Signifiers

Brasserie de la Senne — A Renaissance Grows in Brussels

Brussels is a city where antique shophouses dissolve into the shadows of glass and steel office towers, a melting pot where modernity wrestles tradition. Belgium is synonymous with brewing, where, for centuries, monks in monasteries and family brewers have been producing style-defining speciality beers. This is the home of the quaffable Wit, the elusive Geuze, the heavy-hitting Quadrupel. Contemporary brewers all over the globe have recreated many of these classic styles for decades. But as the pendulum swings, many newer Belgian brewers are questioning the country’s traditional ways of brewing, eager to pave a path of their own. Yvan de Baets is one of those brewers.

It’s clear and crisp outside. The tramway hurries through the Anderlecht district heading to Molenbeek in the northwest of Brussels. Despite the address scribbled on a piece of wrinkled paper in my pocket, I have a hard time finding the place strolling along the busy Chaussée de Gand. Finally, there’s a black mailbox on a galvanized fence. Taped to it is the tiniest sign: Brasserie de la Senne.

An old industrial complex, the building formerly housed a bakery called Huis der Bakkersbazen. At the parking lot outside the brewery is a group of friendly brewery workers on a break, hanging around a couple of plastic chairs, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and cracking jokes. Just inside the building is a tasting room with huge panoramic windows facing the production floor. The brewery itself is big, spread over the size of three basketball courts. Overhead, massive wooden beams support an arched ceiling. Yvan greets me with a smile, and starts directing me around the brewhouse, cold-storage, and the usual brewery-tour stops.

Brasserie de la Senne is named after the small, mostly-underground river that flows right through Brussels. As it exists in a bilingual city, the brewery also goes by its lesser known Flemish alias, De Zennebrouwerij. My first memory of the brewery is from 2011. The second beer I ever reviewed was Taras Boulba, their session-strength Belgian Pale Ale. At first blush, it’s a simple, everyday brew. Looking under the hood is something subtle yet ingenious, a perfect combination of an English IPA and Belgian blonde, with an expressive, recognizable hard water profile that cuts across their entire line-up. It was new and eye-opening. But rewind to 2003, when the first fragments of the brewery sprung to life. At that time, it was called Sint-Pieters Brouwerij, and was initiated by trumpeter Bernard Leboucq, the other and first half of De La Senne.

Bernard and Yvan first met a year before that at the 2002 Zinneke Parade, a festival celebrating the crafts and arts of Brussels. Yvan was involved as a social worker and Bernard was there introducing Zinnebir, the festival’s very own beer. A seed was sown, but neither of them suspected it would take eight years to fulfill their dreams of properly establishing a brewery in the capital.

Yvan is a former homebrewer gone pro—his original 40-liter (1/3 BBL) brew kettle sits in the brewery, as a reminder of those early days. The transformation from recreational to professional brewer came when Yvan earned his brewmaster’s degree in 2004. Two years later, he and Bernard had outgrown their tiny brewhouse in Sint-Pieters. The hunt for a new location would prove tiring and frustrating. “Brussels is our city,” Yvan says. “Our dream was, of course, establishing a brewery in the city itself.”

Between bureaucracy, theft, and sloppy bankers, it would be another four years before the new brewery was operational. In the meantime, they gypsy brewed with Thiriez in nearby France, and Wallonian-based De Ranke.

At last, in late 2010 they were able to celebrate the grand opening of their new Molenbeek location—a historic event indeed, as Brasserie Cantillon was no longer the only working brewery in Brussels. At last, a city with a 19th century counterpart that boasted more than 100 breweries, was anxiously being repopulated by fermenters and bottling lines. Since then, En Stoemlings and Brussels Beer Project have been added to the vanguard of new breweries in the city. These young and often-small initiatives are pushing traditional Belgian beer culture into new and innovative realms. Many of their influences come from abroad, yet these brewers elegantly manage to fuse modern ideas with their own brewing traditions.

The same goes for De La Senne. Their beers contradict everything you thought you knew about Belgian beer. In stark contrast to traditional family brewers, geuze blenders, and international lager producers, they make highly drinkable ales with a dialed-up European hop presence. “We season all our beers with European hops,” Yvan says. “Noble varieties Tettnanger and Saaz stand for the bulk, and beyond them, we primarily use Savinjski Golding and Hallertau Hersbrucker.”

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Not that the beers aren’t complex. Beyond the modern layer of hops are the multifaceted characteristics of Belgian yeast. Yeast is a big deal at De La Senne, and especially to Yvan. The origin of their house strain is veiled in great secrecy—all they’ll reveal is that it stems from a prominent Belgian brewery. Its importance can’t be overstated. At the brewery it’s treated more like an esteemed colleague than an expendable fermentable. From harvest to propagation to fermentation, it’s carefully fussed over. In order to not strain the yeast during fermentation they’ll only use flat-bottom fermenters that they’ve welded themselves.

Yeast is a big deal at De La Senne. All they’ll reveal is that it stems from a prominent Belgian brewery. Its importance can’t be overstated.

With wort having replaced the dough that once existed in the converted bakery, they currently cook 20 hectoliter (17 BBL) batches of beer at a time. Last year, they made 8000 hectoliters (6800 BBLs), and the new year promises a 25% increase, thanks to a brand new bottling line. “In a year or so we’re looking to more than double up on the capacity of the brewhouse to 50 hectoliters,” Yvan says.

De La Senne’s labels—made by Bernard’s cousin, illustrator Jean Goovaerts—are captivating. Each tells a story. Jambe-de-Bois is an Abbey Tripel made in honor of the Belgian Revolution of 1830. The name translates to “peg leg,” and refers to the countless men who lost an appendage in the conflict between the Netherlands and Belgium. Yvan and Bernard’s morbid sense of humor shines through in the label copy: "No Dutchmen were harmed in the making of this beer.” Also running through the lineup is a strong Art Deco flair working as a hallmark for their beers and rest of the company. Distinct strokes and colors make for distinguishable bottles which are easily spotted on store shelves.

Finishing up our tour, we return to the tasting room to try the beers themselves. De La Senne produces five standing offerings, three recurring seasonals, and the experimental beers of their Wadesda Series. For many years, Zinnebir and Taras Boulba were their top sellers. “Zinnebir and Taras Boulba have been equal until recently,” Yvan says. “Zinnebir became our number one because it is now seen as the beer of Brussels. Sales here are just growing and growing.”

No surprise. Zinnebir is a Belgian pale with hoppy citrus overtones and a mild spice character augmented by fruity yeast. The prominent flavors, balanced bitterness, and light body make Zinnebir utterly sessionable. Next up is Jambe-de-Bois, a surprisingly light Tripel brewed with 10% sugar. Banana, clove, and coriander lead the way to big caramel malts that eventually fade to some alcoholic sweetness, bitterness, and a dry finish. Brussels Calling is the current seasonal. Brewed with a different hop variety each year, the flavors tend to shift with each release. The base is a blonde topped with mellow floral hops, stone fruit, and a light peppery yeast flavor.

It probably seemed like a long shot in 2002, but Bernard and Yvan now run the reputable brewery they once set out to build. Now brewing in Brussels, not only have they found their back way to their hometown, but they’ve also become the brewery of the people of Brussels, as their local sales make up close to 2/3 of their total revenue.

With their beer, De La Senne has put hop bitterness back in a country where predominantly malt and yeast driven beers used the rule the bars. Rather than to look westwards for inspiration, they’ve created a new breed of easy drinking hoppy libations based on their European heritage. As the company grows, the reach of the local market will become global one, and with that, forever changing how Belgian beer is perceived. Maybe someday they’ll change the sign out front.