To the Editor of The Brewers' Journal.
Brewing in Belgium.
Dear Sir,—Perhaps a short account of a brewer's "holiday" may interest some of your readers. Being in Ostend the idea arose to take a run round the neighbouring country and see how the brewers of the district were rebuilding their concerns. Dixmude, which remained in memory as one of the most shattered towns of Flanders, seemed a suitable place to make a start, and as the town was entered there appeared a new building, just now perhaps the most notable achievement of reconstruction in a place whose monuments —church and town hall—are merely heaps of ruins. This turned out to be a brewery, and inside was a model of compactness—a little mash-tun of about six quarters capacity commanding a vessel of the Wooldridge system of about 50 barrels, served by a Worthington pump and ejector to produce the vacuum, and alongside a fermenting room with two squares lined with white glazed tiles. Just the system it would appear to suit these small concerns who wish to re-erect a brewery in as small space as possible and with the greatest economy of building, and, as was later proved at a similar brewery in Ostend, capable of turning out most excellent light-top fermentation beers of 1035 deg. gravity or pale ales of 1065 deg. and stouts of 1070 deg.
Little breweries restarted on their old systems did not interest so much, but gave rise to a certain amount of amusement. One produced a beer—which by its slight acidity pleased its clientele—with a yeast that would not ferment unless pitched at 86 deg. Fahr., and no wonder. It consisted of quite as many bacteria and wild yeast as of the more desirable species. This had recently been pointed out to the owner, who thereupon tried a change, and pitched as usual at 86 deg. Fahr. in his wort receiver, running down direct into trade casks to ferment, when to his great alarm the yeast refused to come out through the bung hole, but settled to the bottom. This change from a true top to bottom habit through change of pitching temperature was most interesting to the enquiring visitor, but not to the suffering brewer, although the beer was good. He, like the great majority of his confreres, had no idea of fermentation temperatures in cask and the niceties of his art left him cold ; but why worry when trade was good?
Thus in a delightful run of fifty miles, examples of the two types of breweries which are arising to take the place of those destroyed in war were visited — the one a type of what should be the aim of the little brewer who wishes economically to set himself up again, and the other an example of what co-operation can achieve. Which will prove the more suitable to the country and the more profitable to the owners is a point yet to be decided.
Many corporations of brewers are now being formed, as may be instanced by the prospectuses just issued by eight brewers of Ypres who, with the remaining dozen or so brewers of that town, intend to erect a brewery with an output of about 30,000 barrels a year to take the place of the 20 or so little breweries that used to exist there.
At present it is not known what system this "Brasserie centrale yproise, Société Co-operative" will adopt. But, probably, it will be a top fermentation brewery as are all the smaller concerns.
A London Brewer.
July 2nd, 1921."
Brewers Journal 1921, page 296.
Belgium had a crazy number of breweries before WW I. More than 3,000. Many of those never re-opened, for a variety of reasons. Smashed up buildings, lost equipment, lack of cash, death of the brewer. Others decided to group together and rebuild cooperatively.
Let's start with that brewery in Dixmude. A six-quarter plant is tiny. Enough to brew about 25 barrels at a time. It probably produced no more than a couple of thousand barrels a year. I can visualise the brewery quite well. There are loads of little 1920's breweries in Belgium and I've seen a fair few.
I'm glad the author told us something about the beers brewed in the small Ostend brewery. It's an interesting range, all top-fermenting, of course. Belgium wasn't always a country of strong beers. The further you go back in time, the weaker the average strength gets. A bit like the UK in reverse. So while they brewed a Pale Ale and Stout of reasonable gravity, I'd put money on the light 1035 beer being by far the biggest seller of the three.
The brewer pitching at 86º F is a fascinating example of the primitive nature of some Belgian brewing. Fermenting in trade casks is very 18th century. I'm sure no British brewery was using the technique in the 1920's. I wonder what the beer was? One of the less sour Belgian types, I guess. Sounds like he had an interesting pitching yeast, with all the bacteria and wild yeast. Very, er, Belgian.
The brewery in Bruges sounds much more modern. But, producing 20,000 barrels a year, still pretty small by British standards of the period. In 1914 there were 280 breweries in the UK producing between 20,000 and 100,000 barrels*. It seems to have been brewing a pseudo-Pils. Ten days from mashing to sale? That's a joke for a bottom-fermented beer. I'm not surprised that it didn't have a proper Lager flavour.
There's lots of good stuff on continental brewing in the Brewers' Journal. I'm just OCRing a long article on Scandinavia. Then there's a whole series of articles on Lager brewing. That would keep me going for weeks.
* 1928 Brewers' Almanack, page 118.