When Josh Oakes asked me to talk about lambicproducers and gueuzeblenders, I told him about our new guide “Lambic/kLand”. You’ll find everything about the current state of affairs there, I said. (Editor’s Note: This book is brand new, from Tim Webb, Joris Pattyn and Chris Pollard, aka "Podge").
But Josh pointed towards Oud Beersel, and all those that went before. I saw his point. The problem is that yours truly chimed in at the turn of the seventies/eighties, a bit later than Saint Michael J., and has caught only glimpses of what had been before. The guy who should have written these pages is called Frank Boon. He is a walking encyclopaedia on what’s lost and how it was done. On a good pre-lunch visit to Lembeek, a few months ago, he told me more about gueuze history than I already knew, and much more than I can recall. But Frank is already trying to fit 25 hours into a day, to keep his brewery running. You’ll have to do with me.
I have in my possession an original leaflet of an early, loose association of craftbrewers (CBS/GSB – 1954). Amongst the participants, 5 lambicbrewers, from which 2 (Vandenkerckhoven, central Brussels and De Page from Overijse) who send their esteemed clientele to sample their wares in pubs in Jezus-Eik. This village, just beyond the Zoniënforest (the woods just south of Brussels’ agglomeration) is today the first exit on the Namur motorway, and has been reduced to a silly, unworthy tourist trap. It parasites on a time when it was at the end of the southernmost tramline from Brussels, so the capitale-ists could go to drink a kriek in the weekend, as their Parisien counterparts would go to a Seine musette-terrace to drink Muscadet.
But at the time of my leaflet, several blenders offered their often-locally-made gueuze and kriek in the village. Walking around and sampling on that long street might have yielded more different lambics than one could find today at a festival vying to offer them all. Obviously, being born in 1957, I belong to a later, poorer generation.
We all know about Oud Beersel-Vandervelden. Equally sad was the demise of Vanderlinden, the one that would have passed away unnoticed, but for a little message that went around beerlovers’ circles for a good eighteen months: “the brewery at Halle is for sale.” Nobody bid… In their last days, we knew Vanderlinden for their Vieux Foudre Gueze & Kriek. Earlier, its Duivelsbier (a mixture of spontaneous and top-fermenting beer) was at least as popular. And real money came in, in the heighdays of Halle kermis, the annual feast where “Knal” was served. Frank tells me its origins and manufacturing were somewhat dubious, but having sampled from the last bottlings, I remember it with great regret.
Other (normal?) people meet their future lifepartners at the disco, or perhaps at the debutantes-ball. I met mine, ten years ago, when we went both marching through Schepdaal town, against the closure of De Neve brewery by its parent firm Belle-Vue, itself tucked under the vulture’s wings of Interbrew, tearing at every moribund brewery in sight. De Neve wasn’t exactly our favourite, producing (a bit like De Keersmaeker today) only a fraction of the real (superb!) stuff, compared to a mass of sweetened, filtered humbug. But its end heralded also the end of one of the best loved blenders: Moriau at Sint Pieters Leeuw, who mainly used the excellent De Neve lambic. Today Frank still produces an unfiltered gueuze under the Moriau name. De Neve themselves had seen to the closure of the last Wolvertem brewery, Brabrux, that was itself the meagre leftover from several fused breweries – local and others from further out.
I have drunk Taymans gueuze. Taymans originated in Jette, inside the Brussels agglomeration, it got taken over by another agglomeration brewery, Vanderperre in Laken. That one ended sadly as one of the many Brabrux brandnames, next to Caves Breughel, Caves St. Pierre, La Bécasse, etc. Some of those you might still recognise, as they lived on for export until this day. Nothing to do with the originals, of course.
Most of the agglomeration brewers didn’t stand out. What I remember of them is sweetened, filtered gueuze. Brasseries Unies (Goossens & De Boeck) were amongst the last to survive and largest, but I never managed to track down one of their brews. In the great beerbar “Den Spijtighen Duvel” in Turnhout, the owner managed to serve me a bottle of Gueuze Cornet de poste from Louis & Emile Decoster brewery. They were the ones believed to be at the origin of adding saccharine to lambic to mask too sour, too acetic lambic. (The real demise of gueuze in the sixties hailed not in the least from a growing shortage of choice in good lambics). Their brewery ended up as the headquarters for Constant Vandenstock, alias Mr. Belle-Vue.
In bright contrast, there was the village of Dworp, southwest of Brussels, just beyond Beersel town. When I started hunting for gueuze, two were still alive: Gebroeders De Koninck, and Hanssens. Thanks to Sidi and her husband, the latter is still going strong. Dekoninck spell their name differently now, and sell a sad filtered Boon product, after having served filtered Girardin. Then, they made their stuff at home. De Koninck – Proost, very much liked by the villagers, had just closed doors.
Lambic aficionados’ knees still go all wobbly at the name of Edgar Winderickx, one of Payottenlands’ most legendary brewmasters-gueuzeblenders. More than 30 years after its closure, I sampled his gueuze. It had withstood the decennia effortlessly: sulphury, woody, powerful.
