“On 1st January 2009, at the ripe old age of 79, Luc Van Honsebrouck passed on the mashing stick to his son Xavier (born 1967). By that time, Xavier had been working within the brewery for over 20 years, primarily in sales and exports and then gradually taking over management duties from his father. Times have changed. When “mister Luc” was in charge of the brewery, visiting journalists were received by the brewmaster or a member of the marketing team. Only at the end of the tour would Luc make an appearance in the tasting room to offer a round. These days it is Xavier himself who welcomes the guests, makes a pot of coffee and pours the beer. “Do you know what the numbers 7 – 4 – 2 stand for?” Xavier asks. “I am the seventh brewer in the Van Honsebrouck family, the fourth to wield the mashing stick and the second one who only produces specialty beers.”
“On 1st January 2009, at the ripe old age of 79, Luc Van Honsebrouck passed on the mashing stick to his son Xavier (born 1967). By that time, Xavier had been working within the brewery for over 20 years, primarily in sales and exports and then gradually taking over management duties from his father. Times have changed. When “mister Luc” was in charge of the brewery, visiting journalists were received by the brewmaster or a member of the marketing team. Only at the end of the tour would Luc make an appearance in the tasting room to offer a round. These days it is Xavier himself who welcomes the guests, makes a pot of coffee and pours the beer.
“Do you know what the numbers 7 – 4 – 2 stand for?” Xavier asks. “I am the seventh brewer in the Van Honsebrouck family, the fourth to wield the mashing stick and the second one who only produces specialty beers.”
The founder of the Van Honsebrouck brewing dynasty was Amandus (1811 – 1865). He was the mayor of the village of Werken, where he owned a farm that included a dairy, a brewery and a distillery. Amandus passed away suddenly and was succeeded by his son Emile (1844 – 1929) as both brewer and mayor (until 1878). In 1863 Emile married Louise De Poorter, who came from Ingelmunster. The young couple moved into the family farm in Werken. However, Louise did not get on with her mother-in-law and the grandchildren were not warmly welcomed. Emile and Louise left the village of Werken to start up their own breweries, first in Vichte, then in Kortrijk. Neither venture was a success. In 1900 the Van Honsebrouck – De Poorters moved into a modest farm on the outskirts of Ingelmunster and the little Sint Jozef brewery was born.
Emile was not cut out to be in charge of a brewery, and so Louise found herself looking after the beer as well as a household with five children. In 1922, when Emile was pushing 80, ‘merke’ – as Louise’s children called her – entrusted the brewery to her son Paul. He took up the mashing stick jointly with Ernest, his older brother. Together, the brothers managed to keep the brewery going after the destruction wrought by the First World War. Ernest belittled his own brewing skills: “I was taught how to brew by my brother Paul, who learnt from ‘our’ Dad, who couldn’t really do it either!” Nevertheless, the pair successfully expanded the brewery in 1930. A new four-storey building was added, comprising a maltings, water basins and storage facilities for barley. The ground floor was used for the great storage barrels: 15 foeders with a capacity of between 18,000 and 25,000 hectolitres each. The renovation concluded in 1939 with the addition of a new brewing hall, tank hall and bottling plant. To fund the expansion, the brothers had come to a splendid agreement with a building contractor, Crop from Meulebeke. Fifty percent of the work would be paid for in cash and the other half ‘in natura’, in other words, in beer. Paul and Ernest brewed bottom-fermented beers: bock, export and pils. The changeover to the production of this type of beer took a great deal of money and effort but did not exactly set the tills ringing. At all times though, the brothers honoured their promise to ‘merke’ Louise, who asked of them: “As long as I live, there are two things you must not do: stop brewing or go bankrupt. But once I’m dead, you can do whatever you want.” Ernest remained a bachelor all his life. Paul married Germana Ampe and the marriage produced eight children. The plan was that Marc, one of the younger sons, would take over the brewery. However, father Paul contracted a serious illness at a relatively young age and the family feared for his life. One of the older sons, Luc (born 1930), seized his opportunity and started to study to become a brewer. During the holidays, the four sons would help out at the brewery, mainly sticking on labels. After one year at the brewery school Luc was fed up with the sticky stuff. He was allowed to join other breweries as a trainee to expand his knowledge. One of his main postings was with the Wicküler – Kupperbrauerei in Wuppertal in Germany, where he learnt that order, hygiene and discipline are essential ingredients for brewery management. Once Luc had finished his studies he was ready to take over at the family firm.
