We just completed day 2 here in Belgium. I’ve had a rough time adjusting to the 9-hour time change and after 23 hours of traveling, but I think today I am much better.
As soon as we arrived, we immediately started to learn about Brasserie de Marsinne and Leopold 7. Nicolas, one of the two owners of Leopold 7, was kind enough to pick us up at the airport (in a decked-out Leopold 7 van). While he was putting our luggage in the back of the van, he apologized for the small space due to a dozen empty kegs and several empty cases of bottles. He then explained how Brasserie de Marsinne’s commitment to sustainability involves reusing all the Leopold 7-printed bottles. In the brewery, they clean, sanitize, and refill the bottles over and over again to conserve water and energy. In addition, all the kegs are made of brown plastic, not metal as in the United States. I asked Nicolas why they use plastic kegs and he informed me all the kegs they use are one-time-use, returned to the brewery, then recycled. Things already seemed a bit different here in Belgium.
The past two nights Peter and I stayed with Nicolas and his lovely family in Louvain-la-Neuve, a quaint college town about 20 minutes southeast of Brussels. We spent our first evening in Belgium exploring the town and stumbled upon a café that serves crepes, ice cream, and beer-- my three favorite food groups. Peter and I enjoyed a beer and split a crepe as we observed the townsfolk. Needless to say, I really liked Louvain-la-Neuve. Nicolas’s wife and three children made us feel so welcome in their home, and welcomed us with chocolate cake and homemade tiramisu.
Nicolas and his wife speak very good English, but his three children, Elise (age 5), Celine (age 2.5) and Faizan (5 months), don’t speak any English. Despite the language barrier, we had a wonderful time sharing meals and spending time with the family. I’ve had one of the best meat dishes of my life at their home: venison stewed in Leopold 7 sauce and vegetables. (I was a bit skeptical, but I live by a policy that I will try any food at least once, and boy am I happy that I tried this dish). The meat was so tender, rich, and flavorful; it was like nothing I’ve ever eaten in America.
Yesterday, Peter and I spent the day acquainting ourselves with the brewery and observing quality control testing. At this point, I was still adjusting to the time change. I tried to stay busy by sorting bottles and walking around the brewery, but as soon as I sat down, I started nodding off. However, I managed to stay alert while the brewers were becoming acquainted with a new machine that measures bitterness, alcohol, and IBUs and printed out the results, just like a receipt on a cash register. As a food scientist, this was about the coolest piece of equipment I’ve ever seen.
For lunch, we ate at this fantastic bakery called Tartine & Gourmandise. They had an excellent array of sandwich fillings that they served on small torpedo rolls. The most popular filling was called “Américain,” which is made with raw ground beef (a bit of a misnomer, if you ask me, as we Americans tend adopt a suspicious attitude about our raw meats). Neither Peter nor I were adventurous enough to try it, but we both had excellent seafood and other meat fillings. Luckily for us, our apartment that I rented for my time in Couthuin happens to be right across the street from Tartine & Gourmandise, so we will definitely go back and enjoy more sandwiches, including Américain. Little did we know at this point, that this was one of the only businesses in Couthuin.
Today was our first day of brewing. Bastien and Florence are currently the two brewers at Brasserie de Marsinne. In mid-September, Bastien will embark on a world-wide adventure. He has no set plans, but intends to return to his favorite countries in Europe, such as Germany and Spain, but also wants to explore parts of the New World. I invited him to come visit us in California, I think he’d love experiencing another culture that is fond of Leopold 7 and craft beer.
If you know anything about brewing, it is that you spend the majority of your time cleaning. Therefore, I was not surprised when the first task Bastian showed us how to perform in the brewery was cleaning a fermentation tank. Since beer is so nutrient-rich, it has the potential to harbor all sorts of unwanted life forms, so any good brewery prioritizes cleaning as part of their daily routine.
We hooked up pipes to the Clean-In-Place (CIP) pump system as Bastian poured in an acidic cleaning solution and explained to us how the cleaning takes place. Next, we shadowed Florence as she monitored the brewing process.
There are three different types of grain used to make Leopold 7. Before Peter and I arrived, Florence and Bastian milled the grain, or crushed to expose the starch in the kernels, in preparation for the mash. We observed Florence monitor the mash in the mash tun, the step where hot water is added to the milled grain in order to convert the starch granules into fermentable sugars via amylases. This took about two hours, and we monitored the mash using their computerized system that displays temperature and time, among other things.
During the mash, we encountered some issues with the boiler, which is what keeps the mash hot. As a result, the mash took longer than expected to get the temperature up to the desired 68°C, but we were able to get the boiler working in order to proceed. Next, the mash was transferred to a nearby tank where the liquid part of the mash, called the wort, was separated from the spent grain via filtration plates in the lauter tun. I helped assist Florence place the filtration plates in the whirlpool, and believe me, they’re quite large, heavy, and awkward to hold, but she seemed to do it with ease.
At this point, Bastian explained that we had a while to wait, so he recommended we all take a lunch break. At this time, Nicolas took us to our apartment about a mile away from the brewery. I was extremely impressed how nice the apartment is. We have two bedrooms, a large living room, kitchen, and a bathroom, fully furnished with Internet and a washing machine all for only 325 euros ($362) a month! It’s over twice the size, and half the price of my apartment in Davis. I could get used to this.
Nicolas then took us to the nearest grocery store, which was two villages (3.7 miles) away from our apartment. When Fabrice mentioned that Couthuin was small, I had no idea how small he meant. When Nicolas dropped us back off at our apartment, he told us to take the rest of the day off and to report back at the brewery at 8:30 the next morning for a full day of brewing.
Peter and I spent the rest of the day walking around, exploring Couthuin’s city limits. We truly got a sense of how quaint the village is. However, the land here is beautiful as we walked by stone houses, small farms, and fields of grain nestled amongst rolling hills. Although the town is small, we will spend our weekdays busy at work at the brewery and we will use our weekends to explore Belgium and the surrounding countries.
Tomorrow we will brew all day (and hope that the boiler cooperates!). I’m excited to experience the beginning of the brewing process to the beginning of fermentation. So far my impressions of Belgium and brewing have defied all of my expectations. There is so much to learn, not only about brewing, but also the French language. I hope by the end of this trip I’ll be able to at least have a basic understanding. (I should probably get crackin’ on my Rosetta Stone...) Keep checking in for more exclusive updates and pictures!