Lying in the heart of Itterbeek, on the outskirts of Brussels, Timmermans is the oldest lambic brewery still brewing in Belgium. Its characteristically sour beer has been brewed here since around 1702, and throughout that time Timmermans has remained a typical village brewery.
In common with many other Belgian breweries, Timmermans started off as a farm, and was first known by the name of The Mole Brewery. The original brewer, Jan Vandermeulen, took the whole thing in his stride – the farm's orchard, malthouse and café, together with his responsibilities for the brewery. For that era, you see, this was just a matter of course.
The De Mol brewery was re-named Timmermans at the start of the 20th century. To this day, old lambic is still being brewed here using the spontaneous fermentation method. Tradition has it that no yeast at all is to be added during the brewing process. Instead, the wort cools down and ferments in an open ‘koelschip’ – or shallow basin – allowing it to be ‘contaminated’ with the wild yeast bacteria already present in the air. This unique fermentation process is nowadays used by only a handful of breweries.
It is by no means a coincidence that all such breweries are based in the Zenne Valley. This fertile region, just to the west of Brussels, is traditionally known as Belgium's 'gueuze' area. The wild souring bacteria of the valley's air have become legendary. Which may explain why the Timmermans brewery was acquired by the Anthony Martin Group, the famed Anglo-Belgian drinks company, in 1993. The Martin group was founded by an Englishman who settled in Antwerp in 1909, and has produced and acquired a distinctive beer and soft drinks collection.
Since its acquisition by Anthony Martin's, Timmermans lambic beers have been central to the group's beer branding, with pride of place in its 'Anthony Martin’s Finest Beer Selection®' marque.
Central enough, in fact, that when celebrating the centenary of the founding of the Anthony Martin group – established by Anthony’s grandfather John Martin – the company opened a museum at Timmermans Brewery, in September 2009. It houses a unique display of brewing history, covering one of Belgian most unusual brewing traditions, in the most authentic of surroundings. Lying on the outskirts of Brussels, it's certainly well-worth the short-trip to come explore and experience.
'Oude lambiek' is what serves as the basic beer for 'oude gueuze'. It is a wheat-based beer, brewed through spontaneous fermentation, that has matured in oak barrels for between one and three years. The lambic basis is pale and amber-coloured, of between 4.5 and 6% ABV, derived from a mix of barley, wheat and aged hops.
Properly brewed lambic is a flat beer, low in carbon dioxide, with a slightly sour taste. Pure lambic reminds many of cider or a fino sherry, with a long and exceptional finish. A long finish and also a long brewing journey: one which begins with the wort in Timmermans' boiling kettles.
Having been boiled for four to five hours – which is a far longer period than for pils beers – the wort (made up of extracts of barley and wheat) is cooled down for an entire night in the shallow basin of the ‘koelschip’. It is this cooling process, in the open air, which allows the wild yeasts to permeate the wort.
The main strains of yeast infecting the exposed lambic are Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Brettanomyces lambicus, both of which typically occur in the Zenne Valley. They are responsible for producing the characteristic taste of this beer. From the cooling basin, the beer will then be transferred to oak barrels to undergo a fermentation stage of a minimum of six months. Some of the beer will actually mature for more than three years in these same barrels, if it's to become the oude lambiek.
In the meantime, the brewer must pay close attention to the beer’s acidity. The right dose of hops is crucial to slowing down the development of lactic acid bacteria. And so too are the barrel's filling levels.
Acetic acid bacteria need oxygen. Filling the barrel to the brim will deprive these bacteria of oxygen. Also, the wort is boiled for just long enough to ensure that unwanted yeast cultures do not develop. So, while the innoculation may be wild, Timmermans maintain a tight control over the spontaneous fermentation of their lambic.
In fact, Timmermans generally restrict brewing these beers to a window from the end of September to the end of April, to help control the process. During this cooler part of the year, it's reckoned that the wild yeasts occur in just the right proportions to keep problems to a minimum.
In addition, it's important that the ambient temperature isn't allowed to get too high. 20 degrees Celsius is about the maximum. So there's plenty on the mind of the professional artisan brewer of lambic, like Timmermans.
Brewer Willem Van Herreweghen is recognised as an expert in the field of lambic. One of his previous jobs was as a ‘geuzesteker’ (blender) with De Cam. At Timmermans’, Willem is assisted by brewer Thomas Vandelanotte from Bruges.
Perhaps the most interesting of the beers produced by this brewing pair is the Timmermans Oude Gueuze, a blend of differently-aged, 100% oude lambieks, which is then re-fermented in the bottle. ‘Oude’ (or old) in the beer's name doesn't point so much to its age; rather, it indicates the beer’s traditional character, pure and without additives.
