A visit to de Struise

<< 2014-05-12 21:33 >>

In the brewery

Right up against the French border, in the north-western corner of Belgium lies the little village of Oostvleteren, home to de Struise Brouwers. Looking at the map you could be forgiven for thinking that this is the western-most brewery in Belgium. However, there is another brewer about one kilometer further west. That one is called Westvleteren. (This is part 3 of the Scandinavian beer bloggers' tour.)

De Struise shot onto the craft scene out of nowhere like a rocket a few years ago, and I never really had any idea where they came from or what sort of brewery they were. On our visit to the brewery we met Carlo Grootaert, who finally explained the story and gave me more of an idea of who de Struise really are.

Carlo always dreamed of starting his own winery, but Belgium doesn't have the right soil or weather for that. So together with his friend Urbain Coutteau, who owned a local ostrich farm, they started a brewery in a barn. First they brewed a witbier, and felt really proud when they'd bottled the first batch. Then they realized that they didn't have any labels. In fact, they didn't even have a name for the brewery.

Carlo greeting us

After some frantic searching for a name, fellow brewers de Dolle suggested the name: de Struise Brouwers. That literally means "the ostrich brewers," a reference to Urbain's ostrich farm. However, in local slang, "struise" also means "tough", so they often render it as "the Sturdy Brewers" in English.

Later they made a beer inspired by the beers Carlo's family brewed at home long ago. They don't have a full recipe for those beers, but recreated them from descriptions of the flavour and some knowledge of the brewing methods that were used at the time. They called the beer Pannepot, after the local fishing boats. In fact, the label shows the boat owned by Carlo's great-grandfather.

They were really pleased with this beer, which didn't belong to any existing style, and had a good story behind it. But selling it locally proved to be a challenge. As Carlo says, "the Belgian beer market was totally saturated already." Their prices were too high, because of all the ingredients they'd used. Also, if a cafe did order five crates they'd also expect two crates for free, plus t-shirts, and brochures, and coasters. None of which de Struise had, so the deal would be off.

Struise schoolroom bar

Then one day Carlo reviewed a new de Dolle beer on the beer rating site Beerpal. He immediately got a message from some Danish guy who was an avid de Dolle fan, and a collector of all things Dolle. "Could you send me a bottle," he wrote. Carlo sent a bottle, and threw in a Pannepot as well.

As luck would have it, the Dane not only liked the beer, but he was about to start a beer shop. In fact, he was Jeppe Bjergsø, twin brother of the guy behind Mikkeller, and the shop was Ølbutikken. Without knowing it, Carlo had hit what was to become the very epicentre of European craft beer geekery, and through that lucky hit commercial success was to follow.

Jeppe promoted the beer in his shop, and that's where I first came across de Struise myself, about a decade ago. The Danish Ratebeer community is very strong, and they really liked the beer, causing word of this new brewery to spread further. Suddenly Struise were exporting beer to both Denmark and the US, then making more versions of Pannepot, then other beers aimed at the same type of drinker. For example lots of barrel-aged beers.

Wooden barrels outside the brewery

In retrospect it's no surprise that de Struise and the Bjergsø twins would get along well. The Bjergsøs are consummate hipsters, and Carlo gives off much the same vibe. For example through little things like having a hi-fi set in the brewery, blaring out music while they work.

As for the beers themselves, de Struise is not really a very typically Belgian brewery. Boelens works very much in the Belgian tradition, but de Struise makes beers that, while sometimes still recognizably Belgian, are much more in the US craft tradition.

Struise has achieved crazy high ratings on Ratebeer, but personally I've been much more ambivalent about their beers. They're never bad, and always very competent technically, but they don't always appeal to my palate. We tried a few of their beers at the brewery, and there were two I really liked.

Carlo pouring our beers

Struise Imperialist, an imperial pils at 8.5%, was very fresh, vivid, and drinkable. The dominant note was a spicy herbal flavour, quite reminiscent of the smell of a cypress tree, with touches of dry grain and straw. It was quite malty and light on the hops, which sat very well with me.

Cuvee Delphine, an imperial stout at 13%, sounds like it should be a real hop bomb, but thankfully wasn't. It had a soft, kind of flat mouthfeel, a delicate sweet/dry balance, and a peaty cocoa flavour with vanilla and spice notes. It obviously fills the mouth pretty well, but there was little sign of all that alcohol. Overall a delicious and dangerously drinkable beer.

And with that we once again packed into the minivan and set off, gazing wistfully at the sign pointing the other way, shouting "Westvleteren 1".

Danko Power

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Bas - 2015-05-03 13:14:20

Really Nice review. Good written too. I visited the Struise yesterday and it was really a good experience. I liked the cuvee Delphine too, and a whole batch more. I don't think they are average or 'competent' some of them are worldclass like Black Albert and Pannepot Reserva. I also tried the première beer Amaris (a collab between Struise and het Vliegende Paard - Flying Horse).

Patsy Howard - 2021-10-06 04:21:30

Are there tours available in the English language?

Lars Marius - 2021-10-06 09:17:07

@Patsy: I don't know, sorry. This tour was organized especially for visiting bloggers.

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