De Halve Maan Close Up

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Bruges has two incredibly important arterial routes running through it. Bisecting the city from the North is ‘the Golden Inlet’, a channel that runs all the way out to the North Sea. This waterway was essential in developing Bruges as the epicenter of early European mercantilism, eventually developing the Bourse in 1309 as the world’s first stock exchange. The other, a subterranean pipeline running 3.2km out to the North East. This too, is a golden inlet, insofar as it carries beer. The beating heart at the middle of it all, is the De Halve Maan brewery. We spoke with owner Xavier Vanneste for the full story.

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The Bruges town register shows evidence of a brewery on the site since 1564, initially registered as ‘Die Maen’ brewery. In the 19th century the Maes family took ownership of the brewery, a lineage which carries on today, six generations later, with Xavier. The brewery was known as Henri Maes (unrelated to Maes pils), and fittingly it’s early development is pivoted around two important characters, Henri Maes II, and Henri Maes III.

Henri II took a visit to Kent in the mid to late 1800s to visit a family member who was a priest in the area. At this point in time the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and the UK was at the cutting edge of manufacturing technology, including developments in the brewing industry. On this visit Henri visited some nearby breweries and was so impressed by what he saw that on his return he installed a new british style kiln, and later in 1882 installed the brewery’s first steam engine, revolutionising production. His namesake made a similar industrial pilgrimage, but this time to Germany, to investigate the great leaps forward they were making in refrigeration. Full of inspiration, on his return he develops and releases a bock, bringing bottom fermentation to Bruges, and eventually pivoting the brewery to production of lager style beers.

Another vital character in the De Halve Maan story is Xavier’s mother, Vèronique Maes. Overseeing an incredibly important period in the brewery’s history, starting in 1981, when she developed the Straffe Hendrik beer with her father Henri IV, to celebrate the inauguration of the new Sint Arold statue. This beer quickly became the flagship of the brewery, before being acquired by another brewery within the same decade. Later in 1997 Vèronique oversaw the refurbishment of the brewery site, creating the fantastic museum, and hospitality space that still operates today. This effectively turned the brewery into one of the country’s biggest tourist hotspots, attracting millions of visits each year. However, despite these major leaps forward, after a difficult period for their brands Vèronique took the difficult decision to cease brewing on the site in 2002.

This of course, is not the end of the story.

In 2005 Vèronique partnered with Xavier to reopen the family brewery, on its original site in Bruges. Xavier initially studied a masters in Economics, before going on to study Brewing Science at Ghent, a decision that set him apart from his forebears. ‘Henry II and III didn’t have any formal brewing education, the knowledge was only passed on by word of mouth from father to son’.

‘You have the traditions of your ancestors, and their stories. How they’ve lived marks you and influences your decisions. I’m a different brewer than those first generation craft brewers. I started brewing when I was 16 or 17, but actually the first homebrew for me was cider. My parents had some apple trees, and it made me think to read about how to make cider. Then very quickly my interest spread to beer. The next step naturally was for me to ask my parents, “What about the old recipes, like the Straffe Hendrik you used to make?”. They were surprised to see some drinkable beer come out of our kitchen, but they didn’t push me to go into the industry. At that time the family had temporarily left the industry, and sold the Straffe Hendrik brand. They pushed me more to have a decent study and keep my options open. But this passion and idea stayed with me though, and I wrote business plans and convinced them to restart the brewery on our own means and built around the family, but I really had to persuade them, they had been through some hard times with the brewery before. I’m happy they had been so critical and picked everything apart, and don’t just take my word for granted. I think it helped me to focus even more on the challenges that I would face.’

When redeveloping the brewery Xavier was very aware that he didn’t want to base something off an old family recipe, but rather claim his own space in the story, while satisfying the demands of the local market too. ‘In 2005, we had different challenges, not just to make a new beer but also reinvigorate the old brewery that had been closed for a few years, and restore it. We did some test brews, but on our scale that meant 60HL batches. A lot of beer that might not be perfect, and can’t be blended with anything else. We launched the story that we wanted to restart the brewery and we had the ‘dilemma beers’ to let visitors come and try these test batches, and take their feedback on board. We only sold these on site at the brewery, so we could tell the full story and explain it was a trial process. People were very enthusiastic and gave us lots of feedback.’ Eventually from these dilemma beers, Brugse Zot was born.

