A knight's tale: The Belgian Knighthood of the Brewer’s Paddle
Enter the wonderful world of the Knights of the Brewer’s Paddle
PHOTOS: © Belgian Brewers
Sunday 14 March 2021
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When the collective of solemn officials in bright red robes filed into the gilded hall of Mons’ 17th century town hall, John Holl didn’t pay them much heed. Holl - journalist, podcaster, and author of such books as Drink Beer, Think Beer: Getting to the Bottom of Every Pint - was there as a judge in beer competition, and was enjoying the drinks reception put on by the organisers. Holl listened distractedly as the chief robe-wearer addressed the room. He heard some words about St Arnold and King Gambrinus. And then, a snatch of speech did catch his attention - “...and for services to beer journalism, we welcome John Holl into our order.”
With this announcement, Holl was invited to become a member of the Knights of the Brewers’ Paddle, an august institution founded in 1952 to promote Belgian brewing. An inheritor of the traditions of the country’s Medieval brewers’ guilds, the Knights of the Brewers’ Paddle was founded to celebrate Belgium’s rich beer folklore and heritage, and to continue to promote beer as Belgium’s national drink. Members include brewers, but also maltsters, brewing professors and their students, hop dealers, and other people who have contributed to the promotion of beer and of Belgian beer culture.
A Battalion of Brewers
The ceremony in Mons was just one of several held each year, overseen by the man who administered Holl’s induction and oath of fealty to Belgian beer - Frank Boon, retired brewer and then-Grandmaster of the Knighthood. In 2020 Boon passed the ceremonial brewer’s mash paddle to his compatriot Alain de Laet of Brouwerij Huyghe. But, having run the knighthood for four years, and having been a member since 1980, he is well-placed to explain this peculiar, and peculiarly Belgian, tradition.
“The knighthood was created unofficially during the war,” Boon explains, by the owners of two of Brussels’ larger breweries. Léon Wielemans, head of the Wielemans-Ceuppens brewery, had one particular objective for the embryonic Knighthood in mind: returning to the brewers the Maison des Brasseurs - the iconic former guildhall of the brewers’ guild on Brussels’ Grand-Place square that was at the time owned by the City of Brussels. Not long after the end of the war, he and his fellow brewers secured tenancy of the ground floor and basement of the building, and Wielemans got to work formalising the Knighthood (Chevalier du Fourquet in French, Ridderschap van de Roerstok in Dutch).
Cinq a sept drinks on Wednesdays
He succeeded in 1952 with the setting down of a statute, a crest, and a motto - Labore Nobile, Noble Work - and the Knighthood of the Brewers’ Paddle welcomed in its first members in a ceremony at Brussels’ Chamber of Commerce. The organisation’s statutes explain what Wielemans intended this modern-day brewers guild to do. Objectives included the research and promotion of Belgian brewing history and folklore, the supporting of young and new brewers, and the maintenance of the Maison des Brasseurs and the museum they had installed in its basement.
It was in this basement museum where, in 1980, Frank Boon became a Knight. By then, the makeup of the Knighthood had changed. In 1952 Belgium was home to over 700 active breweries but by the 1980s that number had dwindled to around 120. “All the people I met at the Knighthood were retired brewers,” Boon says. His fellow members had either sold up or closed down their breweries, and the Knighthood functioned as a social gathering for them to remain in touch. “The old brewers came [to the Maison des Brasseurs] every third Wednesday of the month, where there was something called the cinq a sept [5pm to 7pm]...It was a kind of a reception, and all the brewers went there to meet each other.”
Beyond these monthly meetings, the core of the Knighthood’s activities - directed by the Grandmaster and High Council - were and remain a series of annual set-piece events to draw attention to Belgian brewing tradition and to welcome new members into the order. The Knighthood celebrates the Feast of King Gambrinus, in honour of the mythical medieval “king of beer”, held usually in the spring at a brewery. The feast functions as the general assembly of the order, where they appoint Ridders van Recht, or “Knights by Right” - active Belgian brewers, brewery owners, and brewing professors and their students.
“Very proud to be a part of it.”
