Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly Beer Week goes to Belgium: Notes from the brewer

Bryan Kolesar of The Brew Lounge won Philly Beer Week's annual raffle, sending him and a local brewer of his choice to Belgium. Kolesar chose John Stemler of Free Will Brewing in Perkasie, and the two are now in Brussels to work on the annual collab beer to be served during Philly Beer Week, May 29 to June 7. The two will contribute blog posts to during their trip.

Bryan Kolesar of The Brew Lounge won Philly Beer Week's annual raffle, sending him and a local brewer of his choice to Belgium. Kolesar chose John Stemler of Free Will Brewing in Perkasie, and the two are now in Brussels to work on the annual collab beer to be served during Philly Beer Week, May 29 to June 7. The two will contribute blog posts to during their trip.

Check in to Philly Beer Week for more information.

Here is John's recap of the brewing:

Day 4 in Belgium was an abrupt wake-up from Bryan as we had all overslept.

Tom was already on his way into town to meet us at the train station closest to Cantillon. We hustled over to find just him. Casey and William would be joining us later as they were still sleeping at the hotel.

Okie dokie, off to Cantillon.

Lodged in the middle of a row of buildings of nondescript frontage holds one of the best Lambic breweries in the world. Inside is a museum of equipment and operations as well as a small tasting area.

We were greeted by Jean, brewer and owner, who was still a little busy so Tom gave us his own tour of the facility. Afterward, we were joined by Casey and William and we proceeded to spend the next 5 hours trying countless beers, making new traveling friends, and seeing the expansion building around the block. Such a wonderful place with warming people.

Hearing both Jean and Alberto describe the flow and balance of the lambics created there is truly inspiring for a brewer...

During our time at Cantillon I was in communication with Jef at Hof ten Dormaal, who wished to start brewing at 6 a.m .the next day, a regular start time for a brewer.

Knowing that, if I stayed with the group and in Brussels, I would probably not be able to make that. After we left the brewery, we went back to the hotel and I grabbed an overnight bag and jumped on a train to Leuven, then to Wespelaar, where Jef picked me up. The brewery resides on a farm outside of town surrounded by fields.

The fire had destroyed most of the barn, bottling line, beer inventory, and grain stores. We had to get the grains from the temporary trailer out by the road, weigh them in the barn attached to the house, and mill them under the overhang behind the barn where the animals were kept. It was cold, dark, and muddy and I was glad I brought my brewery boots from America with me.

When we were finished, we both went inside and had some homemade pizza and some of my beers as well some of theirs.

I got to meet Jef's father, Andre, and his mother. Everyone was so welcoming and friendly. We even got to toast a 100-percent Islay malt scotch that they had dumped out of a barrel they had procured for beer maturation.

I slept well that night.

Day 5 started at 5 . . . Cold and dark in the Belgium countryside. We came out to the brewery where the power had tripped and we had to reset some breakers and restart the steam boiler. This would be a recurring theme for the day as many of the power supply wires were burned in the fire. We mashed in at 6:15, then ate breakfast of eggs and thick cut bacon with a side of toast that had been made in the old way with a folded grate over the stove. When we went back out the breaker was off again.

Luckily only for a minute or two so no harm done. 3 temperatures were attained through this mash as much of the grist bill were raw ingredients grown on-site. After 2 hours of resetting the breaker and raising the temperature of the grain we were ready to move the mash over to the lauter tun for filtration. At this point Nicole and Bryan arrived, which was surprising as we knew everyone did not get much sleep the night before in Brussels.

By this time the entire family was up: Jef's father, mother, girlfriend, sister and her 4 children, brother-in-law, and brother Dries who had been the brewer until 6 months ago when Jef took over. The entire family lived in some portion of the farmhouse, which is by no means small. Everyone was so welcoming and warm. While we filtered the grains into the kettle Casey, William, Kenny, and Kenny's daughter Rachael arrived. Shortly after we all ate lunch together at the large family table. Jef and I returned to filtering and resetting breakers while the rest of the crew either explored the farm or listened to Andre talk about his family or how they came to be a brewery.

Filtration took roughly 3 hours with only a few hiccups from power supply during which time we took a short trip into town to the monastery where they had been aging their sour beers in the basement. How cool is that?! Walking through the narrow corridors with low ceilings we saw all the small cave-like rooms filled with barrels. I can't wait until those beers are mature and 12 Percent Imports can get them to America!