‘Our locals were very supportive, especially as it was the beginning of the craft movement, and our project fitted in perfectly with what people wanted. They didn’t want beer from multinationals anymore. People loved the fact that I was a young entrepreneur taking on this heritage. It’s very important to have local credibility. That’s what you see in my opinion with all successful breweries, otherwise you can’t develop something. That’s what a lot of craft breweries forget sometimes, they make fantastic beers, send it everywhere, but locally nobody knows them.’

One of the essential strengths of the De Halve Maan beers is their deep seated sense of place. According to Xavier, the real terroir doesn’t come from the raw materials they use (as exceptional as they are), but rather from the romantic ancient streets of the city itself. ‘Beer is an experience, it’s not just about the taste, it’s the heritage, the glass, the label, that’s exactly what I think people want more and more now.’

At one point De Halve Maan was the only brewery in operation within the city walls, an important asset to protect within Belgium’s tourist capital. It seems unthinkable to consider tourists visiting some of the city's many amazing beer cafés, but being unable to drink a beer from Bruges itself. ‘Tourists come to Bruges now and have the impression that they are coming to Disneyland, and that the local lace and chocolate is maybe not so local anymore. People are looking for authentic stories. If they taste the beer they want the real stuff coming from Bruges, 100%, not just for the image.’

After almost 500 years of brewing history on that site, of which Xavier’s family has presided over almost two centuries, a move away from the historic site would be unthinkable. As volumes soared, a new bottling plant was eventually built outside of the city, but this however brought massive tanker trucks several times a week passing through the idyllic cobbled streets of Bruges. Rather than take the easy way out and build a brewery away from town, Xavier was inspired to build a 3.2km long pipeline running from the brewery out to the bottling plant.

‘The pipeline project stresses how far we want to go to be completely from Bruges. Like Trappist breweries, this is the real stuff and it has to come from here. This is essential to our success.’

After two decades away from it’s ancestral home, Xavier was able to reacquire the rights to the Straffe Hendrik brand in 2008. Having spent a few years building Brugse Zot from scratch, this allowed the opportunity to explore the family’s heritage brand.

Despite the significant weight of tradition carried by the brewery, they still continue to innovate too. In 2014 they released Straffe Hendrik Wild for the first time. ‘We shouldn’t think that as Belgians we have the best beer in the world and no longer innovate.’ The base is one of their oldest beers, the Straffe Hendrik Tripel. Initially the Idea came a couple years before, when they thought Tripel would make a great base to ferment with Brettanomyces. ‘We tried some different brett strains looking at how the Tripel would react. There are so many different strains to work with, some give really interesting flavours, and some just don’t add anything at all. Some can’t cope with the alcohol already in the Tripel. Some after 3 months had nothing, but then after 6 months turned into something very interesting. It was only after 2 years of testing that we decided that we had a strain we were happy with. It’s always exciting to see how people will perceive the new edition.’

We’re extremely proud to have been working Xavier and his team since the beginning of the Brugse Zot project. Watching the brand go from strength to strength, and remain a core brand in our portfolio has been a pleasure. Xavier echoes this and feels that the success of our partnership is because ‘we share the same long term vision that you find in old family businesses. If you work with other types of companies it’s really quite different. We have the same DNA, and understand what’s behind the choices we make. We have worked together since the very beginning since 2005, and it’s great that we haven’t ever felt the need to change that. It’s a very natural feeling and a natural cooperation. Because we share the same feelings and ideas with how it should work in the UK market. Especially for these emotionally connected products, which beer certainly is.’

Straffe Hendrik Wild 2021 is available now in cases of 24x330ml bottles. Click here for our full range from all the De Halve Maan brands: Brugse Zot, Straffe Hendrik, and Brugs Tarwebier.

De Halve Maan Range
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