Saturday, July 30, 2016

Duivelsbier of Halle

Duivelsbier of Halle - Den Duvel zit in dat bier of het kan anders niet zijn!

If you were to ask the average enjoyer of Belgian beers what a Duivelsbier was, they'd probably give some response to the effect of 'Oh, like Duvel? And those other golden strong beers with devil-themed names? Yeah, a golden-colored, strong but light-bodied beer...'. And who can blame them. I would have given the same sort of answer not too long ago. A quick flip through Michael Jackson's Great Beers of Belgium even breaks down beers following this, with Duvel and other devil-themed beers all grouped together (and there's quite a few of them). But while Duvel is perhaps the most successful of these Belgian beers with names relating to satan, it certainly didn't invent the idea. Duvel's website traces the lore of the name to a fateful passing comment by a drinker in 1923. This blog post deals with an earlier devil's beer, as presented by Frantz Stockmans (who it seems really knew his beer) in Le Petit Journal du Brasseur in 1912, but tracing a history back centuries before that. So, on to the topic of the day - Duivelsbier of Halle.

Halle (Hal in French) is a city southwest of Brussels in Belgian lambic country. It is Flemish speaking, and is one of the larger towns in the area (population ~38,000 today). Jesuits had a reasonable presence in the city from at least the 1600s. Beer travelers might be familiar with Halle as the easiest way to get from Brussels to Beersel (for 3F or Oud Beersel) by train involves changing trains in Halle. Being in lambic country, lambic producers and cafes were once reasonably common in Halle, but those days are past. With them, it appears, went duivelsbier. One brewery (Boon) still makes one (see this quick blurb on, a site you should all pay attention to if you like lambic - there is more English language lambic information there than anywhere else by a huge margin, see also this Dutch-language wikipedia page). I've not had it, but from reading online reviews and the Dutch page it seems it probably doesn't reflect historic Duivelsbier. Interestingly Vander Linden (a now-closed lambic producer in Halle) was producing the beer up until 2001, something I wasn't aware of. So while presenting the existence of duivelsbier may not be news to some, especially Belgians, hopefully some of the production methods and technical specs of circa 1900 duivelsbier are.

That's a promising start to an article! (ignore the reproduction prohibited part).
"Legend: Like Brussels lambic and other beers, the Duivelsbier of Halle has its history."

So what is Duivelsbier? Overview and Legends: It is a dark, strong beer made from spontaneous fermentation. According to this article in Le Petit Journal du Brasseur, this beer first came around somewhere near the end of the 17th/beginning of the 18th centuries. Lore (so take this as you will) has it that the Jesuits were brewing and one day they were without yeast for the beer they had just made so they put the wort into their barrels without adding yeast, planning to blend it with their next brew some time later. But it started to ferment on its own before that time, so they left it in the barrels. A year later they took a sample and found they had a vinous beer that, when sweetened, was quite enjoyable. And so the beer was born. The name Duivelsbier came shortly after that (again, from the lore). Perhaps the author and his sources, all residents of Halle, might not be unbiased in this little dig at the visitors from Brussels, but the story goes that some Brusseliers came through and, being unused to beers of that strength, drank a bit too much. On their way back home, when they were stopped by the mayor, they blamed the beer, saying "The devil is in that beer, it can be no other way!"(Thanks to Kevin of Belgian Beer Geek for translation help! The original Flemish quote is at the top of the post). As the story goes, the name stuck and, either way, this dark strong beer of spontaneous fermentation became well-loved in Halle.

