The Beginning – The story of Brasserie d’Achouffe starts something like a ‘Belgian dream’. It is the year 1982. Two brothers-in-law start up a microbrewery in a dilapidated cowshed, lost in the heart of the Ardennes. Everyone tells them they are mad. Who in their right mind would set up a brewery here?
Where, in the midst of all these forests, are they going to find their customers? But founders Chris Bauweraerts and Pierre Gobron stick with their decision. And their persistence eventually pays off.
Before long, their beers are finding customers – not in the local woods, but hundreds of miles to the north, in the Netherlands. Soon the good news spreads, and their beers become popular with customers as far away as Quebec, the USA, Israel, Italy…
Then, at last, the beer-fans back home in Belgium start taking notice – and Brasserie d’Achouffe is bought up by Duvel Moortgat in 2006. Seven years on, and the brewery is producing 125,000hl per annum... but hold on, we're getting ahead of ourselves. Back to 1982, and the auspicious date of the 27th of August.
That was the day that saw the first brew (of 49 litres) pour out of the Achouffe brewing tank. All that remained was to find a name.
Chris and Pierre eventually opted for La Chouffe, in a nod to the village of Achouffe where they were based.
It was a name soon to gain a stonking reputation in beer-loving circles. But what to put on the label? “Not the umpteenth priest, no way are we going down that road,” Chris felt. Coincidence came to the rescue. A neighbouring village was hosting an auction, with the proceeds going to the victims of a fire.
Chris happened to see it on television. A painting featuring a gnome flashed across the screen. Chris saw the potential immediately. And an icon was born.
A gnome is bent over, weighed down by a load of hops and barley he is carrying on his back. He is greedily eyeing a glass of La Chouffe. And he certainly deserves a sip.
The little fellow on the bottle did the trick for La Chouffe, big time – with the Netherlands being just the first to succumb to the brother-in-laws' 'gnome beer'. In fact, the brewery’s first export market flourished to such an extent that it long exceeded the home market. Today, the brewery has the capacity to brew up to four times a day.
Three quarters of that production is taken up by the blond La Chouffe, which has become an international benchmark for herbal beers.
It's a beer that pulls in the crowds too – around ten thousand people now visit the brewery every year. And La Chouffe flows as abundantly for the crowds at the annual Grande Choufferie feasts, in August, during gastronomy weekends at the Chouffe Cycling weekend – and at the Mountain Bike World Cup in nearby Houffalize.
La Chouffe, it seems, has been promoted to become the beer of choice for the cross-country cyclist.
This herbal beer also performs as well in the kitchen, as it does on the cycle track. Or so Chef Jean-Luc, of Taverne de La Chouffe, proudly insists. And who would disagree.
No-one is more skilful at preparing a Chouffe 'sabayon' than Jean-Luc. His culinary highlights include ‘meatballs with Liège syrup’, and rabbit (or trout) slow-cooked in the 'gnome beer'.
But what of the beers behind this brewing success story?
Lambiek brewer Frank Boon of Brouwerij Boon feels that the Achouffe beers are unique, just as the story of the brewery itself is. But its considerable success did not come easily. Along the way, Brasserie d’Achouffe has paid meticulous attention to beer quality and hygiene. And to the subtle artistry of brewing.
Eric Lejeune, the current brewmaster, feels that brewers can only make their way in the market if they properly combine art (creativity) with science (analysis).
You cannot craft a good product without a sound foundation in science; but equally, a purely scientific product will be lacking in soul, character and balance. He also stresses that Brasserie d’Achouffe only uses yeast cultivated in-house, for the main fermentation (as well as the re-fermentation of all its beers). This ensures that the brewer has a supply of ultra-fresh yeast at his disposal at any given time.
All of the beers on its roster are famed as mild and excellent thirst-quenchers. For many years, though, the blond La Chouffe (8% ABV) was Achouffe’s only brew. Initially it was slightly weaker (at 6.8 % ABV) and didn't include herbs.
In later years, coriander was added, following the example of the popular Hoegaarden 'witbier'.
