THE BEGINNING – The Silly Brewery – found some 40km SW of Brussels in the agricultural heartland of Hainaut – is far from a joke or a pun. Its eyebrow-raising name actually comes from a perfectly respectable, local river, the Sylle. In turn, it gave its name to the village of Silly, a collection of farmhouses that arose along its banks.
And the story of the Silly Brewery begins, as is often the case in Belgium, with one of those farms, and its brew-house. It was in 1850 that the first chapter was written. Marcelin Hypolite Meynsbrughen had just purchased a large farm called Cense de la Tour.
Satisfying the thirst of local labourers was something that was definitely on his mind. He started off by brewing a typical Hainaut ‘saison’ (for the farm-workers), together with a ‘grisette’ (for the miners) and a ‘belge’ (for everyone else). These beers soon gained a serious reputation: In 1900 Marcelin's son, Adelin Junior, scooped a silver medal at the Exposition de Paris.
On the death of his father, he carried on the brewing activities along with his sisters, under the name of Meynsbrughen & Soeurs. Critically, they successfully managed to keep their copper out of the hands of the German occupiers, during the First World War. As a result, the brewery was able to expand between the wars.
The family purchased the local school, just next to the brewery, and used it to accommodate their new bottling plant. New beers also saw the light: Sylla (a type of bock, production of which ceased in 1945), an export beer and a Scotch ale.
This last beer was actually developed by Scottish soldier Jack Peyne. He was stationed in Silly during the First World War and went on to join the brewery afterwards. In the meantime, Adelin Jr harboured dreams of brewing his first bottom-fermented beer, as pils became increasingly popular. Up until then, only top fermentation beers were produced by Silly.
In 1950 a table beer, with the name of Triple Bock, came onto the market. It was followed by an export pils and then Myn’s Pils, re-named as Silly Pils in 1993. The brewery also launched its own Trappist and Christmas beers, but these did not catch on and were quickly withdrawn.
The year 1964 saw the introduction of the amber-coloured Super 64. Then the Van der Haegen brothers, Jean-Paul and Didier, joined the brewery in the 1970s, and the name finally became Brasserie de Silly in 1973. Two years on, and Silly took over the Tennstedt-DeCroes brewery in nearby Enghien.
The appeal of the Silly range was significantly broadened by this, with the taking-on of Double Enghien, a beer that enjoyed some local popularity at the time. After a period of consolidation, it was decided in 1990 to add a white beer – the Titje – to an increasingly diverse range.
Rrecent times have seen Brasserie de Silly continue its expansion into new beer styles. 2004 saw the launch of the Pink Killer, a fruity white beer with an aroma of grapefruit.
One year on and the Cré Tonnerre, a beer containing rum, was introduced to the market. The Abbey de Forest abbey beers formed another worthwhile addition in 2006.
Now a new generation has taken over at the helm. Bertrand, son of Jean-Paul Van der Haegen, is in charge of production, while his cousin, Lionel, manages the brewery, as well as overlooking exports and sales. The change of management has translated into excellent results.
In 2008 the brewery produced 10,000hl per annum. As of this year, this has risen to 15,000hl. Approximately forty per cent of production is destined for export, predominantly to France, Italy, the USA and Australia.
Brasserie de Silly has successfully made a name for its beers on both sides of the 'fermentation divide'. It originally established itself with its characteristic top-fermented beers, like the locally popular saison and Scotch ales. But bottom-fermented lagers have become big with Silly too.
The brewery’s first forays into lagers, like the Silly Pils, didn't emerge until after the Second World War. While the Silbrau Dort – inspired by German Dortmunder brews, and introduced in the 1970's – didn't last very long, other pils went on to form an important plank in their range.
This includes an interesting organic version of a pils. The German-influence to Silly's beers was reinforced in 1975, with the takeover of the Tennstedt-DeCroes brewery in Enghien. The original owners of that brewery came from Germany.
Their Double Enghien has been brewed by Silly ever since. The newly incorporated member of the Silly family, with its German roots, made its influence felt in a subtle way. For example, it seeps through into the light – but at the same time, well-hopped – La Divine beer. Another international influence comes from somewhat further north – Scotland.
A Scotch ale was one of the first brews of the Silly range. Such ales are known for their dark brown tints, being based on caramel and roast malts, and for being top fermented.