Vander Linden's Duivelsbier (photo taken from a breweriana auction).
Making Duivelsbier: The production for the beer is basically what one might do for lambic (excepting maybe malt color). The grist is 50-55% raw wheat with the remainder as malted barley. Based on the end color of the beer, I think it is reasonable to assume that the barley used here isn't as pale as what one might find in modern lambic. Perhaps something like a Vienna, or maybe even something like Munich, is more accurate. This is guesswork as the text just says malted barley (and the text doesn't specify multiple different malts, so I'm assuming one diastatic malt with some color). The text also says the beer is brown/amber in color and that the krausen from active primary is black/brown, suggesting that the wort is fairly dark and color doesn't come only from candi sugar added later. The OG is in the range of 1.060-1.070, with the average beer probably clustered around the middle of this. This is comparable to lambic of the time, though perhaps slightly stronger than average/on the high side (the text, at least, argues that duivelsbier was the strongest of the beers of spontaneous fermentation, coming in at ~7.5-8% abv).

Though exact production methods were variable depending on the producer, the author favors a turbid mash approach, variations of which were common for many different Belgian beers (even non-spontaneous beers). The mash had 4 temperature steps, reached by infusions, of 45 C (113 F), 55 C (131 F), 65 C (149 F), and 75 C (167 F) and with turbid runnings withdrawn to a second boiler at the 55 C, 65 C and 75 C steps. The turbid runnings are boiled throughout this mashing and then returned to the mash tun to be clarified by passing through the grain bed before being transferred into the main boiler. Much like with lambic of the time (see these first and second earlier posts on lambic in the mid 1800s), later runnings of the mash were sent to the now-empty second boiler to make a lower gravity beer (called Mars, again like lambic).

Boiling was 4-5 hours for the duivelsbier and 10-12 hours for the mars, comparable to lambic production. Unfortunately hopping rates aren't listed, but for now I'll guess that they are in the range of lambic given that the lactic acid levels are comparable between the two beers (though duivelsbier was a bit less acidic). After boiling the beer was sent to a coolship for open cooling, and then to barrels for fermentation. The beer sat in those barrels for roughly 24 months before it was ready. A bit of candi sugar (exact amount depends on the cafe doing it) was added to the matured beer shortly before serving. Under a microscope the microbial composition of a bottle of duivelsbier appears comparable to that of Brussels lambic, which I think is unsurprising given that Halle is central to the lambic region between many modern producers and duivelsbier was made by spontaneous fermentation. Parts of the text suggest that perhaps there was a bit less brettanomyces in duivelsbier, but I'm not personally inclined to put a lot of stock in that.

Characteristics of Duivelsbier
The beer is described as soft in body, carbonated and easy to drink in volumes greater than you intended to. It was clear and with a color of cognac. The taste profile is described as being between Brussels lambic and a good aged Oudenaarde beer (so something in the Oud Bruin or Flemish red/brown range). Of course keeping in mind that we are talking about these beers around 1900 so we can't really compare to modern examples, this gives us some idea of the color/malt character and the way this came across in the finished beer. The sweetening with candi sugar shortly before serving may push the beer more toward the faro direction than a straight lambic.

I've adapted information and tables in the text into this table of units (below) that are more easily understood. As usual, at times a mixture of units is used and there is a bit of information that doesn't seem to line up, but based on the whole of the information, here is my best guess at the most accurate values. The acid values are more clear and I have more quantitative confidence in them. Note also that some of the lambic/gueuze gravities and alcohol may not be totally representative of the range of lambic.

The acidity of the beer was generally in the realm of lambic, though it was a bit less, especially for acetic acid. The lactic acid levels of duivelsbier were about 85% of contemporaneous lambic and the acetic acid concentrations were a bit over a third of those in contemporaneous lambic. The acetic levels in historic duivelsbier were comparable to modern day flanders beers, so there was definitely a noticeable amount, but it seems that, given the age of duivelsbier, brewers did a good job of keeping O2 out of the beer to suppress acetic acid production compared to historic lambic. The FGs, OGs and ABVs were generally in the same ballpark for duivelsbier and lambic (FG in the mid single digits in SG, OG around 1.065, ABV 7.5-8.2%) though some lambics of the time were a bit lower strength than this. And of course most modern lambic is lower strength than this.

