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The Brouwerij Boon Tradition: an interview with Karel Boon

By: Tim Jerding

Tradition constitutes a large part of the human experience. It is created and nurtured by families, communities, and cultures. If neglected, it becomes history.

By the 1970s, the Lambic tradition was under threat from modernity; the consumer base became more accustomed to pale lager and had developed a taste for back-sweetened Lambic. (I’ve heard interviews where Belgian brewers blame American influence and Coca-Cola for this sweet tooth trend in Belgium. It makes sense.) Traditional geuze–a blend of one to three year-old Lambic that is bottle conditioned like Champagne–was going out of style.

Frank Boon purchased Brasserie R. De Vits in 1978 with a vision to maintain the Lambic and geuze tradition. It was a vision against the current, against the market demands, and it was one of a passion for geuze, that most beautiful and nuanced beer style that remains in existence today thanks in large part to Mr. Boon’s (and other producers such as Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen) efforts. In recent years, Lambics have been the major influence on the development of the “sour” beer culture that has played a huge role in the American craft beer market.

Four decades after his purchase, Boon houses the largest volume of Lambic beer in the world. Boon’s beers have won gold medals in six consecutive World Beer Cups. His early dedication to blending and bottling Geuze kept Lambic’s chin above water, and now he’s rightfully recognized as a hero in the beer world.

In March, we featured Brouwerij Boon as our brewery of the month at Mr. B’s. I exchanged a few emails with Karel Boon, son of Frank, in regards to him and his brother Jos growing up at Boon, the state of beer, and their roles carrying the torch of Boon onward. Below is that exchange.

How old were you when you first drank Lambic? How did it go? Did you enjoy it?

This may shock some people, but I was definitely younger than 4. There wasn’t even an age limit on drinking beer yet back then I think here in Belgium. We pretty much always drank Lambic at the dinner table in the evening. Our parents would give us a glass of it, cut down with water. The older we got the less water was added and at some point we were even allowed to drink more than one glass. I’m quite sure I enjoyed the beer. They say the first encounter is always the most important one and look, now I’m taking over my father’s brewery together with my brother. I think that must have been a great first encounter. Unfortunately, I was too young to remember today.

The Boon name has become synonymous with great Lambic. What was it like growing up in a Lambic brewery and how has your role evolved as you’ve matured? How will it continue to evolve?

I often compare it to the idea of a farmer’s family living on their farm. We’ve always lived next to the brewery. From my bedroom I could walk in my pyjama’s into the brewery without going outside. Today our parents still live there but my brother and I live about a minute away from the brewery. Growing up at the brewery it seemed quite normal to have this thing in your life. We’ve always been in contact with Lambic beer, but also other breweries, other brewers, other styles of beers etc. During weekends and the summer it was normal to work at the brewery, back then, cleaning bottles from labels that wouldn’t go off in the machine; sorting brown and green bottles (as we recycle them in Belgium); repainting the red mash tun in the brew house; cleaning up the warehouse; cutting out weeds between the tiles outside; helping to clean casks; at a later age help at beer festivals. It literally becomes part of your life this way. Not to say that I haven’t had other interests, but in the back of my head I always wanted to continue in the brewery, together with my brother Jos. It’s simply such a large part of our lives. We’ve never been forced to work in the brewery, but what our father understood was that for many reasons you need to live right next to the brewery, but mainly to (1), keep an eye on everything because it’s 24/7 follow-up and (2) the family gets involved and it can become and stay a family business. There’s so much know-how, the feeling, the philosophy that needs to be passed on that it is almost only possible through family generations.

My brother Jos and I both had our own interests. His more towards the production and bio-chemistry behind beer and for me it’s more about the people around the brewery and the people who drink our beers which is why I take on our sales and some marketing. We’ve started as kids with helping cleaning the bottles and scraping the floor, learning the importance of detail and care. Now we’re here.

The brewery is growing thanks to the popularity we and other Lambic producers have created. So the brewery is becoming a larger structure with more people working in it which requires more organisational skill than before. But in the end the main idea stays that we just want to make great Lambic beers where at the end of the glass you can say: “Ah, that was great. Give me another one of that.” And at the same time have fun trying to improve the beers, the taste and make some new creations now and then.

