How did you start your brewery?
Hildegard: I was working for the technical University in Ghent as an industrial engineer. I also did projects for breweries, and one of those was Konigshoven, the only Trappist brewery in Holland. I went to Konigshoven for half a year to work, and Bas was doing some marketing there. I was raised by my grandmother, and I came home and said, “Oh, grandmother, I have met such a wonderful man!” and she said, “Oh, my God, you seduced a monk.”
Bas: I was not a monk!
H: We decided to live in Belgium. Bas has always been an entrepreneur, and he said maybe we should make a beer of our own.
B: We thought about several ridiculous names for that beer. Five years before, I made this story about little guys living in the forest and they were called Erthels—with an ‘e.’ All day, they drank Urthel, a mixture of herbs that they thought would make their hair grow back. So, I said to Hildegard, why don’t we put those two together? You make the beer, I’ll make the story and it’s called “Urthel.” In the beginning it was just our joke.
H: If you compare the labels then and now, there have been so many changes. The little person wasn’t on the bottle, because we wanted to have a mystery, no one knew what it was. Bas is an artist, and I am a brewer, but we knew nothing about beer marketing, so we just thought, well, everybody will buy it. Well, eventually…but it took a long time.
B: We really didn’t know what was going on in the specialty beer market. We had another way of doing our business. That makes it all very lovely to do.
H: The Erthels had always been the basics of our beer. They have the word “paché,” which means: I wish you all the luck in the world, all the love in the world, everything you desire. Here they say “cheers” or “sante” or whatever, but Erthels have their own language. “Paché” is written on the back of our glass, so you should always have the logo towards you, so you are saying “paché” to the other person.
So, it’s “cheers”?
B: No, no, it is every good: every luck, every wealth, every health, every good thing I can wish you. In every grownup there is a child. When you are grown up, you can drink this beer and still enjoy these fairy tales from the past. We want to give grownups a bit of fairy tale with the beer.
In Belgian culture, there is this thread of whimsy, of cartoons that are for adults and not just children. Over here, there’s the fear that this is meant to appeal to children.
B: If you talk about comics, we have Hergé with Tintin and his famous stories for children, about world travel and bad guys and good guys. But when you look very closely, ooh, it’s very scary and also very funny.
I see your graphics and the spirit of your company coming out of that tradition.
H: It also comes out of the way we look at life. Bas knows how to draw, but, actually, an Erthel is everybody.
How many different beers do you have?
H: We have four. In our beers, we always try to work in a traditional way with no chemical agents. In the Belgian market, our beers are more outspoken. Here in the American market, they taste like Belgian beers, but within the Belgian market, they are more to the extreme.
Within the Belgian spectrum, what sets your beers apart?
H: We only have four, not like American brewers who have something like 35! They are all called Urthel. First, we have a dark beer of 7.5% ABV: the color is all due to roasted malts so it gives a very chocolate aftertaste—women all like that. It’s also more bitter than a normal dubbel. We call it “Vlaemse Bock,” but it’s not traditional German bock style. Here in the US, everything is put into styles. I just brew a beer, and people put it into a style category—the other way around.
Then we have a very traditional tripel—the tripel is everybody’s friend. That’s our most traditional beer: it doesn’t offend anybody, it’s very easy going. It’s 9% ABV, so we are really into the high alcohol beers.
Then we have the Hop-It, a very special one for us. Our importer really encoura us to come to the U.S. They said, you should try the American beers. When you are a Belgian brewer, your head is exploding. You think you’re the only one who can make beer because Belgium is put on a pedestal, and you forget there are other great brewers around. I worked on hop oil products, I did a lot of research on that, for that reason I said well I really want a hoppy beer, and they gave me an IPA. I said “Oh, my God, what is this? It’s too much of everything!”
And then they gave me another one and I started to get used to the taste, and by the third I was completely in love. It’s really opened my vision. So I love IPAs and I love double IPAs.
With Hop-It, I didn’t want to create an American IPA. I wanted to make a Belgian tripel with three times as much hops as I usually do: no American hops because Americans are very good at doing that. I didn’t want to copy, but work with European hops. Now people are talking about Belgian IPA.
B: The first time we tried it at home, we said yum, it’s good, but it’s not going to sell in Belgium!
H: In Belgium, there is a tendency now for people to move from the sweeter beers to more bitter beers. Six months after we released Hop-It, Houblon Chouffe was
released. Recently Duvel had a strong hoppy version. What we see in our sales is that our tripel is growing, but Hop-It is pushing away the tripel. And that’s really fascinating.
When someone comes to our place and wants to try the beers, we say, “Well, we also have the Hop -t, but it’s bitter.” “Oh, no, I don’t like bitter beers,” they say. Then, maybe after having a tripel, they’ll try a little sip of the Hop-It and they say “Oh wow, this is incredible.”
I don’t think they really know what bitterness is, and they are scared of it. But if they try it, they like it.