YPRES - What happens when two friends, both brewers, share a dream to establish a city brewery in the town of Ypres? And when their children are tugging at their sleeves, impatient to turn this dream into reality …? The answer is a gleaming brand-new brewery housed in the 'kazematten' ('casemates' or defence works), in Ypres.
The kazematten in question are located at ‘het Houten Paard’ (meaning the Wooden Horse), and were constructed around 1680. They are based on designs by Vauban, Louis XIV’s famed military engineer.
For centuries, these ‘souterrains’ were used for the storing of ammunition and weapons. Their military use continued into the 20th century. During the First World War they were converted into an officers’ mess by the British Army.
The notorious British Army newspaper, The Wipers Times – made for and by soldiers – was also printed here. Which naturally brings us to the subject of … beer.
That's because one of the new brews from Brouwerij De Kazematten is named in honour of this irreverent war-time ‘trench gazette’. The name came about because British soldiers couldn't get their tongues around the name of the frontline town ‘Ypres’. Instead, the besieged Belgian town became known to them as 'Wipers'.
The newspaper they put together in 'Wipers' was full of jokes, black humour and poetry – and the frontline soldiers of Flanders couldn't get enough of it. It's a story that still fascinates. The BBC recently visited this location to shoot a TV film about everything that went on to produce this morale-boosting newspaper.
And now's there's the beer. There are to be three brews bearing this war-time newspaper's name. The first to be launched is the Wipers Times 14 (referencing its density of 14 degrees Plato), to be followed by the Wipers Times 16 and 18 (16° and 18° Plato respectively).
The Wipers Times 14 is a blonde, top-fermented speciality beer (6.2% ABV), brewed using four different grains, and hopped only using hops from the local area. It's also finished with four herbs – which brings us back to the connection with its 'underground' newspaper namesake. On the front page of the Wiper Times, as on the label of the beer, was a picture of the Blessed Thistle (or Maria thistle). This herb is said to have healing properties, and is now being used to give flavour to De Kazematten's new beers.
It's not only the Brits' war-time newspaper that has gone underground here. The beer has done the same. The parent brewery, Sint-Bernardus, is the owner of the Grottenbier cave-matured brand, which was originally developed by Pierre Celis. He became world-famous as the creator of Belgian witbier Hoegaarden.
The Watou-based brewery has long been looking for the ideal environment to allow its Grottenbier beers to rest at a constant temperature. The traditional natural caves in Limburg are not an ideal solution, as these caverns lie some distance away from West Flanders.
But now a new option has arisen, making use of ‘caves’ formed by human hand: the Kazematten of Ypres. Starting this year, these much-storied fortifications have become the permanent location for a revamped Grottenbier brand. The beer brewed here is based on the original recipe, but with some changes. The Grottenbier name has been changed into Grotten Santé and the bottle has undergone a facelift. Grotten Santé is now a herbal, zesty beer with an alcohol-by-volume of 6.5%.
The addition of small amounts of ‘exotic’ herbs makes this beer slightly dry. Other beers are planned for this range, including the Grotten Santater, Grotten Salut, Grotten Tot Later and Grotten Merci. Santé - Santater – Salut - Tot Later and Merci: it does sound a little like the vocabulary used by an over-enthusiastic café-goer. No bad thing.
In the meantime, Sint Bernardus continues its co-operation with the marlstone caves in Kanne and Valkenburg, in producing the original Grottenbier.
The story of the new brewery is very much one of brewing families working in tandem, across the generations. The Kazematten brewery is in the joint hands of Julie Depypere, the daughter of Hans Depypere – who owns the Sint-Bernardus brewery – and of Maarten Ghequire, the son of Rudi Ghequire – who is the site manager for the Rodenbach brewery.
Julie has taken charge of the administration, whereas Maarten’s focus is on production, teaming up with house brewer Koen Hugelier. The Kazematten brewery beers will be distributed with logistic support from the Sint-Bernardus brewery in Watou. Brewing is done every day of the week in Ypres, with the beers transferred into barrels and matured onsite. The bottling and distribution is then managed by Sint-Bernardus in Watou.
If you're in Ypres, you can experience these new beers for yourself – and see what difference the Kazematten's low temperature makes to the Grottenbier’s maturation process – at the Kazematten Brasserie.
This café/restaurant is just one kilometre from the brewery itself – in the same Kazematten location, close to the Menin Gate – and opened its doors to the public one year ago. In this historic venue you can also taste all the beers offered by the Sint-Bernardus Brewery. The Brasserie is right next door to a local history museum that offers a permanent exhibition on the history of the kazematten in Ypres. So you can shift from supping the Wipers Times to reading all about it, in just one short hop, as it were.