When, in 1953, Luc Van Honsebrouck took his first managerial steps at the Sint Jozef brewery, the range comprised brown table beer, export, pils and oud bruin, a regional beer from Western Flanders. Luc soon realised that his small family brewery wasn’t able to compete with the large pils breweries. He decided to concentrate on the production of an oud bruin, naming it Bacchus in 1954. Barely one year on, Luc decided to stop brewing pils and, for good measure, the Sint Jozef name was dropped for Van Honsebrouck. Luc did want to continue selling pils in his own cafés, so he concluded an exchange deal with the Eeklo-based Krüger brewery. They would offer Bacchus in their cafés and he would sell Krüger Pils in his. The Bacchus sold very well but the Krüger didn’t. Bacchus experienced its first real breakthrough around 1975, when demand for Rodenbach, a similar beer, exceeded the supply that its eponymous brewery could manage. Bacchus production was stepped up to 2,500,000 litres per annum. It is impossible for a brewery to survive on the production of just one beer. And when, in the early 1950s, Belle Vue Gueuze became popular, father Paul started distributing it. To start off, he purchased 20 crates, which turned into 50 and finally, 100. The success of this venture gave Luc the idea to create a second specialty beer. Bacchus was to be joined by a Van Honsebrouck gueuze. The ingredients and the brewing method did not pose any particular problems. But: how do you transfer the wild yeasts needed for spontaneous fermentation from the valley of the Zenne to Ingelmunster, which is about 100 kilometres away? The solution was simple: in 1957 Van Honsebrouck bought lambic wort from Van Haelen Frères in Uccle. In their cooling basin this wort had been permeated with the ambient microflora and, one day later, it was transported by road to Ingelmunster. There, the wort was pumped into the foeders used to mature the Bacchus and blended with wort from the brewery. Luc then transferred the yeast culture from one foeder to the next and thus, based on a relatively small quantity of wort purchased elsewhere, he managed to produce sufficient lambic to feed his own gueuze and kriek.
This lambic-based beer was baptised St-Louis; named after Louis Lampaert, Luc’s wife’s grandfather, who until 1920 was a brewer in Nevele. Both the Gueuze and a cherry Kriek St- Louis were launched in 1958, which just happened to be the year of the World Exposition in Brussels. In later years, framboise (raspberry), cassis (blackcurrant), and pêche (peach) brands would be added to the range. The year 2001 saw the launch of the Premium range of fruit beers with a sweeter taste. The Ingelmunster brewers have never shied away from experimenting. Jef Maes, who has been brewing with Van Honsebrouck since 1968, recalls that wort from the brewery was dispatched to the Pajottenland region to cool down during the night, allowing it to absorb the regional bacteria for spontaneous fermentation. The experiment failed when it was discovered that the bacteria came from the brewery itself rather than from the air. Each brew contained enough food to sustain its own colonies of bacteria. In the end, the bacteria arrived without any outside help. At the end of the 1960s, St-Louis had become so popular that the brewery was running out of cooling capacity. The compressor? was unable to keep up. At that point it was decided to bring the vintage cooling basin back into service. The ancient iron koelschip, clad in stainless steel, could only hold 9,000 litres. One floor below a new, stainless steel cooling basin was added. This had a 24,000-litre capacity. The basins combined were capable of handling one single brew. Following the traditions of the Pajottenland region, the third and last brew of the day would be transferred to the koelschip. The Van Haelen wort had taken root in the brewery and created its own habitat, producing the wild Brettanomyces yeast required for spontaneous fermentation. This meant that the lambic wort brought over from Brussels was no longer needed. The brewery stopped buying lambic wort in 1971 and St-Louis became a full-blooded, fully-fledged West Flemish beer. Several years later Van Honsebrouck introduced gueuze on tap. And this is how the Ingelmunster brewery, that had initially shirked any kind of tradition, became the second largest producer of gueuze in the country. By offering gueuze on tap, Van Honsebrouck stole a march on its competitor Belle Vue. Spurred on by their rival’s success, market leader Belle Vue felt compelled to follow, and Vanden Stock also introduced gueuze on tap. From 1978 onwards, the competition between Belle Vue and St-Louis would be battled out on the football pitch. Anderlecht displayed Belle