Hof ten Dormaal

<< 2014-06-07 14:22 >>

Main building

We drove for a good while over bumpy country roads winding hither and thither, until finally the minivan came to a stop outside an ordinary-looking farm. Just inside the gate, however, amid crates of bottles and various farm equipment, was a nice outside patio. Next to it was a brick building with a bar and some indoor seats. Plus a small brewery. After a little while, someone comes to get us, and we're led through the garden into an impressive bar room in another building. (This is part 6 of the Scandinavian beer bloggers' tour.)

Behind a big, rough wooden table sits a pale, graying man looking uncomfortable. This is the brewer, André Janssens. He greets us, we sit down, and he starts telling us about the brewery. He talks kind of unwillingly, looking down a lot, as though he's embarassed about something. Only later do we learn why.


Although Hof ten Dormaal is the family farm, and now home to a family-operated brewery, André was originally not a brewer at all. In fact, he was an accountant. And before starting a brewery he had never drunk beer at all. At the age of 50 he had a brain stroke, and found that he could no longer work as an accountant. Unsurprisingly, he had a long bout of depression, until finally his wife sent him to the US with a single mission: not to come home again until he had a smile on his face.

He travelled around the US for a while, fairly aimlessly by the sound of it, until he hit upon an abandoned brewery in Montana. This, he decided, was what he was going to do. He returned home with plans for a brewery, with a smile on his face. "But then my wife's smile disappeared," he says, deadpan. He got his way, though, and started Hof ten Dormaal.

Wit Goud

He coped well enough with the practical difficulties of learning to brew, getting equipment, creating a brand, building a brewery, and all of that. But actually selling the beer proved to be a challenge. Like de Struise, he found that the market was already well saturated, and if he was going to sell anything he would have to work for it.

So he put some bottles in his car and drove to a nearby bar, thinking he'd give them some samples so they could see if they'd like to order some beers. He sat in the car for two hours before he dared even enter the bar, but finally left some bottles with them, promising to come back in two weeks to see if they'd take some beer. He never returned, feeling much too embarrassed about, as he put it, "begging them to buy" his beer.

Eventually, however, a US importer picked up his beers, and they now make up about 90% of his market. André freely acknowledges that this makes his business rather precariously dependent on a single customer. Also, he adds, his main market is "beer tasters" as he puts it, or "beer tickers" as others would describe them. A famously fickle market. It's to serve the beer ticker market that he's developed his series of barrel-aged beers, which is the same beer aged in different types of barrels.

Tilling the hop field

His beers are made with barley he grows on his farm, then has Dingemans malt for him, and likewise the bittering hops. The aroma hops they buy. He keeps two horses on the farm, "for pleasure," he says. A little later we get to see what this means, when his son Dries brings over an enormous Brabant horse. We're taken off to follow the horse to the hop field, where Dries and the horse tend the hop field. Basically, every day they plough in between the hop poles, so that no grass or weeds grow there. This prevents the dew from settling on the ground, which again prevent the growth of the molds to which hop plants are highly susceptible.

That morning, before leaving, our driver Jan had been making fun of the (surprisingly prevalent) idea that the wild yeast and bacteria necessary for making lambic only exist in the Zenne valley. Now we learned that André had put this to the test. He brewed a single wort, then divided it into ten barrels, which he put in different places around the farm. All of them turned sour he says, and two turned sour in a good way. He then poured the good ones into a fermenter with ready wort, fermenting the wort with whatever it was that had soured the barrels.

This beer he calls Zure van Tildonk, and it's basically a lambic made outside the Zenne valley. Although, to be fair, not very far outside, since the Zenne is a tributary to the Dijle, and Hof ten Dormaal is in the Dijle valley. The Zure is, despite the name, actually not that sour, with a balancing sweetness that makes it quite easy to appreciate. The aroma is the expected barnyard, vinegar, and horse blanket, as well as a surprising amount of fruit.

Brand van Leuven

He's also taken to creating beers that he calls "beers with a story." The first of these is called Brand von Leuven, which means "the fire of Leuven", referring to when Leuven was burned by the Germans during World War I. His intention is to give the beer the flavour of war: sour, bitter, smoky. When I ask him whether it shouldn't also be salty, like tears, he just smiles.

Of the Hof ten Dormaal beers I managed to taste, this one is my favourite. It's a hazy yellow beer with a fruity peaty whisky aroma, with some barnyard in the background. It's both acidic and salty (hey, that must be the tears!), with quite low carbonation, and something perfumy to the flavour. At the same time it's quite rough, and very unusual.

Eventually, our time runs out, and we have to take our leave, piling back into the minibus for the final drive into Leuven, for the end of the journey.

Customers in the brewery bar

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