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.
That involves educating your drinkers. Are you just winning people over one experiment at a time?
B: Word of mouth is doing a lot, one person to another.
H: Beer people know about the Hop-It, and they buy it. Storeowners can talk about it.
B: People ask “What can I compare it to, which style is it?” And we say “Nothing!” Belgians aren’t really so used to beer styles.
H: I have been judging here two and a half days, when you see those guidelines and styles, and sometimes one style is not very different from another. Sometimes, I think if you have a young brewer here who wants to make an American Imperial IPA Style, he takes out a book and looks up what it should be. No. If you want to make something, you have to sit on the terrace and drink a beer and think about it, not look in a book. A great chef works that way, too: he isn’t taking a book off his shelf, he makes it out of himself or herself.
Our last beer is Samaranth: less hopped and 12% ABV. It’s not really a barleywine and not really a quadruppel—closer to a quadruppel, but not as sweet. It’s a very special beer to us, because six years ago when we got married, we didn’t have a wedding cake: we put poured Urthel Samaranth in very small glasses.
B: It was meant for one batch only, we thought it would be too heavy.
H: Now our most important products are Hop-It and Samaranth.
The two most innovative?…
H: Yes, and people seem to like them.
B: In Belgium, if you ask for a heavy beer of 11 or 12 percent, all the beers are very sweet. At first that was a problem with Samaranth: people thought it would be sweet. But in the evening, with some cheese, relaxing, reading a book—you end your day with Samaranth,
H: I can’t drink a complete bottle of Samaranth, but what I like to do in the evening is Bas opens a bottle of Samaranth, and I always sip. Then suddenly, it’s gone—wow! Where did it go?
How many people work in your company?
H: Two, just us. We work together with Koningshoven, they have 35 people working there. Since I’ve worked there before, our collaboration is very good. Normally, they don’t contract brew, but this is different.
So are you there in the brewhouse?
H: Yes, but the hard work is before that. You have to plan everything, all the ingredients, the capacity, how the beers can be split up correctly, quality control, lab analysis. Or, for example, if there are problems with the hops, we have had to make substitutions.
What kind of hops do you use in Hop-It?
H: I’m very traditional. I love to work with Magnum Golding and with Saaz. I don’t work with herbs or spices—if you have four ingredients, you can make something. I love to taste other beers brewed with spices or flowers, but we are brewing on such a large scale since we don’t brew every day. On Monday, I was brewing with Tomme Arthur at Lost Abbey, so you could do something fun.
What were you brewing with Tomme?
H: I wanted to make a summer ale. It will be a beer of 5.5-6% with Saison Dupont yeast, so it will have a yeasty character to it; pilsen malt and wheat malt; and Magnum and Saaz again. We wanted a US-Europe collaboration.
Will that come out as a Lost Abbey beer?
H: Yes I think so. I was the guest brewer.
That’s a wonderful new trend, getting brewers from different countries, different traditions to brew together.
B: That is something you can’t find in Belgium. An impossible thing, brewers working together in one brewery.
H: At the end of the day, one of them will be killed! There is only one man or one woman standing. I really like the open mind of the American brewers, and I hope it stays that way. Also, the beer culture in America is so different than in Europe. Bars are open to putting in a lot of specialty beers. At our place, sometimes they say “There are so many beers at the moment. Why should I take yours?”
How widely available are your beers?
H: US, Canada, UK, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Brazil, Belgium, of course, Finland. Spain and Italy, not yet—they always want the highest alcohol at the lowest price.
B: The best thing in Scandinavia is that everyone is drinking beer—female, male, everyone. If you go to Accurat in Stockholm, men and women are sitting enjoying beer.
H: It took us about seven years before the mayor of our town started to pour Urthel at receptions. They were serving very bad sparkling wine, it was like acid. Nobody was drinking it. Now they have decided to pour our big bottles into champagne glasses and people say, “Oh, my God, this is good,” Now they are complimenting her—the mayor is a ‘she’—on the good beer from her village.
B: That’s the battle of the small breweries.
H: The thing with Flemish people, they don’t drink their own beer. Then they go to Holland and see their beer and they say “Ah, do you know that is the beer from my village?”
Belgium has kept such a variety of beer styles. I thought drinkers would be very loyal.
H: No, no, not really. Ten years ago, they would say “I only drink Duvel. Your beer is new, it can’t be good.” You only find the good beer bars in the more touristic places. But now, some young people are interested in specialty beers.
How did you learn about beer?
H: The first beer I ever had: we were on the terrace and I was 15 years old, and my father was drinking a Golden Carolus. I said, “Oh, that beer really looks good.” He said, “Do you want to try one?” I began to sip, and he said “No, no, I’m buying you one.” So I sat there for two hours with a big glass of beer!
Later, when I went out I never went dancing, I always went to specialty bars. I had 100 francs each week for spending, and that would buy two specialty beers. I always went to the same pub, where there was a beer list, and after several weeks I knew what the gueuze was, I knew what the Trappists were, I was only 18, but I knew the way to become a beer sommelier was to try them all. You can learn when you need to know.
H: In Belgium, you have the problem that brewers want to get women to drink beer. And then they do the most wrong thing they can ever do: they bring out rosé beers, especially for women. Women feel they are some silly group being talked down to. That will never bring women to specialty beers. I always say, the most beautiful women on earth are women with a good glass of beer in their hands—it is the most sexy thing you can ever see, because that woman, she has character. She is planning for herself.
B: For several years they thought women weren’t interest in beer, or breweries weren’t interested in women.
What is the secret of getting women interested in beer?
H: Be honest, and they will come. If you make funny-looking rosé beer, I can’t image that the person you want will be attracted to that–it will keep her away.