It’s early on a warm mid-July evening, and Denys Van Elewyck of Brasserie En Stoemelings is sitting behind the counter of the brewery, boxes piled up behind us and brewing equipment almost ready to be packed up. En Stoemelings, founded by Denis with his childhood friend and fellow Brusselaar Samuel Languy, is about to retrace the timeworn exodus of Brussels breweries from the centre to the periphery. Their brewery, which opened in 2015 on the Spiegelstraat in Brussels’ folksy Marollen district, is moving out and moving up. And, about time says Denys.
En Stoemelings – not willing to "die in the egg"
“We’ve been waiting for this since the beginning,” says Denys. “Now is the time for us, it’s too small. We cannot produce more than we actually do, and the thing is we want to move out and it is the right time to do so. You can stay, stay, stay, but as we say in French, it’s ‘mourir dans l’oeuf’ – dead before it’s born. That’s why we have to do this.”
The reasons for the move are simple economics. Working out of a makeshift space annexed to the Halles de Tanneurs complex, En Stoemelings’ existing kit is barely keeping up with demand. “We are not jumping from a quarter to a quarter to a quarter and so on,” says Denys. “What we have is 205 litres, 55 gallons and what we ordered 1800HL. It’s going to be a really massive space.”
The move to the new facility will be doubly beneficial: it will allow for a huge increase in production, but comes with a reduction in rent. The monthly rent for their Marollen brewery space accounts for 30% of their budget, and the new brewery in Laken will cost maybe 10-12%. Denys hopes that they may be able even to pay themselves a decent wage once they are operational at the new site.
It wasn’t originally in the plan to end up brewing in the Marollen. Denys and Samuel started out brewing on the southern outskirts of Brussels, and when they looked to expand in 2014 and 2015, support from local government programmes and a successful crowd-funding campaign followed. The Marollen brewery site was operational in July 2015, producing the brewery’s flagship beer, Curieuse Neus. En Stoemelings' core range has since expanded to include, among others, Chike Madame, a witbier, Cuvée Houdini, a Belgian Ambrée, and Noirølles, a "super" porter. As brewers, they hew close to the classic Belgian styles.
Farewell to the Vijfhoek
As the first of the new generation of Brussels breweries to open in the so-called “vijfhoek” – the almost-pentagonal shape traced around the old core of Brussels by its inner ring road – it is fitting that En Stoemelings should be the first to repeat a ritual of Brussels breweries. Like their predecessors, they have made the decision to leave the vijfhoek for the canal in search of room to grow. The neighbourhood they will be leaving behind has a rich brewing tradition. The brewery that would become Brasserie Wielemans-Ceuppens started out on the other side of the rail line that cuts like a psychic scar through downtown Brussels.
Two streets up from En Stoemelings, on the Kapucijnenstraat, Brasserie Vossen blended their geuze, La Mort Subite (The Sudden Death) – the name subsequently given to both the brewery and the eponymous bar in central Brussels. Geuze blending ended in 1959, but death has kept a hold here; it is now more famous for its association with the “Marollenmoord”, the murder of the then-owners of the building by their son.
Gentrification, inching slowly
En Stoemelings move away from here is happening as gentrification in the Marollen neighbourhood is gathering pace. Old brown cafes, local haunts, and halal butchers are being replaced by artisanal cheesemongers, cafes, and bike shops. The daily flea market on Place Jeu de Balle still dominates the life of the neighbourhood, but new money continues to inch down the Hoogstraat and Blaesstraat from the chichi Sablon district. Crumbling post-war housing blocks are being renovated, ungainly office blocks and housing complexes are being erected any available brownfield sites.
A brewery would fit quite well into this narrative, and as a vanguard of this gentrification En Stoemelings did for a time. But commercial realities and the need to accommodate Brussels’ growing population have put a squeeze on space in this corner of Brussels. Which means they are on their way. But, they leave on good terms, says Denys: “I had my time, I enjoyed it 100%, but now it’s time to move on. I won’t be sad to leave this place because I have happy memories, and we only keep the good ones.”
Brewers – and a brewery – with Brussels in their bones
Brussels remains a core part of the brewery’s identity, as it has done since the two founders started brewing in the kitchen of Denys’ family home. Brussels is central to their identity as brewers. It is there in their own personal stories, in their decision to stay within the city limits, and in the name of the brewery of its beers. “We are both from Brussels, Samuel and I. I was born in Sint Pieters (the Brussels hospital located just up the road from the brewery on the Hoogstraat). It makes sense for us,” says Denys.
