Bio-beer in Belgium: Arvum, from brewery Jessenhofke

HASSELT - “1, 2, 3… pour!” The organic brewer and the organic farmer are both waiting anxiously. At long last, the first barrel of Arvum has been cracked open. We're in café Den Egel, right in the centre of Hasselt. The beer we're pouring – Arvum, or Latin for ‘field’ – is the fruit of a collaboration between local ‘bio’ farmer Pieter Coopmans, and Gert Jordens. His organic brewery, Jessenhofke, is based in the town.

Eco-credentials abound with the resulting brew. Pieter the farmer supplies his organic barley, which is grown in the grounds of the former Herkenrode abbey, near Hasselt. And Gert watches out for those 'beer-miles'.

“Arvum is a short-chain beer”, he explains. “We source our ingredients as closely as possible to the brewery, to cut down on transport.” And as to the beer's taste credentials?

Well, Arvum (6.0% ABV) is styled as a blonde beer, with a hint of sweet and sour underneath, topped by a pronounced hop bitterness.

Grower of organic hops, Joris Cambie of De Plukker in Poperinge, provides Arvum's hop medley, varieties that are English to the core – Challenger, Kent Golding and Fuggles. These three hops are present in all Jessenhofke beers, albeit in different proportions. The beer also contains organic pils malt, wheat malt, as well as a dash of raw and malted barley.

Plans are afoot to malt the barley in-house in the near future. The spring water used in its brewing contains starch, provided by seitan (wheat gluten) producer Maya.

Also based in Hasselt, Maya is tapped (unsurprisingly) for another of Jessenhofke’s brews – the Maya (6% ABV). Finally, unrefined candy sugar is the last addition to the Arvum mix.



A rest for the spirit

Arvum is brought to the market after some six weeks, when it has fermented fully. The slogan on the label needs no further explanation: ‘Just like the farmland, the spirit has to rest from time to time, to regain its fertility’. Beer lovers and nature lovers alike, it seems, can rest assured with Arvum.

Drink one of these brews, and you will be doing your bit for nature – as well as for the sympathetic landscape management at play in the grounds of the Abdijsite Herkenrode. The abbey receives part of the proceeds of Arvum's sales.

Gert Jordens started his brewing of organic beers with a view to a sustainable business model, in the true sense of the word. What gave him the idea? Disappointment, it seems, was his spur.

When in France he tasted a 'frankly unpalatable' organic beer and decided there and then to set up his own brewing business, one that would do 'bio-beers' justice. It probably helped that brewing was already in his blood.

His grandfather was a jenever (gin) distiller, in charge of the very same distilling equipment now on display in Hasselt's jenever museum. From a young age Gert was intrigued by Grandad’s herbal mixtures. “I started experimenting with an ordinary soup cauldron, a plastic jerry-can and some copper piping.”

This is how an IT specialist started off his second life as a hobby brewer. For now, Gert develops his beers at home and outsources the production to Brouwerij Anders in Halen. But all that will change at the beginning of this summer.

That's when Jessenhofke will be moving to an old flour mill on the Albertkanaal in Hasselt. This will provide space for both limited production and tasting sessions, as well as for the novel concept of ‘brewing together’, an idea to promote team-building.



Bio with brio

Belgian breweries that only produce organic beers are still rather thin on the ground. But there other pioneers. Joris Cambie, for example, who provides Gert with organic hops, is a brewer as well: he produces the blonde, hoppy Keikoppenbier (6.1% ABV).

And it's not just the barley that's self-grown. Inside the brewing kettle you will only find hop bells from Joris’s own farm in Poperinge.

He prides himself on being able to brew with these green hops, freshly reared and picked by his own hand.

It does mean, however, that it's only in September that brewing can be done. That's when Joris' hops are freshly gathered from the field.

Having his hop flowers go straight from the tendrils into the boiling kettle undoubtedly brings out their flavour.

To maximise the impact of that undisputed freshness, Joris is planning to start developing single hop beers.



Old-school organics

There are others ploughing Belgium's organic furrow, a little further out from Hasselt. Den Hopperd, found 30 miles west in Westmeerbeek, is on many-a-list of organic breweries – especially as it's one of the oldest. Production of its Kameleon beers actually started in 1995.

'Hopperd' is an old Dutch word for hopped wort, so this a brewery that tips its hat to tradition, as well as to Mother Nature.

With its traditional brewing methods, and a bold stance of 'no additives', comes an intriguing aspect to traditional beer-tasting experience – variability. Not that Den Hopperd is worried about this.

It is alleged that this organic brewery is proud of the fact that its beers subtly shift flavours – and that's why its prime brew range is named after the shape-shifting chameleon.

Apt, as it certainly can't be denied that those going the 'bio' path are adding some extra colour to Belgium's already many-coloured-coat of brewing styles.