My first official brewery tour on my trip to Belgium was going to be the small Wallonian brewery of Brunehaut (pronounced “Brew-no”) south of the city of Tournai (Doornik for my Flemish friends.) Brunehaut is a collection of small villages very close to the Belgian/French border lumped together to make such governmental functions as the postal system easier. It’s situated on what used to be a major Roman road that led from Calais to Cologne and was later rebuilt by Queen Brunehault who lent the road and area her name. I met Marc-Antoine De Mees at the train station at Tournai, which is the closest station to his village. The 15 minute drive was scenic and enjoyable as we got to know each other a bit. The beautiful and gently rolling landscape is covered with farms and orchards. According to Marc-Antoine, the region is responsible for a lot of nursery trees that are started there and then shipped out to nurseries around western Europe. On the ride over, Marc-Antoine told me how he used to work for a major brewing equipment company and how he used to travel the world selling to breweries. When Brunehaut went out of business about 7 years ago, he saw an opportunity to start his own business. As he said, he’s always been an entrepreneur and what else should a Belgian do if given the chance to own his own business? The answer was “start his own brewery.” He purchased the defunct Brunehaut brewery, shut it down to fix some quality issues, and began to rebuild the brand.
The current brewery isn’t actually the original location, the original equipment was moved to this new site in 1990 from a nearby village. I caught them on a brewing day as we arrived to the unmistakable smell of boiling wort. We started the tour in his small tasting annex. He has two taps that he’ll put kegs on for larger tours. As I was the only tourist that day, we decided to open a few bottles later. The first stop was up a small flight of spiral stairs to visit the original copper brewing vessels. Across from the beautiful copper tanks was a rather practical looking mash filter which turns out to have a very interesting past. The mash filter, which originally went into service around 1910, belonged to Chimay prior to one of their upgrades. Now it’s happily making Abbey and Gluten-free beers an hour away.
This year, nearly 3.000 hectoliters (over 2,550 Bbls) will pass through this filter. Next year, Marc-Antoine anticipates that they’ll brew close to 4.000 hectoliters. A very large portion of this beer will make its way out of Belgium. The Belgian market is very saturated, regional, and suffers from the problem/tradition of “tied-houses.” For those not aware, a tied-house is a pub that is owned by or has a contract to buy beer from one brewery/brewery group. For instance, an ABInbev house would feature Stella Artois, Leffe, and Hoegaarden. While the pubs aren’t required to carry only those products, it does limit the available space for other breweries. In the city of Tournai, there is only one “independent” pub. All the rest are tied.
Being an entrepreneur and innovator, Marc-Antoine has worked diligently to separate himself and his brewery from the pack by focusing on two main lines of beer: Brunehaut and St. Martin. The Brunehaut line is organic, vegan, and gluten-free. Currently, he has a contract with his wife’s family farm to produce the organic barley and wheat he’s using in the Brunehaut line. As they continue to grow their organic production, he’ll also begin to use organic grains in his other line.
The St. Martin line are true Abbey Ales. To qualify as an Abbey Ale, the brewery must conform to these rules:
- The Abbey named must have a past history of brewing
- The brewery has to be authorized to use the name by the Abbey
- The brewery must follow the spirit of the old recipes if information is available
- A certain percentage of the profits are paid in royalties to the Bishop to be used for charitable ventures
If the beer meets these qualifications, the bottle can sport this logo on its label. The St. Martin beers are authentic Abbey beers. The Abbey of St. Martin was located in Tournai and had a book that mentioned purchasing spice for brewing. To maintain this tradition, the St. Martin Noel is made with cloves and cinnamon. In fact, you can see the 13th century crypts underneath the city hall. Recently, Marc-Antoine hosted a beer dinner for the US ambassador to Belgium in these crypts!
After he showed me his new fermenters and his bottling line (which also used to be part of Chimay), we returned to the tasting annex to try some beers. I’ve had all of his beers offered in the United States: Brunehaut Bio Blonde, Brunehaut Bio Amber, St. Martin Brune, and St. Martin Tripel. I started out with one that I hadn’t tried: the Brunehaut Bio Blanche.
