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Feature

Belgian beer gets a makeover in Brussels

Added: Tuesday, May 23rd 2017

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Close to a street fittingly called Houblon, where Brussels brewers once bought their hops, Belgian beer is being shaken to its core by a group of young beer lovers whose challenging slogan is “Leave the abbey, join the playground”.

The Brussels Beer Project was launched in 2013 by Sébastien Morvan (above left) and Olivier De Brouwer: as Olivier’s name mean brewer in Flemish it’s not too surprising he chose beer-making as his profession. He’s from Brussels, Sébastien is French and they met when they were both studying at university in Canada and fell in love with the craft beer culture in North America.

“After university we went our separate ways but kept in touch. When we both reached 30, Olivier sent me a message: ‘Either we do it now or we won’t do it’. I was working in Brazil but I moved to Brussels, set up a small brewery in my garage and went to brewing school.”

Sébastien and Olivier brewed four hoppy beers called Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma, organised 10 tastings in beer cafés and invited beer lovers in Brussels to come and sample them and choose their favourite. 1,000 people in total attended the tastings and Delta IPA, 6.5%, topped the poll. It remains BBP’s best-selling beer to this day.

The duo needed a site and brewing kit to become commercial brewers. A crowd-funding appeal was supported by 369 people who, Sébastien says, were keen to get out of the “comfort zone” of Belgian beer and reach out to new flavours. The supporters, whose number has grown to 2,500, were told they would get beer for life and are encouraged to stay involved through regular tastings and festivals at the brewery, which has a spacious tap room at Rue Antoine Dansaert. There’s a small bar with additional seating fronting the street and bottles and growlers can bought for home consumption.

The project has been a rousing success. It started with two people, now employs 12 and works closely with Anders Brewery in Halen: Anders is a specialist company that produces beer for brewers who need extra capacity and also helps find commercial outlets for them. Some of BBP’s beers are produced at Anders and the partnership has enabled BBP to flourish. Its beers are on sale in 150 bars, restaurants and stores in Brussels, throughout Belgium and in 20 European countries while a bar has just opened in Tokyo.

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As well as Anders, Sébastien and Olivier are keen to work with brewers in other countries with collaboration beers – “you learn from the experience and have fun,” they say. To date they have brewed in Tokyo, Britain, Paris, Norway, Canada and Brazil.

But the main thrust of their activities is Belgium, which they say mustn’t be “a museum of beer”. They are not criticising traditional brewers who “have beer in their DNA” but feel too many new brewers are living in the past and using old recipes to make their versions of abbey, wheat and other old styles.

“The young generation of brewers need to live in the present day,” Sébastien and Olivier say. “It’s exciting to play an active role in the craft beer world.” In order to develop new beers, they have discussed flavours with Charles Spence, professor of gastro-physics at Oxford University, who researches the tastes and structures of food.

Inspired by the professor’s work, BBP made a collaboration beer with Brasserie Goutte d’Or [Golden Drop] in Paris, where brewmaster Thierry Roche uses exotic herbs and spices from the surrounding market known as Little Africa. Stereo Lips (6.2%) was an IPA with the addition of vanilla from Uganda and Mexican chipotle.

BBP has conducted collaboration brews in Britain with Anspach & Hobday, Weird Beer and, the latest, Babylone, brewed at Hackney Brewery with Tristram Stuart. Stuart was impressed with BBP's idea of using left-over bread in the brewing process and donating a proportion of the sales to charity. Sébastien and Olivier conceived the plan as they are aware that vast amounts of bread – one tonne a month – go to waste.

They also enjoy brewing in London: “It’s amazing, one of the biggest brewing cities on the planet,” they say. Babylone, 7.2%, recalls the earliest days of brewing in the Old World of Egypt and Babylon when dampened grain used to make bread was fermented spontaneously by yeasts in the atmosphere.  30% of the grain mash for the BBP beer is made up of bread. Chinook hops create 55 bitterness units and the finished beer has a salty note from the bread with a fresh bread aroma and palate balanced by spicy hops and berry fruit. Generous hopping leads to a bitter and quenching finish.

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BBP produces 12 main beers a year and the one that finds most favour with the brewery’s supporters becomes a regular brew. 750,000 bottles a year are produced and new recipes are constantly devised. Dark beers include a Russian imperial stout and an oyster stout infused with fresh oysters from Brittany.

The front bar has an impressive stock of oak casks and there are further oak barrels in the taproom. Oak ageing has been taken up with fervour at BBP.

Sébastien says he plans to add 200 additional wooden casks when a new cellar is ready. “Wood gives an added dimension to beer. “Wine and spirits blur the boundary between wine and beer.” He’s currently ageing beer in oak casks that have contained Nuits St George, Champagne, Chardonnay and Speyside whisky.

Beers available on tap and for take away at present include Grosse Bertha, a 7% Bavarian-style wheat beer, Experimental IPA (5.8%) hopped with Citra, Motueka and Simcoe,Dark Sister, a 6.6% Black IPA, and Red My Lips (4.7%) a bright amber beer using dark grains alongside pale malt and hopped with Hull and Simcoe. It has a red berry and passion fruit character and is the latest beer to be chosen for stardom by BBP’s supporters.

Delta IPA remains the flagship beer. The 6.5% beer is brewed with pale malt, a Saison yeast culture and hopped with Challenger, Citra and Smarago varieties that create 45 units of bitterness. Unfiltered and unfined, it has a hazy bronze colour with cedar wood, spice, fresh bread and earthy hops on the nose. A dry and bitter palate is balanced by rich grain and cinnamon-like spice while the finish weaves between fresh juicy malt, earthy/woody hops and light fruit, finally ending bitter, hoppy and refreshing.

Brussels Beer Project is not only changing the perceptions of beer in Belgium but is – in Sébastien Morvan’s words – “fusing with the community”. It has also restored the beer-making tradition to an area of Brussels that, as Houblon Street proves, was once rich in breweries. The former Belle Vue brewery, closed by AB InBev, stood almost opposite, across the Charleroi Canal that runs through the district and was at the centre of the local producers of lambic beer.

Unlike the lost lambic breweries, BBP is in for the long haul. “The project encapsulates what we are,” Sébastien says: “organic, challenging...and never ending.”

*Brussels Beer Project, 188 Rue Antoine Dansaert. Tram 51 from Midi Eurostar station. www.beerproject.be.

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