Boon: A Brief History
2012 and 2013 mark a new chapter in the history of Brouwerij Boon. What started as a small blending operation 40 years ago has become one of the great Lambic houses of Belgium. Frank Boon and Brouwerij Boon broke ground on a massive expansion in 2012. The expansion will accomplish several things. First, they’ll be able to keep up with current food health laws regarding production equipment. Second, they’ll be able to continue supplying an ever-increasing demand from consumers as well as from the new wave of blenders seeking to buy their beer. Third, they’ll be able to grow the business as two of Frank’s sons prepare to join him at the brewery.
In 1972, Frank’s family moved to the village of Halle outside of Brussels where, pursuing his interest in Lambic, he met Rene De Vits who owned a Geuze blending operation. There are two types of producers when it comes to Lambic beers, Blenders and Brewers. Blenders don’t brew their own beer. They buy beer from a Lambic brewery that has been inoculated after an evening in a coolship. This wort is then delivered to the blender where it goes into the blender’s own barrels. Blenders buy from several brewers but keep each beer separated and documented so that it can be blended into a proper Geuze (a Geuze being a blend of 1 year, 2 year, and 3 year-old Lambics).
At this point in time, Geuze, as well as many other specialty beers, were experiencing a major decline as clear, multinational lagers came to increasingly dominate markets. A relative of Frank’s who was the chairman of the Artois Breweries predicted that by the year 2000 no small breweries would exist in Belgium. Thanks to intrepid pioneers like Frank Boon and others, that prediction was soundly defeated. By the time Frank began experimenting with blending his own Geuzes, there were really only two blenders left: Drie Fonteinen (3 Fonteinen) and Hanssens.
Frank, to support his Geuze blending, created a specialty beer distributorship in 1975 (he later sold it). He purchased his wort from Lindemans and Girardin and bought some old Lambic from De Troch to help speed up his ability to get a Gezue to the market. Geuze breweries and blenders were going out of business at a pretty prodigious clip so the folks calling it quits were happy to share their knowledge with the young upstart. In 1978, Frank took over De Vits’s blending business and moved his operations into the De Vits facility which boasts over 300 years of brewing tradition and history. Frank quickly set about making improvements to the facilities and expanding his operations. By 1988, It was time to start producing his own beer with his first legitimate batch of house beer being brewed in 1990. The early 90’s saw a successful partnering with Jan Toye of the Palm Breweries. Toye decided that a traditional Geuze would be a great cultural heritage project. This partnership continues to this day and has been a success for both parties.
My Visit to Lembeek
Brouwerij Boon was one of the breweries I wanted to visit the most during my trip to Belgium. Boon Geuze was the first “sour” beer I remember drinking when I’d first started teaching myself about beer. I was blown away. Since then, I’ve eagerly explored Geuzes and other Lambics, but have always come back to Boon as my favorite. I had been monitoring their website and Facebook pages and saw that they’d begun construction at the brewery as part of an upgrade and expansion. Because of the construction, tours would not be conducted until after July. I wasn’t visiting until September, perfect! I contacted their US importer, Latis Imports, to arrange a tour with Boon and Rodenbach, also imported by Latis. They set up the Rodenbach tour, but replied back that Boon wasn’t doing any tours during construction. Apparently, the expansion was taking a bit longer than planned (as is often the case with construction projects). I was disappointed, but understood the situation.
Through a funny twist of fate, I got a note on my Facebook page for ithinkaboutbeer.com from Karel Boon, Frank Boon’s son, to send an email to the brewery. I got an invite to visit the brewery! The date was the Saturday after my visit to Chimay (story yet to be posted). We rolled out of bed after a late night/early morning in Mons and hit the road to Lembeek. Traveling through the Walloon countryside is very pastoral: green fields, trees, some hills, and lots of farms. Lembeek is southwest of Brussels near the border of the Flemish and Walloon regions. As we pulled into the driveway, Frank greeted us at the gate. After our introductions, we started our tour.
Our first stop was the steam generator. Boon is steam-powered! He then showed us the footprint of the old brewery which is now dwarfed by the new facilities nearing the completion. What was once a small space with the brewing vessel and coolship attached to a massive warehouse filled with oak foeders of various sizes is now a much larger brewing facility with many modern conveniences and environmental efficiencies. Frank was still operating with all of his old equipment when we visited, the new stuff wasn’t online yet. Most of it was covered in a thick layer of construction dust. One of the new pieces of environmentally friendly equipment was the shiny heat capturing and retention system that captures excess heat in order to keep a large amount of water at a hot temperature and ready for use. This means the brewery doesn’t have to expend large amounts of energy to heat cold water.
Next, we headed down to the old portion of the building that housed Boon’s original equipment. Bright red and full of rivets, Boon’s cast iron brewing vessel clearly started its life somewhere other than in Lembeek. In fact, its last home was at De Sint-Sixtusabdij Van Westvletern where it brewed the rare and famous Trappist beers of Westvletern. Once the new brew house goes online, Frank intends to keep and preserve this wonderful piece of Belgian brewing history. In fact, he has an on-site blacksmith shop which he’s used to keep this antique running for all these years. We then walked up a short flight of stairs to what is arguably the best known part of any Lambic brewery: the coolship.
A coolship is shallow vessel used to cool the hot wort. The wort is pumped into the coolship, the shutters of the brewery are opened, and the beer is allowed to cool overnight. This also exposes the beer to the ambient yeast in the air allowing for “spontaneous fermentation” to start. Once Frank activates the new brewhouse, they will continue to use the old coolship to ensure that the flavor of the beer doesn’t change with all the new equipment. Once they’re sure the product quality will be maintained or improved, they’ll open up a whole new set of coolships and begin testing the beer made from those. The upgrade is going to be a gradual process. Their main priority is to not change the quality or the character of the beer. Personally, I’m excited for this expansion. This will mean more Boon beer!