Wow. Sounds like a wonderful and noble life. It’s obvious that the finished product in the bottle is great not just because of method, ingredients, etc, but also because of the passion you all exude and the choice you all have made to commit your life to the creation of these wonderful beers.

The analogy to the farm is interesting to me because of the farmhouse tradition in beer. Most breweries in the US don’t have those relationships, but there is a small trend where breweries stateside are focusing on local ingredients and having relationships with the growers of those ingredients. I get the sense Boon, and most Belgian brewers, have always valued those relationships and quality of ingredients. How close of a relationship does Boon have with the growers of the grain, hops, and fruit that goes into the beer? How are your own fruit orchards going and what is the long term goal with growing your own fruit?

Well, the analogy with the farm, from my perspective, has more to do with the fact that we’re a family business, we live right next to the brewery, on the same land. I’m sitting in my office writing this to you now at the brewery, on a Sunday. I think that says it all (haha). However, we don’t grow our own ingredients. The ingredients of the beer are obviously of tremendous importance. The connotation that ‘grown locally’ is necessarily better for the product is not always true though. It really depends on what you need from the ingredients to make your beer great and then which ingredients have those components to make it so. Of course if it’s local, it’s a plus. You’re less on the road with the raw materials and the quality chain is shorter so it’s even easier to follow up. Our relationship with the producers that supply us is very close though. You need a good relationship to stay updated on harvests, qualities and so on. So not all our ingredients come from Belgium. From our experience and tests, the best malt or wheat or hops for Lambic can’t be found in Belgium today, unfortunately. Our cherries are currently harvested in Poland, handpicked. However, we’re currently working with Belgian cultivators as well as the local governments to create fields here in our province where we can grow cherries of the “schaarbeekse” family. We’re currently doing tests with 28 different schaarbeekse varieties. We have created and bottled 28 different Oude Krieks with these 28 varieties to check which variety gives the nicest flavours etc. (We often do such tests of which bottled never go into the market). Then we also have to look at which variety can be used to have decent yield when harvesting. Ideally, we can use the best variety for flavour and find a way to harvest them so there’s a high yield. The idea is to create hedges, like with grapes for wine, to harvest automatically using the same machines from the wine-makers. It will take a few years before any harvesting will really be possible, but we’re doing this properly so we can create Schaarbeekse cherries that are ideal for Oude Kriek and that are affordable. Soon we’ll actually release “Oude Schaarbeekse Kriek Boon” which is a first test with one of these cherries, harvested in Belgium, at real-life scale. And I think I can say this Oude Kriek will be limited now, but more similar things will probably follow as we’re only just starting.

Aside from the beers at Boon, can you talk about two or three beers that have made a special impression on you?

There’s definitely some specific beers that have made an impression on me, aside from our own beers. Style related; Growing up, my father used to drink stouts sometimes. As a kid at about 6 years old I would sip from his glass to taste and I always knew it was “a stout.” Of course, compared to most other beers this was easy to spot. But it always stayed with me that that was probably when I really realised that beer could be many different things. So today I’m also still a big fan of stouts. However, I stay quite classic in this style. I’m not looking for 999% coffee or chocolate flavour with a beer that has a syrupy texture. Given that I’ve been somewhat trained by my father to detect off-flavours, it’s not always easy to find a new beer (or wine) that I 100% enjoy. But because there are many breweries in Belgium that have built up great know-how about beer, you don’t have to look far here. So there’s beers you’ll often find in my fridge like Westmalle Tripel, Saison Dupont, Gouden Carolus Classic, Orval, and a bunch more.

Boon beers were the first proper Lambics that I ever had. Their influence on the modern beer culture in America is obvious–first with controlled fermentation sours and now with more and more stateside breweries utilizing spontaneous fermentation. But working on the retail side, I’ve noticed that a healthy percentage of our “sour” beer customers have not had your beers nor heard of them. Have you spent much time in the American market? And what are your thoughts? What do you see as the future of Boon consumption in an ever evolving market?