Duivelsbier in the modern world: I think duivelsbier is a good example of how much lambic and lambic-type brewing has changed over the last century. 100 years ago lambic was still doing comparatively well (though perhaps not as well as earlier in its history). But still, there were many producers and more 'styles' of un-fruited lambic than the one that we find now (almost every modern producer makes one lambic wort stream, though Boon does make a Meerts and perhaps their Marriage Parfait is also stronger). Historically with lambic there were two wort streams produced regularly - Meerts and Lambic, which were combined to produce faro. This was standard practice across many different breweries. In addition, we have this regional/specialty wort of duivelsbier and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there were more worts like this elsewhere. And furthermore lambic was regularly supplied for blending into other beers to produce lambic-top fermentation blends. Some of these are coming back, which is good news. But anyway a lot was happening with lambic in terms of wort compositions and blending to yield a range of final products compared to now. Of course now we're doing pretty well for lambic with a wide range of fruiting and use of specific barrels for flavor addition. So really one was born as another faded away.

So, to bring this all back together to where we began, there is one surviving duivelsbier today. One lambic producer from Halle, the now closed Vander Linden, made it until 2001. Since 2003 Boon has produced the beer, though it seems that Boon's duivelsbier has more in common with something like an abbey brown than with the historic duivelsbier. While it is good that someone is keeping the name alive, and I'm sure the people of Halle are happy about keeping a beer of their heritage around, I would be really interested to see a beer resembling historic duivelsbier today.

So does anything like the old duivelsbier exist now? Or has has one been around anytime recently? Not exactly (to my knowledge) but there are certainly elements of overlap in terms of taste characteristics with some other beers. And I think we may have come pretty close with 3 Fonteinen's Straffe Winter (note that the beer was not marketed as relating to duivelsbier). The beer was a stronger (8%) spontaneously fermented beer brewed with darker malts (amber and Munich malts as well as lager malt) and wheat, and with candi sugar and the beer had faro-like characteristics). That seems to hit the main points of duivelsbier as listed by this text: a stronger, darker, lambic-like spontaneously fermented beer sweetened with candi sugar. So, it seems to me at least, that this had the potential to be pretty close! It's been far to long for me to try to recall of the characteristics of the 3F beer with any accuracy, and when I had it I didn't know about duivelsbier or have much appreciation for a good faro, but it would be interesting to try that again with this in mind. With the current state of lambic and it's growth, perhaps we'll see such a beer in the futrue...

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Visit to Seizoensbrouwerij Vandewalle

Returning to a series of beer travel-related posts I was working on a few months ago, here is a post about a visit in May to Seizoensbrouwerij Vandewalle. Seizoensbrouwerij Vandewalle was started in 2011 (first beers released in 2012) by Chris Vandewalle. Chris is the 10th generation in a line of brewers and he has a serious passion for both beer and his region. As is not uncommon for small Belgian breweries, the brewery is a second job for Chris, who works as a regional historian for his day job. Chris's passion for beer and history make him a great resource for learning about beer of the region and he is proud to bring brewing back to his community of Reninge which, although the current population is only ~1000 people, he reports was once home to half a dozen breweries.

Hop fields outside of Poperinge.
The brewery is located in the municipality of Lo-Reninge in the southwest corner of the West Flanders (West-Vlaanderen) province. It is not far from Poperinge, one of Belgium's hop growing centers. This region of Belgium was hit especially hard during WWI. Perhaps nearby towns such as Ypres are familiar to those who remember some WWI history. Between people fleeing the fighting to start new lives elsewhere (and not returning) and those killed during the war, this time saw the region lose nearly a generation's worth of people and knowledge. This included brewing knowledge and the types of beers being brewed. Chris is passionate about collecting what was left/lost and bringing that knowledge and history back, for general life and culture as well as beer.

Even without meeting him his passion for his region and beer traditions should come through clearly based on the line of beers he makes and the regional West Vlaams product logo proudly noting the use of local ingredients.

