It’s easy for Jo Panneels to remember the day Lambiek Fabriek brewed its first batch of lambic. That was March 22, 2016—the same day as the worst terrorist attack in Belgian history.
Belgium excels at the surreal; just think of René Magritte and the pipe that is not a pipe. But it’s hard to imagine anything more surreal than filling a homemade coolship full of wort for the first time—nervously embarking on a risky venture to become traditional lambic brewers—while absorbing news about suicide bombs that killed thirty-five people on the other side of Brussels.
“It’s like when people say, ‘You remember where you were on 9 / 11,’” says Jo Panneels of Lambiek Fabriek. “Well, we remember.”
The news was deeply disturbing for the young brewers, of course, but they had other things on their minds—namely, their livelihoods. They were staking much of their own money and time on a great leap of faith. It would be many months before they could decide whether they were happy to drink—and therefore willing to sell—what they were brewing on that day, and on many days to come.
Later that year, in December, a large family living 3 miles south of there would make a similar leap into lambic brewing. Bart Devillé, owner of the Den Herberg brewery and pub and father of seven, had long wanted to brew lambic.
Like Panneels and his friends, the Devillés would not know for months whether their experiment was a success.
“When you give the time to the product, that’s the best thing you can do,” says Devillé.
The Plea for More Lambic
Lambic brewing belongs to a small piece of a tiny country—Brussels and the region just west of it, called Pajottenland. Yet demand for it is rising globally. Much of that demand comes from the United States, a big wealthy country with a disproportionate share of enthusiasts who like to splurge. On social media, they find fellow fans and gush over certain brewers or blenders. Importers struggle to keep them satisfied, even as interest in lambic grows locally among (of all people) the Belgians. Inevitably, prices rise.
To the casual drinker and armchair economist, the solution is simple: Give us more lambic breweries! Make more lambic!
Setting aside that sense of entitlement that accompanies the global age—when we reckon we should be able to eat and drink beautiful things from almost anywhere, if we can afford it—let us be clear: It’s not that simple.
Real lambic takes time. It laughs at hasty plans.
Until recently there were only eight lambic brewers in the Senne Valley. To enthusiasts, their names are like old friends: Belle-Vue, Boon, Cantillon, De Troch, Girardin, Lindemans, Mort Subite, and Timmermans. It’s a venerable group that none had joined since Boon in 1977. The rest have been around for at least a century, and a few for more than 2 centuries.
Yet within the past few years they have been joined by two small newcomers: Den Herberg and Lambiek Fabriek.
Besides those brewers, there are a handful of accomplished lambic blenders, such as De Cam, Hanssens, Oud Beersel, and Tilquin. Outside the region are a few anomalies, such as not-so-traditional blender Raf Souvereyns, aka Bokkereyder, in Hasselt. They depend on the aforementioned brewers to provide lambic, which they age and blend in their own ways.
That’s about it. There used to be dozens more lambic breweries and blenders in the region. Given what’s happened with independent brewing worldwide, it would appear plausible to suggest that they might return in force.
It could happen. But not today, and not tomorrow.
Panneels says that banks are not interested in loaning to prospective lambic brewers; it takes too long to get results. First, it may be a year before a batch of lambic is ready to drink—and even then, it’s young. There are no guarantees that it will be any good. So, as a startup business, how much do you brew that first year?
Whatever you decide, it will be more than 3 years before you can release a proper version of what tends to be a lambic brewer’s pride and joy: an oude gueuze—traditionally a blend of lambics aged from 1 to 3 years. That corked and sparkling beauty might become the moneymaker. You won’t know for years.
So, consider the excitement and anxiety of those three young brewers on March 22, 2016. “You can control the brewing process 100 percent until the moment it’s going in the coolship, and then it’s over,” Panneels says. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. You need to brew today to have a part in the coming 3 years. You have to really plan ahead.”
And once that time starts to pass? It’s a ride.
“The train comes by, and you jump on and you think, ‘Wow, I’m driving the train!’ But the train is driving you. You can’t stop anymore.”
