Why a Brewer Needs a Brewery

The Politics of Beer by | May 2011 | Issue #52

The beginnings of Dilewyns' new brewery.

Should you ever write a regular column, let me pass on a tip: Do not blog.

Instead, write down every half-formed idea you ever have, and stow them away for a day when your brain can either form it into a coherent set of thoughts or else recognize it for the nonsense it is. Here is one I started 18 months ago. Between March and June 2011, Belgium will acquire three new breweries.

There is nothing odd in that. France has added about one a week for the last three years and shows no sign of stopping; Italy is similar, and the US expands even faster. What is unusual is that these three Belgian firms already enjoy established reputations for excellence; in two cases, to the extreme.

Oude Schooltje—whose pipes remain unjoined at the time of writing—is better known as “Struise Brouwers.” Their new playground is next to an old playground in a vacated village school, hence the name (“old school”). The geekosphere may be prematurely extolling them, but despite their charmed existence, they deserve great success.

Equally challenging in a more measured and therefore piercing way is the Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels, whose regular set of beers had the curious advantage, before its crew started brewing in earnest, of being well liked in their local market and classically brewed to their respective styles. With the release of Taras Boulba, they even helped define the Belgian Pale Ale style.

[Note: Article pauses while its author clears from his mind the image of a cluster of clean-shaven, slim and enthusiastic men nibbling panini in a smoke-free room as they mither* on whether “Brussels-style Hoppy Light Ale” should become Official World Beer Style no. 94.3.]

The third of the trio is Dilewyns, whose claim to excellence includes the distinctively Belgian fact that their most unusual beer, a mix of ale and Lambic called “Vicardin,” was made because they liked the idea, and their best, the underrated Scotch(-ish), called “Vicaris Generaal,” was made for the brewer’s grandmother.

Last month, I found myself standing in a glorified barn, surrounded by Europe’s edgiest brewers and loving the fact that some of their ringleaders had decided to show their wares in a village hall miles from anywhere. So I asked one of them, a cult hero, whether he too would get himself a brewery one day. Definitely not, he said, citing his main reason as the ghastliness of having to keep it clean.

I get his point. I have the same problem with word making. I much prefer to rant and have the editor tweak it into something more acceptable.

The reasons these new Belgian outfits have given for wanting their own (expensive, inconvenient, time-consuming, unreliable and under-used) breweries are to stop being reliant on the largesse and tolerance of others, and to have a sense of control over their own destiny. One added, smiling, that it would also make them feel more tied into the business.

They are right, of course. And I suspect, for what it is worth, that for all the “don’t do washing up” bravado, the aforementioned hero will succumb to ownership in the end, for the same reasons.

Back in 2009, when I started this piece, I thought that brewers who rejected being weighed down by managing a brewhouse were cool and wise. But I now know better. I was wrong. A real brewer needs a brewery like a proper chef needs a restaurant … or a serious author needs a printed page.

*mither: intransitive verb—English East Midlands—colloquial. To worry incessantly in a way that goes nowhere, other than up itself