops mask the taste.”
Still, they play a key role. Yvan chooses his from specific farms in the Czech Republic, Germany, England and Slovenia and even takes part in the picking, for quality control purposes.
Terroir is, in his opinion, just as important in beer-making as it is in wine-making. But it’s when he starts to discuss yeast that his eyes flicker with life behind his small glasses. Yeast, not hops, he says, is the key to good beer.
Inside another large room are two huge tanks that remind me of Tick Tock from Return to Oz. Their size is intentional. Only half contain beer, the rest foam, allowing the yeast to breath. This is vital for flavour, insists Yvan, though terrible for business, as it limits volume. A bank, he says, would balk at such inefficiency. So why doesn’t he upgrade? He smiles.
“We want to make good beer. It’s [the yeast] everything… she’s our employee of the month. Every month.”
After leaving the brewery – following the odd snifter, naturally – I amble towards Molenbeek, considering all I’ve learned about beer, the Brussels beer scene, and what its various breweries (I also visit En Stoemeling and Cantillon) have in common.
Though their philosophy remains poles apart, the desire to do something unique is shared. Where Yvan speaks with passion over lagering, warm rooms and double-vacuum bottling, Olivier comes to life discussing Facebook campaigns or the looks on peoples’ faces as they taste beers at the brewery.
For all their differences, there is a firm belief that there’s more to brewing beer than the bottom line. It’s an art, or in Yvan’s case a science, but a display of passion either way, something the two men have in abundance.
As for the beers? Brasserie De La Senne’s Zinne Bier was my favourite (light and characterful, perfect for sunny weather) though I still have fond memories of trying to open BBP’s dark Salvation without a bottle opener, and tasting it of course. Sure, I may be a Stella fella, but the beer in these parts is giving me the wandering eye.
Words by Ronan J O’Shea
Ronan J O'Shea travelled to Brussels with Eurostar He stayed at Zoom Hotel (Rue De La Concorde 59-61, 1000 Brussels)