The secrets of beer making in a 500-year old brewery

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Belgium’s reputation of producing high quality beer is a reason for many to visit, and if it is not your reason, this is the perfect opportunity to learn how to appreciate better this millennium-old drink that has become more and more fashionable lately with the wave of microbreweries all over the world.

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The most famous and sought-after beers are the Trappist beers brewed in monasteries after centennial-old recipes that have inspired many reputed commercial abbey beers. If the French speaking part of Belgium, Wallonia, was the instigator with La Trappe, the tradition has spread to Flanders, and Bruges has not been left behind. An extremely popular drink during the Middle Ages, beer has been brewed for over 500 years where today’s Maes’ family De Halve Maan brewery stands. Following in the footsteps of Henry Maes, the family’ sixth generation has been keeping the ancient tradition alive in the heart of medieval Bruges while innovating to create bestseller feats exported all over the world such as the Brugse Zot, and sparing no efforts to build a crazy beer pipeline!

What better place to uncover the secrets of beer making?

What makes De Halve Maan special

In 1856, Henry set up business in an already existing brewery. This is the start of the Half Moon brewery. This is so important to the family that when expanding became necessary, instead of simply moving the production facility, the decision was taken to install a 3.276-kilometer beer pipeline running underneath the city!

Next time you walk the streets of Bruges, you may try to tap into it: in order to prevent any property owner from potentially claiming rights, the path of the beer pipeline has been designed to run exclusively under streets and public lands! This caused a few extra hundred meters of highdensity polyethylene (HDPE) to be installed and a bit more digging to occur: the pipeline dives 37 meters deep to go under the parking lot of the iconic Concertgebouw. Be careful though, as it is actually 5 pipes running underground to allow for some rinsing and for some redundancy. So if you tap into the wrong pipe, instead of enjoying some of the 6000 litres per hour of beer flowing under town, you may be tasting only water!

The brewing process

If you are not familiar with the brewing process, De Halve Maan brewery is the perfect place to learn about it! Here is a quick explanation.

What do we need to enjoy a good beer? Bubbles, alcohol and taste – also put as carbonation, alcohol and flavours! These are obtained through fermentation (remember your chemistry classes? Here, yeast feeds on sugars obtained from malt and hop to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide). So brewing is easy: we only need four ingredients: water, yeast, hop and malt!

Different types of malt result in different beer characters. Malt is actually the name given to any type of grain (most often barley) that has undergone the malting process, i.e. has been soaked, sprouted, dried, and sometimes roasted. It all boils down to enzymes: as the grains germinate, they get ready to feed the plants-to-be and develop nutrients (sugars) and enzymes that, under the right conditions (temperature, humidity, acidity levels) will convert starch into sugar during the brewing process, the sugar we need to feed the yeast. By heating up the grains, the germination is stopped, as after all, the brewer is not after growing plants, but making beer! So making beer might be a bit more complex than it first seemed, as many factors come into play such as when to stop the sprouting, and roasting or not and for how long… The drier and the more smoked, the darker the malt, the darker the beer. For instance, some “chocolate malts” have been substantially roasted to give a dark hue and flavours reminiscent of a dark cocoa. At the Half Moon Brewery, five silos contain different types of malt to brew their five different beers:

  • Brugs Tarwebier (a white beer),
  • Brugse Zot Blond (fruity yet spicy),
  • Brugse Zot Dubbel (a dark brown beer),
  • Straffe Hendrik Tripel (a very strong blond beer),
  • Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel (a very strong dark brown beer).

The malt is grounded to free starch and flavours.

The smashed malt falls into a kettle filled with hot water to become the wort. Heated up, it turns into a sugary liquid before being filtered and transferred to another kettle.

There, it is brought to the boil and hop (cannabis family) is added to give the beer aromas and bitterness while allowing for preservation.

Then the liquid is pumped into another kettle for centrifugation.

Right after, the wort is cooled down to 20°C and pumped into the fermentation kettle where yeast is added that feeds on the sugars to turn them into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

The fermentation stage is critical as this is when the wort turns into beer. At the Half Moon brewery, wort spends about a week in a 20,000-liter fermentation vessel at 20°C, as the brewery specialises in strong beers that require these relatively high fermentation temperatures.

When ready, a part of the beer is sent straight to the tap in the cosy pub of the brewery, while most of it is pumped to the bottling plant through the beer pipeline where it is kept in maturation tanks for about 3 weeks. The beer becomes clearer and its taste more refined before it is filtered and bottled with yeast and sugar allowing the beer to go through a second fermentation in the bottle.

Insider’s tip: Age your special beers between 6 months to 3 years for the optimal taste!

Did you know? Beer contains lots of vitamins B which purifies the blood and helps fight infections!

How to taste beer

Now that you know the process of beer making, a quality control is in order: tasting time! The pub of De Halve Maan is the only place in the world were the Brugse Zot (The Fools of Bruges) beer can be tasted unfiltered and in its cloudy non-pasteurized version.

Like a good wine, tasting beer is done according to a certain protocol. Start with lighter beers and move to darker beers:

  • Appearance: Check the colour of the foam, and the colour and clarity of the beer. For dark beer, the foam has to be brown if brewed naturally. The foam has to hold. Check the body of the beer (or its viscosity) and its level of carbonation.
  • Aroma: Beer glasses are shaped to free as many aromas as possible: strong beers are often served in chalice-type glasses in order for the aroma to develop in the glass and to not evaporate. This is why it makes sense to let a strong beer stand for a while before drinking it: its flavours get deeper.
    • Swirl the glass for the aromas to be released.
    • Sniff your beer: take a couple of brief air intakes above your glass (to not be overwhelmed by the strongest aromas), then take a long 2-second air intake.
  • Taste: Take a sip (no need to air it like wine as it is carbonated enough) and make sure all parts of your tong are wetted by the beer. Bitterness is often expressed by the hops, sweetness by the malts, sourness by the carbonation, and saltiness by the minerals.

If you don’t drink alcohol, the Halve Maan has created the first ever alcohol-free strong beer, called the Sport Zot without doing any concessions to its excellent taste.

Cheers!

Insider’s tips:

  • You should definitely order a Brugse Zot onsite, as it is in its purest form.
  • Our favourite is the Straffe Hendrick quadruple Heritage. For one year, this beer is aged in oak barrels which used to contain cognac, rum or port. The subtle flavours are incredible! You can keep this beer for 10 years if you can resist the temptation of opening it! Fairly strong, this beer is better served a bit warmer.

Travel tips:

  • To plan your trip, check out our article about 72 hours in Bruges and refer to Visit Bruges.
  • Visit the website of the Halve Maan Brewery to book your guided tour.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

For more in Belgium, click on the image below!

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