Bridging the Gap: Brewing in Belgium
By Sam Millard
Beavertown’s Brand & Communications Manager
When Logan first sat me down and told me Beavertown we’re looking to contract brew abroad, my heart sank a little. Up to now, we’ve done it all on our own, forged our own path and built up this brewery with blood, sweat and tears. Logan knows this, it was mostly his blood, sweat and tears that got us here, and now we were talking about putting our beers in someone else’s hands? It didn’t feel right. Why were we doing it? Why couldn’t we just plough on as we are? We’ve dipped our toes in it with Redchurch and that is ok. It’s just up the road and we’re there all the time, but abroad is different.
So why were we doing it? Well, obviously something like this wasn’t decided overnight and Logan had agonised long and hard over the decision. We’ve been backs to the wall brewing for ages, trying to get out more beer from the same space. It’s an old story that we don’t need to go over again, but now we have a plan and that plan is a new brewery – one that has enough space and potential capacity to be our home for years and years to come. Trouble is, it’ll take 12/18 months to get there, and 1) we need the beer yesterday and 2) we need to be fully up to speed and know how to brew at large volumes on a big kit from the day we move in. We need a stop gap for the stock, and a learning period for the brewing, so Logan found someone we can work very closely with that provides us with both.
Over the next year, by linking up with Brouwerij de Brabandere we will be able to organically increase our volume to the size we will be brewing at in a new brewery of our own, and we will learn all the processes and nuances of brewing on a new kit of that spec and size along the way. When you boil it down and look at the nuts and bolts of it, it’s a no brainer.
As someone who deals with the public image of Beavertown as their job I was torn between the fact that doing this made perfect sense for the beer and our growth, in fact vital for our growth, but that it felt “un Beavertown” to be putting our 2 most popular beers into the hands of a faceless brewery the other side of the English Channel, and let’s face it “contract brewing” is a dirty phrase in the craft beer industry and one that doesn’t feel comfortable.
One thing was for sure, we were going to tackle this in the same way Beavertown always does, by being open and honest about what we were doing and why! So, we thought the best way to do that was to really understand what contract brewing feels like and what it means to and for Beavertown, so we can share that with the drinker in the plainest way possible. To do that we got in touch with Brouwerij De Brabandere, and asked if we could pay them a visit, take a camera, and get a feel for who they are and what they do. They welcomed the chance with open arms, and we booked ourselves on a Eurostar.
In the days between booking the trip and jumping on that train I thought about the situation a lot, and the more I thought about it, the “un Beavertownness” of it drifted somewhat. Our motivations were honest, and we’ve never been afraid of doing what it takes to get the job done, so why should this be different?
On Thursday 12th April, Logan, Kamilla and I jumped on a Eurostar to Lille, armed with a camera, a case of Gamma Ray and a case of Neck Oil along with a little feeling of trepidation from my side about what we would arrive to and ultimately how I’d feel about the decision to contract brew at the end of that day.
Pieter, the head brewer at Brouwerij De Brabandere met us in Lille and we piled into his car for a half hour drive over the border to Kortrijk in Belgium, where the brewery has stood for 125 years. We parked up, jumped out of the car, and walked through a pair of sliding doors into the brewery. It was at that moment this project suddenly felt very, very different. Stood there surrounded by 32 massive 220HL foeders full to the brim of beer that had been aging for the last 2 years, the idea of contract brewing changed completely from something cold and calculated to something that felt much more like a supportive arm around the shoulder. We need help getting to where we want to go, and it felt like we were in the right place to get it.
After a wander round the Foeder hall, we went in to the tasting room, where Nikola, Beavertown’s Head of Operations and Expansion projects was waiting with 2 glasses of Gamma, and 2 of Neck for us to try. Since the call was first made to do this, Nikola and members of our production team had been back and forth to Belgium, working on the brews to get our recipes working perfectly on Brouwerij De Brabandere’s kit, and these 4 glasses contained the latest refinements to our beers. We tasted, chatted, compared. A lot of work had been done on the beers, and 2 of the 4 were bang on. This was crucial of course. For Logan, and for Beavertown, the beer comes first. If it’s not right, we do everything we need to until it is. It was very important to him that the heart of the beers remained intact, from the matching of the water profile, to the malt and hop suppliers. We have also invested in a ‘Dry Hopnik’ to use at the brewery so we can mirror exactly our dry hopping technique used in Tottenham Hale. There would be only 2 differences to the beers coming from Belgium. The first was that they would be coming from Belgium and the second was that they would be brewed on a much larger kit. Everything else is the same – and with those two beers in front of me, that Gamma Ray and that Neck Oil, I believed it.
Pieter then took us on a tour of the brewery, and it was like looking into the future and the past at the same time. Old traditional copper kettles sat next to the modern stainless ones exactly alike to the kit that will sit in our new brewery. The brewery was a rabbit warren of different rooms on different levels, with tiled walls and original copper fixtures that exuded years of history and expertise. There was also a large space at the back of the brewery being redeveloped. Brouwerij De Brabandere are also still on a journey, they may have been going for 125 years, but that doesn’t mean they are done evolving. Their packaging hall was the most recent sign of this. Not something relevant to us as the beers brewed there will be for keg only, but their space age bottling line, cleaning systems, box packers and palletisers are something out of the space age.
With the tour over we headed back to the tasting room. Pieter took up post behind the bar and preceded to pour us more than one of everything. From the glorious Bavik Super Pils originally brewed in the 50’s to the spectacular 1984, each beer was of outstanding quality. These guys really knew how to brew. I guess they would after so many years in the business, but in the UK they are relatively if not almost completely unknown, and they really shouldn’t be! As we drank, Pieter regaled us of tales of the brewery, old and new. One of which particularly stuck with us. During the 2nd World War Belgium was heavily occupied territory, and breweries, like most businesses, we’re being stripped of any useful assets by the Nazis as the passed through. Brouwerij De Brabandere had recently invested in a truck to help get their beers further afield than the horse and card could. Albert, who had taken over from his father Joseph in 1929, was at the helm of the brewery at the time and knew that the truck would be the first thing commandeered so he ordered that it was completely dismantled and its parts hidden around the brewery before the Nazis arrived. When they did, they took 8 horses and moved on. When the war ended, the truck was rebuilt and ready to get the beers back on the road. It was a wonderful bit of forward planning in a time of adversity, and something we can all learn a thing or two from!
That evening, as we travelled back to London, tired, but ultimately inspired, it was very clear to me that this is much less a contract brew, and much more a partnership, and that this family brewery that has been together, brewing under the same ownership for 125 years now feels like part of the Beavertown family, and hopefully we feel like part of their family too.
So next time you’re drinking a pint of Gamma or Neck, it might be from Belgium, you won’t know it of course, cos if we can’t tell the difference, no one can.