Boiling for 90 minutes went smooth with no power interruptions. Cooling was going to take a long time as the cold water tanks were destroyed in the fire, the plate exchanger was small, and water flow was from a small well. During the cooling we had to empty a fermenter of beer, clean the tank, and figure out how to do that and move yeast in with not enough clamps or o-rings. The insurance company did some of the "cleaning" after the fire and threw many essentials out.

After climbing though the rubble we found much of what we needed on the burned up bottler. Bryan and William were kind enough to grain out while we figured this all out.

We had to leave abruptly as we were due in Brussels at 7:30 to meet Tom. After a long day in the cold we had a very nice group dinner in Brussels. I went straight to sleep after dinner as I was outside in the cold all day and could barely keep my eyes open.

Day 6: Despite getting to sleep early-ish, we overslept and had to run all the way across the street to the train station to meet the rest of the group for the train to Halle then to Lembeek to meet Frank Boon for a private tour of his facility as a favor to Tom. His facility is totally different from Cantillon. Modern brewing vessels were used for the turbid mash system, but the old coolship and foudres were still being used . . . lots and lots of foudres.

His passion for researching as much history on the production of lambic and finding better ways to produce it was evident as he described the innovative ways of aging and blending he used there. The new facility was literally built around the old building containing the coolship. His brewery is massive and he described the many ways he had streamlined different aspects of the process, from using the same conveyors for both grain to silo and grain to mill, to using several different sized kettles. We concluded with sharing his Mariage Parfait Geuze together. I was most intrigued by his totally different view of lambic production from that of Jean from Cantillon.

We then had to hop on a train to Beersel to have lunch at Drie Fonteinen and then tour the brewery. Lunch. Was. Amazing. Rabbit bathed in geuze and paired with a beer named Hold on I'm getting hungry again . . .

After lunch we went into the brewery with Armand where he showed us his all-stainless brewhouse and 4 gang of coolships. This facility was much smaller than both previous breweries, but he did say there was another barrel house in Beersel where he stored most of his oak vats. We proceeded to the cellar where there were about 100 barrels of aging lambic. We drew from a lower cask some 1 year old lambic and enjoyed him speaking of his family and the history of the brewery. He was particularly appreciative of the support from American beer drinkers, which he discovered on a trip over. He described a catastrophe caused by temperature control failure in which he lost 5 years' worth of stock which ultimately were 5 years' of his life and how the support of his fans reinvigorated him to press on and rebuild. Armand was truly a blend of both Jean and Frank in both their processes and views on lambic beer production. His place was my personal favorite.

Upon returning to Brussels, we all met for dinner again where Andre and Jef's brother, Dries, joined us. Jef could not make as he had football practice. We shared some great food and beer together with new friends. It was wonderful.

Day 7 we got up late . . . again and went back to Cantillon to grab some beer for home. Saturday was our day to get our gifts and stuff to take home with us. We walked around and bought more chocolate and trinket gifts for friends and family at home. Our last search was for a world famous beer which needs no naming. Délices & Caprices was a well recommended bottle shop owned and ran by a man named Pierre. He was very knowledgeable and we spent a good bit of time there sharing different beers, but he did not have the beer we wanted to take home. We left only to find the place that did have it was already closed. Oh well, we did get to drink it at a bar some days earlier so we were content to leave it in Belgium.

The rest of the evening started at Moeder Lambic, where we had been several times earlier in the week alone, for some lambics on hand pump and meat and cheese plates with the rest of the crew. Later we went to Bizon where we also had been several times earlier in the week for an awesome beer list and great staff. It was then we decided it would be better to just stay up and go straight to the airport in the morning at 8:30 am. It sounded like a good idea at the time. After several hours there we struck up some more conversation with one of the bartenders who said they did, in fact, have the beer we were looking for earlier for us to take home.


Now that we had found almost everything we wanted we went back to another place we had been to already in the week to close out the night, unfortunately some of our party couldn't hang and it was back down to myself, Nicole, and Bryan. We got back to the hotel around 5:30 am to finish packing, get cleaned up, and check out. Homeward bound after that and it was very inviting to back over Philly and see home.

All in all, this was a spectacular trip. I enjoyed all the beers we shared, but most of all I enjoyed the new friends we made both from here and from Belgium. I just wish it was closer. Many thanks to our Philly Beer Week crew: Tom Peters, William Reek, Casey Parker, and Ken Correll. Special thanks to Bryan Ewing of 12 Percent Imports for making this happen for Bryan, Nicole, and I. The Janssens were the best hosts anyone could ever ask for at Brouwerij Hof ten Dormaal.

For additional Philly Beer Week information, go to its website.