About that name. En Stoemelings is Brussels dialect (pronounced “stumelings”), still spoken by some in the Marollen, and rarely elsewhere. It means to work in secrecy, to act under cover. Better to let Denys explain: “En Stoemelings is like when we first began to brew it was like in a basement without windows and stuff. It was like a 100l pot. We had so much weird things. It means the way we did things, in a secret way, behind the curtain, under the table.
“It’s a bit of a paradox now. Before we had these dark rooms, and now we have this huge glass façade,” he says, pointing to the large windows that look out onto a scraggly football court below a tired housing block, and beyond to the Brussel-Kapellekerk train overpass.
Concessions and compromises
Will you miss the neighbourhood? “Yes and no. Yes because it is our first place, but is now really too tiny, and Marolles is like a strange neighbourhood – rich people, poor people, crazy people and all sorts of things, and sometimes you have to deal with certain kinds of people and you’re like, oh I won’t miss this, you know?”
And of the new brewery? “We are from Brussels, we stay in Brussels. But, you know, Laken for me is not really Brussels, but you have to make some concessions, compromises,” Denys says. There’s rueful acceptance of commercial realities intruding on the romantic attachment to the Brussels 1000 postcode (Laken is still run by the Brussels city government, but has a different postcode – 1020 – and a different neighbourhood identity. Brussels is complicated).
Their new digs can be found at Greenbizz, a green business incubator in Laken’s Maritime Quarter. The quarter stretches out along the canal towards Molenbeek, all cobbled stones and quiet streets, and dominated by the nearby Tour et Taxis site. Greenbizz is a boxy hangar of a building, its outer walls punctured by a regularly repeating pattern of arrowed glass windows. The Brussels city administration has identified this as the place to where they want to bring light industry back into the city. So far, beer has featured prominently; Brasserie No Science opened in Greenbizz in 2016, and Brasserie de la Senne will relocate to a purpose-built site at Tour et Taxis in 2018.
Focusing on the flagship
For Denys, the new facility means one thing above all – an opportunity to focus on their flagship beer, their abbey tripel Curieuse Neus: “What we are going to do is focus on the tripel and what we are going to do is we are 33cl bottles” where now they exclusively bottle in 75cl.
The scale of the shift in capacity is daunting. “First, you know, I was like brewing at my mom’s, you know, like 19, 20 and I was brewing in the kitchen, you know 15l pots and think, ‘ah it’s too big’. Six years ago doing this whole thing was impossible to think about,” says Denys. “What we have now is 205 litres, 55 gallons and what we ordered (for the new brewery) is 1800HL. It’s going to be a really massive space.”
And for Denys, this massive space will provide another big advantage: more time to get out there and make some noise about their beers. “Less days to do more,” in Denys’ words; more festivals, more networking, and fewer man-hours spent brewing. However, there will be no taproom on-site. “It’s not a commercial place and I don’t want it to be like this. It’s going to have a zinc bar for us, but not for the clients…I’m disappointed, we won’t have it.”
They are hoping to be able to maintain their link to the Marollen, once the new brewery is up and humming. “What we can do now is maybe leave this place but find another place, maybe smaller and serve drinks, cheeses and good bread. That’s the kind of thing we want to do, but for now it is focus on one thing,” says Denys about their future plans. “We want to have some place in the neighbourhood to sell bottles and make some tastings, the cheese, some food pairings.”
En Stoemelings – but no longer brewing in secret
Since that mid-July Marollen evening, the new brewery equipment has arrived, brewing has commenced in Laken, and the Spiegelstraat space has been vacated. It’s odd to think that with only two years of professional brewing behind them they are still relative veterans on the Brussels scene. Denys says that both Jean Van Roy of Cantillon, and Yvan and Bernard of Brasserie de la Senne have been very supportive, providing anything from spare bottles to brewing advice.
But, he cautions, the next wave of breweries are going to have it tougher than they did when En Stoemelings launched. “I think there is more space for new breweries. Maybe two or three in the next few years. The next breweries are going to be in difficulty, because it is going to be harder and harder. I don’t think there’s a conflict right now, but if in five years you have many more it creates some diversity” and with that diversity, increased competition for tap space.
With this move, En Stoemelings are setting themselves up to meet that challenge head-on. And they won’t be doing it in secrecy for much longer.