STEENHUFFEL - A new name and new logo doesn't diminish this breweries' long and rich history. Palm Belgian Craft Brewers has come a long way since its foundation back in 1686. Yes, it was recently discovered that the original brewery, (then named) 'De Hoorn' wasn't established in 1747 as thought, but in fact sixty-one years earlier.
The brewery preserves its centuries-old heritage with loving care, but this brewer also looks towards the future. In other words: innovation and tradition.
In 2014, the Palm Belgian Craft Brewers Group (PBCB) will brew 65 million litres of beer at its three historic brewery sites. This total comes under the Palm, Rodenbach and Boon names (PBCB owns half the shares of these breweries).
The Palm name immediately brings to mind the eponymous, amber coloured Speciale Belge Ale. The Dobbel Palm, Palm Royale, Palm Hop Select, Palm N.A and Palm Sauvin are not far behind in the beer-lover’s thoughts.
Traditionally, Palm has brewed top-fermentation beers. This is a long-established and well-considered choice: to row against the tide of increasingly popular pils beers. The range of top-fermented beers produced by Palm now also includes the strong oak-matured Cornet, the Brugge Tripel and the Steenbrugge abbey beers.
More than just Palm
In contrast, the Rodenbach Brewery is known for its range of traditional Flemish red-brown beers matured in wooden foeders (giant oak barrels). The Rodenbach and Rodenbach Grand Cru were recently complemented with the gastronomy beers, Rodenbach Caractère Rouge and Rodenbach Vintage, as well as the lighter Rodenbach Rosso.
Finally, through its shareholding in the Boon lambic brewery, Palm intends to help preserve the ancient, traditional lambic, geuze and fruit beers, all of which are made by spontaneous fermentation and matured in oak barrels.
Palm’s initial focus was on Belgium and the Netherlands. However, exports to new markets have risen considerably over the last few years.
“Our aim is to allow consumers everywhere to enjoy authentic beers produced at our historic brewery sites,” explains Jan Toye, the Managing Director of Palm.
“At the same time we want to be ambassadors for Belgium’s richly varied beer culture and to ensure its future in years to come.”
The Pride of Brabant
Brabant, the area around Brussels, used to be an independent duchy. Diepensteyn Castle, now owned by Palm, was built in those days; it dates back to the 12th century. Since 1980 the Palm bottle label has been adorned with the world-famous Brabant shire horse.
This is a nod towards the Diepensteyn stud farm, where around 20 horses live, registered under the Van Diepensteyn name with their own stud book numbers.
The animals have a quiet and peaceful life here, with nothing to disturb the idyllic image we have of shire horses, their legs firmly rooted in a sea of grass.
Their reddish-brown coats and blond manes are the perfect embodiment of Palm’s amber beer with its white, frothy head. Reflected in the castle moat is a bronze shire horse, frozen in a gallop.
On the horizon I spot a large V-sign. A closer look reveals it to be an army of hop poles, installed in the time-honoured fashion, with the winding shoots of this powerfully-climbing plant reaching up to the sky.
The hops are growing by up to 20 centimetres a day, and it won’t be long before they reach a height of eight metres. Attracted by the smell of malt in the air, I follow the fragrant trail to Steenhuffel’s village square.
Feel, smell, taste...
A visit to this brewery is an initiation into beer production methods. I follow the trail of the beer on its journey from the brewing hall, through the herb stores, the fermentation chambers, the bottling plant and the distribution hall. All the senses are on high alert; when brewing is under way, the air is rife with the smell of malt.
The brews are sampled by experienced tasters. No machine is yet able to compete against a trained nose and finely-tuned taste buds.
Exploring the herb storage room, I learn that medieval brewers used a herbal mixture called gruut. In later years, this would be replaced by hops, with their better preservative properties.
The modern fermentation process uses completely enclosed stainless steel tanks, but many years ago the brewer made use of wooden barrels and open cooling basins to start off fermentation.
These artisan techniques are still practised on a small scale for specific beer styles, including the Flemish red-brown beer made by Rodenbach, as well as Boon’s lambic, oude geuze and kriek. It is crystal clear that Palm subscribes to the rich Belgian beer tradition, and is responding to the new expectations of consumers who are looking for authenticity, roots and terroir with pure flavours and aromas in their beers.
In this respect, gastronomy and food pairing have an important role to play. And so, Palm has entered into a collaboration with chef Viki Geunes of Antwerp’s Michelin two-star restaurant ’t Zilte.
Viki is now working with Rodenbach’s brewmaster, Rudi Ghequire, to develop the gastronomic and highly acclaimed Rodenbach Vintage, Rodenbach Caractère Rouge and Grand Cru beers. And let’s not forget Palm Master Beers, a limited edition range of beers that re-ferment in the bottle. This collection emphasises respect for tradition and the importance of pure flavours.
In the brewery café, connoisseurs will no doubt find their way to the tap dispensing an unfiltered and unpasteurised Palm, the Rodenbach foederbier or Boon’s lambic.
Playing with Tastes
Consumer tastes and preferences evolve over the years. It is up to the brewer to keep track of these ever-changing trends, and then to draw a conclusion. Do you stick to existing tastes and beer styles? Do you tweak your beers a little or do you develop a new beer from scratch? The story of pils is educational in this respect.
In the 1960s and 1970s the average Belgian pils had a bitterness grading of around 30 EBU in the European Bitterness Unit scale (higher values are more bitter and the scale extends from zero to about 100).
But then consumers started to become more familiar with sweet soft drinks, to the detriment of beer. Brewers tried to compete by reducing the hop content of their pils. However, the tide has started to turn back, albeit slowly, with the advent of specialty beers that are more strongly hopped.
There is now a place in the market for distinct beers with their own nuances. Exotic aroma hops bring an entirely new array of aromas and flavours to the glass: citrus, pineapple, herbal, floral, zesty…Hop cultivation used to be an important industry in the Asse and Aalst regions. Palm has given a boost to this traditional industry by establishing its own hop field right next to the brewery.
The hoppy Palm Hop Select is brewed using Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops cultivated by the brewery itself. You can join the pickers out in the field and then sample the beer made using these freshly picked hops.
The Past is the Future
Palm Belgian Craft Brewers markets itself as a producer of speciality beers. “We want to champion Belgian thoroughbred beers and make sure they are preserved for future generations,” Jan Toye says. He makes an impassioned plea for local production and his brewery is putting this into practice.
PBCB is making investments that protect, preserve and develop a number of local beer styles: Speciale Belge Ale, Vlaams Roodbruin Bier, lambiek, oude geuze and oude kriek.
This type of investment is urgently needed if the commitment to tradition and diversity is to succeed – the international competition is coming along in leaps and bounds, after all.
The old village of Steenhuffel has now seen the proud unveiling of a brand new microbrewery under the historic De Hoorn name.
Its compact equipment will produce beers in small volumes, and is also eminently suited to the development of new brews. These De Hoorn beers are marketed under the Arthur’s Legacy name, a nod to Arthur Van Roy, the founder of the modern-day brewery. To produce these beers, the brewer often co-operates with chefs and sommeliers.
Palm’s strongly held belief is that while you can experiment with tastes, with beer, you do not improvise.
This is why the brewery recently appointed masters of ingredients – experts, qualified specifically in hops, fruits, wood or herbs.
If the focus of a beer in development is on hops, then the hop master has the required qualifications. If herbs are to play a major role, the herb master will become involved. “In this way we are making the best possible use of the expertise on offer within Palm Belgian Craft Brewers,” Jan Toye assures us.