The dark Mc Chouffe (8% ABV), as its name might imply, is a Belgian Scotch ale – one that re-ferments in the bottle. It was launched in 1987. It is a fully rounded beer, with touches of caramel, and has much in common with the traditional Belgian ‘dubbel’. There are quite a few Scotch beers on the roster, with their surprisingly burnt aroma from the use of that dark roasted malt.
This list includes the winter beer N’Ice Chouffe. At 10% ABV, this is the brewery’s strongest beer. A dark winter beer, it contains two novelly-paired herbs: dried Curaçao peel and thyme.
The N’Ice Chouffe of 1996 was also the source of a small but lucrative drama. When a particular brew happened to fail, it was decided not to bin it, but to store it in a dark space. It wasn't to be forgotten. A few years later, as the 20th anniversary of the brewery approached, the idea took hold that the shelved stock should be distilled.
The resulting spirit would be marketed to commemorate the anniversary, as a beer brandy or ‘brandebier’, under the name of Esprit d’Achouffe.
These days you can purchase this relatively unknown product in a half-litre pottery jar. A sip of the Esprit d’Achouffe quickly shows its origin in Achouffe’s brewing, mashing and boiling kettles.
The most recent addition is the well-hopped Houblon Chouffe (9% ABV). This is a trans-Atlantic hybrid – a cross between American IPA and Belgian tripel.
It represents a unique combination of the strengths of American style and creativity, and the expertise of Belgian brewing; of traditional yeast cultures and old-country barley malts, partnered to powerful American aroma hops. Three different varieties of hop are added during the various stages of the brewing process: the American Amarillo and Tomahawk as well as the European Saaz variety.
Amarillo is added during fermentation to increase the hoppy taste and to provide a delicious grapefruit aroma.
That leaves Houblon Chouffe with a tongue-tingling three-fold increase in bitterness over the standard La Chouffe. And so the La Chouffe story continues through its twists and turns of beer exploration. This is one gnome, it would seem, that isn't content to rest on his hop sack for too long.
The story of L'Achouffe is really the story of the two men, at the helm from the start. They formed the perfect tandem for making a success of this ambitious brewing project: Chris, with his irrepressible enthusiasm, creativity and business savvy and Pierre, contributing his knowledge of brewing and food technology.
Before even the cow-shed, Brasserie d’Achouffe first saw light as something of a hobby project. Pierre Gobron had attended a basic brewing course as part of his food technology studies, and the brothers-in-law soon got a taste for brewing.
They started experimenting, with plenty of borrowed pots and pans, in their mother-in-law’s garage – until she had enough of these goings-on and complained to farmer Albert Masson.
He took an interest in their story, and offered an empty cow barn to Chris and Pierre. Quid pro quo applied, though, and the farmer’s demands were not inconsiderable.
He wanted Eur 0.025 per bottle sold. The budding brewers felt this was a great deal… that is, until the beer really started to sell. A few years on they would be compelled to take over the Masson farm entirely.
The official start of Brasserie d’Achouffe saw Pierre cobbling together a basic brewing installation in the farm cowshed – kitted out from their rather meagre starting capital of just 5000 Euros. At the time, Pierre was production manager in an ice cream factory, and brewing was back-seated to a weekend job.
Every Saturday he came to the brewery to check on production. In the meantime, Chris Bauweraerts would drive from Brussels to the Ardennes every three weeks, on a Friday night, so he could produce wort the following day.
However, he quickly found that his heart lay more in promotion and sales. Money was short in those days. So Chris and Pierre made an historic pact: Pierre would make sure that production followed demand; Chris would ensure that demand would exceed production. So a talented brewer and a top-class salesman joined forces and the partnership flourished.
In 1982, just three brew batches saw the light, accounting for a grand total annual production of two hectolitres. By the time the fifth brew was ready to be approved by both gentlemen, innovation was in the air.
On the advice of Pierre Celis, they added the ‘secret’ herb of coriander. In 1983 annual production reached 40 hl, at one brew every three weeks.
