Writer Chuck Cook is the first journalist to be invited inside Belgium’s Girardin brewery since the late Michael Jackson visited in 1993. He offered this report exclusively to ASN.
"Everything we have here is from the work of our own hands. There are no banks involved, no loans, no big brewery. We own everything on this farm brewery, and we work hard to keep it that way, as we want to stay independent,” Paul Girardin, master brewer and blender of the superb Girardin lambic beers, told me during my visit to Brouwerij Girardin.
If one were to paint a picture of a fiercely independent, self-sufficient, hard-working family brewery, Girardin might well be at the top of the list in Belgium. Paul’s wife, Heidi Abraham, told me: “We grow all the wheat used in our beers right on the farm. We have about 10 hectares (25 acres) of land. We have a stone mill to mill the wheat. We also grow barley, and we used to grow all we needed for our brews. Now, we have to sell our unmalted barley and buy malted barley, as there are no small malteries left in Belgium.”
Black Label Gueuze Girardin 1882, the brewery’s Oude Gueuze, has widely been recognized as one of the best — and possibly the very best — of the Oude Gueuze brews crafted in the Payottenland, the area to the south and west of Brussels that is lambic country. It doesn’t overpower you with a heavy sourness and acidity found in some well-known brews; the keyword here is balance. It’s sour enough to please the lovers of traditional lambic beers, with a deep complexity and pleasant citrus character. There is also a noticeable, fine bitterness, and an earthy, farmyard-like character. Given it’s ingredients and birthplace, the beer’s success should come as no surprise.
“We buy fresh hops, and age them for one to three years before using in our lambic,” Heidi said, as we toured the lambic brewhouse. Heidi continued, “As you can see, we have a Hopbak fitted inside this copper koelschip to catch the hop bells (whole hop flowers) when the wort is pumped into this vessel. Of course, the hops are really only used as a preservative, not for aroma or bitterness. However, many beer lovers do say they can appreciate a pleasant bitterness in our lambic beers.”
Lambic brewhouse, you ask? Yes, indeed. “We have two brewhouses here. The highly polished copper brewhouse that you can see from the outside through the glass window, is normally used to make our pils, Ulricher Extra. Paul, his brother Jan, and their father, Louis, purchased these brewkettles in Germany, dismantled them, and brought them back here to the brewery. They put them back together all by themselves, with only the help of a carpenter,” Heidi told me.
It’s not the first time that someone in the family has brought back brewing equipment from far away. Paul’s grandfather, Jean, brought the mash tun in the lambic brewhouse from the other side of Belgium, with a horse and wagon, many years ago. It took him two days.
The mash tun in question appears to date from the period of about 1900 to 1915, judging by others like it I have seen in Belgium. I would expect it was constructed in Wallonia, and probably is the last remaining vestige of the original brewhouse. The German army took away Girardin’s original copper brew kettles during the First World War, as at most other Belgian breweries.
“We keep the lambic brewhouse alive, for our children. We would like for them to see and appreciate the history and tradition of our farm brewery, and maybe to follow in our footsteps, so we can keep this traditional life alive,” Heidi said. Paul and Heidi have three daughters and one son.
“We consider cleanliness as very important here. We brew lambic one or two days a week during the season, and we clean everything after every brew,” Heidi said. They still clean barrels the old-fashioned way with hot water and chains, less harmful to yeast than modern steam-cleaning methods.
“We use the “slijm” method of brewing here,” Paul told me. It’s similar to the turbid-mash method which is also used at some other lambic breweries. “The (brewing) day begins at 5 a.m., and lasts until about 9 p.m., when the wort has all been pumped into the koelschip,” Paul said. “Then, the morning after, we put the lambic into our barrels,” he continued.
Most of Girardin’s oak and chestnut barrels hold between 500 and 600 liters of beer. These are called Pijpen, while smaller 250-liter barrels are called Tonnen. Gunther Bensch occasionally has a stand for the Girardin beers at a few lucky beer fests in Belgium, such as the BAB Brugge Bier fest, held in mid-November. “It’s mainly a time issue,” Gunther told me. “I can work at just a few beer fests a year, so I choose which ones very carefully.”