Charlotte De Cock, of Flemish brewery VBDCK (who make the Kerel range of beers), is one such Ridder van Recht, though her induction in December 2018 took place not at the Feast of Gambrinus but at a ceremony at the Maison des Brasseurs. “I was so nervous!” De Cock says. “All the great names in Belgian brewing industry were there...The ceremony itself was very impressive, the building alone is already so impressive.” De Cock was nominated - as all knights must be - by two existing members of the Knighthood’s High Council, and makes up part of the so-called Jonge Ridders, or Young Knights under the age of 40. She says a big part of the attraction, even for younger brewers, is its functioning as an informal support network for new and established brewers. “We can ask for help, share our thoughts. If you have a problem other members can help with a solution,” she says. “For us as a young and small brewery it also helps with our credibility. Many of the other brewers have generations of brewing history. It’s one of the oldest guilds in our country, and we’re very proud to be a part of it.”
For Frank Boon, this is also a key reason for the organisation’s longevity. Unlike the business-focused meetings of the Belgian Brewers Federation - the membership of which overlaps significantly with the Knighthood - the Knighthood is more about camaraderie. “The Knighthood is completely different, because we unite all people involved in brewing, and not just brewers,” Boon says. “That is so important. It makes Belgian breweries different from other businesses - you don’t have that with butchers and bakers.”
A little bit of pageantry doesn’t hurt either, and alongside the Feast of Gambrinus the other big date in the Knighthood’s calendar is the celebration of St. Arnold at the Belgian Beer Weekend festival held at Brussels’ Grand-Place every September. Arnold of Soissons is the patron saint of brewers - and a brewer in his own right - and on the Friday afternoon before the festival the great and the good of Belgian beer gather at the Maison des Brasseurs for a procession through the centre of town to Brussels’ St. Michel cathedral. Men in grey smocks carrying ceremonial barrels of beer are joined by members of the Knighthood in their red robes holding mash paddles, alongside a quartet of trumpeters. Once this parade descends on the cathedral, mass is said in honour of the saint and for the good organisation of the festival, and then everyone troops back to Brussels’ Gothic Town Hall for a ceremony inducting new members into the Knighthood.
At this event, and in the second one at the Maison des Brasseurs the next day, the knights appointed are mostly Ereridders, or Honorary Knights - people with a relationship to the Belgian brewing world but not strictly brewers, suppliers, or raw materials producers. For example, then-Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and AB-InBev CEO Carlos Brito were appointed Knights in September 2018. In the ceremony in Mons John Holl joined them as an Honorary Knight, and remembers well the first time he saw the pageantry of the Belgian Beer Weekend.
“You’re walking into the brewers’ mansion on the Grand-Place and you’re shown into these rooms that have showcased brewing history forever,” Holl says, comparing the Belgian cherishing of tradition and heritage with its youthful American counterpart. “I think about the ceremonies that happen at the World Beer Cup or the Great American Beer Festival and [when] people are giving out awards, they’re dressed in Carhartts and they’ve barely combed their beards! I love that the Belgians take it as seriously as they do.”
It’s important to remind ourselves that there is a history to all this, and that it is important
For Holl, that is what makes something like the Knights of the Brewers’ Paddle such an interesting institution. It would be easy to laugh at the robes and the solemnity of pledging an oath of fidelity to a mythical beer king. “It’s not just an act of vanity but there is something real behind it as well,” Holl says. “When I think of Belgian beer and this largely uninterrupted tradition, and these breweries who have been around for generations and have brought us among the best beers in the world, [I like that] there is an organisation like this and there is a solemnity to the process behind. Every once and awhile [it’s important] to remind ourselves that there is a history to all this, and that it is important.”
Grandmaster of honour
Frank Boon has seen the Knighthood grow from a 1980s social club for retired brewers to an organisation with around 1,000 members. But in 2020, it was time for him to hang up his Grandmaster robes, and to pass on his ceremonial mash paddle to his successor. There’s some relief for him, as he no longer has to organise the Knighthood’s 25 or so annual meetings and the logistical nightmare that is the Belgian Beer Weekend. But he will still stick around a little while longer. “Now I’m Grandmaster of honour,” Boon says. “I will participate as long as I want, but at some point I will propose to someone to take my place.”
And as for Holl, while he can’t remember anymore the exact words of his oath from November 2019, the parchment declaring his membership and the medallion he received from Frank Boon have pride of place in his office. But, as he found out when he finally got back to his New Jersey home, the privileges extended to a freshly-minted Knight of the Brewers’ Paddle only stretched so far. “I certainly don’t go around telling people I am an honorary knight,” he says. “I tried that for a few days when I came home after that trip. And after my wife rolled her eyes several more times I decided I would have to retire that!”
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