RUISELEDE - Hildegard van Ostaden of the Urthel microbrewery in Ruiselede near Tielt is a qualified brewing engineer. After she had taught for a few years and undertaken commissions on behalf of other breweries, Hildegard started brewing her own beer in 2000 together with her husband Bas who draws the label designs.
They dreamt up the legends of the Erthels that are now associated with their beer. The Erthels surfaced in the spring of 2000, drinking Urthel and raising their beer mugs with a loud and cheerful ‘Paché!’
The Urthel beers are brewed by La Trappe in the Netherlands. Since 2011 Hildegard has had a microbrewery at her disposal where she can experiment with new beers to her heart’s content.
The brewery has an idyllic setting between field and forest where, in her tavern, Hildegard serves regional dishes with her beers. “I am mad about specialty beers,” Hildegard laughs.
“I’m obsessed by taste, hence my passion for brewing.” The process still retains its magic: how to make ‘something’ out of ‘nothing’. I admire the beautiful drawings on the wall, all produced by Bas. “Fairy tales for grown-ups,” he smiles.
Hildegard wants to brew ‘rebellious commercial beers that don’t fall within a specific beer style’ - beers with feeling. She dreams of a summer beer, a Belgian IPA... but no classic dubbel or tripel. “I want to go back to basics, to find new, mad, exceptional tastes,” she says.
“Personally I am very fond of hops, especially the herbal European varieties, not so much the highly aromatic American ones.
When I started out there was a trend towards sweet beers, now my main aim is to produce light beers with lots of taste.” The female touch comes in handy.
It’s no coincidence that Urthel supplies the beer for Pure C, the bistro run by award-winning (Dutch) chef Sergio Herman on the North Sea coast.
It is a creamy beer with barley and spelt malts and infused with herbs. Hildegard never stops experimenting. Her Samaranth is a ‘barley wine’ in which you can taste chocolate and liqueur, it’s a true winter warmer.
Hildegard has been a familiar figure in the Belgian brewing world for some 17 years now. Her love of cooking and beer was instilled into her by her grandmother. “Oma was a great cook,” she remembers. “There was always a bottle of 'table beer' on her table. That’s how I discovered the taste of malt.”
Her first ‘real’ beer was a Gouden Carolus from Het Anker, enjoyed on a terrace. She was sold instantly. “I started looking for different beer styles; I wanted to taste as much as possible.”
When she was eighteen she started studying to be an industrial engineer with a specialism in chemistry. It soon became clear that Hildegard would be a brewer. “I wanted to know how beer is made. It was a bonus that I also found an outlet for my passion for science and chemistry.”
As a qualified brewing engineer she was engaged in scientific research for years. For example, she studied the effects of aging on the quality of a beer.
How does taste evolve when beer is transported to the other side of the world? That sort of thing. “I’ve also done quite a bit of research into hops. That really suited me and taught me to solve all kinds of brewery-related issues.”
The next step was brewing her own beer. “Above all, as a brewer you need a good knowledge of tastes,” is Hildegard’s opinion. “I mainly ‘taste’ a beer in my head. That requires lots of experience. Compare it with a chef. You have to know how a beer is created and how it evolves.
It is a great help if you start off with a broad portfolio of beers. In that way you can develop and fine-tune the most suitable beer recipe.”
The brewer is always keen to learn and she finds inspiration from small and large brewers alike. At the end of the day, brewers want to deliver a good, reliable beer.
The large brewers have to be able to reproduce the taste perfectly as the consumer will expect the same taste every single time. Taste differences in the limited productions of small brewers are more readily accepted.
Hildegard: “I think it is a positive development that the large brewers are experimenting more these days, are introducing ‘limited editions’ etc. That’s what keeps our beer culture alive.”
Hildegard finds that one of the great Belgian strengths is a balanced sense of taste, which becomes apparent in our beers and cuisine. We are less prone to extremes. “I feel that a beer with a daring taste is fine for one glass,” she says, “but as a brewer you can’t make a living from extreme beers.”
This brewer has her two small feet firmly planted on the ground. Hildegard realises that hype is only temporary and she prefers to invest in the long term. She feels it is important to build up your business in your own country. A brewer who focuses only on export will be dependent on external parties over which they have little control.
If you want to make a living from brewing you have to be able to invest a lot, not only in production but also in promotion and marketing.
Every litre of beer you brew will require money to get the message out. And you have to cough up that money before your beer is out of the door - if you’re not big, you have to be clever.
Hildegard makes a case for greater co-operation between brewers. There are now quite a few large and small brewers who have gathered under the Belgian beer flag to carry out joint promotions and so on and she sees this as a positive trend.
Chef and brewer, is that a good combination? Hildegard gives an enthusiastic yes. She is a beer taster, brewer and chef all at the same time. “In my small restaurant I offer a well-balanced menu,” she says. “I always take the beer as my starting point. For example, if I want to experiment with a certain type of malt or aromatic hops I will perfect the beer first and then I will look for a suitable dish to pair it with.”
Hildegard even manages to convert wine lovers into beer fans. Regular customers no longer need prompting to ask for new beers. Everyone comes into her tavern, people of all ages and all social classes and a beer tasting room has turned into a fully-fledged beer restaurant.
Microbrouwerij Urthel/De Hoppeschuur
Telephone: +32 (0) 51 68 89 99