The Land of Beer: At De Ryck brewery, mum's in charge

Summary

Flanders is home to the best beer in the world and our new guide is here to prove it. This week we visit a family brewery that does away with stereotypes

Herzele, East Flanders

“My mother sometimes get angry when such a big deal is made of the fact that she’s a woman, as if she has to perform just that much better to prove herself.”

Decades before brewers began realising that women were in fact a target market for beer, An De Ryck was gaining the respect of her fellow brewers, slowly but steadily, by running the family brewery in Herzele, East Flanders. “Mama was the hype avant la lettre, I think,” explains her daughter, Miek. “Here it’s not about women and beer, it’s about beer. She can get really mad when people come for the umpteenth time to ask: ‘Is it easy as a woman to get on in that world?’”

Miek’s grandfather, she explains, was one of seven children. “Only two of them stayed in the brewery. My great uncle had no children; my grandfather had one. She was a daughter, and he was absolutely adamant she wouldn’t take over. But she said, if I don’t do it, who will?” So in the 1980s, De Ryck became what was probably the country’s first female brewer.

In those days, the brewery produced one beer, the Spécial, and only in kegs. As time went on, the need to start selling beer in bottles and to develop more types of beer became pressing, but, like De Ryck’s father, she was faced with the prospect of having no-one to take over the brewery after her.

Miek was a speech therapist, and her brother, Bram, a physiotherapist. Both members of the fifth generation had taken the conscious decision not to step into the family business.

“My mother had always said that she absolutely wanted to do it, even against the will of her father,” says Miek. “The more he said that’s nothing for a woman, the more she felt she had to prove herself. Later, the more everyone assumed that we would take over, the more we screamed bloody murder that we never would.”

At a certain point, she says, “we had the feeling that the brewery was at a dead end, like a lot of small companies at the time”.

The changes needed would require major investments, De Ryck realised. But if the line were to end with her, what was the point?

“At that time, too, seasonal brews were on the rise, and people were coming to the brewery and asking to taste the beer. The possibilities seemed to open up in front of us. Both of us went off for retraining, and, in the end, here we are.”

Now, three decades later, Miek notes that her mother “not only blazed the trail but can also claim some fantastic achievements. She never approached the job as a woman, she just got on with it like anyone else. Thirty years on, and she’s earned her stripes. I’m one of those who now get to enjoy the fruits.”

Photo: Miek De Ryck (right), with her mother and brother

© Rob Mitchell/stillmation.com