It seems like I was fated to visit Brasserie La Rulles. As I planned my trip to Belgium, La Rulles was on my list for my week in the Ardennes. I reached out to their importer to set up an appointment, but learned that they were no longer representing the brand. I had a full schedule so I let it reluctantly slide. Turns out, all I had to do was talk to Pierre Tilquin.
Pierre Tilquin, owner and founder of the famous Gueuzerie Tilquin, is business partners and friends with Gregory Verhelst, founder of La Rulles. Or to put it more accurately, Gregory helped get his friend’s project off the ground as an investor. Turns out, Pierre was a good hookup for an invite to La Rulles. When Kevin of Belgian Beer Geek and I were visiting Gueuzerie Tilquin and Pierre Tilquin, Kevin mentioned to me that I should visit La Rulles once Pierre told us the story of the founding of his business and Gregory’s involvement in it. Pierre called up Gregory, and I was set.
By the time I was deep in the Ardennes of Belgium, I was nearly done with my 2 week trip. The Ardennes Forest is a region of forest, hills, and small mountains that’s mostly situated in Belgium but extends into Germany, France, & Luxembourg (the southern most province of Belgium is also known as Luxembourg). The Ardennes are famous as the scene of the Battle of the Bulge during WWII, the last major offensive the German’s attempted in December of 1944 before their full retreat into Germany. Remnants of the battle can still be found all over the place. I ran across several tanks setup as memorials in village roundabouts.
I’d spent the first part of the week bumming around the northern part of the Ardennes. By the end of the week I was in the southern portion of the Ardennes which is also known as Gaume. The previous night I’d stayed at the Millevertus, a B&B&B (Bed & Breakfast & Brewery) and explored the small town of Florenville. My Thursday had 2 stops: La Rulles followed by the Orval Trappist Monastery.
The Artisan Brewery of La Rulles
After a late breakfast at Millevertus, I jumped in my rental car and took the short drive from Tintigny down the country road to the village of Rulles. The brewery is located on the main road through Rulles in a workaday building. Off to the side are the offices, bottle shop, and tasting room. I alerted Gregory to my arrival and we started our tour.
The brewery is in a mid-sized building with room to expand. According to Gregory, the brewery was making about 3,000 hectoliter (about 1,900 bbls or 58,900 gallons) a year. He figures he can get up to 6,000 hecto in his current building without much more space.
Gregory comes to brewing with years of experience and a degree in fermentation biology and chemistry. He’s brewed at several large Belgian breweries and has put that knowledge to good use. Gregory views his role as a brewer as a steward of yeast. His entire job is to create harmonious conditions within his brewery that will allow his single-cell employers to thrive and make beer. From the creation of wort to the equipment selected, every choice Gregory makes as a brewer is to answer one question: will the yeast thrive and work at optimal conditions?
To meet this goal, he’s selected open fermenters and horizontal conditioning tanks. We walked upstairs to inspect the fermentation room. When we walked in, I was greeted with the sharp tang of CO2. We quickly walked out the door so Gregory could vent out the excess CO2. Since he’s using open fermenters, the CO2 just spills out into the room. This can be a dangerous situation. There are numerous stories of brewers being overcome by CO2 and falling into their vats. Fortunately, we were aware of the situation and vacated the room. After the room was sufficiently vented, we returned to visit the yeast in action. The fermenters had a good healthy froth and were clearly working at peak levels.
Gregory is looking for yeast character in his beers. He believes that’s the defining trait he wants to be known for in his beers. To that end, his experience tells him that open fermenters and horizontal conditioning tanks will allow the yeast to operate at peak efficiency creating the esters and phenols he wants in his beer to give it its distinct character and beauty. He’s seen too many breweries switch from horizontal and open systems to the more space-saving and efficient vertical/conical systems with detrimental results for the final product. While this may help a brewery increase capacity, there can be a trade-off in ultimate quality with the resulting beer suffering or losing part of its unique character. For this reason, he brews his beers in what might be considered a less efficient manner so he can produce the best tasting beer he possibly can.
The test of his theories would come a few minutes later in the tasting room. Each beer Gregory opened for me was filled with character and artistry. He only uses water, malt, hops, sugar, and yeast in his beers. No spices are utilized. Yet his beers are spicy in the best, yeasty way possible. He uses simple recipes and simple techniques to create fantastically complex beers. Not only that, he’s one of the few brewers actually keg conditioning his beers. A lot of Belgian breweries filter and pasteurize their kegged products so they’ll be stable and pour without foaming issues.
Gregory does not. He uses bottle/keg conditioning in all of his products. His beers are brewed so technically correct that he has almost no problems with poorly or over carbonated kegs. His #1 account is the legendary Delirum Cafe in Brussels. He shipped them over 1,500 kegs last year and not 1 was sent back with carbonation problems. This is an impressive statement. That speaks to a consistency of production that few breweries can match while simultaneously using what some consider more volatile brewing methods such as open fermenters and keg conditioning.
Gregory is a fantastic employee. His bosses, the yeast, have rewarded his hard work handsomely. Brasserie La Rulles’s beers are exceptionally well made. They’re simple products made with simple techniques and ingredients to create amazingly complex beers. Each one of his beers was beautifully made, complex and flavorful with a bounty of yeast character. From the exceptionally nice Blonde that I sampled at Delirium Cafe to one of the prototypes for his Saison that Gregory poured for me in his tasting room, there wasn’t a weak beer in the lot.
The beers of Gregory Verhelst and Brasserie La Rulles are virtually unknown amongst American beer drinkers, even with those who do occasionally partake of Belgium’s bounty. This is a shame. La Rulles’s beers are true examples of the brewer’s art.
- Blonde – 7% ABV
- Triple – 8.4% ABV
- Brune – A lower ABV (for a Belgian Beer) brown ale at 6.5% ABV
- Grande Dix – A strong dark ale of 10% ABV
- Saison XII – 5.3% ABV
- Estivale – Started as a Summer Seasonal, now a high volume full-time beer 5.2% ABV
- Meilleurs Voeux – Winter Seasonal 7.3% ABV
- Rullquin – A collaboration blend made from La Rulles Brune & Tilquin Lambic
(Once I have more details on their US importation situation, I’ll update this post with details on how to more easily find their beers. They do have stock remaining in the US though, so keep an eye out for it).
Rulles is part of the larger administrative district attached to the town of Habay. In reality, the village and brewery lie deep in the least populated part of Wallonia and Belgium. There are a few larger towns, and I use the word “larger” loosely in this context, about 15-20 minutes east or west. To visit this part of Belgium, you really will need a rental car for the convenience of getting from one small village to another. Most of the time, the train and bus combination it takes to get to Rulles is a multi-hour long expedition. Rulles is not far from the main highway in this part of Belgium. However, I highly recommend you use the country roads if you’re going to be in the area for a while. The drives are pleasant, and the scenery is magnificent.
La Rulles does offer tours; you can visit their site for details.
You can find more resources about tourism in this part of the Ardennes here:
Visit Ardenne – A tourism site for the greater Ardennes region: Belgium, France, Luxembourg
Visit Wallonia – The tourism board for Brussels and Wallonia
Visit Belgian Luxembourg – The tourism site for the southern most part of Belgium and the Belgian Ardennes
(There are still some La Rulles beers running around from their previous importer. Apparently, they have a new importer for at least a part of the US. Hopefully I’ll be able to pick them up on the West Coast.)
I went there about 6 years ago and one thing that stood out was that they used citrusy American hops in some of their beers. I guess the brewer’s old college roommate worked for a NW hops distributor and sourced those for him.