KORTRIJK/BELLEGEM - It was in 1892 that Brouwerij Omer Vander Ghinste opened for business in Bellegem, a village near Kortrijk in West Flanders, close to the French border. Since then, countless glasses of classic Flemish red-brown ale have flowed out of the company’s oak foeders, the big wooden barrels that are so characteristic of traditional Belgian brewing.
But Omer Vander Ghinste hasn’t just preserved a tradition, it’s expanded both in size and in the variety of beers it produces. In 2010 the brewery pumped out 5 million litres of beer; this year it will be 9 million. In the same seven-year period, turnover more than doubled to €23 million euros.
It’s a brewery with a strong connection to its home region, managing 250 cafés around Kortrijk, Ypres and Ghent, while exports, at 10% of production, are quite modest. The favourite brews of its local customers are Bockor pils, and traditional foeder beers such as Cuvée des Jacobins, Kriek des Jacobins and VanderGhinste Roodbruin.
“Craft brewing has run through our veins from the very beginning,” says owner and CEO Omer-Jean Vander Ghinste. “Just take our Cuvée des Jacobins, a spontaneously fermented beer that matures in oak foeders for 18 months. We have been making this beer for 125 years.”
Omer Vander Ghinste first stepped onto the national beer map in the 1990s, when its Kriek Max, an accessible, light fruit beer was perfectly timed to catch a trend towards sweeter flavours.
In 2008 the brewery launched a top-fermented strong blonde called OMER. Traditional Blond. It was the result of a three-year development process.
“We take plenty of time to develop new beers,” Omer-Jean tells us. “You can call us ‘slow brewers’ if you like - a beer has to be perfect in every way before it is launched.”
And releasing a beer doesn’t end the assessment process. When the flavour of the on-tap version of OMER proved too different from the bottle re-fermented version, the draught beer was withdrawn.
In 2013, Brasserie LeFort was released, a dark, top-fermented beer named after a former Kortrijk brewery owned by Omer Vander Ghinste. The strong blonde Tripel LeFort was launched three years later, this time both bottled and from the tap. “We are using a new yeast for this tripel,” Omer-Jean explains.
“This strong blonde is vastly different from OMER. Tripel LeFort is a complex beer whereas OMER owes its success to its simplicity; it is a robust thirst-quencher that makes you reach for another glass.”
After 125 years the brewery is gearing up for a vast expansion. Brewing capacity will double in April 2018 when a new brew hall, with a maximum capacity of 18 million litres, becomes operational. Then a second phase will see additional investments in logistics, bottling, fermentation and re-fermentation.
“We will have five brewing kettles” says Omer-Jean. “We’ll be able to carry out tests more quickly, and work more flexibly,”
Omer Vander Ghinste has developed into an all-round master, producing a wide, quite comprehensive range of Belgian beer styles, from sour ,foeder beers and red-brown beers to fruit beers, pils, dark beers, and strong, blonde top-fermented beers.
Amid all that variety consistency of quality is important, and is guaranteed with a brewery lab that employs four full-time staff.
“A good product is, and always will be, at the basis of everything we do,” Omer-Jean Vander Ghinste says emphatically.
“In that respect, we do not tolerate any compromises. And we want to stand out by offering genuine brands with a strong, authentic story, and that seems to appeal to customers.”
Over a century-and-a-quarter, the quality of the beers hasn’t needed too much embellishment - in Bellegem hype is shown the door.
More info on Brewery Omer Vander Ghinste
Brouwerij Omer Vander Ghinste
B-8501 Bellegem (Kortrijk)