In 2 years, I’ve been in the USA twice now together for a total of about 22 days traveling around to visit the beer scene, so far in 6 different states. It is crazy to see how much beer is out there. It looks like there’s more than can ever be drunk. Now on top of that are indeed many sour beers. From my perspective, there is quite simply so much beer, so many brands, so many labels out there, that it is incredibly difficult for a random individual who likes to buy some special beers to actually grasp the origin of this entire movement and to come to the conclusion to try a Belgian beer, not an American one. Because there’s so much beer in the US, I think that to many we’re just ‘yet another beer brand’ while in fact, if it were not for my father, there would be maybe only one museum left to talk about how Lambic beer used to be made and one or two other large breweries who would use the names “Geuze” and “Lambic” to sell non-traditional sweetened or filtered derivatives. Without him we would not be talking about “Oude Geuze” or “Oude Kriek”. The distinction with “Oude” (or “traditional”) would not have been made, creating even more confusion about real Lambic beers towards consumers. Just looking at our beer bottles and the labels of course, who could guess this story. But I feel it is relevant and needs to be told.

To be honest we’re not big fans of the name “sour” beer because if there can be “sour” beer, there could be “sour” wine. But that’s what we just call vinegar. So we prefer to refer to our beers as “Lambic” beers. Sourness is part of the flavour, but it is not the main point. So already we notice that the copies of Belgian Lambics are now being called “sour”, often because they turn very sour indeed and because it seems many Americans seem to like this strong sourness. Compared to some of those very sour beers, our beer appears not sour at all. So there’s a huge challenge already to explain what our beer is about. (I refer you to my previous answer where I said, “We just want to make great Lambic beers where at the end of the glass you can say, ‘Ah, that was great. Give me another one of that.’”) It’s not only about sourness. With Lambic beers, it’s about brewing a beer with a lot of care for raw materials, the installations you’re using and so on, that, by ageing slowly, obtains delicate and complex flavours thanks to the wild/brett [brettanomyces or “brett” is a strain of wild yeast that creates delicious funk and acidity] yeasts from our region. Then as brewers it’s our task to use these Lambics, to blend them, and create complex but balanced Oude Geuzes or fruit beers by fermenting the fruit, e.g. cherries, with young Lambic. But to get this message across is an immense task when there are literally tens of thousands of other beers with brewers that are talking about their beers.

It is difficult to say where we’re headed. The US market is quite different from the Belgian one and rapidly changing. I suppose there is currently a large boom, a bubble even, of breweries and beers. I feel, however, that some people are just going back to the ‘easy drinking’ beers or beers that are still special, but not destroying their taste buds. So I hope that those people can come across our beers to discover that this is what the Boon beers along with many other Belgian beers offer. The USA is also a more keg-oriented market than Belgium which is why we also decided to create a version of Geuze Boon on draft, Geuze Boon Sélection. This is something that is less traditional, an innovation within the geuze tradition perhaps, but thanks to current technologies perfectly possible. The Geuze Boon Sélection is a blend of old and young lambics, re-fermented in keg. We keep the kegs at the brewery at least 4, sometimes 5 months to give them time to re-ferment. With this I hope we can introduce many Americans to the Geuze style who would otherwise not choose for bottled beers. My preference though will still go to bottled Oude Geuze as it is the most refined.

Wow. Karel, what you’ve observed and discussed here is an acute analysis of the beer culture in the US. There is certainly a saturation of beer and a huge emphasis on over-the-top flavors. With that approach, nuance can be lost. Having said that, there are definitely breweries taking a more artistic approach to their beer (try Blackberry Farm, Casey, and New Glarus–all some of my faves). I kind of view the market and culture as an immature one; we’re a lot younger over here. Prohibition killed all the breweries in the 1920’s and now we’re like over excited teenagers trying to drink the latest and greatest. I think over time as the culture matures here, a nuanced approach to brewing and flavors will become more appreciated and beers such as yours will be the standard for what people want. And people will be innovating within those nuances, rather than beating you over the head with a certain flavor.

I think you’re right it has to do with the maturity of the market today. A lot of ‘testing’ we’re seeing in the USA are things we actually have read about in old beer books from Belgium and Germany. But you probably have to go through that stage. So a lot of things are still waiting to happen. By the way, New Glarus’ beers are some of the few that really had a good impact on my perception of American beers and the future of the American beer culture. I was able to taste some of their beers when I was in Milwaukee. That was a very pleasant discovery!

A very big thank you to Karel for participating in this little blog. Needless to say, the future of Boon is in good hands.

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