Bokkerey­der

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Contents - Words & Pho­tos by Jamie Bogner

The world of Bel­gian lam­bic is renowned for its slow rate of change, fo­cus on tra­di­tional meth­ods, and su­per­sti­tions that grant it a mythol­ogy that can be dif­fi­cult to pen­e­trate. “New lam­bic blender” are words not of­ten spo­ken, but upstart Raf Sou­vereyns’s Bokkerey­der lam­bic brand is putting that phrase in head­lines with a dis­tinct nod to the blend­ing tra­di­tion and a pro­gres­sive at­ti­tude to­ward in­cor­po­rat­ing wine­mak­ing tech­niques.

“AB­SO­LUTELY NOT.” Raf Sou­vereyns does not want pho­tos taken in his in­dus­trial ware­house in Has­selt, about an hour out­side of Brus­sels. He’s a pri­vate per­son, and pub­lish­ing pho­tos of what is ba­si­cally his sec­ond home seems like sacri­lege. We meet on a sum­mer Sun­day dur­ing the Bel­gian cherry har­vest, and Sou­vereyns, along with a hand­ful of friend vol­un­teers, are pack­ing cher­ries into bar­rels then rack­ing beer on top of them.

We taste some cher­ries, des­tined for his kriek, and they’re sweet but rich with lay­ers of earth and al­mond. They’re not the well-known Schaer­beekse va­ri­ety, but a fla­vor­ful va­ri­ety from a farm south of Brus­bokkerey­der, sels that Sou­vereyns prefers. He doesn’t choose fruit or meth­ods based on lam­bic tra­di­tion or con­sumer fa­mil­iar­ity but is on a mis­sion to bring the fruit-han­dling tech­niques of wine­mak­ing into the world of spon­ta­neously fer­mented beer.

“When I started this whole thing, I knew why I wanted to do it—i knew it could be done in a dif­fer­ent way, from my ex­pe­ri­ence at winer­ies learn­ing about wine­mak­ing,” Sou­vereyens says. “I don’t want to sound pre­ten­tious, but I knew that I could pos­si­bly make some­thing bet­ter or at least give it a very dif­fer­ent twist. Whether it’s bet­ter is very sub­jec­tive, but I could make it a whole dif­fer­ent prod­uct.”

the brand (named for the crea­tures of Dutch folk­lore that rode on the backs of goats pro­vided by Satan), started in­aus­pi­ciously—as a home-blend­ing project in his grand­mother’s house. A wine­maker sent him home with a small bar­rel and sug­gested he age some lam­bic in it. Af­ter ac­quir­ing some in­oc­u­lated wort from De Troch, he aged that beer for a year, added some cher­ries to the bar­rel to make a kriek, and the re­sult was…dis­ap­point­ing.

“It was the worst beer I’ve ever made,” says Sou­vereyns.

But the ex­pe­ri­ence only en­cour­aged him to ex­per­i­ment with new meth­ods, to make the beer he en­vi­sioned in his head. He ac­quired more bar­rels and more in­oc­u­lated wort and honed his fruit tech­niques. Even­tu­ally, the per­sonal project grew into a bona fide busi­ness.

“Af­ter more than two years of mak­ing beer, I found that there are peo­ple who ac­tu­ally drink it and even pay for it, and that was

the best part. I was do­ing it as a hobby ba­si­cally and found out that peo­ple like this stuff. That’s how the whole thing started to de­velop into a busi­ness—by co­in­ci­dence. I never forced any­thing. That’s coun­ter­pro­duc­tive for a thing like this any­way.”

As we talk,

Sou­vereyns is di­rect, self-dep­re­cat­ing, and hon­est al­most to a fault. “I don’t know much about brew­ing beer,” says Sou­vereyns. “But when you start with some­thing, it’s bet­ter to know why you’re do­ing it, and along the way you’ll fig­ure out how to do it and what ex­actly you’re go­ing to do.”

Lam­bic blend­ing is a time-hon­ored tra­di­tion in Bel­gium, and it’s com­mon for blenders to not brew their own wort. For many years, Drie Fon­teinen ex­isted as a blender but not brewer. Tilquin, sim­i­larly, pur­chases wort from brew­eries to blend and cre­ate their own beers. Bokkerey­der sources wort from three dif­fer­ent lam­bic brew­eries—gi­rardin, Lin­de­mans, and De Troch. The wort is loaded from those brew­eries’ cool­ships into a por­ta­ble tank that Sou­vereyns picks up the day af­ter it’s brewed, drives back to his ware­house, and racks into bar­rels.

“Those who brew beer for me have done it for gen­er­a­tions and have all the ex­per­tise—the cool­ships, the right en­vi­ron­ments, and the mi­croflora in their brew­ery. I love work­ing with them, and I trust their knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says. “Maybe at some point I might brew my own beer but right now, no.”

