A warehouse. Said with a slower sense of occasion than you would normally say the word. A warehouse. And oh it was once an industrial bakery.
This warehouse is the home of Brasserie de la Senne. It’s on the south side of Brussels, an anonymous area — anonymity the brewery’s stock in trade as well. Nothing that says: here is a brewery.
Inside there’s a massive space, dotted with brewing equipment. Over there a double-headed hydra of brewing kettle and lauter tun (German made, second hand); in another ‘room’ the fermenting vessels (especially made to replicate open fermentation) simmer, while a further ‘room’ is expressed by a silent family of maturing tanks — ‘we are convinced that maturing makes our beer’ I’m told. And as a great advocate of beers being ripened who am I to disagree. Back in the big space a bottling line awaits.
Yvan de Baets, one half of the brewery (or maybe one third if you include the guy who does their artwork), waves his hand at a largish empty space to the back: barrels with all types of beer undergoing the big sleep will be stored here within the next 12 months (one of the superstars of West Coast craft brewing who also has a penchant for barrels is coming over to collaborate). Old wine barrels are part of the plan.
By a makeshift bar (‘we are building a pub’), at tables, a group of raucous beer drinkers carouse and I know by their faces that bear (and bare) a sense of joy that they are well versed in this sort of occasion. Later on, they reveal themselves to be members of a Flemish beer club who we’d seen earlier in the day at Cantillon.
Do you like the beers someone asked? Of course came the reply, guttural and spat out with a good-natured undertone of ‘who wouldn’t’. We try them. Taras Boulba. Zinnebir. Jambe de Bois. All superb with the latter having a full sweetish body and the mouth feel asserting a flinty aromatic peppery quality. These are beers that like a high bitterness but there is also something else about them, which is why I ask de Baets an innocuous question.
So looking at the stylish bottle labels with their nods towards 30s propaganda posters and Soviet constructivism I ask: are you a political brewery? I had wanted to say are you a left wing brewery, but that seemed rather trite. He in his turn gathered around him the children of the tribe called nonplussed and said something like ‘I make beer for defending values’.
Then he moved onto riff on bitterness.
‘We like bitterness. I have always try to understand the enjoyment of bitterness. Bitterness differs between humans and animals.’ He then started talking about animal instincts, and how humans liked various flavours. It was one of the most intellectual approaches to beer and brewing that I have ever come across and I (along with the rest of the group) was fascinated.
‘People who like bitterness get more pleasure that people who don’t like it,’ he continued. In this way he unleashed a whole theory on why animals and humans are different in their approach to bitterness — and the beery corollary of this was that de la Senne’s beers are bitter, much more bitter than most Belgian beers. I love that — my disillusion with the sugary nature of some Belgian beers kicked in a few years back. De Baets talks with measured calmness, with a certainty and belief that marks out great brewers (of course it helps he can make great beer as well).
And as the Flemish party started to disperse for pastures wide with the odd song, our taxis arrived bringing one of the most magical conversations I’ve ever witnessed with a brewer come to an end. For now.