A Tale of Two Companies
Lambiek Fabriek is closely tied to a brewery named Belgoo; they share a brewhouse, an address, and more. Belgoo as a brand has been around for more than a decade, as brewer Jo Van Aert made his quietly excellent ales elsewhere. In 2015, he finally got his own brewhouse in the industrial suburb of Sint-Pieters-Leeuw. From the beginning, Lambiek Fabriek has used that brewhouse to make its lambic.
At the start, Van Aert didn’t want a coolship there; he said it was too risky to invite the wild micro-critters into his brewhouse. So instead, they trucked the hot wort about a mile south to a storage shed in Ruisbroek, where they had installed the coolship upstairs. They did six or seven batches this way. It was a challenging arrangement. Later, food-safety officials told them to stop. Their ramshackle shed had not been approved for beer production—let alone the exposure of wort.
“It was fucked,” says Panneels.
In desperation, they went back to Van Aert at Belgoo. This time, he agreed to allow the coolship—but outdoors.
Today, their unusually shaped double-vat, stainless-steel coolship is just outside the brewery doors, beneath an overhanging roof, suspended in a wooden-frame loft.
“We didn’t want to do it outside, but we were kind of forced,” says Panneels. “But we think maybe it’s better for the wort.” To peer in, you have to climb a rickety ladder. “It’s fucking hard to clean. We do everything ourselves. It’s a lot of work.”
The coolship is really two rectangular stainless-steel tubs welded together. Together they hold about 2,500 liters, and they fill them to the brim. “No, it’s really full-full.” Panneels says they lose about 10 percent of the liquid to evaporation overnight. Eventually, they’ll lose another 20 percent to the barrels and the angels.
“You always have a loss,” he says.
Van Aert of Belgoo later became a partner in Lambiek Fabriek. The other partner, Jozef Van Bosstraeten, also brews for Van Aert at Belgoo. “On paper, we are two companies,” Panneels says. “But it’s a big family.”
“Big,” however, is relative, and the “family” part is figurative. For the real thing, we drive 3 miles south to the village of Buizengen.
Lambic as the Logical Step
Bart Devillé and Ann Heremans have seven children—three sons, four daughters—ranging in age from 14 to 33. They’re a multi-talented bunch: musicians, brewers, dancers, builders, and people of hospitality. The older daughters help Heremans run the café, but in reality, everyone helps where necessary. Den Herberg is a true family business. The oldest, Akke, works in the brewery with Bart. Akke’s brother Kloris helps, too, though his main job is brewing lambic at Timmermans—a somewhat older brewery, being there in some form since the late seventeenth century. Kloris, 29, was able to add his experience and expertise to his dad’s longtime wish to brew lambic.
They already were Pajottenland brewers, after all. Lambic was the next logical step. Heremans and Devillé bought the building that would become Den Herberg in 2000, but it would be another 7 years before they could open it. They were busy with their main business, a construction company. Bart Devillé is one of those people who seem able to build or fix anything. He renovated the building, furnished the pub—brown and cozy in the Belgian way—and custom-built the unique tiled brewhouse—all from second-hand equipment.
“He is very handy,” Heremans says.
The brewery is in back, the café in front. “To have a pub was not the idea,” Devillé says. “It was not the plan. We started to brew, and it happened like that.” Yet the pub is an attraction in its own right. Wood-paneled, friendly, with a wide selection of beers, besides their own—including various bottled gueuzes and krieks—it is a real village café for the people of Buizingen. Local elders rub elbows with punters who know the Devillé children from school. “Young and old,” Heremans says. “There’s no age.”
There is another pet project: whisky. There are two barrels of it aging among the lambic casks in a room between the pub and the brewery. A nearby distillery made it from some Den Herberg ale that didn’t turn out as expected. The whisky is surprisingly smooth, and Devillé is clearly proud of it—though he wants to give it a few more years to mature.
The main Herberg beers are ales; they include a blond, a brown, a witbier, and a tripel. But the rising star in recent years has been their Cuvée Devillé, a dry and earthy Brettanomyces-laced pale ale directly inspired by Orval.
