Earlier this year, three young Belgian brewers changed the words on the label of one of their beers from “IPA” to “PISS OFF.”
“I wanted to put ‘FUCK OFF’ on it,” says Brouwerij ‘t Verzet co-founder Alex Lippens. “Maybe that was too harsh. I just couldn’t believe that people were telling us what our beer was.”
Rebel Local is an English-Style India Pale Ale, the 2011 success of which allowed Verzet to open a commercial brewery earlier this year. “We were influenced by the English IPA,” Lippens says. “It was created with around 45 IBUs and dry-hopped with classic English hop varieties.”
In Belgium, the emergence of IPAs—a style indigenous to England but resurrected by the citrus and tropical fruit characteristics of new world hop varieties (and now hugely popular in the United States)—is very much ongoing. “Everyone was telling us that it wasn’t an IPA,” Verzet co-founder Koen Van Lancker concurs. “Just because we didn’t use American hops. We were so sick of hearing this.”
When they started in 2011, Lippens, Van Lancker and third co-founder Joran Van Ginderachter were 24-year-olds with a healthy suspicion of authority—‘‘t Verzet” translates into English as “The Resistance”— and a desire to rail against the perceptions in the beer world of Belgium as slow-moving and traditional. Opening a business together was a kind of anarchy, a way to blow up these preconceptions. The three met while studying at university.
“In our final year we were offered the option of studying brewing science for our master year of biochemistry,” Van Lancker remembers. “We were the only three people in our class who chose this subject.”
They graduated in 2008 and immediately secured jobs in three very different breweries. Van Lancker got a job at De Proef Brouwerij. In Flemish, “proef” can mean “taste,” “test,” or “try.” But De Proef the brewery is a contract facility in Lochristi owned by scientist and brewmaster Dirk Naudts, who’s known as “The Prof” by locals. “I’ve got huge respect for Dirk,” Van Lancker says. “He’s one of my brewing heroes. He’s one of the best brewers in the world. He wanted to stay out of the limelight, but in doing so, he has become famous.”
Working at De Proef—who brews for Mikkeller, Omnipollo, and To Øl—exposed Van Lancker to myriad styles and a range of beers from other parts of the world. “Belgium has always been our first influence,” Van Lancker says. “But because I worked for De Proef I had a lot of Scandinavian beers and a lot of American-style beers.”
Lippens began working for Brouwerij Omer Vanderghinste, a regional family brewery in West Flanders most known for its traditional blond, Omer (8% ABV), and its mixed fermentation Vanderghinste Oud Bruin (5.5% ABV). “The day after I ended my brewing studies I started working in Omer,” Lippens says. “After two years there I became head brewer.”
He split his time between the brewhouse and technical projects such as automating the brewery filtration and cleaning systems. For Lippens, Verzet fulfills his craving for a different challenge. “I was never involved in recipe development at Omer,” he says. “I told them I loved working there, but that my creativity was being pushed down. I need to do stuff. I want to fail. At Omer, nothing can fail. Every beer has to be right on. I personally don’t mind bringing a beer out that doesn’t work. My personal goal is to be the best brewer in the world. It’s impossible to be that. But for me it’s about learning.”
Meanwhile, Van Ginderachter worked at Belgian family brewery Van Honsebrouck before securing a four-month internship at New Belgium Brewing Company in Colorado thanks to a family contact. (His uncle is New Belgium brewmaster Peter Bouckaert.) That opened up the doors for another opportunity. For the last three years he’s worked at Three Taverns Brewery in Decatur, Georgia, where he’s now brewmaster.
“My uncle Peter was put in touch with Three Taverns founder Brian Purcell, who was looking for a Belgian brewer,” Van Ginderachter says. “Peter gave him some schools to contact and he also recommended some people, including me.”
Moving to the U.S. and leaving Verzet behind was not easy. “It was the hardest decision I had to make in my life,” Van Ginderachter says. “I was always interested in working abroad, even before Verzet. The opportunity appealed to me. Alex and Koen also encouraged me to go for it. But of course, I miss working with them and we stay in contact. Even though I’m not involved in day to day production, we talk every two to three weeks about ideas for the brewery, about new beers, about everything.”