It was finally time to say goodbye to the cowshed, and head to a new brewing hall. Five years on, and Chris Bauweraerts was to fully embrace the Achouffe brewing adventure. The self-made brewery was doing well. In 1991 the brewery saw its output at 3,400hl; the following year this went up to 5,000hl. The late beer-guru Michael Jackson was impressed.
Achouffe’s spectacular growth was mentioned in the final edition of his book on Belgian beers.
But although exports may have been increasing in leaps and bounds, the brewery still lacked the manpower – and the financial means – to expand properly internationally.
So in 2006, Duvel Moortgat was brought into the story, taking over Brasserie d’Achouffe. A match apparently made in brewery heaven.
L'Achouffe is a brewery geared towards visitors. As well as a professional guided tour around the brewery, there is a shop where you can top up on your La Chouffe gnome-centred merchandise (not forgetting the beer). There's also a large tavern, ready-made for tasting.
A visit to the 'home of the gnome' can be pre-arranged online on their website. The brewery also welcomes visitors without a reservation: on Mondays at 2pm, and on Wednesdays and Sundays at 2pm.
These are on a first-come, first-serve basis, though. Such groups comprise a maximum of 25 visitors, and the tours are generally conducted in Dutch. During the summer holidays, free visits are more regular, taking place every day at 2pm, except. But it's best, on the day itself, to check with the Chouffe shop for the latest information.
Visits can be booked in advance, and are free of charge for children under 12, but they must be registered online. The charge for children between 12 and 15 is 5 Euros per child, which includes a soft drink. Adults (16 and over) will be charged 9 Euros per person, with a tasting is included in the adult price.
Tours can be booked for parties from 4 to 25 guests. Pets are not admitted for reasons of hygiene. The brewery has its own tavern, allowing the visitor to taste the beer in the best possible conditions – direct from source.
Walkers, cyclists, horse riders and lovers of the good life – all of them will find something to their liking here in Achouffe. A signposted walk will lead you around the village boundary. Come well-prepared, though, as the walk does involve the odd climb. This area is also a mountain bikers’ paradise.
Achouffe is in fact a great base for exploring the Ardennes. The star-shaped Mardasson Memorial (1950), in nearby Bastogne, pays homage to the more than 77,000 US soldiers who lost their lives during the Battle of the Bulge.
This famous World War II battle saw the Americans halt Hitler's final offensive, in a wintry December in 1944 – ultimately assuring to the final liberation of Europe. Of course, ‘The Pearl of the Ardennes’ has to be La Roche, with its castle and Ardennes Battle Museum.
The Deister Rock is the site of the former castle that has been a ruin for over two hundred years, but it still towers imposingly over the village. The castle offers splendid views over the city and the River Ourthe. And the River Ourthe is found meandering beautifully around all the sights of this city.
Though, as you will find everywhere in the Ardennes, the term ‘city’ is not to be taken in an absolute way. La Roche is in fact drowning in a sea of trees (1,250 hectares), and has over 120 kilometres of signposted walks.
Close to is Durbuy, which has proclaimed itself in the best Ardennes tradition as ‘the smallest city in the world’. This tiny town, situated in a meander of the Ourthe, is well worth a visit.
It has a fabulous castle, and the Maison Espagnole, an ancient timbered house that in years-gone-by housed tax collectors. It also has a splendidly preserved centre, with many characteristic Ardennes 18th-century houses to admire.
The nearby village of Hotton will remind you of the caves of One Thousand and One Nights with its giant galleries, draperies, impressive stalactite formations and – far down below – the growling river. Nadrin, by contrast, offers the best views across the Ourthe, especially if you take a walk along the route of the ‘hauteurs et gorges de l’Ourthe’.
The 'Belvédère of the five Ourthes' in Nadrin perhaps offers unparalleled views over the Ourthe landscape.
And the Rocher Hérou towers majestically over all these vistas. This rocky ridge, one and half kilometres in length, forces the river to make a long detour. Another eye-catching natural feature is Les Ondes, where the Ourthe is found thundering across the rocks, under the watchful eye of the trees of the Cresse Sainte-Marguerite.