Authentic lambic is the latest addition—served only at the pub, on draft, via a container most often associated with supermarket wine: bag-in-a-box, with a spigot. Real lambic, for those unfamiliar with it, is not the easiest taste for most people to acquire. It is an austere drink, lemony-tart but soft and flat. At 2 years of age, the Den Herberg lambic is more accessible than most. It smacks of oranges and tea, with subtle oak and tannins, soft and smooth, and a faint backdrop of rustic barnyard funk. It is surprisingly easy to drink. As I taste it, one local aficionado leans toward me and says, “I find that this lambic is very pure.”
Eventually Devillé will make an oude gueuze—perhaps it will be ready in 2020—but for now, it is just lambic. And the locals have embraced it. A regional newspaper declared that the Den Herberg lambic was selling like zoete broodjes—like sweet rolls. Heremans told the paper that older regulars have been sharing stories from the days when such a drink was more common in Pajottenland cafés.
“Lambic used to be drunk much more. Today, it is mainly the gueuze and the kriek that are popular. So it’s high time to put the lambic in the spotlight.
“In the meantime, young people are also discovering our brew.”
Searching for Balance
At the Belgoo brewery, there is a small tasting room open mainly on Friday evenings. The Lambiek Fabriek beers are there, too. There is a small bar in the middle; on one side are stacks of records and a turntable. Locals bring in their own records and take turns playing them.
Barrels full of lambic are stacked along one wall. “All these barrels are full,” Panneels says. “It’s cozy in the evening when a lot of people are here.” Some of the barrels are marked with a “B,” meaning they are destined for Brette-Elle. Before the Lambiek Fabriek guys started brewing lambic, they experimented with blending. They would buy lambic from different producers and mix them together, or else steep lots of cherries in it.
“Because I’m from Dworp, we are all from the same area,” Panneels says. “We were born and raised on kriek and gueuze.” In fact, his grandmother ran a lambic café in Dworp, where they sold lambic from Winderickx—a local brewery that closed in 1969.
In their Ruisbroek storage shed, they still have some lambic from what they call their “Lambiek Fabriek Mega Blend.” It was a mix of different lambics they put together for fun in 2014. That old lambic, now 5 years old, is how they have been able to bottle and sell something they call an oude gueuze—that’s the Brett-Elle.
As a product, Brett-Elle has evolved. It should come into its own later this year, when Lambiek Fabriek’s earliest batches reach 3 years of age, and they can use only their own lambic to blend it. For now the beer is tangy and moreish, balancing lemony notes and barnyard. It varies bottle to bottle.
Brett-Elle’s younger cousin is the Fontan-Elle, also bottled and sparkling but not an oude gueuze. Instead they call it the Young & Wild because the lambics they used to blend it were from 18 to 20 months old. “And we were a little bit drunk, also.” In the glass it sparkles, capped by sturdy white foam.
There are aromatic notes of sharp lemon rind and horse blanket, complemented by toasted bread and nuts. It is tart, lively, and dry. It offers a glimpse of what the Brett-Elle might become.
When blending, they might pick ten barrels and pool them into a tank of 2,000 liters. What are they looking for? The same thing you look for in any good beer—balance. The blend spends 24 hours in the tank. Panneels says that the flavors meld together. “It’s like making a spaghetti sauce. When you put it aside for 24 hours, it’s better.” “At the end we don’t want too much sourness,” Panneels says. “We don’t want it. We don’t want the accent of a vinegar. If we have the taste of vinegar, we say, ‘Shit, we have acetic.’ And we don’t use it.”
At the beginning, the Lambiek Fabriek guys had no intention of starting a brewery. “The aim was to start a blendery or gueuzerie like Tilquin or De Cam,” says Panneels. “We tried to buy some wort, but in the end they all said no, or it was too expensive”—a consequence of high demand.
In the end they took on the more ambitious, risky, and expensive project of brewing their own.
“It’s really shitty when you taste a barrel after one year, and you’re like, ‘Is it okay?’ And you have to lose it.” In that moment, they are watching some of their family income literally go down the drain. “It’s part of the game also. I’m not complaining. Each game has its risk.”
Meanwhile they have put their personal finances on the line—a frightening prospect. “To start with, it’s really shitty,” Panneels says. “From an economical standpoint, it’s the worst decision we made. It’s one big hole of a financial disaster for us.
“But I know there’s a future.”