IT TAKES A VILLAGE
to raise a brewery Coming into Bellegem, in SouthWest Flanders close to the French border, there are two things that break up the rural landscape: a church tower and a brewery tower, one no more important than the other in keeping alive a strong sense of community in the small village.
Since its foundation more than 120 years ago, Bockor Brewery has successfully managed to maintain close ties with Bellegem and the city of Kor trijk to which it belongs. Back then, horse and buggy clattered along over cobblestones, delivering wooden crates of Bockor beer to all the cafés within a ten-kilometre radius. Today, you’ll notice, most of the pubs in Bellegem still proudly display the Bockor name. Some even flaunt the original stained glass windows created by the founder himself, Omer Vander Ghinste, in promotion of his products. In stark contrast to today (when clicking on ‘skip this ad’ has become almost daily routine), there was a time when adver tisements were a noble, even ar tistic, thing. Just have a look at Bockor’s stunning glass works, prominently displayed throughout the brewery, which tout the words ‘Bieren Omer Vander Ghinste’ in an array of bright colours and bold, eye-catching block font. This same design is reflected in the logo of the brewery’s newest beer, Omer Traditional Blond. It may surprise to hear that Omer is only a few years old. Excellent marketing gives the impression that this beer has been around for
ages, while in fact Omer is a carefully and strategically branded product that was only just launched in November 2008. It is a tribute to the four, soon-to-be five, generations of owners named Omer, apparently because naming the first son anything else would require a costly replacement of a number of café windows. The recipe for the high fermentation blonde was developed with great care and research, a process that took two years. With exper t yeast advice from father-and-son brewing consultants Freddy and Filip Delvaux, a combination of German, Czech and Slovene hops, and vigorous re-fermentation in the bottle, Omer was born. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the taste of Omer,” marketing manager Jasper Stragier tells me as he carries out a per fect pour into the beer’s impossibly elegant tulip-shaped glass. It has a clear golden body that turns straw yellow when help up to the light, and its high foam head is bright white and billowy. “So it’s very popular, but we’re running at capacity. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t produce more.” That’s because the brewery is nestled among a block of houses and other buildings clustered around the church. “But that’s very impor tant to us,” he adds, “that we stay put here, in the hear t of Bellegem.” My nose picks up some of the foam as I delve deep into the glass for a whif f. Hops give this beer a pleasantly fruity aroma that is at once bready, spicy and lightly alcoholic (but not as much as you’d expect at 8% alcohol by volume). One sip gives me a smooth, crisp and highly carbonated mouthfeel followed by a flavour rush that is both mildly bitter and subtly sweet, with
“It’s smooth and refreshing with a pleasantly bitter aftertaste”
a hint of spice (although there is none added). Grains, wildflowers, honey and citrus come to mind. I go in for a second sip, and then a third, a four th… Omer is a well-balanced blonde that is outspoken without being overpowering. Af ter the launch of Omer, it didn’t take long for the awards to star t rolling in. First, Omer took home the gold medal from the European Beer Championships in 2009, followed by gold again in 2010 in the prestigious World Beer Cup for best Belgian-style pale strong ale, a hotly contested category. Yet another gold medal was awarded to Omer during the 2011 US Open Beer Championships, the only competition in the world that compares professional breweries with ar tisanal and home breweries. This is a par ticularly impor tant accolade, as the jury is not swayed by brand names, marketing or a rich family brewing history ; it’s all about the beer. Omer may have put Bockor on the world beer map as of late, but of course it’s been brewing a whole gamut of other beers for years. Take, for instance, the most pleasant surprise to come out of my visit to Bockor: VanderGhinste Oud Bruin. From the old-timey look of the label combined with the name “old brown”, I was half expecting a characterless table beer. But this mixed fermentation beer is wonder fully complex and intriguing. As old as the brewery itself, the beer under went a couple of name changes over the years, from Ouden Tripel to Bellegems Bruin, before being rebranded as VanderGhinste Oud Bruin in 2012. But it has retained its authentic and regional character. South-West Flemish red-brown ales (sometimes called West Flemish sour ales or simply Flemish reds) such as VanderGhinste Oud Bruin recently received recognition as an of ficial regional product in Flanders. “We got together with a few other breweries in the area that have the same unique beer style, typical to this corner of West Flanders,” Jasper explains. “Rodenbach, Verhaeghe and Bavik also have their own Flemish redbrown ales.” Next he shows me to the top of the brewery tower, where the red-brown ale gets its star t. Under the bowed roof is just enough space to hold a massive copper coolship that dates from the 1930s. Wor t is
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like the taste of Omer”
pumped five flights up to this shallow vessel where it is lef t to slowly cool overnight, allowing wild yeasts to induce spontaneous fermentation. This process is not unlike that used to make lambic in the famed region just outside of Brussels. By producing their own lambic, which is used to make VanderGhinste Oud Bruin as well as the highly praised Cuvée des Jacobins, Bockor proves that there is nothing “magical” or region-specific about lambic, in spite of popular belief. Finally, the beer is transferred into oak casks where it spends 18 months fermenting, maturing and acquiring that characteristic tar t and ear thy flavour profile that lambic fans can’t get enough of. The Oud Bruin is achieved by blending about 30% of this lambic with a younger brown beer to create a well-rounded sweet-sour ef fect. The Cuvée des Jacobins comes straight out of the barrel and into the bottle, meaning it’s pure lambic and therefore highly coveted by many a wild beer purist. Af ter such an intense tasting session, my tastebuds are crying out for something more neutral. For all its specialty beers, Bockor is still best known as a pils brewery. Af ter all, they
do produce two of Belgium’s finest examples of lager: Bockor pils and Blauw Expor t. The former can be found on tap across Kor trijk and in 2011 was voted Belgium’s best pilsner in a national blind taste test. Blauw Expor t, meanwhile hasn’t suf fered any under its misleading name, ‘expor t’ simply referring to its low fermentation. The pils that was popular among Flemish construction workers in the 1980s is today enjoying a comeback among young, hip folk. It’s smooth and refreshing with a pleasantly bitter af ter taste. To make sure they cover all their bases, Bockor also of fers a line of fruity commercial beers, including the Kriek Jacobins, Framboise-, Passion-, Rosé- and Kriek Max. Of these, only the Kriek Jacobins, a fine marriage between the Cuvée Jacobins and tar t Belgian cherries, is not too sweet for my taste. As one of the last remaining breweries in Belgium to effectively keep that delicate balance between tradition and modernity, Bockor knows the importance of innovation. The brewery will launch a new beer later this year and, unlike many of its more elusive beers, this latest creation will be widely available for the international market.