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Why getting the wind up means the beer is good

Brewery founder dug deep to slake workers' thirsts

From Brussels, the main road south-west has scarcely passed Lembeek, and is still in the Senne Valley, when there is a glimpse of the quarries at Quenast, said to be the largest in Europe.

The stone dug there was once used to make cobled streets and today provides support for the trans-European express rail lines and for sea defences. Before mechanical diggers, its excavation created a monumental thirst that could be slaked only by beer.

There was a brewer called Lefebvre in Quenast in 1797, at the time of the French revolution. No one is sure whether he was a forbear of Jules Lefebvre, gamekeeper, farmer, maltster, brewer and publican.

When the men came to dig the stone, in the 1870s, Jules "The Keeper" built a new brewery, and established cafes at every exit to the quarries.

He prospered and his son was able to build a baronial house, almost a chateau, next to the brewery, by the river Senne.

"At the end of the First World War, British troops were billeted here, to wait for the Peace of Versailles," I was told by a member of the family.

"The officers were English and Scots; the men were Indians. They drank Scotch whisky and seemed happy, then they fell silent. There was an epidemic called Spanish Flu. They began to die. One went home for Christmas and never came back. My grandmother used to talk about it." The house still stands but only fragments of that brewery. After the First World War the family bought another brewery, high on the side of the valley. It still operates, with a coal-fired kettle.

Pierre Lefebvre and his son Philippe, the fourth and fifth generations in the brewery, told me how the direction and intensity of the wind affects the fire under the kettle. If the fire is high, the hot spots on the base of the kettle will caramelise the beer to a greater degree.

The way the draughts are manipulated will influence the flavour of the finished product. This truly is artisanal brewing. "We cannot put on the label a note to apologise for the lack of wind on the day this particular brew was made," Pierre observed to me wryly.

In the great days of the quarry, the brewery sold immense quantities of a top-fermenting ale named after the blue-grey porphyritic stone. There are fewer workers today, the cafes have become private houses, and the men go home to watch television.

As Philippe drove me through the village, Pierre stabbed his finger at one house after another: "That was a cafe! There a cafe! Another cafe!" It became a chanted lament.

A hint of the famous Phorp Ale can be found in Saison 1900. The name indicates the strongish (in this case 5.0 per cent ABV), dry, fruity, sometimes spicy, specialities traditionally brewed in French-speaking Belgium for the summer season.

The date 1900 recalls the height of production at Lefebvre. This is a full-bodied Saison, hopped with Styrian Goldings and Saazers, and very evidently spiced with ginger.

The brewery makes a range of products, all bottle-conditioned, under a confusingly greater variety of labels. Its speciality is a beer dedicated to the former Norbertine abbey of Bonne Esperance (now a secondary school), at Vellereille-le -Brayeux, near Binche, between Mons and Charleroi.

This beer, called simply Abbaye de Bonne Esperance, at 7.0 per cent, is robust and assertive with an excellent malt character and a huge aroma and flavour of Styrian hops. Royalties from this brew help keep up the abbey buildings, which at weekends accommodate a cafe serving the beer (tel 064-332021).

A similar arrangement obtains in respect of a second former Norbertine abbey, also now a secondary school, at Floreffe, between Namur and Philippeville. Several beers are produced for this establishment, the classic being Floreffe La Meilleur ("Best"), a mahogany-coloured brew with a very soft malt character and a gentle spicing of anis (8.0 per cent).

The cafe, open daily, is at Rue du Seminaire (tel 081-445303).

Nearer the brewery is a weekends-only cafe in a former water-mill complex on the river Senne: La Taverne des Moulins d'Arenberg (tel 067-636642), on Rue Docteur Colson, in the village of Rebecq. The mills, parts of which date from the 16th century, have been used to grind grain and to weave silk. Upstairs is a museum featuring local industries.

Quenest and Rebecq are in the Francophone art o Brabant; just across the border into Hamaut is the town of Enghien, near which is the village of Silly. This name sounds perfectly sensible in French, and merely indicates that the village is on the river Sille.

I remember the pioneering beer-hunter Frank Baillie once writing a story in these pages about the Brasserie de Silly, and I have been there before, but took the chance to return while I was in the area recently.

Farmer Nicholas Meynsbrughen founded this brewery in 1850, and it still has an agricultural appearance. All of its beers have as their house character a very soft fruitiness, reminiscent of nectarine. Its Saison de Silly also has a distinctive wineyness and tartness.

This beer is made by blending a pale brew with a darker one that has been aged for about a year in a metal tank. Some devotees feel Saison de Silly is the most loyal to tradition, though it is not bottle-conditioned.

This area is noted for its loyalty to ales, rather than lagers. "It's the Jeu de Balle that causes the thirst," I was told by the patron at Cafe Le Titien (068-568818) in nearby Basilly. He was talking about Pelotte, a game that appears in odd pockets, and various rather different forms, along the European seaboard from Friesland to the Basque country - and, as Jai-Lai, from Cuba to Florida to Connecticut.

The Jeu de Balle has also led to competitions in long distance egg-throwing. Very Silly.

Farther down the road, near Leuze, the village of Pipaix has a brewery that began on a farm in the 1780s. The present equipment is still powered by an 1885 steam engine, its piston thumping and exhaling steam as, through a web of pulley belts, it drives the mash mixer and rakes. As the mash progresses, the open tun fills the room with steam.

Some of the equipment dates from either side of the First World War and some buildings from the period just after the Second. The brewery remained within one family until the mid 1980s when the owner became ill and could not continue.

It was in a very dilapidated condition when it was rescued by two school teachers who were already making beer at home: Jean-Louis Dits and his wife Anne-Marie Lemaire. They renamed it Brasserie Vapeur and started brewing at weekends.

The first time I visited them they talked of the pleasure of "making something you like." Soon afterwards, I was horrified to hear that there had been an accident at the brewery in which Anne-Marie died.

Jean-Louis paid tribute to her in a book he produced telling the brewery story. Their two daughters still help in the brewery and would eventually like to run it.

In recent years Jean-Louis has re-married. His wife, Vinciane Corbisier, and her family have a shop supplying materials to small brewers, bakers and cooks. When I visited them, Vinciane prepared a meat-loaf spiced with coriander, sweet orange-peel and cloves. "Jean-Louis is crazy about spices," she laughed.

He has become noted for his use of them. Saison de Pipaix, which has a fresh, orangey character. contains six "botanicals," including anis, black pepper and a medicinal lichen.

We sampled three or four vintages, including the first he ever made. At nearly 10 years old, it had a huge orange aroma, a good head, a fine bead and a very dry, herbal palate (6.5 per cent).

Like a cook trying new dishes, Jean-Louis makes a "special" almost every time he brews. A very round, smooth beer called La Cochonne had chicory root among its botanicals.

Later that day, at the nearby Taverne Los Iris (18 Chaussee de Tournai, on the N7; tel 069-663292), we were served Saison de Pipaix with a magret de canard. The duck was presented in a sauce made from the same beer, with cream and shallots. Further dishes were prepared with a variety of styles from Brasserie ii Vapeur, and with Saison of Dupont and Bush Beer of Dubuisson - two outstanding nearby breweries, both featured in past Beer Hunter columns.

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

Brew Travel - Beer Review

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