The Vandewalle beers: Oud Bruin, Bitter Blond, Kriek, and BB à Lambiek
The beers
Chris's beers all have some common threads, most notably is a certain edge. To say that his beers are unpolished gives absolutely the wrong impression, but let me explain. I don't mean that his beers are rough takes that need working out yet. His beers are well crafted and are made to be exactly what they are through recipe and process. But the beers have an edge to them. On purpose. They have not been rounded out or softened for broader appeal. So that is what I mean by unpolished - they retain every bit of grit and character that Chris intends. The blond is firmly bitter - more so than I think any other Belgian beer I've had (excluding maybe Belgian made IPAs, but even then it is more bitter than most of those). The Oud Bruin is not as sweet as those familiar with the more commercial examples would expect. And the Bitter Blond à Lambiek is forward in its brett character. So I think unpolished is an accurate description in this context, but perhaps it's better to say it this way - Chris brews beers with an edge.

Chris's walk in cooler with bitter blond and a selection of bottled beer.
Chris is currently making 4 beers. Given his location in hop growing country, it may not be surprising that the Bitter Blond was his first beer (first released in 2012). And although I didn't ask about production breakdown, it seems to be his main beer as well. The accurately-named  Bitter Blond is a firmly bitter beer with a pleasant landrace-type hop character. While the hops are grown in West Flanders, they are English varieties. It is common now to find English varieties grown in Belgium as the historic Belgian varieties had been replaced. Some small farmers are starting to grow older Belgian varieties again, but it will likely be some time before they are produced at a commercial level.

Barrels of Oud Bruin.
While the Bitter Blond doesn't try to classify itself as such, this beer fits well with modern saisons. The first, and most obvious way, is in the pale, dry and firmly bitter characteristics of the beer along with the yeast character (though the hops play the dominant role in this beer). Additionally the motivation for the beer fits the lore of saison as a beer of farmworkers. Agriculture still plays a major role in the regional Lo-Reninge economy, and historically as well as in the modern day one of the major activities was growing (and then harvesting) grasses. This can be seen if you time a trip right, although now the cutting is done by industrial farm equipment. Historically this would have been by hand, and as Chris explained the field workers would have needed a refreshing bitter beer to quench their thirst. Chris has made his Bitter Blond in this spirit.

Chris's second beer was his Oud Bruin (also 2012). Sour beers were once common in the region, though you wouldn't know it by looking at many of the nearby modern breweries. But in line with the modern remaining Flanders red-brown beers, the wider region was formerly known to produce darker acidic beers. Like others, Chris's Oud Bruin is a blend of an aged beer (a brown which spends about 1 year in oak) with a younger brown beer. The beer is drier than many others on the market with a great acid balance and a touch of sweeter/mellowing character from the younger beer. This is a great modern example of these mixed-fermentation brown beers which were once ubiquitous in the region, especially as sweet beer showing only hints of age and mixed fermentation can be over-represented.

Kriek base in barrels awaiting the summer's cherry harvest.
The third beer is Krieken Rood, a kriek made using locally grown cherries. The beer ages in oak with the whole cherries (and as Chris confirmed with a laugh, those cherries are slowly and meticulously removed from the barrel by hand). The beer is brewed in February, where it waits in oak for the cherries. In July when the cherries are in season they are added to the beer and they remain with the beer until the following February, when the beer is bottled and the cycle begins again. It was just released when I stopped by in the first week of May, meaning roughly 2-3 months of bottle conditioning.

