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/// BELGIAN BEER
 
AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2007
 
Belgian Beer
The "Champagne-Style" Beers of Belgium
 
 
Antoine Bosteels pouring a DeuS Champagne beer, taken inside the brewery's tasting room.
 
Two of the world's most renowned breweries are located in the small town of Buggenhout, Belgium, only a couple of kilometers from each other. Both Brouwerij Bosteels and Brouwerij de Landtsheer produce a range of excellent beers. Each brewery has its own take on beers produced in a new and unique way, utilizing parts of the "méthode Champenoise" used by Champagne producers in France.

"I am the sixth-generation owner, and my son Antoine is the seventh," Ivo Bosteels told me proudly as we sat down to a meeting to discuss their world-renowned brewery. "We have been brewing here since 1791, and this building — our ancestral home — dates to 1843!" he continued.

Brouwerij Bosteels is well known for its Pauwel Kwak and Tripel Karmeliet brews, each of which has its own individual character. The secret to this character is that the beers are all created with different yeasts and grain recipes.

"If you did not know our brewery and tasted all our beers, you would not know they are from the same brewery. Our beers are all unique, with their own flavor profiles," Antoine emphasized.

"The most important thing for us is the yeast. This gives our beers personality. We don’t use hops or bitterness for personality in a beer. It is just a matter of personal preference for us," he added.

Bosteels's DeuS “Champagne-style” beer certainly fits the profile of Antoine’s sentiments. Lanny Hoff of Artisanal Imports, who imports the Bosteels brews into the U.S., told me: "Given the idiosyncratic, standalone beers they brew, I think DeuS is a logical progression. It is unlike any other beer in the world. It has a dense, foamy texture, giving it a mouthfeel of great character. With six bars of carbonation, it is also highly effervescent. Additionally, the yeasts used impart a spicy character to the beer."

 
 
Antoine Bosteels with a DeuS Champagne beer.
 

The DeuS (11.5% abv) was first imported into the U.S. in 2001, after a long period of research and experimentation. "We always think in terms of quality, not quantity," Ivo stressed. "We think about bottles, not hectoliters."

DeuS begins life with a two-month primary fermentation and maturation period, after which it is shipped by tanker truck to a secret location in the Champagne region of France. The location is equipped with a cellar suitable for fermenting and maturing DeuS. The beer is bottled immediately upon arrival with a crown cork. The DeuS undergoes a period of at least 12 months of fermentation and maturation at about 55°F.

DeuS begins life with a two-month fermentation and maturation period, after which it is shipped to a secret location in the Champagne region of France.

After the lengthy maturation process, the bottles are turned very slowly over a period of time so that eventually they are upside-down. This process is called "riddling."

The purpose of riddling is to allow the yeast and proteins to concentrate in the neck of the bottle. Once the process is completed, the bottle neck is frozen while still upside down. It is then turned sideways, and the crown cap is removed. The frozen yeast plug is then expelled by the pressure in the bottle. Fresh beer (under pressure) is then added to top up the bottle. As the remaining beer in the bottle is bubbling under CO2 (foam pressure), no oxidation is introduced during the process. The bottles are then corked, cleaned and labeled. This part of the process is also found in the "méthode Champenoise" used by Champagne producers.

 
 
Ivo and Antoine Bosteels in the brewhouse.
 

Why do this in France? "First, it is only about 200 miles from the brewery. Secondly, we benefit from a certain expertise of our French colleagues in riddling and disgorging, and together with our expertise in beer, we thought we could obtain the best results for disgorging and remauging DeuS in that region. Note that riddling and disgorging beer is more difficult than doing the same with wine. Together, it makes a perfect symbiosis in producing DeuS. Also, all the special equipment needed for achieving the process in this way is concentrated and available in the Champagne region. Additionally, there is enough space in their caves for our DeuS to mature," Antoine told me.

"We recommend you drink DeuS within a year of purchase. It is best when fresh. We have already aged it for you, the beer lover!" Ivo told me.

If you are in the area of Buggenhout, you can taste DeuS at the Amandus Grill in St. Amands. For white tablecloth service (and multicourse meals!), head to the one-star Michelen restaurant, Truffeltje, in the impressive old market town of Dendermonde.

