About a month ago, my wife and I began our summer travels across western Europe. I strategically planned our first stop in Brussels to see some of her family and so that we could also hire a car and drive to the smaller, more remote farmhouse breweries in the French Flanders and Wallonia. Over a couple of days we were able to visit 3 Fonteinen, De Dolle Brewers, Brasserie Thiriez, Brasserie Dupont, Brasserie de Blaugies and the infamous Sunday-morning-only-bar In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst. It’s a really easy little road trip with heaps of interesting stops along the way. We have been on the road ever since so I will admit this post is a little delayed; however, I had to share some of the things I learned from Kevin at Brasserie de Blaugies.
Many of you may know Blaugies from their scarce, but solid range of saisons coming from a tiny brewhouse in their family home. If their beer hasn’t reached you, maybe you have heard of their recent collaboration with Sean Hill of Hill Farmstead called Vermontoise. Either way, I’ll admit that it took me an embarrassingly long time to find out about them but once I did, I knew I had to visit. Kevin Carlier’s father Pierre-Alex Carlier started Brasserie de Blaugies in 1988 and has only just recently handed over most of the day-to-day brewing work to his son. However, Pierre-Alex is a very active man and continues to be a crucial member of the workforce at the brewery. Only in talking with Daniel Thiriez about them did I realise how influential this tiny operation has been on the education, conservation and proliferation of the Wallonian saison.
Located about 1 hour and 20 minutes from Brussels and 650 meters from the French border, the brewery sits just outside the small town of Blaugies, hence its name. It’s a picturesque little drive through flat farmlands spotted with distant church steeples and villages full of typically cute brick homes with slate roofs. Even just driving in along rue de la frontier (road of the border), I knew why this place has become so special for the many who make pilgrimage here.
When we arrived they were finishing off labelling a batch at their packaging shed across the street from the brewhouse. To give you an idea, we parked in front of Le Forquet, the restaurant that Kevin’s brother runs (open Wed-Sunday), and the shed was just down to the left. Inside the shed was the bottle cleaner, bottling machine, labeller and packaged beer either ageing or awaiting distribution; but, there was no brewhouse. Across the street, I could see their home with a sign out front for the brewery; but again, no brewhouse. I was a little confused.
However, once the work was done for the day Kevin greeted us and took us on a tour of the place. To start, we went towards his house and only at the last minute when I could just see through the small windows in the garage doors, I realised that the entire brewhouse was fitted into a space smaller than a 2 car garage. He opened the doors and inside, there it was. HLT, kettle and later tun macgyvered literally on top of each other next to three fermenters, two double and one single. My immediate thought was how?, so we started talking process.
Blaugies uses a proprietary strain of yeast they selected from a yeast bank in Brussels years ago. All of their beers are fermented with this single strain of yeast, no bugs or brett. They take their yeast up to 6-8 generations bottom cropping, inspecting its health under microscope between pitches. When I asked Kevin how they stored it, he simply turned around and grabbed a 5 L glass container from on top of his glycol chiller and smiled. Storing yeast at room temperature is normal if you are going to be using it soon but I thought that with how few fermentors he had, he couldn’t be brewing very often. Wrong. The Blaugies yeast works its magic in about 3-4 days and their beers spend just over a week in their fermentors before going to packaging where they are really aged. While part of this has to do with keeping up with orders and production demands, the other has to do with their yeast. Kevin said that it wouldn’t even start fermenting if it was under 25 C. Usually he chills his wort to around 27 C and pitches, he turns his jackets on for a tad above 30 C and lets the yeast go. Not surprisingly, he sees activity in the first few hours since pitching. After 2 days the jackets are turned off and the yeast finishes its job within the next two days. Once its finished, the jackets go back on and he crashes for 2-4 more days so he can collect his yeast.
I was really shocked by this process. I had heard of home brewers fermenting at these temperatures but I had never met a professional brewer who did. Also, the tank time of his beers is more reflective of IPA and pale ale factories. The beers obviously speak for themselves so… respect. The strain is interesting to work that fast, attenuate so well and flocculate enough to bottom crop with successful results. I really want to do some experiments with it. If you have or know someone who has grown up their dregs I’d love to know more!
The tank time issue was bothering me as we walked across the street to the packaging shed. The beers are moved into containers and rolled there on packaging days. I expressed my interest in the time issue and Kevin pointed out that his bottle conditioning lasts for around 4 weeks before leaving the brewery. When you take this into account along with the shipping times around the world, the significant portion of their maturation takes place in bottle. However, he also admitted that it wasn’t ideal and they would allow more tine if they could but they have some serious problems with matching demand.
He smiled when I asked about a larger brewhouse because as he shared with me after, those plans are well underway. Literally the week after we visited, they were set to begin construction to expand the existing shed an additional 20 meters to fit in a brand new 20 hl brewhouse with something like 6-8 fermentors. As part of the construction, the shed will also include an elevated tasting bar and a glass front facade for light and visibility from the outside. It’s a significant jump, but Kevin said it was years in the making. If all goes to plan, they should be brewing in the new brewhouse around the end of this year.
My wife and I chatted with Kevin for a good time thereafter just about the brewery, his family and the future of the place. He was very gracious and loaded us up with what he had on hand. For me, it was just one of those times when I had to pinch myself.
There is really no telling what is going to happen once they start operating out of the new facility. I imagine their export game will pick up and hopefully we will be able to find their beers slightly easier. However I do know that the old brewhouse is staying just where it is. Kevin was excited to think about the little projects he could do in there once the bigger brewhouse is online. He didn’t go so far to mention introducing any wild yeast but hey, we can all dream.
All the best to Kevin and the family for the extensions!
ps, if you ever do make it to Blaugies, its only 11km to Brasserie au Baron which is worth its own trip too. I was no good with time and had to miss it, but wouldn’t dream of making that mistake twice.