From here you can make a detour to the Roman villa, that dates from the second/third century AD. Visit the nearby village of Ollomont, and you can admire its beautiful ancient cemetery.
In Nisramont you'll find the eponymous dam or ‘barrage’, a considerable work of the hydro-engineering art that is 116 metres long and 16 metres tall.
The water surface of the reservoir is 47 hectares. The visitors’ centre gives an audio-visual presentation explaining the story of this confluence of the two Ourthe Rivers. The walk around the reservoir is 13 kilometres long. Take note: this is not an easy walk. Prepare yourself, and come equipped with sturdy footwear, and a dash of determination.
Getting There & Around
The hamlet of Achouffe is located in Wibrin, part of the community of Houffalize. From the E25 motorway Liège-Arlon (Luik-Aarlen), you take the Houffalize exit, then turn right. It's not an easy turning to miss– you'll be shown the way by two large gnomes.
Public transport here is only for those with an adventurous spirit. The nearest railway station is Gouvy, 20 kilometres away, from where you can take the bus to Houffalize. Hiring a bicycle to get to Achouffe is a feasible option, as long as you can cope with a steep incline on the return journey to Houffalize.
Cycling fans will certainly be familiar with Houffalize, through its location on the classic Liège-Bastogne-Liège cycle race. The town has also put its name has on the map with the Mountain Bike World Cup. That attracts some 450 competitors and up to 20,000 spectators.
The annual Chouffe Marathon Mountain Bike takes place on the second weekend of August, to coincide with the grand brewery feasts. Around six hundred cross-country cyclists attack a parcours of 60, 90 or 120 km. So it'll come as no surprise that the area surrounding the brewery has a number of signposted mountain bike tracks.
The Upper-Ourthe region lies between La Roche and Houffalize, and extends over 30 kilometres, covering the wildest part of the Ourthe Valley. There are 12 villages here, dotted across its hills and valleys. Numerous signposted walks (72 paths covering a total of 420 kilometres) will take you to some enchanting beauty spots, fascinating archaeological finds and the pretty architecture so characteristic of the Ardennes.
Gastronomy, Food & More Beer
Naturally enough, brewer Eric Lejeune feels that the beers from Brasserie d’Achouffe suit a wide range of cuisine – both simple, traditional dishes, as well as some more complex and refined recipes. "On the plate or next to it", as they say – these are beers that are sure to find a welcome home either side of the menu.
La Chouffe makes a fine companion for salmon, tuna, lobster, mussels, veal, chicken or quail. Nicolas Soenen, beer sommelier with Duvel Moortgat, especially recommends pairing La Chouffe with fennel, broccoli, asparagus and mushrooms.
The beer also goes well with unpasteurised cow’s cheeses such as the Fleur d’Audresselles from Northern France, and the Beaufort Haut Alpage originating from the Savoie region.
The Beaufort is a cheese from the high mountains, with the cows grazing at a height of over 1500 metres, on expansive meadows full of herbs. La Chouffe is a good match for this cheese, with its Ardennes terroir heritage and outstanding hop flavours.
The darker Mc Chouffe brings different pairings to mind: salmon, mussels, oysters, dried ham and bacon will all suit it to-a-tee. Also recommended as accompaniments are roast chicory, mushrooms and recipes including sweet soy sauce or prunes.
It goes particularly well with cheeses that have a charcoal ash-covered crust, such as the Selles Sur Cher or Saint-Maure.
The sommelier’s advice for the Houblon Chouffe includes chicory (raw or from the oven) and even pink grapefruit.
Houblon Chouffe will also stand up well to blue cheeses such as the Rossini, prepared with grape must and red wine. The Pouligni St-Pierre or Herve cheese both make for an excellent pairing, the latter contributing its strong aromas from Le Vieux Moulin.
Tourist information for La-Roche & Houffalize:
Toerisme VVV Houffalize-La Roche-en-Ardenne
Place du Marché 16
Telephone: +32 (0) 84 / 36 77 36
Tourist information for the province of Luxembourg:
Toerisme Provincie Luxembourg
Quai de l’Ourthe 9
Telephone: +32 (0) 84 / 41 10 11