The in­oc­u­lated wort from these brew­ers each has its own dis­tinct per­son­al­ity, and Sou­vereyns makes de­ci­sions along the way that im­pact how each of them de­velop. Gi­rardin brings a touch more bit­ter­ness than the oth­ers but fea­tures low acid­ity and more body. De Troch is light-bod­ied with sub­tle cit­rus notes. Lin­de­mans has a con­sis­tent and spe­cific lac­tic-acid pro­file. Each wine bar­rel he chooses fur­ther de­vel­ops those char­ac­ters in dis­tinct ways, and all of these are things Sou­vereyns con­sid­ers as he con­structs blends.

“I fer­ment those three in my own bar­rels, and the re­sult turns out to be a very dif­fer­ent beer from any of the three. They’re all three very, very dif­fer­ent. With those three, I can make a mil­lion dif­fer­ent blends. But also it’s nice that they’re so dif­fer­ent be­cause in ev­ery fruit beer and even ev­ery gueuze I make, ev­ery blend is dif­fer­ent—the ra­tios of beer from dif­fer­ent brew­eries and dif­fer­ent ages.

“One im­por­tant thing [when blend­ing] is acid­ity,” says Sou­vereyns. “Call­ing lam­bic ‘sour’ beer is not ex­actly right, I think. It’s just one part of what lam­bic is, although a very im­por­tant part.”

Our con­ver­sa­tion turns to the sub­ject of fruit,

and Sou­vereyns opens a bot­tle of Pjas­sel, a lam­bic mac­er­ated on red peaches that pro­vide a much richer red-or­ange color than is typ­i­cal of beers made from the fruit. The acid­ity is sur­pris­ingly re­strained, and the peach fla­vor car­ries through with no­table def­i­ni­tion and clar­ity. Next, we try Wi­jn­gaard Mus­cat & Ries­ling, a blend made with wine grapes that ex­hibits a hearty, earthy depth rarely found in beers made with white-grape varietals. Wi­jn­gaard trans­lates to “vine­yard,” and this line of dif­fer­ent beers all show­case dif­fer­ent white-wine grapes and tech­niques.

“This is made with the prin­ci­ple of or­ange wines,” says Sou­vereyns. “The plan was to make it with Ries­ling and White Mus­cat, but the Mus­cat was not that good that year, so I took Blue Mus­cat in­stead. And that’s why it doesn’t look like an or­ange beer or or­ange wine any­more—it’s red.”

“The way I’m mak­ing it is sim­i­lar to or­ange wine—a long mac­er­a­tion of both Ries­ling and Mus­cat. So you have not just the fruity part of the grape but also the flo­ral, slightly herbal,

“The fun­ni­est thing about the old cul­tures and stuff is that in gen­eral, a ‘vir­gin’ bar­rel that has come di­rectly from a win­ery, ver­sus an old lam­bic bar­rel—if you put the same batch of wort in them, the vir­gin bar­rel will get to a lower grav­ity than the pre­vi­ously used bar­rel, even though the used bar­rel should con­tain more of the yeast that’s in­side lam­bic. That’s an in­ter­est­ing thing, I think.”

but phe­no­lic thing out of it. I re­ally like that com­bi­na­tion from them. I think it makes a much more com­plex beer with those grapes. Af­ter mac­er­a­tion, this one was aged for more than a year in bar­rels.”

Most brew­ers add fruit to beer at the end of the brew­ing process, in stain­less-steel tanks or in bar­rels for a few weeks or a few months be­fore pack­ag­ing. Sou­vereyns prefers to leave the beer on fruit for much longer times—as long as six months to a year for his grape beers—then racks the beer off the fruit and back into bar­rels to ma­ture fur­ther.

“[My] grape lam­bics are aged in oak for some­times two years af­ter fruit­ing. It brings the whole thing to­gether and makes it much more com­plex. Even the cheap­est wines you buy in the su­per­mar­ket are aged in stain­less-steel for a half year be­fore they bot­tle. Why do they do that for a wine that costs 3–4 eu­ros? It must be ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary in or­der to have an okay wine; oth­er­wise, it’s too costly to go through that process. I think the same about the fruit lam­bics I make.”

Other fruits de­mand dif­fer­ent tech­niques, as the more del­i­cate stone-fruit fla­vors are sus­cep­ti­ble to degra­da­tion if not han­dled care­fully. His apri­cot and peach mac­er­a­tions are long, rel­a­tive to oth­ers in the in­dus­try, at six months. But he in­sists on steel tanks for those.

“The mi­cro-ox­i­da­tion you get in bar­rels will kill those beers,” says Sou­vereyns. “They’re very sen­si­tive to ox­i­da­tion. Ex­cept for the vine­yard peach—that one can stay in bar­rels for an ex­tended time, and it ac­tu­ally needs mi­cro-oxy­gena­tion. Ev­ery fruit is dif­fer­ent, so it’s hard to say, but I think the whole thing has to come to­gether ei­ther in a bar­rel or a steel tank. It needs some time be­fore it goes in the bot­tle.”

