Upstart lambic blender puts new twist on ancient craft

Summary

Bokkereyder in Hasselt is a fresh face on a traditional beer scene, blending lambic beer with fruity new flavours – and other young blenders are following his lead

Rich harvest

The 2016 cherry growing season in Belgium was nothing short of a disaster, according to Raf Souvereyns. “We had a wet and stormy spring, and a lot of trees were damaged,” he says. “And the summer was so-so. There wasn’t much fruit at all.”

The poor season meant Souvereyns was short of the 40,000-plus Schaarbeekse krieken – sour cherries native to the Schaarbeek district of Brussels – that he and his friends would usually handpick. 

The 32-year-old needed those cherries for his Pinot Kriek, one of the many beers he makes at Bokkereyder, the lambic blender he founded in 2014. Without the cherries, Souvereyns (pictured) was forced to develop other blends to take Pinot Kriek’s place.

And so came a series of raspberry blends, some fermented with vanilla pods, others aged in used Cognac barrels. For Souvereyns, a cherry crisis meant a chance for creativity.

“In every beer I make,” he says, “I want to honour the noble character of the base lambic, but I use different techniques and different fruits. Traditional, but with a modern twist.”

Right place, right time

Bokkereyder, based in Souvereyns’s hometown of Hasselt, is a fresh face on the beer blending scene. It's only the third lambic blender to open since 1997, but its success might be a harbinger of more lambic blends to come.

That only three new lambic blenders have opened in the past 20 years could have something to do with the lack of new lambic breweries, from where the base of their product comes.

From 2009 to 2015, according to the Federation of Belgian Brewers, a new brewery opened on average every month: 72 in all. Lambic brewery openings trail severely behind - because of the logistics involved in making it.

In every beer I make, I want to honour the noble character of the base lambic, but I give it a twist

- Raf Souvereyns

“When you’re starting a non-lambic brewery, in some cases you can start selling your beer in four to six weeks,” says Yves Panneels, a board member of Horal, a non-profit organisation that promotes traditional lambic beer. “If you’re starting in January with a lambic brewery, you will have your first young lambic by the end of the year. And if you want to make a geuze, you have to wait three years.”

Leave it to nature

The word “lambic” might as well be a synonym for “painstaking”. No other beer style in the world requires as much time, patience and, frankly, just being in the right place at the right time.

Unlike in more traditional breweries, lambic brewers don’t intentionally ferment their wort – the sugary liquid made from steeping malted barley and other grains in warm water – with cultivated yeasts.

Instead, they allow wild yeasts and bacteria native to their region to inoculate the wort and spontaneously ferment it, essentially relying on nature for the most important step of brewing – turning sugar into alcohol.

The resulting fermented beer is called lambic. It’s sour, acidic and often described as “funky”. Blending multiple vintages of lambics, usually one-, two- and three-year-old batches, creates geuze, which has even greater complexity. Lambic wort is different from most wort, in that it must contain a certain percentage of wheat.

Expert advice

Four years ago, Souvereyns started tinkering with home blending by adding fruit from his garden to lambic he bought directly from breweries. He got tips here and there from various professional lambic makers, including the three producers where he now gets his lambic wort: Girardin, De Troch and Lindemans.

He also learned from winemaker Ghislain Houben, the founder and owner of Winery Hoenshof near Hasselt, particularly about the process of barrel aging. Fast-forward to 2017, and Souvereyns is now a renowned professional blender. Just as he’s quick to credit his own mentors, several young Flemings now are following Souvereyns’ lead.

It’s very cool to see him grow from just being a guy who does home blends to someone the beer world is going crazy over

- Niels Leunens

Niels Leunens, a 24-year-old salesman by day, has lived all his life in Beersel, a town that’s home to two lambic breweries (3 Fonteinen and Oud Beersel). Even so, and despite early exposure to lambic, “like a normal Belgian 16-year-old, I drank what every 16-year-old Belgian drank: Jupiler, stuff like that.”

But in the past few years, his fascination with lambic has sucked him into the home-blending hobby. He’ll buy multiple litres of lambic from various producers, age them with anything from the traditional (raspberries) to the experimental (rose petals), and bottle them under his amateur label, Huisstekerij Le Chat Rebelle.

“When I started getting a little more serious and not just chucking stuff together, Raf Souvereyns was a big help to me,” Leunens says. “It’s very cool to see him grow from just being a guy who does home blends to someone the beer world is going crazy over. It’s beautiful to see. It inspires me to keep going with what I’m doing.”

Time to expand

While Leunens doesn’t yet have concrete plans to go professional, Tim Van Nueten just might. Van Nueten’s family has made a living from drinks for years. He’s the fifth generation to work at his family store, Drankenhandel Van Nueten in Herentals, Antwerp province, but he’s the first to actually blend.

“About two years ago, I started joking with a friend about how cool it would be to blend our own lambic,” says Van Nueten, 27. “We were both really into lambic for quite a while.”

He and his friend first tested five fruits aged on lambic bought from De Troch. The results varied.

“Kiwi turned out to be a difficult fruit,” he says. Pineapple was “tasty but lacked body”, while the grapes he used were out of season, “so quality wasn’t great”. His blueberry and raspberry blends were hits, though, and that success motivated him to grow his hobby.

He’s now taking brewing classes at Alvinne brewery in Moen, West Flanders. He blends up to 30 litres at a time and has bought used wine barrels so he can expand to larger production. He even hinted at brewing his own wort – not buying it from lambic producers – so he never has to worry about supply, though technically this product could no longer be considered lambic.

He stresses that he remains an amateur home blender, his bottles not ready for the paying public.

The price is right

That could change, for any other home-blender willing to take the next step. Lambic interest is at an all-time high, says Paneels. Buyers are willing to pay well beyond retail prices for the right bottles.

Home-blenders with greater aspirations can look to accomplished lambic breweries, from Cantillon to Lindemans to 3 Fonteinen, and they also can look to their peer, Souvereyns, who’s having immediate success with Bokkereyder.

His business, though, remains small-scale for the time being: In Belgium, his beers are only available at In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst in Lennik, recently voted the country’s best bar.

After an up-and-down 2016, Souvereyns predicts “more and better beer, hopefully” for 2017. “I think the younger Flemish generation is definitely inspired by the older generation of lambic makers,” says Leunens. “There is a new wave coming.”

Photo courtesy BelgianBeerGeek.be 

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