For more info about Bosteels, visit their website at: www.bestbelgianspecialbeers.be

Brewing on the same spot as his grandfather and great-grandfather did in generations past, Manu de Landtsheer has created a very successful and innovative brewery in just nine short years. Known primarily by its brand name, Malheur, Brouwerij de Landtsheer produces a lineup of excellent beers: Blond brews called 6, 8 and 10, and a dark 12. The beers all contain the same amount of alcohol as their numbers and have a fine bitterness. Only whole hop flowers are used in the Malheur beers, and the varieties are Hallertauer, Saaz and Styrian. The brews are filtered, though unpasteurized and bottle-conditioned.

Malheur Brut Reserve was the first Champagne-style beer created at De Landtsheer, debuting in 2001. The base beer is the Malheur 10. Primary fermentation takes about 10 days, after which the beer is cold-conditioned (lagered) for two weeks. The beer is then bottled in new French Champagne bottles, with a plastic stopper, called a bidule, inserted into the neck of the bottle. A crown cork seals the bottle at this stage.

 
 
Here is a photo of Manu de Landtsheer pouring glasses of the Malheur Cuvee Royale, the third and newest Champagne beer of brewery De Landtsheer.
 

The Brut, like its siblings, the Dark Brut and Cuvée Royale, then undergoes a period of at least two months of warm conditioning at the brewery. After this, the bottles are riddled over a period of two weeks so that their final position is upside-down. The Brut bottles are then placed in a special mobile container and stacked on top of each other.

The bottle containers are loaded onto a truck and driven to France to a Champagne producer in the Epernay region, some 200 miles away. The bottle neck is frozen there, at a temperature of –35°F, for five minutes. The crown cork is then removed, and the bidule and frozen yeast pop out. This would be referred to as the remuage and disgorgement process with Champagne; Malheur refers to it as “à la méthode originale.” The bottles are then cleaned and dried, corked and later labeled.

The Brut contains 11% alcohol and has about 25–30 IBUs. Tim Webb gives it five stars out of five in his Good Beer Guide to Belgium. I happen to agree with that assessment!

The Malheur Dark Brut, which was initially called Black Chocolate and Brut Noir, was first introduced in 2003. The base beer is the Malheur 12. Spices are added in small quantities to this brew, though Manu would not reveal what they were! He told me: "The key to using spices in a beer is adding just enough that they add to the flavor complexity of the brew, but not so much that anyone could guess which spices are used."

Additionally, the Dark Brut undergoes two weeks of conditioning in American oak barrels. While the wood is American in origin, the barrels are made in France. Manu commented: "We use the barrels to add a subtle wood taste to the beer. We tested for quite a while to see what length of time the beer should be aged in the barrels so that this process would impart the taste we wanted in the Dark Brut: perceptible, but not too much.” He continued, “The reason we used American oak is that it imparts its wood character to the beer much more quickly than French oak."

I don't mind saying that I love dark Belgian beer, and this one is among the best of the best. Try it with dark Belgian chocolate!

I don't mind saying that I love dark Belgian beer, and this one is among the best of the best. Try it with dark Belgian chocolate!

The Cuvée Royale was created in 2005 to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830. It is the lightest of the three Brut brews, weighing in at a “mere” 9%. Manu said, “This beer sells very well in Italy — and with women. The Brut Reserve sells well in Japan, and the Dark Brut in countries like Norway and Sweden. We sell a total of 80,000 bottles a year among the three brews.”

The base beer for the Cuvée Royale is the Malheur 8, a beer that is mainly meant for export to France. It contains 100% Saaz hops, which are added as aroma hops towards the end of the boil. Malheur achieves a rate of 94% attenuation in the Cuvée Royale, making for a very dry beer with a deceptively light mouthfeel. This makes the beer very easy to drink, considering its strength.

Knowing the hop-heads who exist on this side of the pond, Manu and his brewing engineers recently dry-hopped (with 100% Saaz) a run of over 6,000 bottles of the Brut Reserve. They were bottling this beer when I visited in mid-September, and Manu told me it will be called Michael Jackson Selection Brut Reserve, for the rare-beer club of the same name. All the production will be sent to the U.S.

Commenting about all the production methods and transport required to craft the Malheur Brut beers, Manu told me: “It is true that these beers are more expensive than most other Belgian brews. Three-quarters of the price is in the process. But beer lovers are willing to pay for quality. The proof of the beer is in the drinking.”

You can taste the Malheur Brut beers in Dendermonde at Gasthof Het Vaderland and at Den Ommeganck (with great food!), among other places. At press time, Brouwerij de Landtsheer was in talks with a U.S. importer. Hopefully, we will see the superb Malheur beers stateside very soon!

For more info about Malheur, visit www.malheur.be.

 

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