with Hedwig Neven
How long have you been the head brewer for Duvel?
I’ve been with the company for 17 years, and I’ve been the head brewmaster for 10 years now.
Given that Duvel Moortgat has grown into quite a large brewing company, is there a head brewer for each of the major brands?
We have different production sites. In Belgium, we have a site at Puurs, where we produce Duvel, Maredsous, and Vedett. We have another site where we produce the beers of Achouffe. Then we have a different production site for the beers of Liefmans. So we have three different sites in Belgium. Then in the Czech Republic, we have a 50 percent participation in Bernard with a production site there, and the fifth, of course, is Ommegang in New York. Every entity has its own brewmaster and it’s all coordinated at Puurs.
Duvel is such an iconic name, and people think of it as one brewing company, one beer. Now you’ve introduced a second beer bearing the Duvel name, Duvel Green. What distinguishes the two beers?
Duvel Green has practically the same recipe as Duvel, but it has a slightly lower ABV―6.8 instead of 8.5. We achieve that by using a little less raw material, but it’s also not bottle-conditioned. We sell Duvel Green only on draft.
Why did you take this step?
We did this to make Duvel acceptable in draft beer for consumers. Eight-point-five ABV is something you have to learn how to drink. To get people familiar with the specific taste of Duvel, we wanted to give them a lower platform to step into that experience, by launching it as a draft beer and also with a lower alcohol content. But we would like to hope that once they get to know the Duvel Green beer, they step over to the bottle-conditioned red Duvel.
We get the Duvel Green here at a very good local taproom, and the classic Duvel is a big favorite of mine. I find there’s a big difference in flavor between the two.
I think there is a difference in flavor, but one of the most important characteristics of Duvel is CO2 content, the carbonation. And Duvel bottled beer has a carbonation content―I can only express it in grams per liter―of 8.5 grams of CO2 per liter, whereas the draft beer is 4.8 grams per liter. There is a much greater difference in flavor due to the carbonation level, than to the beers themselves. If you were able to taste the Duvel which is bottle-conditioned but with the CO2 dropped to 5 grams per liter, the differences would not be that great. The experience of drinking the two beers comes mainly from the difference in carbonation. Carbonation changes the taste of beer quite dramatically.
So, it’s not the bottle-conditioning?
There are three differences. The main difference is CO2, the second is that Duvel Green is keg-conditioned, and the last is the use of less raw materials. But for the rest, the recipes are identical: the hops, the malts, the process, it’s identical to the bottle conditioned one―but of course we don’t add the yeast and sugar for bottle conditioning.
Should the two be poured differently?
We still want the focus on the head of the draft beer, but I think the glass is a little bit smaller [for Duvel Green]. The appearance should be identical, with the liquid beer coming to the middle of the lettering on the glass, and the rest of the glass should be filled up with foam.
I know this was a limited release, but can you tell me about the Duvel Triple Hop?
I think we produced the Duvel Triple Hop two years ago. What was different was that we dry-hopped the beer. In a classic Duvel, we use two different hops, Saaz and Styrian Goldings, the classical way in the brewhouse added to the boiling kettle. For Duvel Triple Hop, we added a third hop, Amarillo, during the maturation, the lagering of the beer. There you bring the beer into direct contact with the hop flowers, which gives a very specific aroma. It doesn’t increase the bitterness, but it increases the hoppy nose of the beer dramatically. We also went a little higher in ABV, to about 9.5 percent.
Any chance you’ll bring that beer out again?
There’s a lot of discussion in the brewery, but I think the owner, Michel Moortgat, would like to keep that as a unique production.
Maybe you can address a commonly held belief for me. As Belgian beers have become more popular in the United States, we’ve been told that their profile tends to be much lower in hops than beers from, say, the English or the America tradition. I’m now hearing from some Belgian brewers that, in fact, Belgium had a history of brewing much hoppier beers, and that’s coming back. Is that true?
I don’t believe Belgian beers were hoppier in the past than other beers, especially if you compare them with English beers. On the other hand, there are some Belgian beers which have lowered their bitterness over the years, and that is true of many European beers. What you see now is the bitterness values going back up again, but is it linked to Belgian beers? I wouldn’t say that. It’s more general.
I think American brewers want to claim the credit.
Yes, for sure, though we’ve always aimed to have in Duvel 32 bitter units [European Bittering Units, or EBUs]. We’ve never changed that, but I know for sure that other brewers have played a little bit with bitterness values in the last years. But if you compare to German or Czech beers, they are generally much more bitter than, say, a Belgian lager,
When you look at the Czech Republic, you can have some lagers of easily 35 or 38 EBU, and in Belgium you’ll find lagers of 24 to 28. And Heineken or Kronenbourg, it won’t be higher than 20. So we’re in the middle.
What is your background in brewing?
I studied chemical engineering at the University of Leuven, then I did a four-year PhD also at Leuven, where I specialized in the effects of bottle conditioning on the shelf life of beer, generally.
Then you came to Duvel Moortgat?
Yes, but in fact, Duvel Moortgat sponsored my PhD thesis, and afterwards I came to the brewery. They wanted to train someone who came from outside the brewery, and they also were interested in the subject of the thesis.
Do you work together with your colleagues at Brewery Ommegang?
We try to come twice once a year, and sometimes I bring a colleague from another department to give support at different levels. Then we also have a quite intensive communication about the technical investment programs which are going on and are budgeted for the next few years. We also have a monthly conference call to follow up on quality control.
When you’re here, do you taste American beers?
Of course. I enjoy the American beer scene especially because they think out of the box. They play with more parameters than we do in Belgium. Belgium is a very mature beer scene. Where 50 years ago we had 500, maybe 600 beers, today it’s come down now to 200 or 250, so the experimental part is a little bit behind us in Belgium.
Here in the United States, they experiment more with recipes, ingredients, processes and so on. It’s very exciting to see, because it’s in a different phase of the beer scene. I think eventually, it will come down to 10 or 15 mainstream beer types, narrow down a little bit. It’s still in an explosive phase now. But at a certain level, people may get tired of having beers with 50 EBUs.
In Belgium, you also have beers types that everybody talks about, but nobody drinks. At a certain level, you have beer styles here which are very exotic in theory, but they’re not popular in terms of volume. At the end of the day, a brewery needs volume, it needs profits to survive.
What do you when you’re not brewing?
Brewing is a little bit my life. To give you an idea, I live in Hoegaarden, so I get up and I pass by the brewery of Hoegaarden, and when I come home, I pass by the brewery of Hoegaarden. The rest of the time, I like to spend with my children.
Any interest in brewing?
They’re 10 and seven years old, so it’s a bit early
Well, we’ve always heard the Belgians are precocious when it comes to beer.
Oh, yeah. We’ll see!