Thursday, 17 December 2015

EBBC 2015 Pre-Conference Excursion - Looking Back

It’s been a couple of months now since EBBC Pre-Conference Excursion and I am still struggling to present an overall picture of the day’s events. The excursion took place on Thursday 27th August; the day before the conference kicked off. It was organised by the Belgian Family Brewers; an association of 22 family-owned companies representing some of the best traditions of Belgian brewing. The idea behind the
A taste of things to come
event was to showcase examples of each member company’s products and to attempt to give a brief history and overview of each. With every company keen to promote its own role within the association, this was never going to be easy, and in fact posed a serious logistical challenge for the excursion organisers.

To get an overall impression of how the day worked out it is necessary to consider that there was no way in which we could have visited all 22 of the breweries which belong to the Belgian Family Brewers Association. Instead we had four stopping points spread over the course of the day which were arranged so that between six and seven brewers were represented at each halt; with representatives from each company present to talk about their brewery, the beers they brew and to talk us through a tasting of some of their products.

Travelling in style
This was all well and good in theory, but somewhat ambitious and over-optimistic in practice, as small delays at each stop, and the length of some of the presentations, meant that the planned schedule seriously over-ran. When torrential rain and traffic problems on the Belgian motorway network are factored in, it is no surprise that we ended up arriving back in Brussels some two hours later than originally planned.

However, in the greater scheme of things, these were just minor irritations, and the day ended up being interesting, educational and jolly good fun; even if it was something of an endurance trip at times! It’s safe to say that we all came away with a much greater knowledge of Belgian brewing in general, and of the special role played by the Belgian Family Brewers in ensuring the methods, traditions and customs associated with some of the country’s best known beers continues to be passed on from one generation to the next.

A tent in a field on a wet August afternoon
We set off from the conference hotel on one of the wettest August days imaginable; something which ended up exasperating the aforementioned traffic problems. The coach we were travelling in belonged to the Belgian National Football Team - the “Red Devils”, and was painted up in the team’s colours and their logo; so despite the weather we were really journeying in style.  Our first stop was a hop garden planted in the grounds of the Palm Brewery headquarters, in the village of Steenhuffel.

The coach dropped us just off the road and then, following our guide, we hiked along a track towards a large marquee set up facing one of the aforementioned hop gardens. This was our base for lunch and also for the associated beer tastings and presentations. The marquee was rather an upmarket affair, with a wooden floor, a bar with full catering facilities in the background and a large TV screen to aid with the presentations.
It's quite a posh tent, mind you!
There were high tables, cleverly grouped around the larger supporting tent poles, so we divided ourselves up into appropriately sized groups around these tables and stood awaiting the first beer samples and the first of the five courses which were served for lunch. We also listened attentively to the first presentation which welcomed us to Steenhuffel, before launching into the history of the Palm Group of Breweries. 

To be honest there was rather too much in the way of facts and figures to be taken in; not just with the first presentation, but with all of them, and whilst they all had their own story to say, as the day progressed we all started to suffer from information overload. 
One of many presentations
Although I was taking notes, they weren’t that detailed; my presence on the trip being purely for enjoyment, and whilst I certainly wanted to enhance my knowledge of the Belgian beer industry, I was not there in some paid journalistic role where I would be expected to provide a full report on the day’s activities. What I can report is that, given the setting, the emphasis at this stop was on "hops". Beers and representatives from the following breweries were present in the marquee at Steenhuffel: Van Eeke, Het Anker, Lefebure, Huyghe and Duvel.

Sampling session at Lindemanns
The lunch which accompanied the first series of presentations, was excellent; as were the beers selected to go with each course. We later discovered that the marquee had not been erected solely in our honour, but had been put in place for an event scheduled to take place a few days later, when the hops in the adjacent fields would be picked, and then taken away to be used in the brewing of the Belgian equivalent of “green hop” beer. As it happened, the weather on the chosen day (Sunday) was glorious, so I would imagine that everything passed off as planned.

We made our way back across the fields to the awaiting coach, and then set off for our next scheduled halt at the Lindemanns Brewery in Vlezenbeek , in the heart of the “Lambic country” of  Payottenland. This was when the carefully-timed schedule began to go astray. The fact that the welcoming speeches, beer tastings and the presentations which took place at Lindemanns, also over-ran didn’t help either.

and the new!
The old
Unfortunately there was insufficient time to look around the brewery, 
with its brand-spanking new brewing plant, but we were given a quick look at the maturation room where the beer conditions in large oak vats, or Foeders, many of which date back several decades. Unsurprisingly the emphasis at this stop was on "yeast", and the other Belgian Family Brewers present were: De Brabander, Omer Vander Ghinste, Timmermans and Verhaeghe.

Brasserie Dupont
The rain had stopped by the time we re-boarded the coach, and then it was quite a lengthy drive to our next stop, the picturesque Dupont Brewery in the village of the same name. We entered a renovated old farm building, which forms part of the brewery, and then sat down around a long table. The Dupont Brewery dates from 1844, and is best known for its Saison Dupont. The host team had been joined by brewers from five other breweries, all keen to present their wares and tell us about their breweries. Consequently more glasses of beer were placed in front of us, and from this point on, everything started blurring into one.

Sampling session at Dupont
There were just too many beers to taste, too many presentations to listen to and consequently far too much information to take in, but I was taking notes (old habits die hard), so I can confirm representatives from the following companies were there to tell us about their breweries: Bosteels, St-Feullien, DeRyck, Brouwerij Roman and Brasserie de Silly. The guideline notes relating to this stop, indicate an emphasis on “more”, whatever that is supposed to mean!

From what I recall, it was no great distance to the final stop on our tour, namely the Dubuisson Brewery and the home of Bush beers. Here we were treated to something more solid in the form of a sit-down meal in the brewery restaurant. It being Belgium, and this being an excursion organised by the Belgian Family Brewers, we had that most Belgian of meal - Boeuf  Carbonnade with chips. It was rather good, and as well as a Dubuisson beer (Surfine - Saison) to drink, we sampled beers from De Koninck, De Halve Maan, Van Hosebrouck and Sint Bernardus.  We also met the head brewer from the latter brewery, and it was here that I first heard the tale about the brewery’s claim to be the brewer of the original Sint Sixtus-Westvleteren.
A Belgian classic for dinner
The evening finished with a tour of the extensive cellars beneath the brewery, where the beers quietly mature and condition in row after row of oak casks. The latter are, in the main, former wine barrels, primarily from Burgundy and once containing the famous Nuits St Georges wine. With the emphasis at Dubuisson on barrel-ageing, the focus at this final stop of the tour, was understandably on "oak".

I slept for most of the journey back to Brussels, awakening just as we arrived back in the city centre. This was some two hours or so later than scheduled. It had been a long, but interesting day, packed full of all sorts of beery goodies, and there would be more to come the following morning, as the conference proper was due to kick off!

Maturation cellar at Dubuisson
Looking back at both the various brewery leaflets I collected along the way, together with the notes I made (more comprehensive than I first thought), I believe there is sufficient information to do a more detailed write up on the four locations, with obvious emphasis on the beers sampled plus, where available, some back ground history of some of the breweries. This will be a project to keep me busy over the Christmas break, so it may be a few weeks before the first of these posts appears on the blog.

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