The Beginning – This is a brewery with a wonderfully long-standing pedigree, one whose journey reaches right back into the 17th-century. That's when Jacobus Liefmans first established his brewery here on the banks of the River Scheldt.
And while the brewery has stayed within the bounds of the town, there have been a few interesting wrinkles in its long story.
The original brewery of 1679 was located right on the Scheldt, where it stayed for most of the next 200 years.
In the 20th-century, though, it began a shuffle around town: first to ‘de Krekelput' (or the cricket well) in the town centre, in 1933. Then it came back to the east bank of the Scheldt, in the 'Aalststraat', where it remains to this day.
Throughout much of that time, the brewery has been run by the Liefmans family– right up until the early 1900s in fact.
Nowadays, Liefmans is owned by Duvel-Moortgat. But all of Liefmans' most-famed beers are still fermented on-site – and for good reason. A Brewery of Character – That's because this is a brewery which has the luxury of over three-centuries of history to draw upon. In many ways, the Liefmans brewery is nothing less than a living museum, chock-full of character.
Much of that character comes from its use of local waters – hard waters, rich in iron and calcium.
Those mineral riches are a source of the brown colouration – and even the bitter caramel and sourness – that is so characteristic of Liefmans' beers.
In fact it's reckoned that their famed dark colour comes as much from that calcium, as it does from the dark roasted malts and added cane sugar. Moreover, a genuine Liefmans really can only be brewed and perfected here, in the Oudenaarde premises. Or so insists the current brew master Marc Coesens.
The entire surroundings of the brewery are permeated by a unique atmosphere, replete with yeasts and bacteria specific to it. And all Liefmans beers are produced on the basis of this main yeast stem, spontaneously fermenting .
But you won't taste those acids so typically produced with spontaneous fermentation, and usually found in beers like 'oude gueuze' or 'oude kriek'.
In contrast to those beers, the Liefmans beers only come into contact with oxygen during its open fermentation. This stimulates the formation of only a mild lactic acid. Quality, workmanship, tradition – After three centuries of brewing, there is no doubt that the hallmark of the Liefmark brewery remains 'quality, workmanship and tradition'. The original brewing equipment has been retained and is still in good condition.
Brewing kettles, cooling basins and ‘baudelot’ coolers, are all still there, gleaming away in shiny red copper – a metal that's more typically used by English breweries, than those of Belgium.
The Liefmans brewery still sources its ingredients with quality in mind, with everything coming from within Belgium's borders. The 'krieken' or cherries for its Cuvée-Brut originate from the fruit province of Limburg, while the hops are procured from Poperinge in West-Flanders – well-nigh the last stronghold of Belgian hops. All of this makes Liefmans one of the last authentically Belgian beers.
That local produce also makes a vital contribution to the quality signature of the finished product. The Belgian 'krieken' cherries used by Liefmans are renowned for their freshness, as they are local rather than imported.
And those Poperinge hops are a small but essential component of Liefmans' characteristic taste. Attention to detail is there too.
For example, Liefmans was the first brewery to hand-wrap each individual bottle in paper. This practice is still popular with many other breweries and – to this day – each bottle of Liefmans Goudenband or Liefmans Cuvée-Brut is lovingly hand-wrapped.
Brew master Marc Coesens tells us that the brown beers from Oudenaarde – the Oudenaardse 'bruine bieren' – are traditionally slightly soured. The explanation is that centuries ago, hops weren't used for brewing, and this made the beer turn sour quicker.
The tradition of sour beers in fact goes back to the times when the herbal mix called ‘gruut’ was used for brewing. Letting the beer go sour meant that it could be stored for longer.
Back to the present day, and the hop bitterness in the Liefmans beers remains hardly discernible, as very few hops are added. The characteristically unique taste of the Liefmans beers is further realised through four distinctive approaches to their beer-craft.
First there is the technique of mixed fermentation in open yeasting basins. Then there's the use of real kriek cherries (for both Liefmans Cuvée Brut and Liefmans Fruitesse). There's also the extra-long storage time, which sees the beer spend up to three years in chilled tanks. And lastly, each final batch is a blend, a careful balancing of young and old beers. That ‘cutting’ (or blending) of beers of varying vintages is something you'll really taste in the glass – perfected through years of seasoned craftsmanship in this traditional technique.
All Liefmans beers are produced on this basis, as sour, mixed fermentation beers, meaning that the beer is fermented from two sources.
First, of course, there's the initial standard high-fermentation yeast culture. But because of the fermentation is open, there's also the presence of a specific micro-flora. The most important members here are the lactic acid bacteria, making that all-important sourness. The beer will undergo spontaneous fermentation of these, when it is matured in a warm place.
This takes place in coated or stainless steel tanks, rather than in wooden barrels. There's a good reason for that. Wooden barrels will tend to form far more ascetic acid, whereas in coated or stainless steel tanks, the micro-flora will produce lactic acid only, and no ascetic acid. The difference is most certainly a palpable one.
