A woman’s place is in the brewery
Many would consider An De Ryck of Brouwerij De Ryck a pioneering figure. She’s one of just a few female brewers in Belgium, and she has faced more than her fair share of challenges in this male-dominated industry. But when we sit down to chat (over a beer, naturally) all of my questions about how being a woman has influenced her livelihood begin to feel a little bit like clichés.
An De Ryck heads up an award-winning family beermaker in East Flanders
An is a petite and unassuming woman. As she tells it, brewing was an easy choice; she was born into it. An only child immersed in brewing culture, she grew up wanting to be a brewer, much to her father’s chagrin.
“At that time, 30 years ago, for a girl to study as a brewer just wasn’t done,” she admits. Her father’s attempts to dissuade her from the field only reinforced her desire. “That was a good guarantee,” she says. “When a parent tells a child they can’t do something, the child will do it.”
An went on to study brewing in Ghent and in Bavaria. Eventually she took over as brew master at De Ryck, the fourth generation in her family to do so. Her love for the craft is obvious. When I ask her how many people work at the brewery, she tells me four, but adds: “we don’t call it work.”
Gustaaf De Ryck, An’s great-grandfather, started this family brewing tradition in the village of Herzele, about 12 kilometres southwest of Aalst, in 1886. He bought a small farm for 5,000 Belgian francs and decided to try his hand at both farming and brewing to see which would be more profitable.
At the time, there were no brewing schools in Belgium, so Gustaaf travelled to Bremen, Germany, to learn the craft. He christened his new brewery De Gouden Arend (The Golden Eagle) to pay tribute to his German brewing mentor.
During the First World War, German forces seized the brewery’s horses and copper kettles, forcing it to close. At the time, there were two other breweries in Herzele, but only one, Dooreman, was officially allowed to continue operations. Nevertheless, this gave the other breweries in town, De Gouden Arend and De Smet, an opportunity to continue brewing, at least on a small scale, using Dooreman’s equipment.
After the war, the De Ryck family gathered all of their resources to reopen the brewery, this time under the name Brouwerij De Ryck. At this time, German lagers had become ubiquitous in Belgium, so the Belgian national brewers’ association organised a competition as an incentive to deviate from this norm. “They dared Belgian brewers to develop a beer that was as strong as the lagers but more sophisticated and richer in taste,” says Miek Van Melkebeke, An’s daughter.
Thus, the “spécial Belge” style was born – amber coloured beers of about 5% alcohol. De Ryck continues to brew their Special De Ryck from this original recipe to “honour the courage of our ancestors,” says Miek. The Special De Ryck remains the brewery’s flagship beer.
De Ryck is obviously steeped in tradition, but they also recognise the need to keep up with shifting markets. Up until five years ago, they only distributed their beer by the barrel, mostly to local cafés. But an overall decline in beer drinking in Belgium has compelled them to make some changes. A good proportion is now bottled and distributed in Italy, Spain, France, the US and hopefully soon the UK. Miek, formerly a speech therapist, is now working at the brewery and taking brewing courses in Ghent.
De Ryck produces nine beers, and impressive number considering its diminutive size and staff. Some cater to a traditional palate, and a few – like the Jules de Bananes – are sweet and fruity. Though hardcore beer connoisseurs may turn up their noses at the idea of brewing the latter, De Ryck’s motivation is sensible and even forward thinking.
They are aiming at a specific demographic. The goal is to get young women to come back to the beer world, says An. The idea is to produce a beer that has the sweetness that young people have come to crave, but also a “beery” flavour that may influence their taste buds and eventually bring them around to appreciate the taste of genuine beer.
Over the years, the De Ryck brewery has won a number of awards – most notably, their Arend Tripel was voted best Belgian tripel in the prestigious international European Beer Star competition in 2008. And the Special De Ryck took home bronze from the World Beer Cup, both in 2006 and 2008.
De Ryck does tours by appointment for groups (minimum of 15) in Dutch, English, French or German. Every second Sunday in September is open brewery day, and the first Saturday of October they partner with the city of Herzele and Van Den Bossche brewery for a big Oktoberfest celebration.
Brouwerij De Ryck
Kerkstraat 24, Herzele
Bike to the beer
Herzele residents are lucky; their area supports not just one, but two breweries – De Ryck and Van Den Bossche (makers of Pater Lieven and Buffalo). The breweries are only a few kilometres apart (Van Den Bossche is in Sint-Lievens-Esse). To capitalise on this, the town of Herzele has cleverly created a scenic and historic bike route, “Tussen pot en sint”, that will appeal to cyclists, beer-lovers and history buffs alike.
The route's name plays with the Flemish saying tussen pot en pint (loosely, between mug and pint), which refers to the relaxed intimacy of conversations over drinks. The ride – anywhere between 13 and 44 km – takes you through the beautiful hills of the Flemish Ardennes and is interspersed with small villages and chapels, with monuments to locally significant saints.
The route lives up to its name, offering its share of stories and artefacts that illuminate the history of the area as well as the small-town cosy atmosphere and libations of the area's eateries and breweries. You can pick up the bike map at Herzele’s local tourist office. Next week, part of the five-day Ronde van België (Tour of Belgium) bicycle race takes place in Herzele, with accompanying festivals for the public.
Sampling the goods
I am particularly impressed with De Ryck’s Arend Tripel. It stands up to beers at the top of its class, like the Westmalle and Affligem tripels, but its citrusy, floral nose and caramel taste with slight bitterness (courtesy of Cascade hops) also sets it apart from the rest. With a 9.5% alcohol content, this is a dangerously drinkable beer.
When I think of Christmas beer, I picture dark and malty, with hints of clove and allspice. De Ryck’s is nothing like it. It’s an amber beer with a flowery and fruity nose. The taste is honey, with surprising but pleasant blueberry notes, a slightly bitter end and 6.3% alcohol.
De Ryck also sells a number of edibles at the brewery that are made with their beer, including cheese, pâté, marmalade, chocolate and sorbet.