Vue on their shirts and Club Brugge was sponsored by St-Louis. Sales were increasing year on year. In 1981 the brewery celebrated the processing of one million kilograms of malt. Competition was not just limited to the home market. In France, for example, sales of Vanden Stock beers were on the rise. In response, Luc signed an exclusive agreement with Heineken France in 1990. In the meantime, Luc Van Honsebrouck had achieved a legal victory. In an attempt to seek protection by the law for his lambic beers to safeguard them from imitation, the lambic brewers from the Brussels region managed to persuade Health Minister Alfred Bertrand to issue a Royal Decree listing all the requirements a beer had to satisfy to call itself a lambic. One of the conditions of this decree was that the beers had to be produced within a 20-kilometre radius from Brussels. This news reached the ears of Luc Van Honsebrouck when, one day, his old brewery school friend Edgar Winderickx popped in. Edgar was engaged as a lambic brewer in Dworp and had travelled to Ingelmunster to promote his beer, in case it became illegal to produce gueuze outside the Brussels region. Straight away, Luc knew what to do. He appealed against the impending Royal Decree. He says his main argument was: “If they think, over in Brussels, that here in Ingelmunster we cannot produce a gueuze, that won’t catch on.” He was allowed to produce his gueuze and time proved him right. Van Honsebrouck has never regretted ‘betraying’ traditional gueuze by filtering, sweetening, saturating and pasteurising it. Between 1965 and 1970, the Brussels brewers used to get together every Wednesday in a café at August Ortstraat near the Stock Exchange. One fine Wednesday Luc shared a table with Jozef De Nève from Schepdaal along with Van der Perre and De Boeck from Brussels. All of these were lambic brewers, involved in the production of artisan gueuze. Jozef De Nève said: ”I sell what I can brew!” Whereupon Luc Van Honsebrouck replied: “And I brew what I can sell!” Over 30 years later, Luc Van Honsebrouck said of this story: “They did not follow the approach of Constant Vanden Stock and stuck to tradition. And one after the other, they were taken over by Vanden Stock.” Nevertheless, Van Honsebrouck hasn’t proved immune to tradition. On Saturday, 5 December 1992, a Professor Gilbert Baetslé of the brewing, malting and fermentation industry department of CTL Hogeschool in Ghent, led his students on a brewery tour. On that occasion, beer aficionado Jef Van den Steen put it to Luc Van Honsebrouck that his gueuze would gain plenty of sérieux with beer lovers if there was an unfiltered, bottle-fermented Gueuze St-Louis. Luc Van Honsebrouck took this challenge very seriously and promised Jef he could be the Godfather of this new beer. He was true to his word and 1997 saw the launch, at Ingelmunster Castle, in the presence of the late “beer hunter” Michael Jackson and others, of the Gueuze St-Louis Fond Tradition. In 2010 lambic beers accounted for 45% of Van Honsebrouck production, over 4,300,000 litres in volume. In addition, they produce Bacchus, the Brigand specialty beers (1980), the Kasteel range (since 1989), Cuvée du Château (2009), Trignac (2013) and Filou (2014). Pils is not brewed: ‘so we don’t offend the large market players.’
“In 1990 the brewery was located at the edge of the village. Nowadays it is in a built-up area which brings its own consequences. We are finding it well-nigh impossible to expand.” This is Xavier’s explanation for the disappearance of the wooden foeders from his brewery. The installation, in 2008, of new, larger bottle-filling equipment meant that the foeders had to go. They were also worn out and unsuitable for further use. However, in 2012 a new room was installed, above the filling line, where foeders will once again take up their place in the brewery. In the meantime, the brewer makes do with adding wood shavings and sticks from French oak. In the cooling basin, the koelschip, the bacteria characteristic of the region bonds with the wort. “The lambic beers remain of great importance to our brewery”, says Xavier Van Honsebrouck. “But our main growth now lies with our Kasteel range. Our kriek is made with Oblacinska cherries from Poland that are stored in an external freezer unit. The beer will mature for six months with the cherries. We will continue to produce the Fond Tradition.” Van Honsebrouck is always a pioneer, the Fond Tradition 37.5cl bottles are sealed using a crown cap, in other words, without a cork. Just like his father, Xavier always looks at tradition with a critical eye. Xavier is married to Lindsey Herman. Together, they have two sets of twins: Axelle and Michelle (born 1997), Jean – Baptiste and Delfine (born 2000).
