Something’s brewing in an attic in Bruges

Summary

Bourgogne des Flandres, a Flemish red-brown ale, is returning to its roots, and visitors are welcome to watch the brewing in action beneath the eaves of a historic Bruges house

Back where it belongs

As you walk along the Dijver in Bruges, or chug past on one of the boat tours, you’ll see an attractive bar terrace across the canal. It’s a typical Bruges sight, but with a subtle difference: the beer being supped in the sunshine is brewed on site, in one of only two breweries active in the heart of the ancient city.

The Bourgogne des Flandres brewery is a relative newcomer to Bruges, opening in March 2016. But the beer from which it takes its name originated in the city, so brewery manager Patrick Monnissen sees this as a return to the source.

“Bourgogne des Flandres was a real Bruges beer brand, born in 1909 here in the centre of Bruges,” he says, “so we decided to bring it back to where it belongs.”

It was originally produced by the Van Houtryve brewing dynasty, whose roots in the industry stretch back to a farm brewery known to be operating in Loppem, not far from Bruges, in the mid-18th century. The family moved into the city in 1825, setting up the Den Os Brewery on Ramstraat. As this main brewery passed from father to eldest son, the younger siblings went into the business with breweries on Wollestraat and Oude Zak.

Golden age

When Bourgogne des Flandres, a West Flemish red-brown beer, was devised, the industry was at its peak in Bruges, with 34 breweries active in the city. Two World Wars and the rising popularity of lager beers put paid to this golden age. By 1957, the Van Houtryve family had closed all its breweries. 

It’s an historical building, and it wasn’t the easiest job to build a brewery inside. Our solution was to build the brewery in the attic

- Brewery manager Patrick Monnissen

Nevertheless, Bourgogne des Flandres continued to be produced to the family recipe, in partnership with breweries elsewhere. One of these was the Timmermans Brewery in Itterbeek, near Brussels, where the blend was reformulated to include its lambic beer. The John Martin group took over Timmermans in 1993, and it was present chief executive, Anthony Martin, who decided to return the beer to Bruges.

The original brewery buildings were not available, but a substitute was found a stone’s throw from Wollestraat, in Kartuizerinnenstraat. “It’s an historical building, and it wasn’t the easiest job to build a brewery inside,” Monnissen says. “Our solution was to build the brewery in the attic, which is quite unusual.”

It’s essentially a microbrewery, producing a dark, top-fermented beer that goes by the name of Den Bruinen Os. This beer is then shipped to the Timmermans brewery where it’s blended with lambic that has aged for over 12 months in wooden barrels to produce Bourgogne des Flandres. 

Entertaining tour

The logistics of getting the beer in and out of the narrow streets leading to the brewery was a further challenge to be overcome, along with ensuring that no by-products of the brewing process escape into the environment.

“We are working with small amounts of beer, but everything still has to be controlled,” Monnissen explains. “We have filters everywhere in the building for the water, and the air going out of the roof is also filtered, so you don’t smell anything outside.”

You walk right into the brewing process. You can talk to the brewer and ask your questions, whatever your level of beer knowledge

- Patrick Monnissen

Putting the brewery in the attic makes for an entertaining tour, which visitors take with an audio guide. As you climb the stairs, fitted out in 1900s style, you hear the history of the family and the beer, then at the top of the building you meet the ingredients – water, malt, hops, yeast – and the vats and vessels in which the beer is created.

“You walk right into the brewing process,” Monnissen says. “You can talk to the brewer and ask your questions, whatever your level of beer knowledge.”

The brewer is Thomas Vandelanotte, a Bruges local who appears relaxed with all levels of expertise. “Last Sunday an American brewer was here, who was working for some big companies, and his questions were very detailed,” he says. “I don’t have any secrets, so I can tell him whatever I know.”

The group that followed only had a vague idea about what was involved in brewing. “They thought the base ingredient was hops, and that we were making a kind of tea,” he says. “Then it’s fun to get into the basics.”

The top of the building also gives fine views over the Bruges rooftops and landmarks such as the Belfry. Heading back downstairs you pass through a multimedia zone, where you can play games such as designing personalised bottles, and the brewer’s lab. The final step is a tasting of the beers in the bar.

Alongside Bourgogne des Flandres and Den Bruinen Os (which won second prize in the Bruges Beer Festival this year), you can also try the one-off beers that Vandelanotte develops on the side. “Every two or three months he can do whatever he wants in the brewery,” says Monnissen, “and that’s where he can set his creative side free.”

Photo: Jurgen de Witte

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