INGELMUNSTER - Hans Mehuys has been wielding the mashing stick at the Van Honsebrouck brewery for over a quarter of a century. Six years ago he was appointed as Brewmaster and Head of Production. ‘Herr Braumeister’, as his boss Xavier Van Honsebrouck dares to call him in a jokey kind of way, is a convivial and modest character.
He lives for his profession and clearly takes great enjoyment from his job. I attend a ‘quality control session’ – in other words, a tasting – whilst he explains what he finds appealing about brewing.
“I have always had an interest in science and biology. At home I used to make apple wine and cider so I took a vivid interest in the process from an early age. Later on I studied at the Sint-Lieven brewery college in Ghent. Once I had gained my diploma, there was a job waiting for me at Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck…
Much has changed in the intervening years. Nowadays, we are brewing three times the volume compared to when I started, and we are soon to double our output once again. The sales of our beers abroad have and continue to increase; so much so that these days, export accounts for almost half of our turnover”. So, what makes brewing fun? “Nothing ever stays the same and you always have to intervene. The quality of the raw ingredients will differ, the temperature will vary, and consumer taste is fickle… “.
Brewing can be quite exciting. Ten years ago, the brewer made a mistake resulting in the loss of an entire yeast culture. A new one had to be started up from scratch. It took eight months before things got back to normal. “You don’t want to go through this a second time”, Hans comments.
An entire bucket?
Hans started his career in the lab and in the production facility. He learnt the trade from his predecessor, Jozef Maes, and started to specialise in quality control. “At the brewery school they drummed the importance of hygiene into us”, the brewer laughs. “I have never forgotten that. Cleaning never stops in a brewery. We use 6.5 litres of water per litre of beer produced. And Friday is cleaning day”.
Hans has grown into his chosen profession. Recently he contributed to the development of the Saint-Louis Premium Kriek, the Saint-Louis Geuze Fond Tradition, the Saint-Louis Kriek Fond Tradition, the Kasteel Rouge, the Kasteel Hoppy, the Cuvée du Château, the Passchendaele and the Trignac.
Hans is aiming to brew thirst-quenching beers with a beautiful balance between bitterness, taste and alcohol perception. “Xavier’s Dad, Master Luc, got straight to the point when he was managing the brewery.
He always wanted to know ‘of which beer would you drink an entire bucketful?’ Hans says with a smile. In the meantime, Xavier and the brewmaster form a well-oiled tandem. Whenever Xavier comes up with a ‘mad idea’, Hans will translate it into brewing technology to ensure it is feasible. In the meantime, Hans never stops learning and is adding to his qualifications all the time.
He will taste whatever is new on the market and will put forward his own proposals. His inspiration comes from far beyond Belgium’s borders and especially from the USA. However, the brewer remains true to his local traditional roots. For example, he uses Belgian hops for several of the breweries’ beers.
2016 will see the inauguration of a brand new Castle Brewery Van Honsebrouck brewery two kilometres away from the current location. “Xavier and I worked together to develop the entire concept”, Hans tell us. “Not only will the new plant allow us to double current brewing capacity, but we will be able to work far more efficiently and produce better beers from a technical point of view. We will start on the first experimental brews early next year”.
All this sounds great, but how exactly do you move an established lambic brewery to such a new and sterile environment? All this has been taken into consideration. As an example, the ancient beams above the open basin, or ‘koelschip’, will form an integral part of the new brewery. These beams contain the micro flora - or wild yeasts - that will infect the lambic wort in the new facility to allow the production of a new batch of Saint-Louis.
Brewing - is it science or art, I want to know. “First of all, it is a science”, Hans replies. “You use your own experience and knowledge together with science to develop a taste palate using a mixture of raw ingredients. You can never guarantee the outcome one hundred percent. At the end of the day, brewing remains a natural process. You can never control everything.
That’s what makes it fun”. It takes years of experience before you can set up on your own. Hans feels that it takes at least five years, probably six. At ‘his’ brewery, he now has a quarter of a century under his belt, and counting.