It’s not that the meth­ods other brew­ers use are wrong—bot­tling right af­ter mac­er­a­tion—but he finds that re­sults come quicker when the con­di­tion­ing hap­pens in bar­rels or tanks.

“The same process that hap­pens in the bar­rel also hap­pens in the bot­tle. If you bot­tle it right af­ter mac­er­a­tion, it will hap­pen in the bot­tle as well, but it’s much slower. It takes years in bot­tles, and if you do it in a bar­rel in­stead where it picks up that oxy­gen, it adds to the com­plex­ity,” says Sou­vereyns.

That same fo­cus on con­di­tion­ing in bar­rels ex­tends to his gueuze blends.

“The way I make gueuze is very dif­fer­ent from how other peo­ple do it. I al­ways make my gueuze in a bar­rel, so I blend one-, two-, and some­times three- and four-year-old lam­bic in spe­cific wine bar­rels and let that age. Those are fin­ished lam­bics from some­what neu­tral bar­rels. I al­ways let them fer­ment to­gether in a bar­rel be­fore I bot­tle them.”

As we drink and talk lam­bic,

we’re sur­rounded by oak wine bar­rels. Our ta­ble is a bar­rel on its side. They’re stacked five high in three rows from the front to the back of the ware­house. But the bar­rels them­selves aren’t just in­ex­pen­sive fer­men­ta­tion and ag­ing ves­sels. Sou­vereyns con­sid­ers them to be an ad­di­tional in­gre­di­ent in his beer as well as a fac­tor that ul­ti­mately lim­its his yearly pro­duc­tion.

“I know the full his­tory of ev­ery bar­rel you see in here. My beer spends so much time in a bar­rel that it’s ba­si­cally an in­gre­di­ent. So there’s a limit to how many bar­rels I can get with a full his­tory and how many peo­ple I know in the wine in­dus­try.”

Sou­vereyns loves to fer­ment his beers in freshly dumped wine bar­rels (ones where there should not be any la­tent spon­ta­neous cul­ture in the bar­rel it­self). He works only with winer­ies that clean and prep their bar­rels to his stan­dards,

and he’ll give them a rinse when they ar­rive but doesn’t do any­thing that would de­stroy any of the wine char­ac­ter of the bar­rel. He’s count­ing on the spon­ta­neous in­oc­u­la­tion to do the fer­men­ta­tion heavy lift­ing and has no­ticed an in­ter­est­ing phe­nom­e­non with these “new” sec­ond-use bar­rels.

“The fun­ni­est thing about the old cul­tures and stuff is that in gen­eral, a ‘vir­gin’ bar­rel that has come di­rectly from a win­ery, ver­sus an old lam­bic bar­rel—if you put the same batch of wort in them, the vir­gin bar­rel will get to a lower grav­ity than the pre­vi­ously used bar­rel, even though the used bar­rel should con­tain more of the yeast that’s in­side lam­bic. That’s an in­ter­est­ing thing, I think. It ac­tu­ally nul­li­fies the whole ar­gu­ment about cul­tures in bar­rels. It’s con­trary to what many peo­ple be­lieve. I don’t have any opin­ion about it, but I ob­serve. And I can say in 80 per­cent of the cases, the lam­bic will reach a lower grav­ity in the vir­gin bar­rel.”

The bot­tles con­tinue to flow, and even­tu­ally we re­al­ize that, de­spite the sun still shin­ing, it’s 10 p.m.—a re­minder of Bel­gium’s high lat­i­tude. Sou­vereyns presses a bucket or two of left­over cher­ries into juice us­ing a wine press, for a friend to make jelly, and stashes it in a cooler. To­day’s har­vest is pro­cessed, and there will be more to­mor­row. It’s high-fruit sea­son, and fruit gets pro­cessed and used as quickly as it’s picked. Stone fruits will be har­vested soon, re­quir­ing more ur­gent la­bor. The cy­cle con­tin­ues.

Sou­vereyns is philo­soph­i­cal

about how in­ter­est in his beers has grown and how his tech­niques have im­proved over the past five years. In lam­bic years, five is noth­ing—brand new—and he still has much to ex­plore and re­fine.

“The home­work you have to do to cre­ate some­thing new takes a lot of time. Trial and er­ror,” he says. “There’s no fi­nal an­swer to this. It keeps it in­ter­est­ing for all of us.”

Left » The in­evitable re­sult of pro­cess­ing cher­ries. Op­po­site » An un­la­beled bot­tle of Wi­jn­gaard with Mus­cat and Ries­ling takes its in­tense color from the Blue Mus­cat grapes.

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