Carlo Grootaert is the mastermind behind one of this year’s buzz beers – Pannepot. It’s a beer his company, Struise Brouwers, produces as the Caulier brewery in Péruwelz, Belgium. His beer will soon be coming to the United States, courtesy of Shelton Brothers.
JO: First, Carlo, I’d like to thank you for taking part in this interview. I love Pannepot and hope that the exportation goes flawlessly so more people can enjoy your wonderful beer. Before I get started, though, when I was in Montreal I noticed the locals pronounced the beer in the French way, whereas most us pronounce it as in English. Could you please clarify the proper pronunciation of Pannepot?
(Pa) with a short ‘a’
(ne) with a short ‘e’
(pot) like you say pot.
The name comes from the type of boats they used a 100 years ago in De Panne.(De Panne is a Belgian coastal village near the French border). The boat you can see on the label is the P-50. It was the boat of the father of my grand-mother on my fathers side. These people had a hard life and the area where they lived was very poor at the time. Belgium has only 65 km of coast. Knokke is the village on the Dutch border, De Panne is the village on the French border. Now De Panne is a succesfull touristic village, known for its good gastronomy, sandy beaches and its natural dunes. We had several World-Champions in the beach sailing discipline. ‘chars à voiles’ or ‘zeilwagen-racen’ in Dutch or Flemish.
JO: Now, tell me a little bit about Struise Brouwers. The company, I take it, is quite small. Who are you? Where did you come from?
CG: De Struise Brouwers are a group of friends who started to brew beer at an ostrich farm in Lo. The farm ‘De Noordhoek’ is owned by Urbain and Philippe. Urbain has been a friend of mine for more than 20 years now. It was he who came up with the idea to make our own beer. At the farm, the visitors where bored of drinking always the same commercial beers. That’s why Urbain called me and asked me if I was interested in making a beer with him. I’m in the wine business and Urbain knew that my dream was to make my own wine. You know making wine in Belgium is not very easy. So he came up with the idea to make beer. Belgium is known for its beers and France for its wines. I said OK I’m in, but we needed a brewing installation. Urbain is an engineer and a very technical guy. I had 3 INOX syrup kettles (stainless steel) that I bought years ago from a pharmaceutical firm in Ghent (second hand). These were perfect to do the experiment with. We just had to do some modification work on it and buy some extra material to do the job. Our first and only beer we made in this installation was a wheat beer to replace the commercial stuff. We called the beer Struise Witte. A struisvogel is an ostrich but struis also means a strong tall guy. Witte is Dutch or Flemish for white. We also had the perfect installation for the fermentation of the beer. We used the ostrich eggs breading installation to do the job. It had perfect temperature control and the result was great. I’m in the wine business and it was easy for me to get empty Champagne bottles to put the Struise Witte in. When the beer was ready there where lots of local people who really liked it and many said, you have to continue brewing this stuff. This is beer just like in the old days.
JO: You brew your beers at the facilities of Caulier. Would you care to elaborate on this arrangement? Do you brew yourself or do they make your recipe? Why did you choose to go this route for the production of your beer?
CG: “Houston we have a problem.” We all have our jobs, and brewing is just a hobby that we only can do in our free time. I sell wine, Philippe sells cars and Urbain has 7 jobs - computers, construction, the ostrich farm and so on. One brew was sold out in one day. Friends and locals really liked the stuff and honestly it was good. We didn’t have the time to brew very frequently and our problem was even bigger than before. People wanted our Witbier and we were not able to supply.
So we needed to find a solution. Urbain had tasted one of the Caulier beers and he remembered that the Caulier was bière vivante - living beer. He told me that and I also tasted a few beers from the Caulier range. To me it had this extra punch and authenticity of traditional beers. This was the brewer to make contact with. A few days later we had our appointment with Roger Caulier. He showed us the brewery and was interested in our proposal to brew beer in his brewing facilities. When he tasted Struise Witte he replied we had come to the right place. Caulier have days that they don’t brew, if we hire the installations on one of those days, it is an extra day that the brewery works, so it is a positive point for the brewery. And we don’t have to invest in a professional brewing installation of our own.
Now we make four beers at the Caulier brewery. The cooperation with them is very good and we get a lot of support from Roger Caulier and his staff. We brew our own beers and we are allowed to use the Caulier ingredients inclusive the soft water and the outstanding self-cultivated yeast.