In 1989, Kasteel Donker was introduced, the first beer in the Kasteel range that draws its inspiration from Ingelmunster Castle, owned by the Van Honsebrouck family. Since then a number of beers have been added to the collection: Kasteel Blond, Kasteel Tripel, Kasteel Hoppy, Kasteel Rouge and Kasteel Winter, the last re-baptised Barista Chocolate Quad in 2015. Kasteel Rouge (2007), a blend of Kasteel Donker and cherry liqueur, has become a big seller in eastern and western Europe, Russia, China, Asia and the USA, making up for the fall in popularity of traditional fruit beers. Since 2014 Kasteel Hoppy has undergone an in-bottle re-fermentation that has deepened its flavour. The introduction of a new yeast variety has greatly benefited Kasteel Blond and Kasteel Tripel. The tripel in particular tastes fuller in the mouth, has more subtlety and a better balance – thanks in part to the use of Belgian hops – and its aroma is no longer alcohol-dominated. The Barista Chocolate Quad yields surprising aromas of chocolate and coffee that filter through into the taste; a step into the world of hot beverages. “We keep tinkering with our Kasteel beers and that makes it so much fun,” Xavier Van Honsebrouck says. There is no doubt that the new Izegem brewery, in operation from 2016, will play a major role in the continued development and refinement of these beers.
Cuvee du Chateau
Cuvee du Chateau (2010) was the brewer’s next step into the world of aged beers. “We are in the habit of keeping a stock of reference beers so we can compare different vintages,” Xavier explains. “Of Kasteel Donker in particular; a strong, dark beer such as this ages well. When we carry out a comparison tasting we compare, for example, a young beer with one that is six months old, one year, three years, six or nine years… We found out that a nine-year-old Kasteel Donker develops beautiful impressions of port.” But why wait nine years? Brewmaster Hans took up the challenge of developing a beer with the characteristics of an aged Kasteel Donker, using exactly the same ingredients and nothing else. The result: Cuvee du Chateau, a young beer with the full – madeirised – aromas and tastes of a mature Kasteel Donker.
These brewers are not afraid of colouring outside the lines. Trignac (2013), a gastronomic beer, is the successful marriage between Kasteel Tripel and cognac. The idea came to Xavier Van Honsebrouck during a visit to the USA where ‘barrel aged’ beers have been in favour for many years. “We came up with the idea of maturing our tripel in vintage cognac barrels,” he tells us. “So why not put our thoughts into practice? We filled 10 barrels to see what would happen and tasted it, and then again and again…” This limited edition bears the touch of cognac, complemented with impressions of orange. But the main taste is still one of beer. It is a true degustation beer and an excellent digestive.
“Passchendaele was the result of a bet with yeast expert Filip Delvaux,” Xavier Van Honsebrouck says with a smile. “Filip was adamant that it was impossible to produce a top-fermented pils beer. We have now proved the opposite.” Passchendaele (2013) is an eminently quaffable beer that nevertheless tastes full in the mouth and has the alcohol volume of a standard pils. At the launch of this beer Xavier Van Honsebrouck met members of Zonnebeke town council and a foundation that looks after First World War monuments. This is how this ‘remembrance beer’ was born. Part of the proceeds from its sale are donated to the foundation to help fund the upkeep of war cemeteries and war monuments in the Westhoek region (the famous Flanders Field). “It took us a while to came up with a name for this beer,” Xavier Van Honsebrouck says. “In the brewery it was just called a ‘xavierke’.”
Filou (2014) is a beer that comes at you with a nod and a wink. The little rascal depicted on both the bottle and the glass has you in his sight, catapult at the ready. His shots are like cupid’s arrows and you’re intoxicated before you know it. Filou is a genuine thirst-quencher but with enough complexity to be appreciated by lovers of specialty beers. This robust blond is a bit of an odd one, but the name and design are popular both in Belgium and abroad. This likeable rogue – filou is French for a rascal or trickster – also appeals to a younger public. “So, who’s the rascal here?” Xavier Van Honsebrouck wants to know. “Are we talking about the filou who seduces the drinker or the drinker himself who is tempted into having a second glass? It all depends on how you look at it.”
The new Izegem brewery started producing in 2016 and opens up an entirely new chapter for Van Honsebrouck. The Ingelmunster brewery closed its doors for the last time in late 2015 and a new site covering 7.5 hectares is home to our brand new, fully integrated brewery, with the equipment to produce all of the Van Honsebrouck beers and handle both logistics and storage. The new Castle Brewery Van Honsebrouck will have a visitor centre with a bar, restaurant, shop, and brewery tours available by appointment. The new site will also offer all the facilities for staging events, parties, company seminars and brewing education, all under one roof. Brewmaster Hans Mehuys is convinced that the quality of the beers will improve even more with the new brewery’s higher degree of quality control. The brew hall can handle batches of between 5,000l and 12,500l and allows for us to be very flexible. The brewery has two completely separate production lines, one for top-fermented beers (Trignac, Kasteel, Brigand, Filou, Passchendaele, Slurfke, Barista), and one for beers of spontaneous and mixed fermentation (St-Louis, Bacchus) to avoid any risk of contamination.