The Bio Blanche isn’t available in the United States because it isn’t gluten-free, unlike the Bio Blonde and Bio Amber. The labels the brewery uses for the rest of world contain a “gluten-free” logo to help distinguish the Bio Blanche from the Bio Amber and Bio Blonde. The US won’t allow the gluten-free logo on beer labels so Marc-Antoine won’t ship this beer to the US. He doesn’t want to confuse consumers and accidentally have a gluten intolerant person drink a non gluten-free beer. Although, he is currently working on converting this beer to a gluten-free product. The Bio Blanche was the perfect way to start my day of beer tasting. It’s unique in its spicing. In addition to the traditional coriander and bitter orange peel, he uses star anise and “Alligateur” pepper. The Bio Blanche was balanced, dry, earthy, thirst-quenching with a great finish.
Next, we tried the St. Martin Noel which was freshly bottled! It was rich and spicy: the ideal beer for the winter months. It also kept the trademark balance that I’ve noticed with Brunehaut’s beers. No matter the style or size of the beer, they all seem to keep a balanced perspective making them very drinkable and enjoyable.
Finally, we tried the brand new St. Martin Quad. This was the main reason I wanted to visit Brunehaut, besides the fact that I’ve been thoroughly enjoying their other beers. This beer was debuted in Bruxelles on Belgian Beer Weekend and is currently not available in the United States. It’s made from 5 malts, 3 hops and fermented to 9% with their normal house yeast. Then he adds champagne yeast to slowly bring it from 9% to 13% over the period of 1 month. The beer is then matured for a further 6 weeks. The beer was, to put it simply, beautiful. The high alcohol was well-integrated and the slow additional fermentation with the champagne yeast helped to dry the beer out and balance it. Marc-Antoine will personally debut the St. Martin Quad at the Great American Beer
Festival (GABF). If you’re in Denver, I suggest you go to the release. I’ll post a link to the release party. Otherwise, keep an eye open for it at stores that are currently selling the Brunehaut and St. Martin beers. After we tried a few beers, we returned to Tournai for a bit of lunch at Le Beffroi, a nice brasserie on the Grand Place that serves Brunehaut/St. Martin beers. Marc-Antoine suggested I try the Jambonneau grille au mille d’acacia, a traditional Wallonian ham shank. It was excellent and paired very nicely with my St. Martin Brune.
The city of Tournai is itself worth visiting as it has the oldest Belfry in Belgium as well as one of the oldest cathedrals, Notre Dame de Tournai. There are also several 12th and 13th century houses. All of these sites are UNESCO World Heritage sites. In its history, Tournai was a Roman town and the capital of the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne. The Grand Place is beautiful and lined with cafes. I only wish I’d had more time to explore this lovely little gem in the Wallonian countryside. As they say, there’s always next time.
After lunch, Marc-Antoine and I parted ways. He had to return to work while I was headed to Bruxelles for a little more fun. Marc-Antoine was an excellent host and a true ambassador to his brewery and to his community. I’m glad this was my first brewery stop on my trip; the 2 hour train ride was well worth it. Without a doubt, I would suggest a visit to Tournai and to Brunehaut. If you are planning this, please e-mail well in advance to make an appointment and don’t forget to buy lots of Brunehaut beers! Your palate will thank you.
Brasserie de Brunehaut’s Beers (Visit my page on Brasserie de Brunehaut to read my reviews)
- Brunehaut Bio Amber (Available world-wide) – Organic, vegan, and gluten-free amber ale
- Brunehaut Bio Blonde (Available world-wide) – Organic, vegan, and gluten-free blone ale
- Brunehaut Bio Blanche (Not available in the United States) – Organic and vegan white, wheat ale
- St. Martin Brune & Tripel (Available world-wide) – Abbey brown and Tripel ales
- St. Martin Quad (Highly limited) – A quadrupedal Abbey ale
- Ne Kopstoot (Available in Flanders) – A beer made with Genever flavorings
- Abbaye de St. Amand (Available in San Francisco) – The same beer as Ne Kopstoot