One of the really nice things about writing a Belgian beer guide is the country’s so small. It’s manageable. You can get to know it.
There may be more than 5,000 breweries in the U.S. these days, but in Belgium there are now 200 and change. That’s not so many, but in terms of international influence, thanks to the cachet of brand Belgium, they punch well above their weight.
So, I thought it might be fun and useful to compile a quick and indiscriminate list of every Belgian brewery that opened in 2016. It’s possible that a few of these opened slightly earlier but didn’t really “come on the scene” until the past year. It’s also likely that I’ve missed a couple of newer, quieter minnows. But we’ll still be able to get a neat picture of what’s happening with Belgian beer these days—and then we can theorize about where it’s going.
In each case, I mention where they are and what sort of beers they’re making. Then we might be able to theorize about what it all means for the near-future of Belgian beer. I’ll also make an educated guess about which ones are most likely to succeed, and thus have a better shot at appearing on American shelves and tap lists.
Here’s what I’m not including on this list: non-breweries, such as commissioners, gypsies or marketeers that hire other breweries to make their products. I define a brewery as a building with functional brewing equipment inside it. A few buddies who are good at designing labels, websites and sales plans but do not actually own a brewery are not, in fact, a brewery.
So, here are our new friends, best as I can tell. Did I miss anyone? Did I include someone who’s fibbing? Let me know in the comments below. I can update it.
Amburon started by hiring its beers from the Anders contract brewery. Since late 2016, owners have a microbrewery in their hometown of Tongeren and say they expect to open a tasting room soon. Tungri Bitter is IPA-ish, while the Blond is sweeter. Both are 7.5% ABV.
Bokkereyder is a tiny new lambic blendery whose appearance at the recent Copenhagen Beer Celebration (Boston edition) probably preceded any ability to meet demand. Blender Raf Souvereyns is aging lambic on various fruits and various types of wine barrels, doing untraditional things like putting vanilla in the barrels or aging the beer solera-style. Officially Belgian, though I wonder if anyone there can find it.
Bryggja is the Old Norse name for Bruges. These former hobbyists in nearby Damme won an award for their homebrew in 2012 and used it to launch their brewery. Amuse (6.5%) is a blonde, while Triple-B IPA (6.5%) and Tripel (8.5%) emphasize Belgian hops.
Ça Brasse Pour Moi near Mons is a bottle shop with attached microbrewery. Its Rayon de Soleil (6.2%) is a saison, L’Été Indien (6.5%) is a red IPA, while Jours de Récolte (6%) is a harvest ale that includes recently cropped fresh hops and local, unmalted wheat.
Clocher is a new microbrewery inside a former church in Namur. Its Philomène is a light, spicy blond ale (5.5%). The usual colors of amber and brown are likely to follow.
Escaillonne looks like legal-to-sell homebrew attached to a holiday rental chalet near Chimay. Its Paternal and Thomassine are 8% ales found in stubbies sold in cute gift packs.
Fredeber is a new hobbyish nano in Verviers. Its Leûp Divine is a spicy 8-ish% brown dubbel, while the Houbleûpse (7%) is the brewer’s stab at an IPA.
Gemeldorp just became official in East Flanders. Unusually for Belgium, it has daily visiting hours. I believe they also make their own cheese, washed in the beer. Its honey-laden Gaudium amber ales include Metser (5.5%) and Sheriff (9%).
Grandvoir opened in 2016 within a renovated castle/hotel in the lovely Ardennes. It produces a 5.7% blond ale called Vaurien. Not much else is known yet.
Hoppy is an imaginatively named nano near Soignies, in Hainaut, filling green 75 cl bottles. Imperial (8.5%) is a strong, malty IPA, we must assume Saison (6%) is a saison, XII des Dieux (12%) is strong and dark, while ruddy IPA Redskin will need a name change before dreaming of export.
Invictus is a new micro in the Ardennes, smartly branded, brewing strong Stout d’Ardennes (7.3%) and dry-hopped Blonde d’Ardennes Houblonée (5.7%).
Koelschip is a nano in a bottle ship in Oostende, on the coast. Winter is Coming (9.3%) is dark and said to be more malty than spiced.
