Tuesday, March 30, 2010

De Proefbrouwerij-Belgium's "Taste Brewery"

Photo, above: Dirk Naudts and Carl Kins in the main brewhouse at
De Proefbrouwerij, Lochristi, Belgium.

My article on Belgium's De Proefbrouwerij, below, first appeared
in the February/March 2010 issue of Celebrator Beer News.

Many thanks to editor Tom Dalldorf for allowing me to repost it here.

The article is 1,200 words in length, and is the first interview with
De Proefbrouwerij brewer/owner Dirk Naudts published in the

“Our goal is to be the cleanest brewery in Belgium” Dirk Naudts, former professor of brewing science, told me as I visited De Proefbrouwerij in late April, 2009. In Dutch, “proef” can mean both taste, test and try, all of which are appropriate to a brewery producing tailor-made beers, albeit on a relatively small scale.
De Proefbrouwerij is located in Lochristi, in the province of East Flanders, not too far from Ghent. “I taught brewing science at Kaho St. Lieven in Ghent for ten years, specializing in yeast propagation, before leaving to open this brewery in 1996. I also used to work at Brouwerij Roman in Oudenaarde for three years” Dirk told me, as we chatted in a meeting room overlooking two of the brewhouses at “De Proef.”
If you have ever tasted any of the SBS Imports “Brewmaster’s Collaboration” series of beers, such as Signature Ale, Les Deux Brasseurs, and Van Twee, or any of a number of Mikkeller brews, you know just how good the beers of De Proef can be. Would you believe they also make excellent Czech pils, German Dunkelweizens and just about any other style of beer known?
Such versatility I have never seen in a brewery. As we toured the facility, Dirk remarked: “When you have a brettanomyces-infused beer in one fermenter, and a Czech pils in the one next to it, you really have to have to be careful. Cleanliness is very important. If you work with clean circumstances, with good people, you get good results.”
I have to say that De Proef is quite probably the cleanest and most technologically advanced brewery I have visited, among the 105 that I have toured in Belgium. The stainless steel brewing kettles and fermenters were shiny and sparkling. We tasted a Czech pils, German Weizens, brettanomyces-infused brews, dry-hopped beers, and even a 17% Imperial Stout, right from the fermenting tanks. It was quite an interesting, and fulfilling, visit.
My tour was three years in the making, as it took that long before Dirk finally agreed to a visit and interview. It was well worth the wait! De Proefbrouwerij almost never grants tours to journalists or the public. Dirk added “Michael Jackson visited, some years back. He was the last journalist to tour the brewery.”

About the history of the brewery, Dirk told me: “We opened in 1996, with just a 10 hectoliter brewhouse. Now, we have two newer brewhouses. One can produce 10 to 15 hl per batch, and the other, 40 to 60 hl. We produce about 3 to 5 brews per brewhouse per day, from Mondays to Thursdays. We are closed on Fridays, though I work seven days a week” Dirk said. “We produced about 18,000 hl (about 15,340 US barrels) of beer in 2008.”
Much of De Proef’s production is for small brewing firms that would like to start up their own brewery, but don’t have the money to do so. “A customer can come to us with an idea for a beer, or a recipe, and we can take a look and see if it might be feasible for us to produce such a beer. We have a small 50 liter system that we can use to make test batches. By having a beer brewed here, customers can see how theirs beers are received, and also build a market for them, before they ever invest any capital in a brewery of their own” Dirk told me, as I sipped a Mikkeller Nelson Sauvin Single Hop IPA. (Yum, by the way.)
He added: “We can also brew for small breweries which are maxed out in production in their own brewery, and help them meet demand.”
Dirk has a lot of enthusiasm for the collaboration beers he has been involved with the last few years: “We don’t know IPA’s, Porters, or Stouts so much in Belgium. So these are very interesting projects for me.” The amount produced is about 80 to 100 hectos per brew; not that much compared to De Proefbrouwerij’s overall production. However, the experimentation and innovation involved in brewing small batch beers makes it worthwhile. “Hearing new ideas from my colleagues in the states and elsewhere makes creating such beers worthwhile endeavors.” Dirk commented.
During the tour, I noticed a row of several different types of wooden barrels. Dirk told me: “We have American oak barrels, French oak barrels, and barrels that used to hold Calvados, and more. That one used to hold whisky” he said, pointing out a large barrel. “It’s a Mikkeller project. That’s all I can tell you about it right now.”
“We keep hops and malts from all over the world here” Dirk told, smiling. “This is so customers can have their choice of the highest quality ingredients for their beers. We will never go for the lowest-priced supplies. We want quality here.”
“We do a lot of dry-hopped beers here” Dirk added.

Photo, above: Dirk Naudts pouring Van Twee, the De Proef/Bell's collaboration beer

“The Taste Brewery” can even change the softness of hardness of the water used to produce a beer if a customer requests it. Soft water is used if a client does not ask.
“We get new customers here because existing clients are happy and tell others. We don’t go to trade fairs or beer fests. It’s by word of mouth people know about us” Dirk remarked.
De Proef has eleven grain silos: one each for pilsner and organic pilsner malt, and nine for specialty malts. “We can start the milling of the grains automatically” Dirk told me, as we viewed these silos outside the brewery. “Everything is done with air tubing, so we can blow the tubes clean with air” he added.
“Of course we keep most types of brewing yeasts here in our lab” Dirk told me, as he pulled a few samples out of cryogenic storage to show me and companion Carl Kins, in a scene reminiscent of one in the first Jurassic Park movie. 95% of the bottled beers produced at De Proefbrouwerij are refermented in the bottle. A new bottling line was installed in 2008.
Dirk is clearly a fan of hoppy beers: “Simcoe and Amarillo marry nicely. I also like Cascade and Nugget” he told me, as we did a side by side tasting of the four Mikkeller single hop beers. Next up was the Van Twee, the most recent collaboration beer, brewed with John Mallet of Bell’s Brewing in Michigan. “We brewed 90 hl, of which just 10 hl is draft and the rest is 75 cl bottles. You can smell the brett aroma in the nose at first, but it will not likely get much more pronounced, as it was added at the end of the primary fermentation. None was added before bottling.”
De Proef exports to about ten countries. Two of my favorites are sent stateside-namely, Reinaert Wild Ale and Zoetzuur Flemish ale. The Wild Ale is less than 1% of production. The newest brew in the SBS lineup is Witte Noir, which is described as an Imperial Amber Wheat ale by importer Alan Shapiro. It has 7.5% abv.
See proefbrouwerij.com and sbs-imports.com for more info, and enjoy the beers of “The Taste” brewery!

Photo, above: Dirk Naudts

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