Belgium’s Funky New Wave

Joe Stange, managing editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium, explores how that country’s wilder-side beers have continued to evolve.

Joe Stange Jul 7, 2020 - 8 min read

Belgium’s Funky New Wave Primary Image

Photo: Joe Stange

In Belgium, for the most part, that thing called “saison” has not followed the same wild path taken by American craft brewers, who have driven it down some increasingly acidic and horsey roads.

After the style almost went extinct about 30 years ago, more Belgian breweries than ever are producing saisons—but usually they are nearer to the dry, bitter-ish, clean-but-rustic examples of breweries such as Dupont and Blaugies.

On the other hand, even beyond Lambicland, Belgian brewers know a thing or two about funky yeast and mixed fermentation, and—like their friends in America and elsewhere abroad—they have been exploring that realm in the past couple of decades with their characteristic levels of both panache and balance.

As a result, brewers looking for inspiration from Belgium need not be confined to a few 20th century archetypes. The evolution of Belgian brewing did not cease when Michael Jackson stopped to tell its story to the world—far from it. It may be a tiny country, but its brewing scene remains a massive fount of creativity—a source of hugely characterful beers that also tend to be highly drinkable.

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Brett Beers and Stranger Things

If more Belgian brewers are playing with strains of Brettanomyces, it’s important to remember that it’s not exactly a new trick. Think of the Trappist ale Orval, which still gets a dose of Brett after primary fermentation and evolves beautifully with time in the bottle.

Brettanomyces bruxellensis, after all, is named after Brussels. It also lends its name to a beer from that city called Bruxellensis, brewed by the Brasserie de la Senne. It’s a dry, bitter pale ale that gets some Brett for conditioning, developing pronounced notes of leather and pineapple. (Its brewer is Yvan De Baets, whose research into historical farmhouse brewing forms an important chapter in Phil Markowski’s Farmhouse Ales book—for more about that, see More Roads: Rethinking Farmhouse Ales.) In an example of influence vectors that cross the Atlantic and come back again, Senne brewery’s Jester Zinne is a mixed-culture collaboration with Jester King, whose house blend of yeasts and bacteria comes to the forefront with age.

Another excellent beer that showcases Brett is the Ardenne Saison from the Brasserie Minne. Its fruity-but-musty aroma comes from the mingling of dry-hopped Hallertauer and Cascade with a Brett strain originally harvested from the skins of local apples. The Minne brewery recently moved to larger digs in the Ardennes and has been expanding its barrel-aging and blending projects. One such is Woody Wood, a blend of lambic and the brewery’s own Lacto-soured red ale, Rouge Ardenne.

One of the more unusual examples of a Belgian Brett beer in the past decade came from the Proef brewery, which made Zwet.be for the 3 Fonteinen lambic brewery and blendery. The fermentation of this dark, porter-ish, strong ale came via Brett isolated from 3 Fonteinen lambic.

Mixed Blends and Strange Fermentations

It would be rude to write an article about mixed-fermentation Belgian beers and not mention the Flemish oak-aged reds and browns, such as Rodenbach or Duchesse de Bourgogne. Even for a brewing tradition essentially dominated by long-running, family-run regional breweries, there have been new developments. Interesting takes include Verzet Oud Bruin, which embraces more acidity than the classic Flemish tart-sweet balance. Variations of that beer get infusions from cherries, grapes, raspberries, or—for an interesting tannic edge—oak leaves. Meanwhile, the brewery’s Kameradski Balsamico is a playful, powerful hybrid of its Oud Bruin and an imperial stout, checking in at 13.5 percent ABV.

On the other end of the spectrum, the tiny Vandewalle brewery produces its Reninge Oud Bruin that is more oak than acid, getting pronounced vanilla-woody overtones that meld with rich malt and a more restrained, subtle, cherry-like tartness. Chris Vandewalle also blends his saison-like Reninge Bitter Blond ale with Oud Beersel lambic to produce tart, dry Bitter Blond à Lambiek.

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There are advantages to having Pajottenland in your backyard, after all. Several Belgian breweries have produced stunning beers by blending their ales with authentic lambic.

One of the best-known is from the De Ranke brewery in Dottignies. The Cuvée De Ranke is a blend of bitter-ish strong blonde ale and about 30 percent lambic. A variation on that theme, rosy and sharp Kriek De Ranke, gets fruited to the tune of about 2 pounds of whole cherries per gallon.

At the aforementioned Senne brewery, the Cantillon-lambic-blended Saison de la Senne, brewed in 2008, became a sought-after gem and likely inspired others. De Baets has dabbled in lambic-ale blends a few times over the years, most recently with the Wadesda #7. Notable: He says Saison de la Senne II, also blended with Cantillon lambic, is in the works for Summer 2020.

The criminally underrated Dilewyns brewery in Dendermonde is known for its Vicaris Tripel-Gueuze, a blend of tripel and a filtered mix of different lambics, balancing delicate sweetness and acidity to create something surprisingly round, harmonious, and easy to drink for its 7 percent ABV. Likewise for the Loterbol brewery’s occasional Tuverbol, a blend of strong blond ale and 3 Fonteinen lambic produced once every few years. The brewery lists Tuverbol at 11 percent ABV, but the lambic-driven acidity has a quenching way of hiding the beer’s strength.

Blending blond ale with lambic makes a certain amount of sense. On the less intuitive side, the lambic blender Pierre Tilquin partners with his friend Gregory Verhelst at La Rulles to produce Stout Rullquin, a mix of lambic and roasty dark ale. In my view, this beer starts with some rough edges, getting rounder, more compelling, and more drinkable with age.

Another producer of idiosyncracies is the tiny Bokke blendery of Raf Souveryns. He uses Girardin lambic as dynamic source material, and his unusual ideas include blending it with Fantôme Saison and then loading it up with apricots to make Abrighost, or blending lambics of different ages with macerated wine grapes to make Wijngaard.

Of course, the Fantôme brewery itself warrants mention, as its beers often develop a mixed-culture strangeness that can defy easy categorization. In that sense, it might be closer to the farmhouse breweries of old—the ones that writers speculate may have been brewing with mixed cultures, whether or not they knew it. Interestingly, it is that very speculation that nudged brewers in Belgium, the United States, and elsewhere to open the stable doors and let some increasingly unusual creatures out into the sun.

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