Next, we headed to Frank’s wood cellar, or rather, cellars. Frank has over 100 wooden foeders ranging in size from 6,000 liters (1,585 Gallons) to 12,000 liters (3,170 Gallons). Many of the foeders are very old and have seen service in multiple countries with beer and wine. Like Rodenbach, Frank maintains his own cooperage in order to repair and maintain these vessels himself. Each cask has its own identifying plaque. In addition, there are chalk marks to indicate the age and variety of beer inside. But, no two casks will produce beer that will taste the same even if the beer comes from the same batch. Each foeder has its own individual micro climate of bacteria and yeast which will do different things to the beer. People who deal with wood blending consider their casks/foeders to be “alive,” possessing individual “personalities.” Thus, Geuzes are blends of multiple foeders and multiple years. This allows the Geuze maker to create a “house” style and a consistent product. This is where the true art comes in.
There are a huge combination of options available to the Geuze maker. How much of which vintage? How much of a specific character from a specific foeder? Each of these things must be balanced against the goals of the blender. A blender must also balance the “house” style versus the blender’s mood or tastes. The basic Geuze should try to be pretty consistent. The special release can be more esoteric. I have long admired Frank Boon’s beers. To me, they are the height of elegance and balance in a Geuze.
Probably one of my favorite things that Franks said was: “I don’t make sour beers. I make wheat ales using spontaneous fermentation.” I may be paraphrasing a bit. But what does this mean? One of the most common comments I heard from Belgian beer makers was about how the American beer market is still maturing after half a century of bland macro-lagers. Belgians believe that’s why the American craft beer market is filled with extremes like imperial IPAs or extreme sours. Their belief is that as the American craft market matures, so will the drinker. Frank’s goal isn’t to make a beer as sour as he can. His goal is to make a balanced Geuze of singular quality.
Fortunately for me, once we got back to the wood cellars, I got to try some of his Gueze directly from the foeder. When Frank asks if you’d like to try some beer from his oldest foeder, you say “Yes!” of course. Cask No. 79 is his oldest vessel, and at the time I visited, contained 1 year old Lambic. This was my first taste of unblended 1 year-old Lambic. It was certainly worthy of drinking on its own. Next he offered to pour us some 2 year-old lambic. He found the appropriately marked foeder and drew out some more. Again, it was a delight. I didn’t discover this fact until it was too late, but in some bars you can find Boon Oude Lambiek served via a cask drawn system. This is basically straight 3 year-old Lambic! I’ll have to find this on my next trip to Belgium.
Towards the end of the tour, Frank’s youngest son, Karel, joined us. Frank asked him to go grab a few bottles of the Kriek Mariage Parfait. Karel came back with 2 bottles of the newly released 2011 vintage. The Kriek Mariage Parfait is one of Boon’s special Kriek Lambics and is a truly beautiful beer of depth and character. Continuing in his DIY spirit, Frank even has his own cherry grove where he tests cherry varieties. This grove is small, however, and he sources his cherries from growers he works with closely to ensure he gets the best quality sour cherries for his beers. I’ll be posting some reviews of several vintages and will go into more detail about the process of this specific beer in those posts.
Meeting Frank was truly one of the highlights of my trip to Belgium. I’ve admired his beers and his work to help preserve Lambics and Geuzes as protected cultural items in the European Union. I know this certainly won’t be my last visit either. I would love to see the brewery when it’s finished and running.
Brouwerij Boon has a bright future ahead of it. Geuzes and Lambics are enjoying a surge in popularity around the world and in their home country. Frank’s work to preserve the style has paid off. Frank’s son Jos, who I did not get to meet on this visit, has recently joined Frank at the brewery after getting his Bio Engineering degree with Masters in Brewing and Malting. Karel, who just started university, will be working towards a business and economics degree which he’ll use to join the family business.
Boon Geuzes and Lambics are still not that well-known in the United States. However, if you’re a fan of Geuze and Lambic, you’ve probably drank beer Frank has had a hand in making. The hot new blenders Tilquin and De Cam both buy beer from Frank as part of their blends. Frank also provides them with guidance, passing along the knowledge he got when he was starting out. Hanssens, a venerable old blending house, works with Frank to brew the wort at his facility. Oud Beersel’s wort is brewed there. The beer is then returned for bottling at Boon (aged in their own wood). You owe it to yourself to seek out Frank’s beer and try one with “Boon” printed on the label.
Brouwerij Boon’s Beers (Visit my page on Brouwerij Boon to read my reviews)
- Boon Oude Geuze – A blend of 1, 2, 3 year-old Lambics
- Boon Geuze Mariage Parfait – A special blend of 3 year-old Lambic
- Boon Framboise – A Lambic brewed with raspberries
- Boon Kriek – A Lambic Brewed with cherries
- Boon Oude Kriek – A Lambic with cherries added to the oak casks to create additional fermentation
- Boon Kriek Mariage Parfait – A special blend of 1 year-old Lambic and overripe cherries with additional wood aging
- Boon Duivelsbier – A dark beer brewed with candi sugar for the Halle Carnival (Potential for distribution as the brewery expands)
(If you’d like to read more about Boon and the other Lambic brewers, I highly recommend the book “Geuze & Kriek: The Secret of Lambic” by Jef Van den Steen, published by Lannoo. It’s recently been translated into English.)