The gueuze is really the fruit of the labours of the ‘geuzesteker’. He will blend lambic brews of varying ages. The young lambic is used to start off the fermentation process, while the older ones provide the taste. A typical blend will contain 60% one-year old lambic, 30% that is two years old and 10% that's three years old. The result is a cloudy, unfiltered beer, matt-gold to amber in colour, with fine pearlisation.
A good gueuze is considered ‘the champagne amongst beers’, known for its consistent taste and long, pure aftertaste. Timmermans' Oude Gueuze certainly earns that accolade, having a flavour that's fresh and tart, fruity and clean.
There are slight touches of wood and taste impressions of nuts and stony fruits (particularly apricot). It's also emminently storable. Timmermans Oude Gueuze can be kept for up to 20 years. Which is fitting, as the story of these beers began as an answer to the problem of spoilage. Originally, such a ‘boerenbier’, or peasant beer – a lambic brewed in winter – was allowed to go slightly sour so it would keep for longer.
In later times, aged hops would be added to aid preservation. The hops are aged so as to prevent the beer from developing too bitter a taste, and so keep to the true lambic taste profile.
The ‘Oude Gueuze’ label has been legally accredited by the European Union for a number of years. This quality mark is only awarded when a proportion of the oude lambiek is at least three years old.
Additionally, all lambic must have matured in wooden barrels and be free from additional sweetening agents. On a European level, the oude lambiek should also be, on average, at least one year old, with in-bottle re-fermentation. Timmermans Oude Gueuze readily fits that bill of specification, containing lambic that is, on average, two years old and which has re-fermented spontaneously in the bottle.
After a minimum of five in-barrel fermentation stages, the lambic beers continue to mature. This is where the original yeasts and micro-flora once again play a role, hence the complex character of the beer.
The resulting gueuze is dry, quite tart but also fruity with an alcohol content of about 5.5%. Gueuze is often compared to wine. This is by no means a coincidence. Just like wine, this beer has a high acidity and not a lot of bitterness.
Also, as is the case with wine, the wooden barrels provide micro-aeration. In fact, from time to time, you may be hard put to tell the difference between white wine and lambic. However, a crucial difference is that lambic will ferment spontaneously, unlike wine.
So artisanal gueuzes, like Timmermans Oude Gueuze, really are the threefold product of the fruit of the season, the yeasts of the region and those long months spent maturing 'on wood'. And they certainly aren't mass-produced, or easily found locally. The total volume of this grand cru produced in Belgium barely reaches 6,000hl, a large proportion of which is destined for export.
The brewery is open every day to visitors (including weekends) but by appointment only. Every second Sunday of the month, the brewery welcomes private and group visits. Guided tours are also on offer. In the brewery museum you can discover three centuries of Belgian brewing history, as well as making acquaintance with the other beers produced by the Anthony Martin group.
The brewery’s surroundings also offer the ideal opportunity to start (or finish) your visit with a walk. That's thanks to the Breughel walk (7 km) that passes close to the brewery. Along its path you can literally walk in the footsteps of the world-famous painter, Pieter Breughel the Elder.
You may even recognise some of the monuments from those depicted in his paintings. The Sint-Annakerk (1250), for example, is clearly visible in the background of ‘The Parable of the Blind'.
From his home in Hoogstraat, in the heart of Brussels, Breughel was a regular visitor to Sint-Anne-Pede, where he depicted its fun fairs and harvest scenes. It is thought that ‘The Peasant Wedding’ originated in a barn along the way, too. It is sadly a fact, though, that neither gueuze or kriek were served in Breughel’s days. These beers, despite their long and noble pedigree, were first brewed centuries later.
But if you want to enjoy lambic beers, like Timmermans, in an authentic environment, drop into one of the many gueuze cafés in the Pajottenland. This region, just to the west of Brussels, is the only land where truegueuze is made.
The city of Brussels itself also hosts quite a few well-known gueuze cafés. For example, the unique white lambic brewed by Timmermans is poured straight out of the jug at A La Bécasse, near the Brussels Stock Exchange.
Gueuze’s popularity has spread far beyond Brussels and the Pajottenland region. These days it's an international phenomenon. The Tour de Geuze, held every couple of years, is witness to that, attracting ever larger numbers of visitors since 1997.
During this particular weekend the lambic brewers and ‘geuzestekers’ from across the Zenne Valley open up to welcome the droves of visitors. It's well worth taking advantage of the free entry to see as many breweries and/or ‘stekerijen’ as you can manage.