Van Ginderachter’s involvement, while small, is highly valued. “He helps us with contacts in the United States,” Lippens says. “Before we bought this brewery he advised us to stop working in Belgium because the U.S. is way more exciting. But we’re here in Belgium to push things forward.”
Throughout all this, the anarchy subsided—to an extent. The trio gained a formal education in brewing and biochemistry. They worked full-time jobs at three different commercial breweries while producing Verzet beers at four different facilities in Flanders. They purchased their own purpose-built 20HL system earlier this year. Their range of beers includes not only a low-alcohol, hop-forward Session Ale and a mixed fermentation Stout aged in whiskey barrels, but an edgy version of an Oud Bruin, the most traditional of beer styles in the region in which they brew. The experience in various breweries has given them a sense of perspective on managing their own skill sets, too.
“It’s not because you worked in a big brewery that you can work in a small brewery,” Van Lancker admits. “We worked in different breweries and mostly at different stages of the process. I have more experience with conditioning, refermentation and packaging, and Lippens has more experience in the brewhouse. We can learn from each other.”
Despite the maturation, some rebellion remains intact. Several months ago in an interview with Swiss blog, Bier Versuche, the owner of the Danish beer company Mikkeller spoke about how easy it was to brew. “I know this sounds arrogant and might not be right,” Mikkel Borg Bjergsø told Bier Versuche. “But I always say you can train a monkey to brew a beer.”
The throw-away line got under Lippens’ skin. “We were fans of Mikkeller,” he says. “I like his beers. But when I read that article, my heart bled. It undermines the talent and hard work of brewers. For me, respect for the guys you work with is everything.”
In a statement more befitting their name and the irreverent behavior of their youth, Lippens and Van Lancker went out and bought monkey masks for a one-off release called Scandinavian Pussy, a 3.8% ABV Session Ale. “We’re just monkeys making this beer so we named it after him,” Lippens says. “He’s a Scandinavian Pussy because he is too scared to run his own brewery.”
Few breweries in Belgium produce as varied a lineup of beers as Verzet, not to mention one which looks to other countries for inspiration as much as it does to their Belgian heritage. Super NoAH—standing for “No American Hops”—is Verzet’s 4.9% ABV bitter Session Ale. Their Dubbel, Moose Blues (7.5% ABV), aims at restraint. “We were trying to avoid overusing ingredients and spices in particular,” Lippens says. “Like a good chef making his sauce perfectly, when you taste something in there but you just can’t recognize it, that’s the best sauce. It’s good practice for us to learn to be subtle.”
Oaky Moakey (7.5% ABV) is a Stout aged in whiskey barrels which undergoes a mixed fermentation. “We put a clean brew into whiskey barrels to take the characteristics of the whiskey,” Van Lancker explains. “We then have older barrels which go to the lacto side and we blend them in before bottling. That way we have more control over the final flavor. We’re building up our volume now and we want it to be consistent.”
Golden Tricky (IPA, 7% ABV) was conceived as a celebration beer for the 50th birthday of a local priest, Patrick, who they call “Tricky.”
“The week after the party, he was going out to India to do some volunteering work with the money raised,” Van Lancker says. “We found out that the Mango was the local fruit in India. We didn’t want to add Mango in the beer, so we looked for a hop which gives the impression of Mango. We found that in the Ella hop from Australia.”
Verzet’s mixed fermentation Oud Bruin (6% ABV) may not be their biggest in volume, but it’s certainly their most important. Historically, it’s the indigenous beer of the region in which they are based. Their interpretation leans closely to the red-brown sub-variant from South West Flanders made famous by Rodenbach and neighboring Verhaeghe. “You have the balance in the old-school versions which are more sweet,” Lippens says. “We wanted to go more to the sour side and add our own twist.”