Better than what I’ve still got from Rosalie de Rauw. From de Rauw, the festive gueuze which I still keep is another decennium older. It was brewed for the marriage of Mrs. de Rauw’s daughter in the winter of 1961-1962. Her brother held the family pub, still known as “ In den Ouden Pruim” in Beersel and he had it in his cave, when I visited them in the mid-eighties. That first try was one of the most mind-blowing experiences I had as a beertaster - a flavour that I usually associate with an exceptionally well-aged Grand Cru from Burgundy. When I was able to purchase a crate or two, I nearly wept for joy.
Ah, the things I once bought. When a young dental student in Jette, at the Brussels’ University, I drove my VW beetle to the nearby town of Asse. In my beerlocal in Antwerpen, ‘t Groot Ongenoegen, I had sampled Heyvaert Kriek, from Asse and I thought the world of it. So did my parents, delivering the needed cash! Little did I realise that the crates I bought, were amongst the last ever available. Marcel Heyvaert had stopped brewing by then, and had blended his last. A few years later, the brewery, a superb towerbuilding, and an industrial archaeology landmark, followed the brewer to his grave, after wilful destruction.
Marcel Heyvaert was a kind man. Not all lambicbrewers were known as such. Everybody shudders at the name of the old Louis Girardin, but he was peanuts compared to the last generation of Van Malders. Van Malder senior – never met the man – had the last independent brewery in Brussels except for Cantillon (as chance will have it, also in Anderlecht, at 10 mins walking from Jean-Pierre’s). He had built up quite the clientele, and under the name “Brasserie de la Bourse” his gueuze, kriek and framboise were sold on the posh Avenue Adolphe Max in the financial heart of Brussels! Then the old man died, and his two sons “took over”. Meaning that they kept wining and dining at their mothers’ table, at the frivolous age of 40+. The brewery itself, they left for what it was, and when Frank (him again) started cleaning out the remains (the neighbours wouldn’t stand the rats any longer), he found vats that had – literally – rotted through, stinking vinegar-lambic spreading out over the floor of the caveau. Probably because of this I was removed bodily from the premises by one of the horrible brothers, when we came visiting Frank there. God knows what I might have witnessed. Frank sold us a crate of Gueuze Van Malder later, “under the table”. It infected my cellar with “beerworms”, insects laying eggs in the cork stops…
Not a crate, but at least a glass Frank poured us on the occasion of my first visit in Lembeek, from one of the few old brewers he admired: Leon Van Sever from Wezembeek. The beer was from 1956, and I tasted it around 1985-86. It was delicious, as good as was the 1975 Geuze Frank Boon – officially his first, but still very much the old gueuze De Vits, as Frank was still using most of his lambic when he bought his blendings. I hated his kriek, though.
Not all the best gueuzes were necessarily from Payottenland. The Brussels’ town centre held its own in some cases, as by Van Halen (vats & beer taken over by Van Honsebrouck-St. Louis) – never tasted by me, and, of course, Vossen, who were the original brewers of Mort Subite Gueuze, before De Keersmaeker bought them lock, stock and barrel. They were truly legendary, too. The Mechelen brewery ‘t Anker, kept Vossen gueuze and kriek for over sixty years intact (well, taste & mouthfeel reverted to that of old lambic) in their cellars!
Lambicbrewers did quite a bit of internal preying. Eylenbosch, now sadly a B-marque of Mort Subite, wielded great names: Festival, Spanik were their own, presumably, but Rodea, before ending at Schepdaal, was once the pride of St. Genesius-Rode. Rode is linked to Alsemberg, where until the nineties Drinkcentre Wets, maybe the most beautiful off-licence I ever saw, blended their own marvellous gueuze and kriek. I hold tight to my last bottles of “dubbele kriek Wets”.
Everybody knows “De Rare Vos” pub at Schepdaal. Why hasn’t anybody asked them yet, how many times they had to change purveyors? Today, it’s Girardin. It used to be De Neve, after the Eylenbosch went out. At my first visit, it was De Troch – no, not the one from Jos Raes from Wambeek, but the one from Tuur De Troch, from the Spanuit blendings, whose modest entry was right opposite the big gates of the Eylenbosch tower, on the other side of the Ninove road. Kriek Tuur De Troch proved to be rubbish, but their gueuze was lipsmackingly good.
De Keersmaeker! Today, that’s Mort Subite – or Scottish & Newcastle. But the De Keersmaeker family is more a dynasty, really. There was a brewery De Keersmaeker in Wolvertem, in Brussegem, besides the one surviving in Kobbegem. The one in Brussegem was better known as brewery Belgor, and their lambic was sold years after they’d stopped blending. Their gueuze was “zeejk” (sick), their cleaning lady confided me. By that she meant that the Saccharomyces viscosus stage wouldn’t clear out, and kept the beer undrinkable in the bottle – for five years, maybe. After that, it turned champenoise. I drank 1982 Belgor gueuze at Peter Crombecq’s house, and superb it was. We returned to the brewery in 1989, and ‘blended’ our own gueuze. Chewing a whole peeled lemon is a less sour experience than drinking one of those.
I’m going to stop here – I’m getting overnostalgic. But I hope to have conveyed to you that what we know today, is but an infinitesimal piece of a superb tradition. And even then, they can’t leave it alone, with their infernal, superfluous EU-rules. Once, every village in the Payottenland had at least its two blenders (one catholic, one liberal), and every second farmer made lambic for them. The Payottenland was poor, and we were rich because of it. Now the Payottenland is rich, with Brusseler or European immigrants, H.S. trains or motorways. And we are the poorer for it.