This kriek is unlike any other that I've had (note that kriek just means sour cherry and, as such, does not have any inherent tie to a given beer style). The acidity of Chris's kriek is mellow, but present, and the focus is more on a fuller/sweeter fruit (but it's not a sweet beer!) and almondy/woody character. Part of this likely comes from the varietal he is using, which his website lists as Nordkrieken from Veurne. Unfortunately I have no other experience with these cherries either on their own or in other beers, so I can't speak much to the character of these cherries. The time in oak barrels which are less neutral (more on this below) than what many other Belgian kriek producers are using and the longer contact time between the whole fruit and the beer likely play into the uniqueness of this beer as well. Here are some photos of the cherries from the 2016 harvest, coincidentally posted to the Seizoensbrouwerij Vandewalle facebook page the same day that I published this post.

The fourth and newest addition to the lineup is Chris's Bitter Blond à Lambiek. The first blends were released in 2015, though bottles list blending dates as early as 2013 so this beer has been a part of the Vandewalle plan for some time. The beer is made from blending his Bitter Blond with commercial lambic (coming from Oud Beersel) at a ratio of roughly 5% lambic. The blending occurs right before bottling. After this the beer spends at least 8 months in the bottle to condition, though I've not seen/had a bottle that was less 12-18 months old. Likely due to the substantial hop presence, the beer doesn't develop a lot of additional acidity from the extended conditioning; however the Brettanomyces certainly makes its presence known. Amos at Browne & Bitter talks about this beer and the Bitter Blond a bit more in his contemporary Bière de Coupage post.

The brewery and brewing process
Chris is brewing 450 L batches on a Braumeister system and he is employing some non-conventional process to make beer which (fittingly) breaks from the general Belgian norm. One of the most striking things about Chris's process, and something that he stresses when talking about brewing, is the time that the beers are given. For example the Bitter Blond, his beer which is released the youngest, spends 3-4 months (mostly in cold storage) between brew day and bottling. And the Bitter Blond à Lambiek spends at least 8 months bottle conditioning before release. Brewing at the scale and running the brewery that he is, Chris can fully let the beer dictate when it was ready and give it all the time it needs to get there. He firmly feels that this is best for his beer, and by tasting the products I agree with him.

The cooling tun and open fermenter.
Chris's beers are open cooled overnight. This open cooling is done outside in a dairy tank, which is then wheeled in to the brewing building where yeast is pitched and it ferments in the same vessel. This open cooling allows for the potential of mixed-microbe inoculation and when I taste the bitter blond I get the sense that there is something more than just sacch at play. Additionally, given Chris's focus on time, for many of his beers there is sufficient time for a mixed culture to express its different sides. The open fermentation in a relatively shallow wide pan certainly has an influence on the expression Chris gets from his yeast. Both of these processes - cooling outside in some sort of open vessel and then pitching yeast and fermenting inside in that same vessel - are accessible to home producers more easily than larger commercial producers. I may try some of this out when I'm back in the swing of brewing and the weather cools a bit.

More barrels at Vandewalle.
Chris is using oak barrels for the production of his Oud Bruin and Kriek, and additionally he is also aging a bit of Bitter Blond in oak for trials. It is interesting to note that all of Chris's barrels are new - their first use was his beer. He doesn't want used barrels (e.g wine barrels) as he doesn't want other microbes from whatever the barrels held previously influencing his fermentation. Now after 5 years of use he is happy with how his barrels are mellowing out and the characteristics they are giving now, though he is also expanding his barrel production and therefore not all his barrels are 5 years old yet.

Visiting - Public visits to the brewery are probably best set up for small/medium groups, and include 3 beers and some local snacks. Contact the brewery to set up a visit. Otherwise look for Vandewalle beers around Belgium. They can be found at some select good beer spots (Malt Attacks in Brussels, Mi Orge Mi Houblon in Arlon, and Bierhalle Deconinck in Vichte to name a few).

I'll close with a quote from Chris, which was accompanied by a firm pat of his stomach, about how he is brewing and what drives him to brew the way he does/the beers he does:

"A brewer does it his own way, following his belly!"

If you're interested in Belgian beer travel I've written up some general thoughts as well as specific insights on visiting lambic producers and saison producers (with links for posts of my visits to individual producers within those).