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Chouffe: where beer is gnome from home

Added: Tuesday, October 4th 2016

Chris and gnome

The gnomes of the Ardennes have a lot to answer for. They inspired those irritating, chattering Smurfs on TV but more importantly – much more importantly – they are the face and taste of Chouffe beers.

Chris Bauweraerts, who founded Brasserie d’Achouffe in the Belgian Ardennes in 1982 with his brother-in-law Pierre Gobron, took the name of the brewery from the village of Achouffe in the densely wooded region of French-speaking Wallonia. The first brew went into plain bottles and Chris knew, if Chouffe was to make an impact in a country where beers are powerfully branded, it needed an image.

“We knew what we didn’t want on our bottles,” he says: “No fat monks and even less any reference to one or other of the abbeys. We wanted something different to what traditional brewers had had on their labels.

“Every self-respecting brewery produced a beer with a religious theme but we didn’t wish to drink from that chalice.”

Chris was watching TV one evening and saw an exhibition of the work of local artists. One showed a gnome spying on a farm building and the famous light bulb clicked. He mentioned the gnome to Pierre Gobron, who said he knew an art teacher and would ask her to design a gnome logo. The result was a gnome with a distinctive red cap carrying barley and hops on his back.

Today the whole of Belgium knows the Chouffe gnome. His image is not only on labels and bottles but also on beer pumps in bars.

And with Chouffe beers exported to some 20 other countries, it has become to a large degree the face of Belgian beer world-wide. And the gnome has given his image to the first Belgian IPA, a style unknown in the country until Chouffe created the tongue-twisting, palate-pleasing Houblon Dobbelen IPA Tripel.

The Ardennes may be a remote area but it’s not difficult to find the brewery. Large carved gnomes on the sides of roads point you urgently in the direction of the brewery. Visitors come in their thousands every year. Chris says groups of Americans make an annual pilgrimage and others come from as far away as Japan. On the day of my visit, the large sampling room for visitors was packed with two coach loads, one from the Netherlands, the second from Grenoble in the south of France. For 9 euro each, visitors get a tour of the brewery, a beer tasting and a glass to take home. They can also buy beer, books and merchandise in a large on-site shop. 

Chouffe brewhouse

The Belgian-built modern brewhouse, based on a mash mixer, lauter tun, copper and whirlpool system, produces four brews a day and 150,000 hectolitres a year. The brewhouse sends beer to 10 conical fermenting vessels.

It’s all a long way removed from the humble origins of the brewery, based on a farm dating from 1805 with a lake and a backdrop of wooded hills that are the source for the soft water used in brewing. The first brewery was cobbled together from a washing machine drum and two mash tuns and boiling vats that had started life in a laundry.   

Pierre Gobron first brewed in his kitchen, where Chris joined him. They decided to take the plunge, give up their full-time careers and move to a barn on the farm in Achouffe. They ended up buying the farm and the surrounding fields as the business expanded. The first beer, and still the mainstay of the brewery, is the 8% La Chouffe Blonde, a beer with a spicy hop aroma and palate. It has been joined over the years by McChouffe, with a big bow in the direction of deep amber and malty Scotch ales, Bok – brewed mainly for the Dutch market – a winter beer N’Ice Chouffe, the summer refresher Soleil and the innovative Chateau d’Ychouffe, a dessert beer mixed with the “must” of grapes skins from the Sauternes region of France.

Without doubt, the beer that has created the greatest interest abroad – and two-thirds of Chouffe production is exported – is the 9% IPA, first brewed in 2006.

“An American importer suggested we should add an IPA,” Chris Bauweraerts says. “Nobody in Belgium knew what an IPA was. At first, the beer had 62 units of bitterness, but we’ve scaled that back to 45.” Deciphering the name, houblon is French for hop, Dobbelen is the Flemish method of indicating a strong beer, while Tripel indicates that three hops are used in the brewing process.

The beer is brewed with pale Pilsner malt only and the hops are Amarillo and Tomahawk from the U.S. and Czech Saaz. The result is a beer with a spicy, peppery and floral nose, with rich biscuit malt and elderflower on the palate, balanced by spicy hops and orange fruit. The finish is bitter, dry, hoppy and malty with a continuing orange fruit note. The brewing water is hardened with calcium chloride to make the beer.

chouffe pumps

In common with all the Chouffe beers in bottle, IPA is reseeded with yeast and brewing sugar. Bottles stand for 24 hours at Achouffe and are then transferred to the Duvel Moortgat brewery for cold conditioning.

The Duvel Moortgat connection is the result of Chris and Pierre selling Achouffe to the large family brewery at Breendonk near Antwerp in 2006, famous for Duvel strong blond beer. Chris grew up in a small town close to Breendonk and knew the DM people well. The takeover was amicable and gave Achouffe the ability to have its beers marketed and sold in many export markets. In the U.S., DM owns Boulevard, Ommegang and Firestone Walker, giving it a sizeable presence in the world’s biggest beer market.

DM also owns ‘t Ij Brewery in Amsterdam while Bernard in the Czech Republic is a DM shareholder, enabling the beers to be sold in  that major beer-drinking country.

Chris is a now a roving ambassador for the DM group, regularly appearing and speaking at brewing events abroad, including such key venues as the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup. But his first love will always be Achouffe where he proudly helps show visitors around and then shepherds them to a tasting in the visitor centre, with gnomes left, right and centre.

All that’s missing is a sign over the door: “Haven’t you got a gnome to go?” But it might get lost in translation.

*Brasserie d’Achouffe, Rue du Village 32, 6666 Achouffe. 061 28 81 47. The brewery shop sells My Chouffe Story by Chris Bauweraerts, available in English as well as French and Dutch.