We still brew as a hobby and we’d like to continue brewing like this. We make a brew and try to sell it bit by bit. We don’t have any distribution in Belgium at all. We just deliver our few clients (Pubs like ’t Brugs Beertje, Kulminator, Hopduvel, Delirium Café and a few others) ourselves. Locals and friends just buy it by the case on a tempo of a few crates a year. Don’t get me wrong, it’s better to have customers buying small quantities than no customers at all. Selling the beer in Belgium is just go with the flow. Low tempo.
Our company is very, very small and we do everything ourselves. We even create our own labels and small publicity boards.
JO: Speaking about Pannepot, tell us about this “old fisherman’s ale”? What is the story behind the fisherman? What does the name mean?
CG: My family had this discription of a Dikbier (thick-beer) recipe from my great grandfather and the Legein family (Cornelius Legein), the owner of the P-50. It dates from around 1910. Dikbier was made at the time as a nourishment supplement. It was a very sweet beer with a thick consistency and a high alcohol content to warm the body in the cold winter days. It was a flat beer with no liveliness or carbonation at all. The housewives even added more sugar and egg yolks in it to give the guys some extra strength. The beer we make now stands miles away from the dikbeer the fisherman made. We will never know how the real taste must have been.
Pannepot is our interpretaiton of this dikbier and the way of making it is different from other beers. We use the way of infusing the aromas like the old fishermen did. I’m sorry I cannot say more about it. Capturing aromas is the secret.
JO: I wonder what you can tell us about Pannepot itself? What sorts of ingredients go into this beer – it seems like a fairly straightforward grain bill but there’s something incredible going on that most beers cannot match.
CG: Don’t search it too far, Pannepot is indeed a very straightforward beer. It is the result of three major factors. The way to avoid burning the aromas of the added spices, the soft water, and the stong Caulier yeast. I’m sure, if we had to make Pannepot in another brewery with different water and different yeast, it would only be a fraction of what it is now.
JO: You have other beers as well – can you tell us a bit about them?
CG: Our other beers are:
Struise Witte = Wheat beer. Urbain’s recipe, a four grain witbier with loads of character and a refreshing taste.
Struise Rosse = Wheat beer with brown beer yeast. This one is the Struise Witte that turned out amber by accident. We added the yeast tank that was to be used for the Bon Secours Brune from Caulier. The result was not bad at all, and we kept it.
Kloeke Blonde = A blond beer. Also a recipe from Urbain, it is a refreshing blond with a fine citrusy accent and a slight hoppiness in the end.
All three are very straightforward beers with a medium body and a good balance. The alc content of all three beers is 5.5%.
JO: To this point, you have only exported to one store – Ølbutikken in Copenhagen. Sending beer to the United States has to be a much more intimidating undertaking. Can you tell me a bit about the process so far?
CG: Since I’m on Ratebeer many things have changed. It seems that people from outside Belgium show much more interest in our brewing than the people in our own country. Belgians are not interested in yet another micro brewer. The beers that sell the most are the beers with a big publicity campaign.
The first Ratebeerian I ever met was The Beer God. Mike was at the Kulminator in Antwerp and I noticed him taking notes from a beer he was drinking. I just asked him ‘Are you a Ratebeerian?’ He looked at me and said “Yes. I’m the Beer God, and who are you?” We had a few beers and talked a bit. I told him that I made my own beer and he was really interested in trying it. For me that was a whooow moment.
A bit later I was at home having a De Dolle Zannekin. I was drinking it while entering it on Ratebeer. It was a very good beer and I gave it quite a high score. Only ten minutes later I had this beer-mail from Jeppe (Bierkönig).
Hi, I see you just had the Zannekin a few minutes ago, its one of the only De Dolle beers that I miss. Is it possible to find one for me and send it to Denmark? I replied no problem, mail me your address and I’ll send one to you. I took the opportunity to send him an extra bottle (Pannepot) of course. So a few days later Jeppe mailed me to thank me for the Zannekin and asked me what the other beer was, and what the story was behind the beer, bla bla bla... A few days later he mailed me back and explained that he was planning to open a specialized beer shop in Copenhagen and that he wanted to sell our beer in his shop. This was again a whaaaw moment. A few weeks later he came to Belgium to pick up his first load of Struise beers and Pannepot. Since the Danes liked it there was interest from Ratebeerians from all over the world. It is really great that an unknown beer from an unknown brewer is so well received in a community of outstanding beer enthusiasts.
JO: Is there anything you’d like to say to the beer geeks of America, the soon-to-be lucky recipients of Pannepot?
CG: Thanks a lot for being interested in our beers! Just take your time to enjoy it.