Many of the barrels still in use at Girardin are more than 100 years old. “We have purchased some new barrels as well, as you can see. We don’t have a cooper, so we make small repairs ourselves. When we can’t repair a barrel ourselves, we replace it with a new one.”
“About my refermented (Black label 1882) Gueuze,” Paul began, setting the tone for what I knew would be an important statement. “I blend lambics of 12, 18, and 24 months to make the Oude Gueuze. The 2-year-old lambic is for complexity, light acidity and maturity; the year-old version is to spark a refermentation, and the 18-month-old lambic is used to balance the 1- and 2 year-old versions,” he said. Most lambic breweries blend 1-, 2-, and 3-year-old lambics to produce Oude Gueuze.
Girardin also sells young and old lambic to go: “We sell some lambic at one to several weeks old, which is still fermenting. We also sell some with an average age of 12 months on oak. Anyone can come to the brewery during our opening hours and buy lambic or bottled beer to take home, as long as we have stocks available,” Heidi told me. She then added one very encouraging note, which is certainly a good sign for the future: “A lot of young people come here to buy our lambic and lambic beers like the Oude Gueuze.”
Heidi added: “When I was a child, I often tasted the lambic of Lindemans, as my grandfather brought it home. I became used to the taste of lambic then, and came to enjoy it even more as I got older!
“My husband Paul began helping out in the brewery when he was 18. That’s about 25 years ago. His father taught him to brew, and eventually he and his brother took over the brewing. Paul has been the brewmaster here since September of the year 2000,” Heidi told me. “Before that, he and his father Louis alternated brews for some time.
“This is completely a family brewery. Me and my mother-in-law work here too. We handle the bookkeeping and paperwork, sales, and I also help out with the bottling sometimes,” Heidi said.
Speaking of bottling, Girardin’s partially Italian-made line can fill 25, 37.5 and 75 cl bottles. “Though we really only brew two beers here, lambic and pils, we blend the lambic with other ingredients to produce several other brews — the filtered, White Label Gueuze; a Framboise; a Kriek; as well as a Faro. We also have a new beer, Dominicus, which was created for a celebration which took place here in the town of Dilbeek.
“It is a blend of a mixture of older and younger lambics, with some spices added. We also sweetened it a little bit to make it easier to drink,” Heidi said. I found this amber colored brew of 5% to be very pleasant and easy drinking, yet not too sweet or too sour.
Girardin also produces a kriekenlambic, which is the base beer for their Kriek. Kriekenlambic is typically offered in the 10-liter plastic containers or bag-in-boxes. At the end of the summer, the cherries are aged in stainless steel tanks with lambic. It is sold or kept as a base for the kriek, so both kriekenlambic and kriek are available throughout the year.”
“On draft, we have the pils, the faro, the kriek, and lambic, of course. The lambic is offered at several local cafes, such as In de Rare Vos in Schepdaal, In de Oude Pruim in Beersel, and Het Warm Water in Brussels. You can find our Ulricher pils on draft at In de Oude Pruim. The house beer of De Rare Vos is based on our faro...but we don’t give out the exact recipe!” Heidi told me, smiling.
The Ulricher pils, a softly carbonated, refreshing brew, is the perfect beer to start off with if doing a “session” of Girardin beers at one of these fine cafes.
“We do not disclose our yearly production figures,” Heidi told me. “But I can tell you that we don’t send very much beer to the USA, or other countries. We are very strict in the conditions we set for exporting our beers.”
Darius Debski of D&V International imports Girardin’s Black Label Gueuze 1882 in 37.5 cl bottles into the U.S. See www.specialtybeer.com.
Gunther Bensch had this to say about the Girardin work ethic: “Paul often works seven days a week. On a brewing day, that is 16 hours long. He is very dedicated to both the success of the brewery and also the survival of traditional lambic beers, as are all of the Girardin family.” It’s that kind of hard work and dedication that will help traditional lambic breweries survive and thrive for another generation. Pardon me while I crack a Black Label Gueuze 1882 to celebrate that survival!
Tel: 02 453 94 19
No website, no e-mail, no brewery visits. Open for beer sales 8 am - noon, 1-6 pm Mon-Fri; Sat 8am-noon and 1-3 pm. Closed Sunday.