There are three basic beers underlying all the brewery's brands. First up is a basic Oud Bruin beer, which is used for the Liefmans Oud Bruin, and also, in part, for the Liefmans Cuvée Brut.
Another underlying beer is Goudenband, used for the Liefmans Goudenband. Finally, there is a pale Basisbeer (base beer), that ferments and sours in the same way as Oud Bruin and Goudenband. This is the underlying beer for Liefmans Fruitesse, and also forms the base beer used for maturing the kriek cherries. The 'kriek' cherries will mature in this base beer for between two and four years, depending on how they evolve during maturation.
The resulting 'kriekbasisbeer' will form part of the Liefmans Cuvée Brut and also contribute to the Liefmans Fruitesse. In other words, all of Liefmans’ fruit beers (Cuvée Brut and Fruitesse) are composed from a number of other beers.
You could very well ask whether the Liefmans beers have changed throughout the years? And the answer is, yes they have, without a doubt – in the same way that wine undergoes an evolution in taste with every vintage. Oud Bruin used to be an ‘iconic’ Oudenaards 'bruin bier', with sales reaching their peak in the 1970s. But these days Liefmans Oud Bruin is slightly less sour and has a fuller mouth feel compared to 40 years ago.
It also took until the early 20th-century before the brewery started to fill its maturation tanks with krieken. The local farmers at the time were looking to find an alternative use for their glut of krieken cherries.
The taste and the colour of those initial 'kriekbeers', brewed way back then, has since undergone a metamorphosis.
The flavour profile of the original bears little resemblance to today's Liefmans Cuvée-Brut. The Liefmans Fruitesse, however, is another story. This beer was only created when Duvel-Moortgat took over the brewery, and has only been around for a few years.
It is in fact the only one of Liefmans beer that has remained unchanged since it was launched.
The brewery was owned by the Liefmans family for two long slow centuries. But the 20th-century saw things became more fast-paced. In 1902 the brewery changed hands for the first time, when it passed into the hands of the Van Geluwe family. 1990 saw a takeover by the Riva brewery company, who renamed the Oudenaards brewery.
Some 12 years later, Riva was itself taken over. The new owners changed the name back, from Riva to Liefmans, but this did not prevent the brewery from going bust.
Then, in 2008, Duvel-Moortgat announced their plans to purchase the Liefmans brewery.
A re-positioning followed and the ‘Fruitesse’ was introduced in 2009. The Liefmans brewery name is now once again firmly established on the beer map of Belgium, and far beyond its borders.
We cannot wrap up this tale, however, without mentioning one person who has been instrumental in the continued development of Liefmans beers, right up to the present day. Rosa Merckx has been involved in the brewing business for most of her life, and has held the stirring stick at Liefmans for over forty years. This tough, stubborn lady has readily proved her mettle in the world of Belgian beers, a world that had long been male-dominated.
It is thanks to Rosa, that the characteristically sour Liefmans beer took on a rounder, fuller and milder taste. Rosa’s inborn passion, and relentless work-ethic, were largely responsible for the success of the kriekbier. That success has reached into some high places, too.
During her long and distinguished brewing career, Rosa has uncovered a number of royal beer fans. In fact, legend has it (and ‘Madame Rose’ is adamant) that Belgian King Leopold III was an avid Liefmans fan. The fact that Rosa Merckx's autograph can be found on the packaging pays homage to this pioneering female Belgian brewmaster. Rosa has now reached a rather respectable age, but she still works with the current brew masters – in her own inimitable way – to safeguard the quality of the various Liefmans brews.
And although a mother isn't supposed to have a favourite child, it must be said that the complex Liefmans Goudenband has acquired a very special place in Rosa’s heart. So, Liefmans brewing – is it art or science? Current head brewer Marc Coesens feels that the secret lies in a combination of both.
Though it goes without saying that the expertise of the brewer plays an essential role. Naturally enough, science is vitally important in supporting the brewing processes.
As the brewmaster says: “We now have a scientific explanation for a number of aspects of the brewing and fermentation process, ones we only knew of and respected before. The spontaneous souring process is one of those”. But all of Liefmans' beers are also produced through the sage craft of blending, the considered mixing of beers of different styles, and of various ages.
Even if classing this as an ‘art’ seems a little far-fetched, one thing becomes sure, with just one sip of a Liefmans brew. These are beers fashioned with the highest levels of craftsmanship.
This still-active monument to brewing is being refurbished, but you can can still visit the brewery from Monday to Saturday, accompanied by a professional guide. All aspects are covered during this tour of the old brewery. For organisational reasons, though, you will have to make reservations. A minimum number of 15 participants applies, with the maximum group size set at 35.
