Saturday, 4 May 2013

The Pilgrimage

I make no to attempt to hide my deference to Duvel. It is in my opinion a beer without peers. No other beer reconciles big and strong with clean and precise anywhere near as well. I’ve known Duvel (in the biblical sense) for around 20 years and that statement is as true today as any before. 

I’ve held off going to Moortgat for years because I feared it could be an anti-climax. When Jean-Marie said he could get me in and introduce me to Hedwig Neven I realised, this had to be my time.  
My cab driver from Mechelen was a chirpy Fleming who delighted in my ‘allo ‘allo policeman Flemish accent and sentence construction. There weren’t many sentences constructed but sufficient to keep him smiling for the next 10 miles. I’d seen the picture of the Duvel “ripening” warehouse many times since I first saw it in MJ’s great beers of Belgium but still driving past felt like gazing on the face of god.

I was quite conscious of how much I was shaking when I arrived in the suavely minimalist reception area. Still a bit deflated from the cabbie’s hysteria at my Flemish I walked up to the reception desk feigning confidence to ask “dyspeakenglish?"  “A little” replied the receptionist. Thinking quickly and keen to impress I said “Meer dan mijn Vlaamse!”. The receptionist gave me the ‘allo ‘allo police officer look so I announced myself in slow English and asked if Hedwig was coming out to play.   

Unfortunately Hedwig had been summoned to La Chouffe to help sort a problem with their bottling line so I had the pleasure of meeting Sven Dekleermaeker. Sven has been brewing in Belgium for about the same time as I have been brewing in England. He has done a tour of the big boys (Inbev and Alken Maes) before joining Duvel Moortgat in 2008. When I asked him, jealously “do you love it?” He replied unequivocally “yes”.

I have to admit to having found the prospect of meeting Hedwig and the tour at the same time a little intimidating so it was good to be able to relax into the tour to a degree, relaxation in the context of high excitement that is. I won’t bore the reader with the forensic technical detail of the brewery. Suffice it to say it is big (more than 1 million hectolitres) very well engineered (Steinecker, Krones etc) and just generally inspiring.

Sven did seem a little thrown by my enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge and at one point asked me if I was in fact there for a job interview. He must have liked me because I got to see the part of the operation not usually enjoyed by visitors, the warm conditioning warehouse where the Duvel sits ripening at 22oC. It was cavernous space with millions of immaculate cases of Duvel stretching as far as the eye could see. Bewildering, breath-taking, beautiful.    

The magic words I was waiting to hear since the bottling hall left Sven’s lips at about 4PM “And now I propose we drink some beer”.  Away from the tour I had the chance to get to know Sven better. In his spare time he organised trips for brewers to visit other breweries and asked me if I would like to join them the next day. Unfortunately my travel plans were fixed. This was the only disappointment of the day! We talked about oxidation, detection limits of iron ions and the Belgian brewing scene. He was kind enough to call me a freak in reference to my knowledge of beer and Belgian brewing! I don’t think he was expecting me to take it as a compliment.

There was a 30 minute spell in the sunny courtyard behind the tasting bar, as Duvel followed Duvel and brewing conversation flowed where I reached the pinnacle of happiness in my life so far. I usually decide how to feel on the basis of practicality but this was emotion in its purest form. A sparkling Jacuzzi filled with Duvel. Sven is right I am a freak.   

I have invited Sven back to Rock to collaborate on a brew and he is checking on the commercial aspects. I’ll let you know when he gets back to me.         


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