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Anne's ale helps wash the coal dust from your throat

Belgian brewery with a German style dedication to good beer

There are breweries of which I vaguely hear, over a beer, and promise to myself that I will visit one day. After too many beers, the thought drifts off to the back of the mind until the next time. Or emerges cryptically when I review some beer-stained notes. I get there eventually, and it is rarely a moment too soon.

In Belgium, people kept telling me about the De Ryck brewery, and mentioning that it was run by a young woman much admired for her dedication. Often, they were vague about the precise location of the brewery, and its style of beer, and I never saw the products on sale. I got there in the end, with the help of beer-lover Jeff Van den Steen, a math teacher and socialist councillor, and his wife Genevieve.

We went to the 1,000-year-old village and barony of Herzele, in endive-growing country near the hop town of Aalst. The village is between Ghent, Oudenaarde and Brussels, 20 or 25 miles from any of them.

On the main road through Herzele is the parish church, a 12th-century castle keep, a cafe called Torenhof (named after the tower), which sells the De Ryck beer and, opposite, the wooden arch that is the entrance to the brewery.

The beer is sold in 70 or 80 cafes, but all within 15 miles.

Great Grandfather Gustave started a farm brewery on the site in 1886, and the original buildings still stand, with additions made in the 1930s and 40s. Through the arch a cobbled yard reveals a chunky, two storey brick building, with a tall chimney.

From the earliest days, the family have done their brewing studies in Germany as well as Belgium.

Great Grandfather Gustave did his pupilage at a long-gone Aitbier brewery in Bremen, called Zum Goldenen Adler ("The Golden Eagle"), and this inspired the family for a time to sub-title their own establishment De Gouden Arend or L'Aigle d'Or, depending upon your preference for language.

The De Rycks have continued to take a very German attitude toward the proper ingredients for beer. An advertisement from before the First World War announces that the beer is made from "pure malt and hops," and even today the brewery disdains sugar - a raw material that is part of the Belgian tradition.

Respect for the neighbouring brewing nation took a knock during the First World War. De Ryck had its coppers (and horses) appropriated by the Germans. One vessel was saved by being buried in the garden.

Countless Belgian brewers have told me of such sacrilege, and their wry smiles do not deny the potency of the memory.

In the early days, there were four breweries in the village, which has a population of 5,000 (even "Greater Herzele" has only 16,000).

In the heyday of mining, many sons of the village went south to find jobs in Charleroi, and a weekly train-load of De Ryck beer was despatched to clear the coal dust from their throats.

Paul De Ryck, father of Anne, also had a taste of coal dust. He studied not only at the famous Spaten brewery in Munich, but also under blue star in Newcastle.

He used to discourage his daughter from hanging round the family brewery. "It's no place for you," he told her, perhaps shrewdly.

"Children always want to do what is not allowed," laughs Anne. "They couldn't keep me away." Anne went on to work in several small breweries in Bavaria, and studied as a brewing engineer in Ghent.

Whenever a newspaper or magazine mentions her, she is described as being 25. That is the age she was when she began as brewer. Anne credits her timeless youth to lazy journalists who take it from the original cuttings.

It would not be politically correct for me to suggest that she hardly looks 40, the age she recently achieved, but I will leave my photograph of her to speak for itself .She is very small - just over 5-foot-2 - but nimble and energetic. Her father installed a malt silo, and an auger to move the grain to the 1930s mill, so that she would not have to heft 160 pound sacks.

It takes 1,800 pounds to fill the mash tun. He also fitted a mash mixing machine, to save her stirring by hand.

The mash tun, bought second hand in 1949, has a copper top, with counterweights to balance the lid as it is lifted.

Anne has been known to shovel out the spent grain, though she usually leaves that to a male brewery worker. The entire staff numbers seven, of which five are family members.

The kettle is copper-heated by gas, by direct flame, which Anne feels contributes to the malty character of the beer. As opposed to steam, direct flame creates "hot spots" under the kettle, and these can impart a touch of caramelisation.

The brew length is 60 hectolitres, and the kettle is fired twice a week. "So you brew one day and clean the next?" I asked. "No! As soon as we finish brewing, we clean. Brew-and-clean, brew-and-clean." I don't know why I asked the question in the first place. I have never seen a brewery of this vintage so spotless.

Three malts are used, and the brewery has water from its own wells. The kettle hops are Belgian-grown Saaz and Hallertau, as blossoms. Belgian Northern Brewers are added in the hop back.

The Belgian hops are all grown in Aalst, though supplies are becoming less secure as farming there shrinks. Anne uses only one "foreign" hop: Styrian Goldings in the conditioning tank.

A top-fermenting ale yeast is employed, from the oddly-named Chateau d'Eau brewery, which closed 20 years ago. Like today's Cuvee d'Hermitage brewery, it was in Jumet, near Charleroi.

The beers have a slow fermentation and at least four weeks' warm conditioning. They are filtered, but not pasteurised.

Of all the ingredients, it is the malt that imposes its character most firmly on the De Ryck beers, despite the sophisticated hop regime.

Of all the ingredients, it is the malt that imposes its character most firmly on the De Ryck beers, despite the sophisticated hop regime.

The principal product, De Ryck Special, is a golden ale, with a tinge of bronze, at 1044 (4.0-4.2 per cent alcohol by volume), with a very soft, clean, sweetish, malt character and the most delicate, aromatic, touch of hop. "Special" is spelled the English way in deference to Paul's happy days in Newcastle.

A brown ale is called Rochus, after the parish saint, St. Roch of Montpellier (c1350-1380), known to the Vatican as St. Rocco, according to the reference books, miraculously cured victims of the plague - though, unlike Belgium's own St. Arnold, he did not use beer to do the trick.

St. Roch can be seen in a painting by Rubens in the parish church of Aalst. The painting was paid for by the Brewers' Guild of Aalst in grander days.

The Rochus beer has an attractive, bright, dark-cherry colour; a gently fruity aroma; and a very soft, long-finishing, malt character. It is 1053, 5.4 ABV.

A Christmas Pale Ale, bottled last November and tasted in June, had an orange-red colour; a dense, rocky head; a very good hop aroma; and a touch of tartness in the palate. On draught, it was less hoppy, but softer and smoother.

This brew is available for sale in the winter only. All of the beers can be bought in flagons or large plastic (PET) bottles. These hand-packaged versions are bottle-conditioned.

On one side of the brewery yard, window boxes and pot plants announce a small shop selling the beer. For special occasions, the bottles are packed in cellophane-wrapped baskets, as though they were bouquets of flowers.

Next to the shop is the family home of Anne, her husband Omer, their 10 year-old daughter and son aged seven. Behind the yard is a sizable vegetable garden.

St. Arnold, the patron of brewers.

"You can never leave a brewery all alone. You must always watch and listen," says Anne. "Especially in a small, old brewery like this. You have to live on the premises. It is the only way.

"We work long hours, but that is our decision. It's up to us. It's our life.

"My great-grandfather had a brother, and they each needed their own activity in order to survive financially. He established the brewery, and his brother worked in leather.

"In my case, I realised that all of our family could not be supported by the brewery. My father and uncle still work in the brewery, and are co-owners, but my husband has his own business, as a pharmacist." I cannot imagine such pure, clean beers giving anyone a headache, but they are dangerously drinkable.

Should such a misfortune occur, aspirin is at hand - the pharmacy is next door, in the brewery's former stables.

Brouwerij De Ryck. 24 Kerk Straat, Herzele, Belgium 9550.

Tel 053-622302. Shop closed Saturday afternoons and Sundays.

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: AUG 1, 1993
In: What's Brewing

Brewery Review

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