Guided tours are usually available at these establishments. And so too is the whole of the spectrum of the lambic universe. Wherever you go, you're sure to be able to enjoy a lambic, gueuze, kriek, framboise or some other beer of the lambic genus.
Audio-visual presentations are also on offer in many locations. To really get down to the nitty-gritty of lambic, pay a visit to De Lambiek visitors’ centre in Beersel. Here you can become literally immersed in the tastes, aromas, sounds and texture of a lambic beer. The visitors’ centre also makes an excellent starting point for a wider journey of discovery. From here you can take in a number of lambic breweries, and explore the wider Pajottenland region, as well as the Valley of the Zenne.
Many visitors also try to fit in a visit to the nearby castles at Beersel and Gaasbeek, or the Herisem paper mill. Or you could plump for the brewery walk, which departs direct from the De Lambiek centre, and passes a number of breweries.
On your way you'll come across a number of information panels explaining the brewing process. You'll also be able to view some of the antique tools and equipment that were once put to good use in the lambic breweries – like the barrel cleaner that now gracing a roundabout in Lot.
Getting There & Around
Itterbeek is not far from the Brussels Ring. Take either exit 11 (Groot-Bijgaarden), exit 13 (Dilbeek) or exit 14 (Itterbeek). It is also easy to reach the brewery by bus. The following bus routes threading from and to Brussels stop near the brewery: lines 116, 117, 118, 126, 127, 128, 129, 141, 213, 214, 355. If you arrive at the capital by train, Brussel-Zuid (Midi) is the nearest station.
The Konijntjesroute, or rabbit trail, is a cycle track that departs from the Timmermans brewery and has a total length of 27km. This pleasant and quiet trail, signposted all the way, takes you to the prettiest spots in the village of Dilbeek.
It's found to the north of Ninoofsesteenweg (or the old paved road to Ninove) and is a great introduction to those who are unfamiliar with the region. You'll pass by plenty of sights along your meander through the green undulating landscape. Dilbeek Town Hall, for example, is housed in an imposing castle that dates back to 1863.
Castle Hof te Elegem (1742) is almost as old as the brewery, where you'll find a cloister and chapel dedicated to the holy abbess, St. Wivina.
A bit further on you will come across the Girardin lambic brewery (no visits allowed, unfortunately). A square farmhouse with a cobbled courtyard bears the name of Hof te Voorde. The rich agricultural tradition of this region is borne out by the handsome Honsemhoeve (16th-century) and Hof te Zierbeek (17th-century). Other eye-catching buildings include the small farmhouse of Huisje Mostinckx, built from loam, the traditional building material of the region.
And don't forget to seek out the late gothic church of Sint-Martinus (15th-century), with its striking needle-shaped spire and sandstone walls, and also the impressive Hof te Wolsem.
The landscape here constantly surprises with its sheer variety – meadows, pools, tree-lines, marshes and stream-crossed forests. It's easy to forget that Brussels is only around the corner.
Many visitors find themselves amazed by all this lush greenery, found just a stone's throw from Belgium’s capital.
Gastronomy, Food & More Beer
Cooking with lambic beers is very similar to cooking with wine. This tender, tart beer is not only emminently suitable as an aperitif – relaxing the stomach and stimulating the appetite, so they say – but also makes a great companion to uncomplicated regional dishes. Think of home-made bread from the farm, thickly spread with cottage cheese, spring onions and firm radishes.
Also, perhaps, soups containing mussels, or prepared with a firm-fleshed fish (with just a few threads of saffron and a dash of cream).
Classic pairings can include stews with gueuze, sticky-sweet pork chops cooked the Flemish way, guinea fowl with cherries or roast chicken with cubed, lean bacon.
Lambic and gueuze also make a splendid alternative to vinegar, or other sour or tart ingredients. It's an interesting exercise to try in the kitchen: which sour or tart ingredient can be replaced with lambic or gueuze?
Other great pairings with gueuze include plain herring dishes with apple and celery, or a strong Herve cheese. It doesn't have to be simple, however: you can also opt for more complex gastronomy. So if you're feeling adventurous, you could take the advice of the chef of the restaurant Château du Lac in Genval.
He recommends a Timmermans Oude Gueuze “with roast quail, caramelised chicory, crème brûlée with foie gras”, perhaps with a “tempura of jumbo shrimp and vegetable tzaziki”, or even a “risotto made with forest mushrooms, Parma ham, parmesan and deep-fried enoki”.
Tourist information for Dilbeek:
Tourist information for Flemish-Brabant province: