Belgian Lambic Makers Like Cantillon Bet on Cherry Orchards to Revive Traditional Kriek

News by | August 14, 2018
Jean Van Roy of Cantillon, left, with Frédéric Morand of Vert d’Iris. | Photo courtesy of Vert d'Iris

In early July, Jean Van Roy of Brasserie Cantillon and Frédéric Morand of Vert d’Iris International visited a farm in Anderlecht, a Brussels commune southwest of the Belgian capital. Earlier in the year they had planted 100 cherry trees here. On this visit, the trees were showing their first fruit—plump Schaerbeek cherries, a tart variety traditionally used to make Kriek but no longer available commercially in Brussels.

“The lack of local fruits makes it hard for brewers to keep up with producing fruit beers,” says Morand, founder and managing director of Vert d’Iris, an Anderlecht-based horticulture cooperative aimed at returning sustainable organic farming to Brussels. “Jean Van Roy is struggling to get small amounts of acid cherries from across the continent. Difficulties in sourcing fruits, monitoring quality, and in ensuring regular supply make it very challenging to continue the production of Kriek. Production is well below market demand and speculation on specialty fruit beer, such as Cantillon’s Lou Pepe Kriek, is reaching unbelievable levels.”

Cantillon owner Van Roy confirmed the partnership with Vert d’Iris in a March 30 Facebook post that received more than 1,600 likes. “As you may know, the meager harvest of Schaerbeek Kriek (sour cherries from Brussels) the last few years haven’t allowed us to produce enough of Lou Pepe Kriek to sell in the store,” Van Roy wrote. “That’s why Cantillon Brewery and Vert d’Iris have partnered together to plant Schaerbeek cherries in the Brussels area.”

So far, the project consists of 100 cherry trees, with 500 more to be planted this fall. The goal is to plant 3,000 trees by 2022, “enough to supply the 10 metric tons required annually by Jean for his Kriek production,” adds Morand. Besides funding from Cantillon, Vert d’Iris has crowdsourced donations from more than 230 individuals and counting, but it needs €50,000 to make the project a reality.

The Schaerbeek cherry originated in the Brussels commune of the same name, northeast of the city center, explains Joe Stange, author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and Good Beer Guide Belgium. “In the old days Schaerbeek wasn’t as urbanized as it is now, and it was home to many orchards,” he says. “You have to imagine farmers [leading] donkey-pulled cartloads full of cherries from the Schaerbeek orchards to market in the center of Brussels.”

Before Kriek became a sought-after representation of Belgian beer, its production may have been a way for farmers and brewers to make use of excess product, cherries and Lambic, respectively. “These days Lambic brewers and blenders are getting great sour cherries from various places, including Belgian Limburg, Poland, and Turkey,” says Stange. “Whether the Schaerbeek cherries are any better is debatable, but they have a traditional significance.”

In 2002, Armand Debelder of Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen in Beersel became the first to reintroduce the production of 100 percent Schaerbeek Kriek, thanks to a few nearby families that brought in fruit from their gardens. “Ever since, the number of families that climb in their orchard to pick for Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen has steadily grown. Today, we have about 60 families that pick for us,” says business manager Werner Van Obberghen. Social media has helped the brewery crowdsource the indigenous fruit, increasing its supply from 900 kilograms (nearly 2,000 pounds) in 2016 to 3,500 kilograms (7,700 pounds) this year.

Despite the growing access to Schaerbeek cherries, the sheer volume of fruit used in production (350 grams per finished liter of beer) prevents Schaerbeek Kriek from becoming anything more than a small portion of 3 Fonteinen’s total Kriek output. But with the blendery’s recent planting of 200 fruit trees, Van Obberghen hopes that will change. “Our big dream is indeed to go 100 percent to Schaerbeek Kriek again in 10 – 20 years or so, fueled by the increasing interest of young people that adhere to beautiful traditions such as that of Lambic and Schaerbeek Kriek.”

It’s a goal shared by Gert Christiaens, owner of Oud Beersel, another Lambic brewery in Beersel. “Since I started with Oud Beersel to safeguard traditional Lambic beers and their culture, I wanted to revive the Schaerbeek Oude Kriek,” Christiaens explains. “And planting our own Schaerbeek cherry trees will bring us a step closer to our goal.” In the past two years, the brewery has planted 165 trees, with plans to add about 75 more by the end of the year. It takes approximately five years for the trees to reach maturity, but eventually, Christiaens says, the orchard should yield 2 – 4 metric tons of cherries.

With patience and hard work, the traditional Kriek may no longer be a thing of the past. And that, says Stange, would be a sweet circumstance for fans of Cantillon, 3 Fonteinen, and Oud Beersel. “A future with more Schaerbeek cherries is welcome news for enthusiasts of traditional Lambic beers.”