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Getting the abbey habit

Added: Thursday, December 29th 2011

The Van Steenberge brewery is a fiercely independent and family-owned Belgian company that is aggressively entering the export market with an abbey beer, St Stefanus, brewed in collaboration with a monastery of the same name in Ghent.

The brewery in Ertvelde north of Ghent in East Flanders started life on a farm in the 1820s run by the Schelfaut family. In common with many brewers in the Low Countries, beer was made to refresh the family and the farm workers. A daughter of the farmer, Josef Schelfaut, married into the local Van Steenberge family who took control of the brewery and developed it commercially, concentrating on the sour brown beer style typical of the region.

The brewery grew in size and influence in the early 20th century under the guidance of Paul Van Steenberge, a remarkable figure in Belgian life. He became mayor of Ertvelde, entered the national parliament as a passionate advocate of the Flemish cause, and built a Flemish university in Ghent. He also changed the company name to Bios, which achieved success with its Oud Bruin (Old Brown) beer known as Vlaamse Bourgogne – Old Burgundy. But following World War II, the brewery had to change course again. Many Belgian breweries had closed during the war as their copper vessels had been seized by the invading German forces. The breweries that remained switched to lager production and Van Steenberge followed the trend with a lager beer called Leute.

But in the 1960s the family took the fateful decision to return to ale production, unable to compete successfully with such mass market lager brands as Jupiler and Stella Artois. As Trappist beers became popular, Van Steenberge approached the Augustinian monks of Sint Stefanus, who were keen to have a beer that carried their name. The monastery in Ghent had brewed for centuries but production had stopped in the 1970s.

The monastery dates from 1295 when Augustinian monks arrived in Ghent and were given four hectares of land by wealthy families to build a shrine to Stefanus – Saint Stephen. The abbey that grew up round the shrine was destroyed by Calvinists in the 17th century but it was rebuilt with the support of Ghent city council. The buildings were then seized and partially destroyed during the French revolution, when revolutionaries showed little respect for the border between France and the Low Countries. Lay people in Ghent raised the money to buy back one third of the land and buildings to rebuild part of the abbey. The monks had restored their brewing tradition but falling numbers forced them to abandon brewing and in the 1970s they discussed the possibility of a commercial brewery producing beer for them. Against stiff competition from other breweries, including Roman in Oudenaarde, Van Steenberge was successful and launched a beer called Augustijn in 1978. The beer is still known by that name in Belgium but it has been rebranded as St Stefanus for export sales. The monastery receives a royalty from beer sales.

According to Jef Versele, sales manager at the brewery and a member of the Van Steenberge family, the monks insisted that the beer should be re-fermented in bottle. They handed over their recipes and also – crucially --- their yeast culture. The culture was developed by Janis Jerumanus, the child of refugees from Latvia during the Soviet period. He was raised by Augustinian monks, became a micro-biologist and was appointed a professor at the University of Leuven. He was invited to become an advisor to the Sint Stefanus brewery and later discussed recipes and the yeast culture with Jozef Van Steenberge when he won the contract to brew the abbey’s beer.

In total, three yeast cultures are used to make the beer, which is re-fermented in both bottle and keg. It’s made with pale, Pilsner and Munich malts, a small amount of brewing sugar and is hopped with Saaz, with some bittering hops and also some German Hallertau. The brewery uses hard water that’s filtered and then Burtonised with sulphates.

At the end of primary fermentation, some yeast is removed by centrifuge but sufficient remains for a four-week maturation at 2 degrees C. The original yeast is then filtered out and two new strains, including the ‘wild yeast’ Brettanomyces, added. ‘Brett’ is best known as the catalyst used to make lambic and gueuze beers. The bottles are stored at 24 degrees for two weeks, allowing secondary fermentation to take place. The bottles are then moved to a cellar for a minimum of three months before being released.

Jef Versele says the beer will improve in bottle for three years. With a draught version in keg, he said a careful measure of sugar is used to avoid the kegs exploding. He has worked out how many yeast cells are needed to convert the remaining sugars – around 85 per cent of the sugar is converted. He says Van Steenberge – the old company name has been restored – is one of few Belgian breweries to condition in keg.

At six weeks, the pale gold St Stefanus has a big spicy and peppery hops aroma with tangerine fruit, a custard cream malt note and a hint of ‘horse blanket’ from the Brettanomyces yeast culture. Tart hops and tangy fruit fill the mouth, balanced by creamy malt and a hint of sourness. The finish is dry, with tangy hop resins, tangerine fruit and rich malt. At six months, the fruit character of the beer is more pronounced, with a big spicy hop note and more restrained malt. Bitter hops and tart fruit dominate the palate while creamy malt builds in the finish with bitter hops and tart fruit.

There’s also a Grand Cru version of the beer at 9 per cent, very pale in colour with a big barley sugar sweetness balanced by peppery hops.

*St Stefanus is distributed in Britain by Miller Brands.