OOSTVLETEREN/WOESTEN - What is special about the air or the soil in the village of Vleteren? Last week, Ratebeer awarded De Struise Brouwers the accolade of Best Belgian Brewery. Four of their beers ended up in the Best Beer Top 100, compiled by this same American website.
Westvleteren has turned into a beer icon with its Abt 12, brewed at the Sint-Sixtus Trappist abbey: a nectar that leaves the tanks drip by drip and (to some) is almost worth its weight in gold.
And then, in Oostvleteren, we find the beer adventurers that are Struise Brouwers. They are busy shaping their future, always exploring new horizons, and are now sharing a podium place in the world of Belgian beer with the monks.
Both occupy a place at the extreme of the beer world; tradition versus experiment.
They have one thing in common: their feet are firmly planted in the heavy clay of the Westhoek, Belgium’s hop region par excellence.
“Westvleteren is the Pomerol amongst beers,” Carlo Grootaert, one of the Struise Brouwers, once told me. At the time he was a wine merchant. Things change..Westvleteren has contributed to shaping the taste of the Struise Brouwers. After all, it gave rise to their very first beer, the Pannepot.
Far from being a five-minute wonder, this strong dark brown beer still packs a punch, either on its own, as a Reserva, or modelled on the Danish brewing tradition: the Pannepøt.
Brewer Urbain Coutteau and his pal Carlo openly state their admiration for hard and lengthy work. "If someone has to spend time mashing malt in the attic, not the best of jobs, then we will reward them with a Westvleteren once the work is done,” Urbain laughs. "You’d do it for less".
The story is now widely known. We first heard of Struise Brouwers at the start of the new millennium. Their Pannepot, brewed by Caulier in those days, did not hit the mark straight away.
Fifteen years ago the Belgian microbrewers were struggling to achieve recognition in their own country.
This forced them to expand their horizons, especially towards the West.
The quality of the beers was always undisputable but what really got this brewery moving was the arrival of the World Wide Web and – later – Facebook.
The up-and-coming craft brewers’ scene embraced the ‘Sturdy Brewers’ and the gentlemen were set on their course.
Now they have acquired the Ratebeer status of ‘best brewery in Belgium’, the world is their oyster. However, an explosive growth in volume is not on the cards.
The gentlemen have continued to do their thing: brewing beers aimed at beer adventurers. The first big hit with the public is yet to leave the brewing kettles and Struise beers are difficult to get hold of in Belgium. Admittedly though, local sales have increased over the last few years.
“We are only producing beers that we like ourselves and we like to keep things exciting,” Urbain Coutteau reveals. Struise Brouwers have now set up shop in the former Oostvleteren village school and they are also brewing at Deca’s in nearby Woesten.
Wandering around the outskirts at the Abbey of Sint-Sixtus – its gate is always shut – I get musical impressions of Gregorian chant or an entire symphony.
Not so in the former village school where I expect to hear improvised jazz, a hint of psychedelic rock, hard rock loud enough to bring down the walls, or hip-hop. Sacred cows are there to be sacrificed. The Struise beers include the feather light sour ale that goes by the name of Weltmerz as well as top-heavy imperial stouts or barley wines.
These barley wines reside in the more elevated alcohol regions (+ 12 % ABV) and are obtained through "freeze distillation". Avoiding the well-trodden path is the norm here. These two daredevils owe it to themselves.
All of the dozens of beers created by Struise Brouwers reveal international influences. The chaps have always been looking above and beyond the limitations imposed by the traditional Belgian beer styles. They have picked them up and run with them.
This to the utter delight of a growing band of aficionados as well as microbrewers, who are drawing their inspiration from here, including the brothers-in-arms from Alvinne.
Brewer Urbain has perfected the art of improvisation. He feels that there are no technical problems, there are only challenges. When he is tasting something that he likes, he will explore that particular direction.
This passion for experimenting has led to limited editions, such as the Black Damnation range based on the Black Albert.
From time to time, brewing is done in collaboration with other micro-brewing colleagues in a spirit of camaraderie, ‘We’re all in this together.’
All agree to bring along one ingredient from their own country, a local honey for example, to add to the brewing kettle. Teacher knows best. Once upon a time, the children were queuing up in an exemplary fashion before being allowed into class.
Would the dutiful headmaster ever have imagined Carlo, playing his pipes to the tune of the taps, at any hour of day or night?
Undoubtedly he would have reprimanded innocent visitors, ordering them to open their satchels.
“What have you got in there?” “Just a bottle of Black Albert, Sir!” “OK then, I’ll let you off just this once! But no imbibing during class!”
If the beer adventurer is unable to resist the call, his head will be adorned with donkey’s ears or he is flung into a corner. The times, they are certainly a-changing in Vleteren.