The resulting Scotch de Silly is a beer that tastes full in the mouth, is very well balanced and with a whispering, lingering after-taste. You could very easily place it between the ‘dubbel’ dark brown abbey beers and a stout. Since 2000, and the takeover of Brasserie d’Aubel, Silly's brewers have had access to a modern brewing hall. That's allowed them to marry technology and innovation to their respect for local tradition.
The range of Abbaye de Forest abbey beers, both blonde and dark, followed on from that acquisition. These are characterised by a touch of hops, a good balance of sweet and bitter and a rather pronounced character.
The Saison de Silly stands out from the classic ‘saisons’ through its amber colour, a fruity aroma, and zesty touches, with a hint of caramel compounding its light bitterness.
You might also get an impression of a Vlaams 'oudbruin bier' in there. A complex brew, and yet an excellent thirst quencher. Silly makes use of three house yeasts, continuously recovered from their own brews, which are used for both their top and bottom fermented beers.
All beers are brewed with relatively-hard well-water, pumped up from thirty metres below ground. This is filtered, so as to soften it up a bit. Silly uses Kent Golding, Hallertau and Saaz hops, as well as classic malts, both pale and caramel. While the Titje 'witbier' makes use of locally-grown barley, there's quite a variety of sources for the malts used across its range.
Some are sourced from Belgium and France, but some also comes from Kent (UK), Hallertau (Germany) and Žatec (the Czech Republic).
In general Silly's beers are not bottle-conditioned. It is only the Abbaye de Forest abbey beers, the Cré Tonnerre and the Double Enghien Christmas beer that re-ferment in the bottle, giving these a production time of around two months overall. The brewery isn't resting on its laurels quite yet - it's currently conducting tests with American aroma hops, with a view to producing their own IPA (India Pale Ale).
Nowadays it's Bertrand Van der Haegen who's watching over the quality of the Silly beers. Not that his father, Jean-Paul, can't help but take a glimpse over Bertrand's shoulder now and again. After all, the brewery is ‘his baby’ and he continues to keep it close to his heart, as does his brother Didier.
There's also a lot to keep an eye on. These brewers have made their mark by, on the one hand, offering a range of traditional Belgian beers; and on the other, by launching quirky brews such as the Silly Bio Pils and the Scotch de Silly.
And being bold with technology has helped the brewery on both these fronts. Always one to keep an eye on quality, Jean-Paul was, in fact, the first ‘small’ brewer in Belgium to convert to the use of cyclonic tanks for the production of speciality beers, back in the 1960s. He was also the first brewer to use champagne bottles as a vessel for his beers.
Continuous investments have also been made in production equipment. Stainless steel tanks were installed, as well as storage and fermentation tanks. Quality control has been ramped up.
All of these measures were to ensure that the beer is of a consistent quality. Bertrand has a huge amount of experience in this area. He used to work in food production, where he was responsible for quality and hygiene.
Not that technology entirely runs the show for him. The brewery adheres to a traditional brewing process that gives the beer ample time to rest and ferment. No quick sales here, then – that's not what the Brasserie de Silly is all about.
If you want to explore the area close to the brewery, Silly’s green surroundings won't disappoint. It is a very pleasant village in French-speaking Hainaut, in the south-central slice of Belgium (and reportedly one of the best-off districts in the province). It's also surrounded by several towns of undoubted historic charm.
As well as the brewery, Silly is home to the interactive MaquiStory exhibition, which will appeal to anyone with an interest in local World War II history. It covers the story of the local resistance to occupation. Silly itself also makes a great base for a trip to Brussels and the valley of the Zenne. In fact Halle, and its surroundings, gave birth to the traditional lambiek beers that are based on spontaneous fermentation with souring bacteria.
To the east is Enghien, from which the Double Enghien beer derives its name. This little Hainaut town, with its lovely historic centre (17th to 19th-century) is well worth a potter around. Make a bee-line for the 16th-century Jonathas House, and you'll step back into the days when tapestry weavers flourished here. There's a great selection of tapestries on show, many dating back to the 15th- and 16th-centuries, and all created by the master weavers of Enghien.
The church of Saint-Nicolas is another notable local landmark. It has a bell tower with 51 different bells forming its ‘carillon’. The oldest bell has been traced back to 1566. You may be surprised to find that the nearby Gardens of Enghien have long been internationally-renowned.
In the 17th-century they were considered amongst the most beautiful in Europe. Now Le Parc d’Enghien is listed as a UNESCO site of Special Architectural Interest. Its themed gardens, water features and ancient buildings were harmoniously arranged by the powerful Arenberg aristocratic family. Highlights include the Seven Stars Pavilion and the views from the park's baroque Belvédère.