Leysen is a new nano in Herentals; its beers now available in several local cafés. Its Baskwadder line includes Dubbel (6.8%), Blond (7%), Winter (7.2%) and Tripel (7.8%).
Remise ‘56, open since June, is a brewpub inside a former train depot in Koersel, Limburg. Its Tripel is 8.5% strength.
Saint-Ghislain in Hainaut is probably a working brewery now; its Facebook page says so. Beers under that name, borrowed from a long-defunct abbey, previously appeared from the Silly brewery. Its present lineup includes saison-like Printemps and sweetish Ambrée at 7%, plus Blond and Brune ales at 8%.
Saint-Lazare in Mons is a new micro willing to rent out its kit to wannabes. Its BSL 010 (6.7%) is said to be Orval-like, including dry-hopping and Brett; BSL 004 (6.7%) is blonde, BSL 002 (7.5%) is a “saison triple,” and BSL 005 (6.2%) is an amber ale.
Siphon is a project of multitasking beer writer Breandán Kearney and friends. It’s on the grounds of a cozy country restaurant in Damme, near Bruges. Blinker is a 5% saison, Damme Nation is a 7% IPA, Cassandra is a 7% oyster stout, and Tronk is a 10% “vanilla orange quad.” The brewery hosts regular open days.
Witches is a micro in north Hainaut that looks eager to cash in on the contract brewing biz. Its Free Moon (4.8%) is light, dry and yeast-spicy, IPA-ish Texcuus (6.5%) is said to be hop-fruity.
That’s the list I have so far. I could name several others that might be breweries now but I don’t see enough evidence to include them. They include Craeynest in Wevelgem, Entre-Deux near Mons, Rostune in Beernem, and Tête Chargée in Ottignies. There are a few more I suspect of being fibbers so I won’t mention them here.
Best guesses on most likely to succeed: Bokkereyder because lambic and hype; Ça Brasse Pour Moi because of plain old good taste; and Saint-Lazare, Siphon and Witches because of know-how backed by marketing savvy.
So, what do these breweries tell us about where Belgian brewing is headed? Quite a lot, in fact. We can form some interesting hypotheses, which are best tested by going over there to drink for ourselves.
Some background: When Tim Webb and I worked on the previous edition of Good Beer Guide Belgium, we encountered many more “gypsies” and marketeers—we just call them beer commissioners—who were hiring their beers from contract breweries while pretending to be brewers themselves. There are still some of those, but anecdotally I can say that it does not appear to be as insidious a problem as before. It might be that consumer awareness and pressure within the industry has led to some helpful fear of shaming. I don’t know. There are still lots of beer commissioners, but generally they appear to be more transparent about where their beers are brewed—often at technically excellent breweries like Proef and Anders. (No reason to hide that, in my view.)
So what do we see instead? I note an ongoing surge in the number of what we might call “hobbyists and market testers.” These are people who have kits that make a few hundred liters or less per batch, but they’re legally approved for brewing and sale (or else it’s safe to assume so). It’s hard to make a living like this, but if you keep the day job it’s a cool way to get started and make extra cash.
And if the beer catches on, who knows?
Overall this is an encouraging development. Let’s be honest: A lot of these barely legal homebrews will be awful. I promise, they will. On the other hand, the cream will rise to the top. Belgium is a lively creche of strange ideas and style diversity. The influx of new ideas and people is a good thing, even when much of the beer is not. I’d much rather see this happening than see a few hundred more technically perfect beers all hired from the same two or three contract breweries. Keep Belgium weird.
What else do we see? There is the continued trend of more hop-forward ales and IPAs. Fine: These are not clean copies of American-style IPA, like we see elsewhere in the world. These are bottle-conditioned ales brewed with intricate mash regimes and expressive yeast, in the Belgian way. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it is distinctive.
There is also the ongoing dabbling with mixed fermentation, blending and Brett. Yes, please.
Maybe next year, after tasting some of these, I’ll be in a mood to crusade for better quality beer. My current feeling is one of relief: The Old World’s great incubator of quirky brewing is as lively as it’s been in decades.