Nino Bacelle of Brouwerij De Ranke—where ‘t Verzet gypsy brewed for a period—has seen the development of this beer first hand. “The Oud Bruin they make is fantastic,” Nino raves. “It’s the only Oud Bruin in the whole of Belgium which is not filtered or pasteurized. That’s a bold thing to do. It’s wonderful.”
It’s the beer that Van Ginderachter reflects most on from the States. “The Oud Bruin is a beer which we can all be very very proud of,” he says. “When we started making it, we were a very small brewery with very limited money. It was stressful to make such a huge investment for our size and keep it in barrels for a year before bringing it out. I’m really happy with how it has turned out.”
The Oud Bruin starts out as a Brown Ale with high levels of residual sugar which is fermented in stainless steel for primary, then aged for lactic acid bacteria inoculation and flavor development in one of their 40 wooden barrels or four large oak foeders. Aging varies from one to three years. They taste through the barrels and foeders and use various batches as part of a blend with young brown beer before bottling. “We blend mostly based on taste,” Van Lancker says. “We’ve been producing the Oud Bruin for five years. Every week we are learning. We more and more understand what is going on and how we can influence what’s going on. In the beginning it was difficult for us but it’s getting better every time. This beer will never be finished.”
Verzet has recently started a series of Oud Bruin spin-offs, including Oak Leaf. “I was reading a book about making oak leaf wine,” Lippens says. “I link everything I read and see to beer and breweries, so I pitched the idea to the others of aging the beer on oak leaf to see what impact it would have on the tannin content. It turned out better than we expected.”
Brewing without a brewery in Belgium has become a political minefield, whether that’s contracting brands or gypsy brewing. Two years ago, a group of Belgian brewers wrote an open letter—published in the Le Soir newspaper in May 2014—about how they thought contract beers and beer firms were hurting the country’s beer culture. The 12-paragraph letter was signed by 15 breweries, including Yvan De Baets of Brasserie de la Senne, Jean Van Roy of Brasserie Cantillon, and Kris Herteleer of Brouwerij De Dolle Brouwers.
“Belgian beer, supposedly one of the last of our national treasures, is in great danger,” the letter reads. “A number of businesses, which seem to have purely commercial interests, are placing its reputation in serious jeopardy. We’re talking about fake brewers, as opposed to authentic brewers.”
Until this year, Verzet have always gypsy brewed. They brewed their beers themselves in various facilities around Belgium including Gulden Spoor, De Leite, Toye, and De Ranke. “I think we did worry about what people in Belgium thought,” Van Lancker says. “We are proud to be brewers. We wanted to learn. When you just give someone the recipe, you never learn.”
There’s a growing realization about the importance of operations outside brewing. Verzet has taken on its first employee, Jens Tack, to assist with sales, and is now importing beer into the U.S. through Authentic Beverage Management Imports. “We now see that we have to be more professional in our marketing,” Van Lancker says. “We’ve grown up and had conversations amongst ourselves about being less anarchic. In the beginning we thought that nothing else mattered apart from the beer. But we now know that everything has to be perfect. If you’re proud of your product, you’ll give it a good label and good packaging.”
While they may not agree with the brewers who signed that open letter, they did finally get their own place. Their purchase of a brewery was financed by two silent investors. “They’ve been involved since our home-brewing,” Lippens says of the benefactors, who they decline to name. “They help with book-keeping and logistics and this building. But they don’t want to get involved publicly, and they’re not involved in brewing decisions at all. It’s a dirty word, but they want to make money out of it after 10 years and help us build our dreams.”
The three young men of Verzet want to accomplish some things as well. And as the success builds up and they build out their own spot, it seems foolish to doubt them. “My personal goal was to have my own brewery before I turned 30,” Lippens says. “I’m 29. Before my 40th birthday, I want to make 10,000 HL per year here. You always have to set goals. It’s not about size, but you do need a certain amount of people drinking your beer to gain a reputation. I think people see us as very promising, but everything starts now. We have to prove ourselves.”
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