If you are not visiting as part of the group there is, however, a solution. A small group of two can join any party of 15 or more. Reservations can be made online directly with the brewery. The brewery can offer catering, and has a room where celebrations can be held, if desired.
The guide will initiate you into the history and origins of Oudenaards bruin bier, as well as the rich history of the Liefmans family and their brewery.
During your visit you will be made aware of just how much physical labour was once required, using traditional brewing techniques.
A visit to the Liefmans brewery will incorporate an initiation into the correct art of pouring, a tasting of two beers, plus a small gift. It goes without saying that whatever you can't taste in situ will be available to buy – so that you can continue your tasting back home, at your leisure. The tour takes two hours and is charged at Euro €9 per head.
The foundations for Oudenaarde were laid almost 1,000 years ago with the building of its castle. Nowadays, by Belgian standards, Oudenaarde is considered a medium-sized city, with just over 30,000 inhabitants. Apart from discovering more about Liefmans, there's more plenty to see in town. After all, this is a city that has long been known as the ‘brewers’ city’.
That's because, a century or so ago, it was home to some twenty breweries. Now only four remain, including Liefmans.
But Oudenaarde hasn't only made its mark on the map with its beer. It is also known for its arts.
There are 16th-century tapestries, its Gothic architecture and the famed artist Adriaan Brouwer (1605-1638). He is the well-known chronicler of Belgium's then-bucolic life, marked by beer, tobacco and women.
Lovers of cycling will be very familiar with Oudenaarde, as it is the finishing point of the wildly popular 'Ronde van Vlaanderen' cycling race. A visit to the local exhibition ‘Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen’ – dedicated to this cycle race – will no doubt impress them. There are many other tourist draws too, including the Town Hall, the wonderfully-named church of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van Pamele, and the church of Sint-Walburga.
This city can count over a hundred listed-monuments within its bounds, including the picturesque begijnhof, the stately Huis Margaretha van Parma mansion, the Boudewijn Tower and the 18th-century Meat Hall.
All testify to a rich and moving history. One of the best ways to catch it all is by joining the guided city walk “Oudenaarde door de eeuwen heen” ('Oudenaarde through the ages'). Along the way you'll be shown around some impressive monuments – and also some of Oudenaarde's fascinating hidden corners.
Getting There & Around
Oudenaarde can be reached by car relatively easily. From Brussels and Antwerp you can get there in approximately one hour. The trip from Ghent will take half an hour, depending on traffic. The train journey from Gent St-Pieters to Oudenaarde takes half an hour, while from Brussels or Antwerp you must plan for an hour’s travelling time by rail.
Although this region is almost a site of pilgrimage for keen, professionally-equipped cyclists, it also has a lot to offer to those who prefer their activity a bit more ‘relaxed’.
Oudenaarde lies at the heart of a veritable walking and cycling paradise: the Flemish Ardennes.
Cycling routes and walking trails are signposted. Once you start exploring, you'll be amazed by this, one of Belgium’s greenest regions. Along the way you can enjoy rolling hills, an unspoiled natural landscape and plenty of picturesque villages.
The routes connect together a long list of places worth seeing. Popular spots include Hotond (Kluisbergen), the highest point in the province at 150m, the Muziekbos (Ronse) and Kluisbos Forests (Kluisbergen), and the well-known pilgrimage site of Kerselare (Oudenaarde),
There's also the beautiful hamlet of Ladeuze (Maarkedal), the unique protestant Geuzenhoek quarter (Horebeke) in the town itself, the splendid nature reserve of Burreken (Brakel) - and not forgetting the artist village of Kwaremont (Kluisbergen).
Gastronomy, Food & More Beer
You won't have any problems finding places to eat in this region, a place where Liefmans beers are so very popular – just as often on the plate, as next to it. People in the Oudenaarde region really are proud of their beer heritage, and Liefmans readily finds its way into much of the more traditional Flemish cuisine, such as 'stoofvlees' (beer-braised beef).
The Liefmans beers are known as quirky and idiosyncratic, not least through their fresh, sour taste and the distinctive use of fruits.
This opens up a host of possibilities, when it comes to gastronomy and food pairing. These beers will happily marry a 'sabayon', a pudding, or a pâté, for example.
A Liefmans cheese was even introduced to the market some time ago. Other fine dairy pairings with this beer include Roquefort and a number of unpasteurised sheep’s milk cheeses from Belgium.
It's really just down to the food-lover to embark on, and relish, this journey of gastronomic discovery. The area surrounding Oudenaarde, in common with the majority of cities in Flanders lying on the Scheldt, specialises in eel recipes. Historically the eel was once wild and unfarmed, caught directly from the river Scheldt (or its tributaries).
Nowadays, though, the eels are usually farmed in (and imported from) the Netherlands. Despite the change of circumstances, the many eel dishes on offer remain delicious, amongst which 'paling in’t groen' is probably the most authentic to the Scheldt region.
Telephone: +32 (0) 55/31 72 51