THE GAUME - Deep in the South of Belgium, hidden amongst the pine forests, nestles the Orval Trappist abbey and brewery. This famed locale marks the start of the Gaume, a region that prides itself on its favourable microclimate, with the greatest number of sun hours in the whole of Belgium. That sunny good fortune isn't something that necessarily holds true for the nearby Ardennes.
A timless region it may be, but not one that stands still. There’s been quite a bit happening of late in the Gaume, as far as the brewing world is concerned. In 2001, Gregory Verhelst started up his microbrewery under the name of Rulles.
Brasserie de Rulles is becoming well-known for its eponymous beers, which invariably come in large bottles. The brewery has enjoyed steady growth, both in Belgium and abroad.
“Our beers sell very well in Italy,” Gregory remarked to us in a recent chat. “You might even come across our beers in popular cafés in the Milan area, these days.”
The brewer's aim is to produce accessible degustation beers, fully-flavoured, but which make you want to order a second glass. This coming summer will see the launch of a light thirst quencher, with an ABV of around 5%. “When I started brewing here, I pioneered the use of American hop varieties such as the Amarillo. Nowadays you see them everywhere,” the brewer laughs.
Gregory himself, though, is not a big follower of the trend for over-hopped beers. “Sometimes I get the impression that a beer consists only of hops”, he finds.
“For me, balance is the most important aspect. I like dry beers that have completely finished fermentation, in which you can taste the various ingredients”.
And flavour can come from many different sources other than hops and malt. I notice that the brewer uses open inox (stainless steel) yeast basins – something that often results in very fruity beers.
Beer with a soul
This is one microbrewer who does not want to remain on his own small island, however. Which is why, in 2001, he launched the Brassigaume beer festival. At the latest edition, held in October last year, 24 domestic and international microbreweries were showcasing their wares here.
Brassigaume is now attracting upwards of 4,000 visitors. “This is a festival for small brewers,” Gregory explains. “We want to promote the craft of brewing in this way.” And for Gregory, it is all about the craft.
“These days, anyone can call himself a brewer and quite often this is simply not true. A real brewer is never far from his brewing kettle and he produces his own beers. Brewing is a complex craft where expertise, knowledge of the raw ingredients, the equipment and techniques all play a major part,” he affirms.
“This is how each brewery develops its own signature. This ‘soul’ sets us apart from ‘beer architects’ who have their beer brewed elsewhere and whittle it down to just a list of ingredients,” he adds. As you might suspect, Gregory has a critical view on some of the trends in the beer world.
For example, he feels that beers matured in wood barrels only add value if they re-ferment in the barrel as well. Otherwise, all you get is a beer that absorbs the taste and aromas of the barrel's previous contents.
Also, you shouldn't tweak a beer too much. “Above all, beer has to remain beer and retain its popular character. It is a drink that everybody can enjoy and that's what makes it fun.”
A thousand virtues
Just ten kilometres further on I hear somewhat different noises, coming from another Gaume brewer. This is where, ten years ago, Daniel Lessire opened his brand new Millevertus microbrewery – a designation that, freely translated, means ‘a thousand virtues’.
Daniel is an enthusiastic and inspired chef, who does not shy away from experimenting. As an example, he has turned himself into a something of a specialist in brewing with spices (jasmine, saffron, pepper and more).
He has also put his signature to three spelt beers, not to mention a ‘smoky’ beer brewed with smoked malt. “Practice makes perfect. I discovered that spelt reinforces the taste of hops and that saffron accentuates the bitterness from the hops”, he explains.
“Also, I quite like a challenge.” Daniel’s beers are now sufficiently consistent to be marketed to a wider audience, and regularly win awards. The brewer points out the importance of the spring water he uses in his beer.
“It explains the mild character of the beer,” he states. “And by the way, we do not treat this water in any way; we use it as it comes.”
It is not only Daniel's beers that are based on creativity. Daniel recently launched the 421 'games box', which has four beers included. Once the beers have been drunk, the empty box can be used for the classic ‘pitjesbak’ dice game. An international version of this ‘authentic Belgian beer game’ is in preparation, as we speak.
And he likes to mix music and malt. Not long ago, a Swedish hard rock band asked Daniel to brew a customised version of his pepper beer.
“This type of commission joins my love of rock music and of beer, a very successful mix,” Daniel smiles. Head bangers be warned: music can bubble up from a bottle.