The Voices of Belgian Beer is a new interview series on ithinkaboutbeer.com featuring the voices of the people who make Belgium’s beers and beer scene so vibrant and interesting. To many people; in the US, Belgium, and beyond, Belgium’s beer scene is stale, old, and overly traditional. This, however, couldn’t be farther from the truth. While the classic beers we’ve all come to know and love still drive Belgium’s towering reputation as one of the finest beer brewing countries in the world, it’s the newer generations of Belgians who will be pushing that reputation to new heights.
Hobbybrouwerij Het Nest is a brewery that recently come onto my radar when I tried their SchuppenAas beer. As is often the case withe me, when I find a new beer from someone I’ve never heard about before, I have to investigate. What started out as a group of friends trying beer turned into a large “home brewing” operation that’s on the way to becoming a full fledged commercial brewery. It’s people like this that are paying homage to their brewing history while simultaneously looking to the outside world to find innovation and inspiration to take their beers and Belgian beer into the future. The more I learned about Het Nest, the more I became interested in their story. I reached out to the brewery and Guy Verbunt, their commercial director and Vice President, was kind enough to grant me an interview.
For now, only about 1/6 of the beer Het Nest brews makes it out of Belgium. They’re in the process of building their own brewery at which point they’ll be able to send more beer out of the country. If you see one of their beers, take the opportunity to try something new and exciting from Belgium. Also, it will help them pay for that new, state of the art brewery!
Christopher Barnes – According to your website, Het Nest started life as a beer tasting club. Where did everyone meet and become friends?
Guy Verbunt – Most of us know each other back from high school (age 16-18 years). In the years after this, we became older of course and some of us started our own “families”. In 2000, our girlfriends started a cooking club which met one day every two weeks. So, we were at home alone. We decided to start a beer tasting club on the same days as our girlfriend met for their cooking club.
CB - When did the idea to start brewing come up?
GV – While tasting many brews. One of us pronounced that we could do better than a lot of the beers we had tasted up till 2006. The idea of taking on a brewing course was initiated by Bart in 2006. Luckily, we managed to buy some old brewing equipment a few months later so we could practice.
CB – Were some of the members of the club already brewing at home?
GV – No, not before we took the brewing lessons. Bart Cuypers (president of Het Nest), however, studied chemistry in college. So he was, in theory, quite familiar with the process of brewing.
CB - Where did you go for brewing training? How many members of the tasting club attended?
GV – Because we were quite motivated to take this as a hobby, 5 of our team joined the brewing classes.
CB - What year did you win your first Homebrewing contest? How many competitors were there in the Triple category? Do you still brew this beer under the same recipe?
GV – After a few years of experimenting we had some very good brews of a triple. Because many of our friends and family liked the taste, we decided to send in one brew into a Dutch contest. Actually, we wanted the beer to be tasted by a professional jury, not to win any prize. But we had a third place in this contest where 92 triples participated. We still brew this beer now; this beer is our Jack of Spades.
CB - How large was your brewing system when you decided to start selling your beers to the public?
GV – We went to a brewer, Boelens, where we could brew our own recipes in 500 liters batches (132 US gallons). Our hobby equipment is only has a 40 liters capacity (10.5 US gallons). We use it just for doing trials.
CB - How long before you had to find someplace else to brew your beers?
GV – Withn 4 months, we could do our first brew at Boelens.
CB - Currently, your beers are produced under contract by several other breweries. Who is brewing which recipes?
GV – Today everything is brewed by Bier Anders. Except the beers that mature on oak, these are brewed in Brouwerij Pirlot.
CB - When did you decide to start building your own facility? When will you be able to start brewing in it?
GV – We decide to start building a brewery about 2 years ago. This summer they will start the building and in the summer of 2015, we will be able to brew in our own brewery.
CB - Will you be able to move the production of all your beers there immediately?
GV – Yes, even the oak aged beers. We will have a cellar to mature 120 barrels every 6 months. We plan to brew beers for other small brewers as well. The total capacity will start off with 6.000 hectos. In the future, we can go up to 12.000 hectos.
(Editor’s Note: 6,000 hectoliters = 158,500 US gallons or 5,113 US beer barrels. 12,ooo hectoliters – 10,226 bbls. This is a sizable small brewery)
GV – 7 years already. It was a platform to launch new beers in town.
CB - In the United States, you’re imported by the Shelton Brothers. How much of your beer is sent to the US? How much is sold in Belgium? Can people find your beers in other countries?
GV – Last year, we brewed 700 hectoliter (18,500 US Gallons, 597 bbls) of which 600 hectos (15,850 US Gallons, 510 bbls) were sold into Belgium. It is very complicated to export your own beer if it is brewed by another brewery. So from 2015 on, our export volume will increase very quickly. The US and Holland are our the biggest export markets up till now. We also export a very small amount to Sweden, Denmark, Taiwan, Japan, Spain and Italy.
CB -Het Nest brews a wide variety of traditional Belgian styles such as a Triple, a Saison, an Orval inspired pale, and a La Chouffe inspired blonde. What’s next for the brewery? Anything exciting you’d like to reveal?
GV – From our start in 2008, we wanted to make a “straight” of 5 beers (ten, jack, queen, king and ace). We’ve done some barrel aged beers (ten of clubs and dead man’s hand). In 2015, we will try to concentrate on these 7 beers and brew beers for others.
CB – Finally, what would you like American’s to know about Brouwerij Het Nest?
GV – Not only do we make 7 unique and excellent beers, but we have a strong story as well. As our hometown, Turnhout, is the capital of the playing card industry all over the world (Catramundi is world’s largest producer, and they sell all over the world). The city is over 800 years old and is the home of the “national museum of the playing cards”. We, as future brewery, are very proud of making 7 most excellent beers and promoting our roots at the same time. I’m sure not many breweries have as of a strong story as we do. We want to convince many tourists to come visit us in the next decades. First of all, to visit the brewery and then, to take a good look around in Turnhout.
CB – Well, you’ve convinced me, Guy! I’ll be sure to come visit Turnhout this fall when I’m in Belgium. And even though you won’t be operating at your new brewery, I can see how the construction is going.
I’d like to thank Guy for being the first interview of The Voices of Belgian Beer. Het Nest is a rising star in the world of Belgian beer that’s proud of the city they call home. Turnhout has a rich history and now they have a fantastic local brewery. If you’d like to learn more about Het Nest, including some reviews, you can go to my page dedicated to Het Nest.