With the odds seemingly stacked against it, Brasserie de la Senne launches as Brussels’ latest brewery.
By Joe Stange
Full disclosure: I’m friends with Yvan De Baets and Bernard Leboucq, the two guys making beer history in Brussels by opening the Brasserie de la Senne. I’ve had some sessions with them over the past few years. I wrote a book with Yvan. I’ve seen and heard their woes. These are guys who generally show up late because they’re in the middle of a million things to do, all taking longer than expected, and most of them (aside from the beer) frankly won’t turn out quite right. I’m not superstitious so I won’t say my friends are cursed. But I do believe the age-old maxim “shit happens,” and I’ll say that for some reason, a lot of shit happens to these two guys.
Maybe it’s not easy to make history. In the late 1800s there were more than 100 working breweries in Brussels, according to local records. They all eventually closed, consolidated or moved on. For several years now there has been only one: the storied Cantillon lambic brewery. That grand total has now doubled with the opening of the Brasserie de la Senne, named for the river around which the city was built.
Despite a long series of obstacles ranging from bank errors to bureaucracy to gaping crevasses in the driveway, Yvan and fellow owner-brewer Bernard will finally open their new brewhouse before the year’s end in northwest Brussels. Previously they had a tiny one in the suburb of Sint-Pieters-Leeuw. They outgrew it in 2006 and have been making their beers elsewhere ever since, including De Ranke in western Wallonia and Thiriez in northern France. Neither was an easy commute. Meanwhile, their work has built a strong following among Belgian beer geeks at home and abroad.
Senne is known for two types of beer: thirst-quenching, sessionable ales of fine hop character, such as Taras Boulba and Zinnebir; and frustratingly rare blends, usually mixed with a small portion of Cantillon lambic, aged in oak barrels, then corked and capped in 75cL Champagne bottles. These special beers bear more than a passing resemblance to the fin-de-siecle brews popular in the city’s golden age, when lambic makers dotted the local map. De Baets is a beer historian in his own right and with Leboucq says he aims to make beers that a.) they enjoy drinking themselves, and b.) better resemble what working Belgians drank in the old days. To the brewers, that means refreshment, bitterness and experiments with mixed fermentation. Those experimental blends are set to expand thanks to a large room set aside for racks of barrels.
“We really designed everything ourselves just to be able to make our dream beers,” Yvan says. The design includes a tasting room—not yet finished—from which visitors will be able to taste the beers and watch the brewers work. “We will be very proud to show them how we make beer. … It will be like a new life for us. It will be very exciting, and I hope people will get the same excitement.”
It’s been an ordeal. There was the exasperating three-year hunt for a location. Then there was the hunt for money, which made the hunt for a location look like a stroll through the Grand Place. “We are not rich people,” Yvan says. “We really started from absolute zero, so we had to borrow a lot of money. [Our beers] had a fantastic reputation, but all of this takes a lot of time.”
Then, in 2009, when they were ready to start moving in, they couldn’t because of a large construction hole blocking the driveway. They were assembling the brew kit in early 2010 when the money froze up for three months thanks to a banker’s paperwork mistake. So it was hardly a surprise recently when someone broke into Yvan’s house and stole, among other things, his computer and some brewery files. The universe, it would seem, did not want the Brasserie de la Senne to open in Brussels.
Universe be damned. They pulled it off, although they could have opened one in 2006 if they had been willing to look outside of their tangled, bureaucratic hometown.
“It’s probably a bit crazy, but our dream is to have a brewery in Brussels,” De Baets says. “It was essential. We want to become the Brussels brewery. We live in Brussels. It’s our city.”
Joe Stange co-authored “Around Brussels in 80 Beers” with Yvan de Baets. Follow Joe on his blog, ThirstyPilgrim.com.
Update: A previous edition of this post read that the brewery would be open in November 2010.