by Jan Machiel van Bracht
Iconic beers of the Low CountriesWhat are the iconic beers of the present and future?
A new brewery seems to spring up every week in the Low Countries. More brewers are trying to engage in an ever more crowded market, which means an explosion of new creations. The beer culture of the Low Countries is thriving more than ever before, but do you know how it all started? Time for a trip down memory lane, when 50 years ago our forefathers lay the groundwork for the contemporary beer scene and the current generation of brewers.
50 years ago, pilsner was pretty much the only type of beer that was brewed in the Netherlands. Bock beer was drunk in autumn and, very occasionally, a seasonal or festive beer was launched. However, everything was brewed by a handful of breweries with national distribution and a few family businesses in the south of the Netherlands. Only one brewer brewed a top-fermented beer: the Trappist monks of Schaapskooi in Tilburg.
In 1981, the Skol pilsner brewery in Helmond was closed and Toon van den Reek was left jobless. He took the bold step to start brewing top-fermented beer in the empty brewery in Arcen with his old colleagues. In doing this, he encouraged other pioneers to brew small-scale, authentic beers such as ‘t IJ Brewery in Amsterdam and St. Christoffel in Roermond. They were labelled as ‘the first Dutch craft brewers’. These breweries and their original beers are still going strong today.
50 years ago, local pilsner brands in Belgium died out due to a merger between a few large pilsner brands. The brewing tradition of the Belgian Trappists in Westmalle, Westvleteren, Chimay, Rochefort and Orval, on the othet hand, was older and more well-developed.
The authentic, regional beers that survived could be counted on one hand, and included the Oud Zottegems, the Diesters, the Aarschotse Bruine, the Leuvense Peeterman, the Oudenaards Bruin, the Henegouwse Saison and of course the ‘mysterious’ Lambic from the Brussels area. These beers weren’t brewed on a daily basis and were sometimes inconsistent in quality. That was because the brewing process still involved coal-based open fires and the raw materials they used would often vary. The beers were mostly sold in the region itself, often brought directly to people’s houses like the milk delivered by the milkman.
Thankfully, a few of these old, Belgian regional beers are still alive today, including the ‘endangered beer species’ Oude Geuze and Saison, which have finally received the appreciation they deserve. They’re low in alcohol, super thirst-quenching and have nuanced bitter and sour notes in a rich palette of flavours.
Milkman from Hoegaarden
In 1966, milkman Pierre Celis from Hoegaarden had the idea to start brewing the extinct regional beer Oud Hoegaerds witbier. He had previously had a holiday job at the Tomsin brewery and knew vaguely how witbier was brewed. With almost no funds, Pierre got to work with two washtubs in an old, abandoned fruit cordial factory. This was the start of the first new generation of craft brewers. Oud Hoegaards was the standard for all witbiers and is now an established name worldwide.
Of the remaining traditional Belgian craft beers, the most loved are the Trappist beers such as Orval, Chimay Blauw, Rochefort 10 and the worldwide icons Westmalle Dubbel and Tripel. One of the biggest secrets to their success is the super yeast they use. Dubbel and Tripel were the first high-alcohol beers that were copied by brewers in the Netherlands.
Beer icons of the future
Toon van den Reek and I have already described the current icons in detail in the book Beer Icons of the Low Countries. The challenge for new brewers is to continue brewing original, quality beer, gain recognition and build a distribution network. Can they grow into the beer icons of the future? I have faith that in 50 years the list of iconic brewers will have expanded to include the newcomers of today. Time will tell which ones will make it, but there’s certainly enough choice at the moment!