The Land of Beer: Visionary who saved Mechelen's last brewery

Summary

Flanders is home to the best beer in the world and our new guide is here to prove it. This week we visit the only brewery left in Mechelen

Mad instincts

There’s only one brewery left in the city of Mechelen, where once there were many. Brouwerij Het Anker wouldn’t be here, either, were it not for a decision made in 1952 by Charles Van Breedam, who was either a prophet or a madman.

Het Anker is now in the hands of Charles Leclef, the fifth generation of the founding family, although the brewing history of the site goes back centuries further. This was originally a begijnhof – a religious community for women – where beer was brewed for the sick. Louis Van Breedam bought it in 1872 and installed steam power.

Het Anker produces a number of brews, but Carolus is by far the most popular. “The name is a reference to emperor Charles V, who was born in Ghent and immediately moved to Mechelen, where his aunt, Margaret of Austria, was living,” explains Het Anker marketing manager Hans Rubens. “He lived here until he was 15, then he moved to Spain.”

The Gouden Carolus beer, meanwhile, is a reference to the golden coins that were used during Charles V’s reign. “The Gouden Carolus was in circulation from 1500 to 1515,” explains Rubens. “On the coin, Charles V is shown on a horse. The story goes that he had the dark ales from Mechelen shipped to Spain and that both horse and rider drank the beer to fire them up before going hunting.” 

In the early 1900s, Louis’ son, Victor, built the malting infrastructure, now used for storing the barrels of Gouden Carolus whisky. But small breweries were starting to disappear, and it soon becomes clear they had too much capacity.

Victor’s son, Charles, installed a new, state-of-the-art brew hall in 1946, directly after the end of the Second World War. He stopped malting altogether and took a fateful decision.

“Charles took what was, with the benefit of hindsight, a visionary decision: He stopped making pils and started making top-fermented dark ale,” says Rubens. “Everyone thought he was mad because everyone was moving into pils at that time. But Charles realised that pils would be dominated by the biggest companies, and there was no future in the product for a small brewer.”

He was also smart enough, Rubens continues, to make a distribution deal at the same time with the Lamot brewery, one of the largest in Mechelen. “Lamot was later taken over by Interbrew, and brewed Jupiler for a time until it closed down and production moved entirely to Jupille. Now the Lamot brewery is a conference centre.”

The current Het Anker owner Charles Leclef grew up living in the brewer’s house on the site while his uncle ran the brewery. Charles has introduced brewery tours to individual visitors and groups, even on weekdays. “An open brewery like this is pretty unique,” says Rubens. Usually brewery visits are only at weekends when there’s no production, or from a distance, behind glass walls.”

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Everyone knows you get the best beer in the world right here in Flanders, but it takes an expert to know which glass to serve it in, how to pair it with cheese and which brewer makes which brew. Download our new guide on beer for free!

Belgian beer

Belgium has a beer-brewing tradition going back centuries and is known around the world for both its beer culture and hundreds of craft brews.
History - Beer culture has been recognised by Unesco as part of Flanders’ Intangible Cultural Heritage. The local beer culture dates to the middle ages, when farmers brewed their own beer from the rich harvests of local grain, later transferring brewing to local guilds and abbeys.
Beer styles - The main styles include lambics, white beers, fruit beers, Trappists and abbey beers. The Trappist beer Westvleteren 12, brewed by a dozen monks in a small West Flanders town, is regularly rated by various sources as the best beer in the world.
Exports - Sixty percent of the Belgian beer production is exported abroad, with France, Germany, the Netherlands and the US the largest markets.
74

Litres of beer annually consumed per person in Belgium

100

breweries in Flanders

19

million hectolitres of beer produced in Belgium in 2012