Little Town, Big Beers: Touring the Breweries and Cafés of Ingelmunster, Belgium

Feature by | Jan 2007 | Issue #1

Castle symbol of Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck.

The Belgian town of Ingelmunster may be small, but beer-wise, it’s huge.
 Located in the province of West Flanders, in northwest Belgium, Ingelmunster is a place with a long history, jam-packed with political and religious strife and, of course, untold hectoliters of fine Belgian beer. These days, the scenic town with a population of around 10,000 boasts two specialty breweries and a castle with a splendid cellar café. And just a few kilometers away is one of Belgium’s finest beer cafés.

Ingelmunster is best known for Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck. This brewery, situated right by a castle, was first opened in 1900 by Emiel and Louisa Van Honsebrouck. Many Belgian beer lovers probably know the brewery primarily through its Kasteel Brown and Tripel, both of which weigh in at 11 percent alcohol by volume, as well as Brigand (9 percent); the Flemish Sour Brown Ale, Bacchus (4.5 percent); the St. Louis range of fruit beers; and, most excitingly, there’s the Gueuze Fond Tradition, produced using open fermentation with wild yeasts from the Pajottenland, the Lambic-brewing region of Belgium. Van Honsebrouck has a large, open-air, rectangular vessel on the roof of the brewery, where raw wort is pumped in once a year. The wort sits for 24 hours, and the yeasts in the air infect it. And get this: the wild yeasts which cause this fermentation were brought to Van Honsebrouck in 1958, inside wooden barrels filled with Lambic from a now-defunct brewery.

And did I mention the castle?

Xavier Van Honsebrouck, 39, is the brewery’s fourth-generation owner.

“We bought the Ingelmunster castle in 1984,” he says. “It is the symbol of our brewery, and is well known to beer lovers around the world.” The building, kasteel in Dutch, was completed in 1736, built on the foundations of several much older structures. English monks built an abbey here in 640 AD, and a fort was built on the abbey’s ruins in 1075, before being ruined itself (ah, Europe!). Nowadays, one can sample the beers of Van Honsebrouck in the Kasteelkelder café, essentially the brewery’s taproom, open on weekends year-round, and every day in July and August.

“We have plans to renovate the Kasteel,” Xavier says excitedly. “It will have a hotel, restaurant and festival hall with modern facilities. Also, the admin- istrative offices of our brewery will be relocated there.”

Beyond the castle, Van Honsebrouck is planning to dramatically ramp things up in the near future. After experiencing “massive” growth in the past few years, Xavier says the brewery is investing 3 million euros to up production from its 2001 levels of 50,000 hectoliters, to nearly double that by the end of 2006, to even more in the future. The brewery expansion is set to begin soon, and will wrap up sometime in 2008.

“We will also be introducing several new beers,” Xavier says. “There will be a Kasteel Rouge released in January or February 2007, and a Kasteel Blond later. Then there is Brigand, which was first created in 1980. We have completely restyled this magnificent Blond Ale, refermented in the bottle, with 9 percent alcohol.” Xavier says the Brigand will be launched stateside in 2007.

Van Honsebrouck considers exports a key part of the brewery’s overall strategy, sending product to 19 different countries. “The beer market in Belgium is declining,” Xavier says, adding that the brewery has managed to keep sales steady. “But we also want to grow our export markets. We export about 25 percent of our production currently, and I have a goal of 40 percent for the future.”

Located just down the street is Ingelmunster’s other brewery, the tiny Picobrouwerij Alvinne. How tiny is it, you ask? Pretty tiny. Picobrouwerij Alvinne is located in a wooden building the size of a storage shed, located in the backyard of owners Davy Spiessens and Glenn Castelein.

“We first started brewing at De Graal [another small Belgian brewery] in 2003, and opened our brewery here in late 2004,” Glenn says. “We brewed about 150 hectoliters of beer in 2005, and will produce about 250 hectos this year. In 2007, we will probably reach our capacity here, at about 400 hectoliters.”

Alvinne’s beers are very much in demand by beer lovers all over Belgium. “All our beer is sold out in advance to beer cafés and distributors,” Glenn says. “At this moment, I have no beer to sell!” While that sounds like a pretty good position for any brewery to be in, Davy and Glenn have to work very hard to keep up with demand. “We normally brew twice a week, beginning at 5am, and finishing about 3pm. It is a long day,” Davy says.

The brewery produces a Blond, Bruin, Blond Extra and Tripel, as well as a brew that’s becoming a cult classic in Belgian beer circles: The Podge Belgian Imperial Stout. This malty, complex beer was created in conjunction with Chris “Podge” Pollard, an Englishman who runs beer tours from the UK to Belgium.

Beyond those offerings, Alvinne makes several other eclectic, interesting brews. There is the Balthazar, a reddish brown brew, which is brewed with ginger, cardamon, dark candi sugar and coriander. Melchior is an 11 percent Barley Wine that will age well. And Gaspar, at 8 percent alcohol by volume and 115 IBU, is one of Belgium’s hoppiest beers. Davy and Glenn list all the ingredients used in their brews on their website, which is fairly unusual, given the often secretive nature of Belgian brewers.

“We don’t have anything to hide. Anyone can see what is in our beers,” Davy says.

Alvinne uses only Belgian-grown hops (pellets) of the Challenger, East Kent Goldings and Saaz varieties. Belgian malts are also used. They bottle in the 33 cl size, and also in small kegs. The beers are unfiltered, unpasteurized, and refermented in both bottles and kegs. While they’re not yet available in the US, all of these brews are well worth seeking out if you’re in the area. Call ahead if you’re interested in taking a group tour.

Also worth a look is the Streekbierencafe Kroegske, located in nearby Emelgem. Here, owners Danny Verbeke and Nadine Demeestere run one of the area’s most impressive café/restaurants, with over four hundred different beers on the list, and a menu characteristic of Belgium, one of the world’s great culinary destinations. Nadine crafts delicious meals, with a focus on cuisine à la bière. She and Danny also created two beers, Goud and Pater, at the Alvinne brewery.

To complete the consummate West Flanders experience, stop by De Sneuckelaer, a wonderful chocolate shop on the same street as the breweries. Stock up, head to your hotel and collapse from all the indulgence. You won’t regret it.

Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck
Oostrozebekestraat 43, Ingelmunster
Tel: 051 33 51 60

Kasteel Ingelmunster
Stationsstraat 3, Ingelmunster
Tel: 051 30 03 85

Picobrouwerij Alvinne
Oostrozebekestraat 114, Ingelmunster
Tel: 051 30 55 17

Streekbierencafe Kroegske
Vijfwegenstraat 35, Emelgem
Tel: 051 30 77 63