Drinking from the source

Callum Stewart joins our Raise The Bar winners at De Proef brewery

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I am driving through the Belgian countryside, getting turn-by-turn directions by Cameron from Turning Point brewery (how appropriate). We’re a good half hour off the main track, crawling through quaint villages of Flanders which look straight off a postcard. There is no brewery in sight, but if you were to choose anywhere in the world to set one up, this would have to be top of the list.

We trust the directions, and eventually we see the distinctive shape of fermentation vessels on the horizon. We have arrived at De Proef, one of the best-known contract breweries in the world, whose output is stocked in bars and bottle shops around the world in partnership with the likes of Mikkeller, ToOl and Omnipollo. These new-wave Scandinavian breweries are only a small part of the story, as told by the owner and head brewer Dirk Naudts.

Right down to the smallest details, this place has the ‘Willy Wonka’ effect in craft beer. Entering the brewery, we’re amazed at a piece of brewing equipment that we haven’t seen before that is purely for washing shoes. Nobody is quite sure what to expect and, unsurprisingly, we are not allowed to take pictures in several rooms including the research and development labs.

Dirk takes us upstairs and it’s clear his passion for the brewing industry is hard to match. He talks for a long time, but nobody interrupts and everyone is listening and taking mental notes. Some of the best beers in the world come out of this brewery and our guests – from Mothership, Vault City, Dig Brew Co and Turning Point – are looking to take any ideas, inspiration and tips they can.

The early days of De Proef were rather simple in comparison to today’s hosting of rockstar brewers such as Mikkel Bjergsø. Founded in 1996 in the sleepy Belgian countryside village of Lochristi-Hijfte (home to just 1080 inhabitants) De Proef’s early brews were simply for local festivals and even the church hall. Dirk didn’t fancy himself as a salesman, telling us, “I didn’t like it – it took up too much time. I prefer brewing the beer and letting someone else take care of that.” Those first were traditional Belgian beers and the market was relatively small, but they had a great reputation.

Since Mikkeller got in touch back in 2007, the brewery has never been the same again, and is still going through expansion, with a long waiting list of clients. Contract brewing has become much more accepted in the brewing industry, both in the UK and abroad, particularly as a way for new brewers to get their beers to market without the expense of buying equipment and renting a warehouse.

Peering into the labs, his team are hard at work. The research into hop quality and control is unmatched, with one technician working for nearly ten years on hops alone. With hop qualities varying from year to year, due to many variables, Dirk tells us how a ‘Champion beer’ from one year can be a flop the next purely due to a different hop harvest. De Proef works closely with its hop suppliers to give them feedback on the quality, with uncompromising values.

“Our hop suppliers didn’t like it at first,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “They were not used to the customers testing their products and telling them they weren’t good enough! But we’ve worked closely with the ones who’ve listened to make sure that we get the best for both our customers and suppliers.”

Leaving the labs, I’m allowed back behind the camera as we go back to the main brewery with its rows of fermenters. Cameron spots his Mosaic Wavelength in the tanks – cue big smiles and a picture moment for the scrapbook.

Moving through the brewery, we enter what some would call the grand hall. A dual canning-bottling line is running at full speed, with staff working at key points along the way. A Hazy IPA is being canned right now, and we’re allowed to pick one off the line for a tasting on the spot. Everything is running like clockwork, right from labelling machines, down to the packaging at the end as the boxes are sealed and palletised in the warehouse across the road.

Now we’re in to territory that gets every brewer going, as we’re led through a cold store and upstairs to the barrel ageing room. Rows of barrels holding a special fruited beer for a certain Danish gypsy brewer. Cue lots of posing for photos, but also a Q&A session on what kind of barrels, how long is the ageing, what’s in them and any particular blends. It’s a brewing geek’s dream come true.

We’re then shown outside to a building site, which will eventually be the next phase of De Proef’s seemingly never-ending expansion. Among the four brewers attending - Vault City and Mothership are still currently contract brewing. Turning Point is going through an expansion to a new site in Yorkshire, while Dig Brew Co has set up home in Birmingham.

For the brewers, some would describe the chance to work here as a once in a lifetime opportunity. Others would say it's only the beginning. We hope you enjoy the beers we have made in partnership with the De Proef and the four hottest new breweries from the UK.


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