And the history lesson continues in Lessines, which lies to the north of Silly. Here you will find one of Wallonia's Special Interest Heritage sites: the Hôpital de la Rose. This is one of the last remaining, complete Medieval hospitals in Europe.
Dating back to the 13th-century, it was still in use until 1980, and is now a museum. Lovingly restored, you can tour its courtyard, sick rooms and herb gardens, discovering how patients were treated across history. It also has a rich collection of ancient religious art on display throughout, and some 2,000 ancient books in its library. To the west of Silly is Ath, home to a surprising array of historic buildings – including the 12th-century Tour Burbant, part of its medieval military fortifications.
The Giant’s House museum, located in one of its historic townhouses, depicts the rich folkloric history of the town – which just happens to include giants. They take centre-stage at the museum, and are also the stars of the town's annual parade. This is held during the fourth weekend of August, and always draws huge crowds.
The Romans left their mark on the town of Ath, too. You can discover more at L’ Espace Gallo-Romain, a museum taking you back to the last days of the Roman Empire. From Ath you can link up with the signposted ‘voie romaine’, the ancient Roman way between Bavay and Velzeke (85 km). This links the archaeological sites of Bavay, Ath, Aubechies and Velzeke.
Visit Pairi Daiza in Brugelette and you'll soon see why this is one of the most popular Belgian tourist attractions. On the site of the former Cambron monastery are endangered animals from all over the world, in a country park designed on the basis of geographical zones (China, Indonesia, Africa, and Australia). The latest attraction is a pair of rare giant pandas from China.
The City of Mons (Bergen) is also well within reach of Silly, lying some 20 miles south. It's well known for its market square, the collegial Church of Sint-Waltrudis, and its Belfort tower, lying in the gardens above the city.
Here you'll also find the BAM contemporary art museum and the astonishing Mundaneum, with its millions of filing cards. These were compiled by Paul Otlet to bring together all the knowledge in the world. 2015 will give you even more reasons to visit the city: Mons will be the European Capital of Culture, and numerous culturally-enlightened activities are no doubt planned.
Getting There & Around
To get to Silly from Brussels by car, it's best to travel using the E19 in the direction of Charleroi. Take exit 21 (Halle) then follow the E429 towards Enghien. Turn off at exit 27 (Marcq) and continue on the N7 towards Doornik (Tournai). By rail, take a local train from Brussel-Zuid (Bruxelles Midi). It will get you to Silly in about half an hour.
The new cycling node network ‘Wallonie picarde’ is an ideal way for cyclists to explore this part of the Hainaut region. Maps can be obtained from the local Tourist Offices, either in person or through their websites. That way you can plan out your own individual route.
Gastronomy, Food & More Beer
Under the name of ‘Les Saveurs de Silly’, local food producers are more than keen to promote their own slice of ‘terroir’. They draw inspiration in the Slow Food movement, which has now grown to international proportions. This movement encourages the use of local quality produce, made in the artisan way.
Respecting biodiversity at source is far more than an empty slogan for those behind Les Saveurs de Silly. For example, a collection of seasonal recipes has been compiled by gourmets, hobby chefs, growers and producers, all of whom are active in the local area.
That the culinary tradition should shine through is, perhaps, not so surprising: Silly is really an island in a sea of agriculture. It is surrounded by fields, pastures, vegetable plots and orchards. This is the place to go to source ‘forgotten vegetables’, such as heirloom parsnips or Jerusalem artichokes.
Traditional potato varieties, bearing such impressive names as Vitelotte Négresse or Corne de Gatte, are also enjoying a revival in this corner of Belgium.
Furthermore, artisan cheese makers have been popping up like (if you'll excuse the food pairing) mushrooms, over the last few years. Here, many unpasteurised cheeses are crafted, based on the milk of sheep, goats or dairy cows. And, often, a splash or two of beer.
Brasserie de Silly has developed a working partnership with local cheese makers, which led to the creation of a hard cheese rinsed in Double Enghien, and another containing Scotch de Silly. There is also a cheese maker from Thoricourt, who produces a 'beer cheese' using Silly's very-own Abbaye de Forest.
Tourist information for Silly:
Tourist information for Enghien:
Tourist information for Ath:
Tourist information for Henegouwen/Hainaut: