Signifiers

Wet and Strong – De Dolle Brouwers in Esen, Belgium

On the second day of Pentecost every year, the Order of the Butter Weighing gets together in a small village called Esen in West Flanders, Belgium to confer Butter Knighthoods on three new members. Each recipient bows down in front of the Mayor of Esen so that they can be decorated with the antediluvian honor. Orde van de Beuterwaeghe, as its called in Flemish, celebrates butter production in the village and the surrounding areas (there’s a cheese order, too), and the annual inductees undergo a series of butter specification examinations (including taste and weighing tests) before being knighted and paraded round the village.

The ceremony is filmed by a local man. His camera is particularly focused on the faces of the new knights so they can later be painted. “I don’t tell them beforehand,” says Kris Herteleer, artist and brewer. “They don’t order it. I do it for myself. You can’t say to someone that they have such a crazy face that you want to paint them. You have to tell them that afterwards.”

Each year’s paintings—which are framed 70cm x 70cm and granulated with translucent watercolors—hang congruously on the warehouse wall of the village’s only remaining brewery. Herteleer is a painter, but he’s also enjoyed previous careers as a practicing architect and a local historian. For the past 36 years, however, he’s been the owner/brewer of De Dolle Brouwers, the producer of Belgian classics such as Oerbier, Arabier, and Stille Nacht.

The uniqueness of Herteleer’s beers, the antiquated nature of the brewery itself, and his eccentric personality have all created perceptions among beer lovers of an unpredictable genius artist, the introspective creative who cares not for what the world thinks. But all this hyperbole undermines his contribution to brewing. In the beer world, Kris Herteleer is a pioneer.
 

When De Dolle Brouwers (“the mad brewers” in English) first started brewing, the beer scene in Belgium was different. The large brewing conglomerate, Interbrew, had bought up many of the smaller artisanal and family brewing enterprises and flooded the market with sugary fruit beers and sweetened Blondes. The success of German Pilsners continued to put more traditional breweries out of business. Michael Jackson hadn’t yet trumpeted the intricacies of Belgium’s beer culture to the rest of the world.

“We put ‘Anno 1980’ on our labels because I knew we would be copied by everyone,” Herteleer says. “Some people claim that La Chouffe was the first small artisanal Belgian brewery. We were the first. La Chouffe started in 1982. The guys from Abbaye des Rocs said they were before me. I looked it up. They were four years after me. Between the opening of Pierre Celis’ original Hoegaarden brewery and ours, there was a gap of 16 years. It was a bad time for special beer. A lot of breweries were closing. We were the first of that revival.”

De Dolle Brouwers emerged from the homebrewing successes of Herteleer and his brother, Jo. In their late teens they were buying malt extract kits from England and brewing in a copper vessel which was designed for washing laundry.

“When my brother finished his studies to become a doctor, he wanted to go to South America to help there,” Herteleer says. “Before he left we decided to try all the beers we had made. But because they were big bottles, we invited some friends to help. One guy there knew an investor interested in starting a brewery and together we set about trying to find an old brewery to buy.”

In the late 1970s you didn’t look on the internet when shopping for a brewery. You went through the telephone directory. “Under ‘A’ there was no brewery,” Herteleer says. “Under ‘B’ was ‘Bavik,’ but that brewery was too big. Under ‘C’, we saw ‘Brouwerij Costenoble,’ so we went to take a look.”

What they saw on their visit to Costenoble was a beat-up brewery dating back to 1835 in a village of 2,000 inhabitants which at one time housed as many as six breweries. “We knew about beer, but we had never seen a brewery before,” Herteleer says. “The brewer told us that it would be sold that afternoon to another guy. But that guy never showed up. So we told him to sell it to us at the same price. We bought it there and then.”

Herteleer and his brother bought out the investor, Romeo Bostoen, within two years. And with the help of some skilled brewery technicians, they went about shaping the mechanical efficiency of the system while maintaining the charm of the old brewery. They named the enterprise De Dolle Brouwers, a derivation from the name of a cycling team they had started together with some friends, De Dolle Dravers. “In Flanders we call a bike a ‘stalen ros’ or ‘steel horse’,” Herteleer says. “‘Dravers’ is terminology for riding a horse, like trotting.”
 

Aging beer in wooden barrels to extrapolate flavor is now commonplace in breweries all over the world. Goose Island Brewery was one of the first in the States, using bourbon casks to impart vanilla, spice, and charred oak notes in their beers. Founders Brewing Co. was another of the early Stateside adopters. Innis & Gunn were doing the same in Scotland with whiskey barrels. De Dolle was among the global front-runners when it came to wine barrels. They claim to be the first in Belgium to use barrels—not as a souring technique—but to extract the character of what was previously in the cask.

“We invented it here,” Herteleer claims. “It was actually an accident.”

That accident took place 16 years ago because of a forced change in the yeast De Dolle were using. Up until 2000, De Dolle used yeast from another notable local brewery, Rodenbach, to produce both their 9% ABV Strong Ale, Oerbier (translating to “original” as well as being a Flemish play on words meaning “our”) and a Strong Blonde Winter Beer of 12% ABV called Stille Nacht (“silent night”).

“We are natives of Roeselare, where the Rodenbach brewery is based,” Herteleer says. “Lots of breweries were using that yeast, including Sint Sixtus in Westvleteren, Brouwerij Felix, Brouwerij Liefmans in Oudenaarde, and Brouwerij Strubbe in Ichtegem. At Rodenbach, they considered this an appreciation of their beer and they were so proud of it that they mentioned it on their brewery tours.”

When Rodenbach joined the Palm group in 2000, the supply of yeast to local breweries came to an end. “The yeast from Rodenbach was very complex,” Herteleer says. “It’s not only Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, but there are Lactobacillus and Pediococcus strains in there as well. When we didn’t get their yeast anymore, we started to reuse the yeast, which changed the way the microbiology behaved. The Lactobacillus and Pediococcus died, and the Saccharomyces Cerevisiae became stronger and stronger because they had no enemies anymore. As a result, our bottles of Stille Nacht started to explode. I had to do something. I couldn’t wait a week or even a few days. I had to put it somewhere.”

Herteleer called another brewer—Jean-Pierre Van Roy of the Cantillon brewery in Brussels—to ask for help. Van Roy was using barrels to age his Lambics, and had connections with wine makers in various European countries.

“We needed nine barrels to put the rest of the beer in those bottles,” Herteleer says. “Jean-Pierre asked when I needed them. I told him I needed them that afternoon. He gave me nine Saint-Julien wine barrels. Saint-Julien is an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée for red wine in the Bordeaux region, which is known for its high quality and even higher price. At the time, everybody was a colleague. You couldn’t say no. I put the beer in those barrels that afternoon and then forgot about them.”

Several years later, in 2006, a group of Americans were touring around Belgium with Italian beer journalist, Lorenzo Dabove. “They were intending to go to Westvleteren, but Lorenzo talked to me and I invited them to De Dolle for a look instead,” Herteleer says.

The group included Rob Tod of Allagash, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River, Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey and Adam Avery of Avery Brewing. “I remembered the beer in the barrels in our cellar which had been there for a few years,” Herteleer says. “I told them we could try some and they jumped so high off the ground when they tasted it. They asked me how I had made it. I told them I didn’t do anything. I just waited.”

Kris Herteleer in 2006. Photograph by Rob Tod.

Kris Herteleer in 2006. Photograph by Rob Tod.

Upper left: Els Herteleer, Vinne Cilurzo, Sam Caglione, Lorenzo Dabove, Adam Avery. Lower left: Vinnie Cilurzo, Tomme Arthur, Els Herteleer, Adam Avery. Right: Lorenzo Dabove and Kris Herteleer.  Photos by Rob Tod, 2006.

Upper left: Els Herteleer, Vinne Cilurzo, Sam Caglione, Lorenzo Dabove, Adam Avery.
Lower left: Vinnie Cilurzo, Tomme Arthur, Els Herteleer, Adam Avery.
Right: Lorenzo Dabove and Kris Herteleer. 
Photos by Rob Tod, 2006.

It was the first time Tod had visited De Dolle. He’s been back every single year since.

“Sometimes I go twice a year,” Tod says. “It never gets old. It’s an amazing place. The beers are so fresh when you drink them there at the brewery. There’s nothing like sitting and drinking Arabier out on the brewery terrace when the weather’s good.”

Tod recalls the excitement of his American colleagues when they met Herteleer. “On that first visit we were taken to the cellar,” he says. “During World War I, the Germans rounded up everyone in the village and locked them in that basement for two weeks. Kris had all these oak barrels there. He told us there had been a problem with a batch and that he was forced to open all his bottles and empty the beer out. We had a bunch of beers, but we tasted that version of Stille Nacht then for the first time.”

That accidental creation became the Stille Nacht Reserva, a universally loved Strong Wine Barrel-Aged Ale that appears only once every five years as a special release.
 

De Dolle were trailblazers not only in the products they were releasing, but in the way they presented themselves to the market from the very beginning. There were no representations of monks here, no fictional saints or made-up monasteries. Instead, they created a cartoon character—Oerbier Man. “[He’s] a little man made from a yeast cell,” Herteleer says, pointing to a depiction of a Michelin Man-esque figure strewn around various walls of the brewery. “Yeast is essential for a beer. The yeast cell has a couple of buddings: one is the head, two are the arms and two are the feet. People say its childish. It is childish.”

Meanwhile, the words “Nat en Straf” (English translation: “wet and strong”) are also everywhere—on the brewery signage out front, on the delivery van, on all the brewery’s glassware. “We discussed for three weeks whether it was going to be ‘wet and strong’ or ‘strong and wet’,” Herteleer says of his obsession to detail. “’Strong and Wet’ is a good idea, but it’s what sinks into the water, like a plane landing in a river. We don’t want to end in tears. We start with water in brewing, and with a lot of work, we are strong.”

But it’s not a throwaway tagline. “’Straf’ does not mean just ‘strong’,” he continues. “It means ‘daring’ as well. And ‘Nat’ is more than ‘wet.’ ‘Nat’ means you are wet inside and outside.” It’s a direct reference to the energy and hard work it takes to get the liquid into the glass.

There’s a warmth and authenticity about the team Herteleer has around him which gives credence to his boldness and work ethic. His wife works at the bar serving visitors. Up until five years ago, his mother—now 99 years old—conducted all the tours in both Flemish and English with an energy and level of knowledge which would impress even the most ridiculous beer geeks.

“We bring those who have been working at Allagash for five years on a trip to Belgium,” Tod says. “We always take them to De Dolle and Cantillon. Since that first visit, we’ve done tons of tours with Kris’ mom. I remember a tour we did one February when it was cold. They fired up a wooden stove oven with compressed peat briquettes. The room was full of smoke. It felt like we had gone back in time. She was telling stories and pouring beers. You could barely see, but it didn't seem to bother her.”

Then there’s Kris’ young brewing assistant, Lennart Pynebrouck. He has lived in the house next to the brewery all his life and grew up drinking Oerbier and Arabier. He’s a graduate of engineering and microbiology, the dream combination for an aspiring brewer. Herteleer’s brother Jo still lives in South America where he continues to brew and support De Dolle from afar.

To this day, Herteleer himself recounts the personal story of his brewery face-to-face with anyone who chooses to visit on Sunday afternoons. His pointed purple shoes, Oerman-speckled smoking jacket and flowery polka-dot bow tie are just a few of the ways he differentiates himself from what has gone before in Belgium, as well as what will come later.
 

Herteleer’s avant-garde nature is equally evident in the brewhouse.

“We grow souring bacteria for Oerbier,” Herteleer says. “We pitch it in our fermenter with our top-fermenting yeast. In the beginning it’s the lactobacilli who grow. But in the middle of the fermentation, when the yeast is making more and more alcohol, the lactobacilli are hindered by that. We use seven different malts in Oerbier. Those contribute to color, flavor, and, of course, head retention. It’s like making soup. If we just use tomatoes and potatoes, it’s not very interesting. But if you have onions and garlic, it’s a good combination. It requires a lot of tasting. Maybe some malts are not good enough or some are too expressive.”

Herteleer has never been afraid to use hops in a country whose stoic obsession with balance has led to a generally conservative attitude to alpha. Arabier, for example, is certainly a bitter beer by today’s standards (it clocks in at more 60 IBUs), but in the early 1980s when it was released to a market constituting myriad of beers with residual sugar overload, it would have been pretty polarizing.

“Arabier is a pure malt beer with a lot of hops,” Herteleer says. “But it’s not an IPA. I don’t like that term. IPA has become typically American now. I like drinking IPAs in America. I love drinking sherry when I’m in the south of Spain. But if you drink the same sherry here in Belgium, it’s something else.”

De Dolle also produces an Export Stout, a style uncommon in Belgium and often interpreted by brewers in ways that make them virtually unrecognizable from the style guidelines. It’s Herteleer’s least popular beer commercially, but one of his own personal favorites.

“One of my brothers broke his leg and his doctor advised him to drink a stout,” he says. “The first beer we had was Whitbread. A beer merchant told us there was a beer which was better. It was Guinness, their Export Stout. At the time, it was brewed in Dublin and bottled in Antwerp by John Martin. I went on to study the history of stout in London and Dublin. Originally it was stocked in foeders like in Rodenbach and the original stouts had the same thing as our Oerbier. Sourness is essential in a real stout because the originals that were made in London had a sour oaky taste.”
 

Herteleer’s status as a pioneer is perhaps best evidenced by the conception and development of Stille Nacht itself, a blend of 10 different batches brewed immediately after the fresh harvest of hops arrive from Poperinge in the autumn. It’s released only once a year, in time for Christmas. It started life dark, but Herteleer didn’t like that it was considered an amped-up version of Oerbier.

“The first two Stille Nachts in 1981 and 1982 were dark,” he recalls. “The people talked about the very good Oerbier. [I thought,] ‘Is Oerbier not good enough? Then I’ll change the recipe.’ So I put nothing but pale malt in.”

Winter beers aren’t so much a style of beer as they are a brewing tradition. In Belgium, they tend to be darker and sometimes sweeter than most, usually with a generous deployment of spices, herbs, and fruit. But Stille Nacht is not dark. And it contains no herbs, spices, or fruit. And yet, at the annual Christmas Beer Festival in Essen (which is located on the other side of Flanders from Esen), one of Europe’s most respected festivals at which 178 different Christmas and winter beers are celebrated, Stille Nacht has been voted as the best beer on eight different occasions—2005, 2007, and 2010-2015.

“The festival organizers come once a year to deliver the prize,” Herteleer says with a smile. “The second place beer every year is always different.”

Words + Photos by
Breandán Kearney

Breandán Kearney

Breandán is a co-founder of Belgian Smaak. He was named Beer Writer of the Year 2015 by the British Guild of Beer Writers. He was also named Best Young Beer Writer 2015 and Best Beer and Food Writer 2015. He is a Certified Cicerone® and an accredited beer sommelier through the UK Institute of Brewing & Distilling as well as a certified ‘algemene bierkenner’ from CVO Panta Rhei in Ghent. He has studied brewing (theory and lab) in Ghent. Breandán is Co-Founder and Brewer at Siphon Brewing, a microbrewery on the grounds of a four-generation-old family restaurant in Damme.

See more stories from Breandán

Houses of Craft

Wherever there's a house devoted to the craft, GBH will find them. Big and small, near and far, old school and avant garde, they all play a role in the next generation of beer.

See more Houses of Craft stories