Meet the modern Belgian favourite
PHOTOS: © Saskia Vanderstichele
Saturday 13 March 2021
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Brasserie De La Senne is a bona fide icon of the modern Brussels beer scene, having set out way back in 2003 with its (at the time) revolutionary focus on hop-forward, low(ish) alcohol brewing. Founders Yvan DeBaets and Bernard Leboucq had first met the previous year, at the time of the second Zinneke parade in Brussels, for which Bernard had created the now-famous Zinnebir pale ale.
The pair started out with a microbrewery in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw, in the former warehouse of the Moriau brewery, which it swiftly outgrew. “We then decided to move and make our dream of establishing the brewery in our city, Brussels, a reality,” says Yvan. “It took us five years before we could properly settle in the city. Meanwhile, in order to continue production, we rented different breweries, owned by friends, where we could brew our beers ourselves. These migratory years came to a conclusion on December 22, 2010, the date of our first brew 100% made in Brussels.”
At this time, astonishingly, the only other active brewery in Brussels was Cantillon. The city itself is clearly very important to Yvan and Bernard; it’s where they’re from, and remains their main focus in terms of sales, with only limited exports. And the feeling seems to be mutual, as the flagship Zinnebir (“Brussels’ people ale”) remains one of the city’s most popular craft beers.
Yvan continues: “I think part of the reason we’ve been successful is that we have a very clear touch, as a brewery. You know, there are a lot of beers on the market now that could be made by anyone, anywhere; you could make an identical NEIPA in Brussels, Berlin, London, Chicago, wherever. We have developed over time a Brasserie de la Senne ‘touch’ which gives our beer a lot of personality, you can recognise it’s coming from us.”
By Belgian standards, de la Senne’s beers have always stood out as being unusually bitter and hop-forward, but that’s not to say they’ve slavishly followed American craft trends; on the contrary, the brewery has stuck almost exclusively with European hop varieties, for a more subtle, balanced hop character than it would get from New World hops.
“We have also chosen to work with only one yeast for all our top-fermented beers, and that house yeast is also the signature of the brewery. I call her ‘her’ because she’s not an ‘it’ in my language. She’s my friend, so she’s a her! And I choose her for very specific and precise characteristics. I want her to sign all the beers I make, just as I sign all the beers I make.”
With the wellbeing of his beloved yeast in mind, Yvan also designed custom fermentation tanks, with a specific geometry to reduce hydrostatic pressure.
“For me, it’s the duty of a brewer to make his yeast happy, so the fermenters are very shallow, wider than they are tall. Hydrostatic pressure gives a lot of stress to yeast and I don’t want that. The result, in my opinion, is a beer with a better balance between esters and higher alcohols, for instance. It’s achieving the right balance between all these factors that gives our beers their unique and distinctive character,” says Yvan.
Another important aspect of the brewery itself is Yvan and Bernard’s decision to keep their processes and kit deliberately simple or “low intensity” in several key stages of production. “We always use the best ingredients, prioritising quality over price, so want the character of those superior raw materials to come through. Our brewing process is designed to maintain that richness of taste and texture. It is, for example, the lack of filtration that gives a light veil to our beers – it is a sign of their natural character. Finally, we give it time: it takes us two months to make a beer, which is considered a very long time to make top-fermented beers these days.”
My first trip to Brussels began with a bottle of Zinnebir, so I’m very pleased to see it in the Beer52 box at last. It’s the beer that laid the groundwork for the signature character that Yvan describes, and was something of a statement of intent for modern Belgian brewing.
“The basic idea was to go back to the roots of an historical Belgian style that was called the Special Belgian. It originated in 1905 and was really a Belgian version of an English Pale Ale, though at the time was a little bit less hoppy and bitter, to suit local tastes. But we made it hoppier and more bitter again, the way we liked it , so the idea was to have a small link to that historical beer but with our modern touch.”
The second beer in the box is its Stouterik Irish Dry Stout. I have a lot of respect for this one; unlike a lot of big, boozy, lactose-laden modern stouts, this is relatively low-abv, dry and doesn’t pull any tricks. Like all of de la Senne’s beers, the core flavours are the star of the show, with no flashy distractions.
“The reason we made that beer is because both Bernard and I love stout, and when we started in 2003 there weren’t any decent stouts to drink in Belgium,” says Yvan. “And so we set out as we often do, brewing a beer for drinking ourselves and then we’ll see if the people like it or not. It’s not our best selling beer in Belgium, because here we have forgotten a little bit the beauty of the dark beers. But the people who love it really love it; it’s well attenuated, with a lot of flavour and easy to drink. Even in the summer it’s very refreshing, because we put a lot of work into recipe, getting the right balance between the malt, the hops and the fermentation flavours.”
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