“We always brew what we want” // A History of Brasserie de la Senne in 5 Beers

“The main thing we focus on is balance, because balance means drinkability, and that’s the joy of drinking beer. It’s as simple as that.” Yvan De Baets is sitting in an office-cum laboratory on the first floor of Brasserie de la Senne, ruminating on the philosophy behind the brewery he co-founded in 2003. From the brewery’s very first beer, it’s a philosophy that’s guided de la Senne from home-brewing in a squat, to brewing on recycled milk vats, and eventually to achieving their dream of opening their own Brussels-based brewery.

From the very first Zinnebir to the release of their latest beer, Schieve Saison, in January 2019, each of Brasserie de la Senne’s beers has a story to tell about this journey. As the brewery prepares for its next big move – to a larger, purpose built facility on the banks of the Brussels canal – here are five of those stories.

Zinnebir – Brussels, 2002, Brussels’ People Ale

Before there was Brasserie de la Senne, there was Zinnebir. Bernard Leboucq was home-brewing in the basement of a central Brussels squat in 2002, and he was invited to brew Zinnebir as the official beer for that year’s Zinneke parade. Yvan De Baets, already passionate about beer, was a social worker working alongside youth groups on the parade. A meet-cute was inevitable.

“I saw this guy pulling a big trolley of beer,” says De Baets, “and I told the guys working with me to take care of the kids, I have to meet him. He offered me a beer, a second, a third.” Two years later De Baets joined Leboucq as unofficial brewing advisor in their first iteration of Brasserie de la Senne.

Together, they brewed 340 litre batches of Zinnebir to a tweaked recipe in an abandoned lambic warehouse in Sint Pieters Leeuw, on the outskirts of Brussels. “The original inspiration [for Zinnebir] was to make a sort of a hoppier version of a Speciale Belge, a Belgian pale ale,” says De Baets,” and my influence was making it drier, hoppier and more bitter.”

De Baets took his cues a German brewing tradition centred on traditional, noble hops; then as now, de la Senne beers used only European hops, 96% of which come from Germany and Slovenia. “I prefer the subtleness, the balance, the small beautiful nuances from the more traditional hops in Europe,” says De Baets. In recent years, he has visited the hop fields of his suppliers during the autumnal hop harvests, building relationships with them.

“I know them very well. I know their families, I know their agricultural practices, I know how they crop, how they dry [the hops], because this is extremely important,” he says. “It’s not because you buy a bag of Saaz hops that you know what you will get. It’s so complex. It’s so dependent on the farmer, the terroir, and of course the climate.” There, among the hop bines and alongside the farmers, De Baets to ensure he gets exactly what he needs to give Zinnebir it’s essential floral, bitter citrus character.

Taras Boulba – St Pieters Leeuw, 2004, Extra Hoppy Ale

If Zinnebir nodded to a deep respect for Europe’s noble hops, then Taras Boulba was the purest expression of De Baets’ enduring love of cask ale. More precisely, English Best Bitter. “I think that a good English Bitter, well made, cask conditioned, is the best beer in the world,” he says. “My favourite brewery in the world, if you want to know, is Harvey’s in Sussex. For me, Harvey’s Sussex Best is the best beer ever.” 

On a visit to London in the 1990s for the Great British Beer Festival, De Baets ended up at the White Horse pub in Parson’s Green. “It was probably the best you could find in London at the time,” says De Baets. Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter was on, and he fell hard for it. “The first I had a sip of it I was like, ‘Wow, shit! This is my beer!’ Because the balance was absolutely beautiful, the maltiness was beautiful, the hoppiness was very delicate. And then you have these sulphury notes from the fermentation come through the beer. And I really fell in love with it.”

 De Baets took this as a template – pale, bitter, light, and low in alcohol – to create Taras Boulba to quench their thirst after a hard days brewing. At their makeshift brewery in Sint Pieters Leeuw De Baets and Leboucq hunched over scalding brewing vessels under low ceilings, stirring pitchforks in hand, and were in dire need of a beer at the end of the day. “Usually we were drinking Zinnebir. And then we decided we needed something lighter otherwise it will kill us some day. So we decided to make something very light,” De Baets says of Taras Boulba’s origins. “It was a very selfish beer.”

Originally brewed for them and their friends, they eventually started selling Taras Boulba locally. It was a hard slog. Belgium in 2004 had few breweries producing bracingly bitter (by Belgian standards) beers like Taras Boulba, or its near contemporary, Brouwerij De Ranke’s XX Bitter. “When we started we had to fight square metre by square metre to enter into the pubs, and we had to talk and talk and talk,” says De Baets. From this rough start, Taras Boulba has since gone on to become de la Senne’s most recognisable beer outside of Belgium, easily identified by the blue label and iconic artwork by the brewery’s in-house illustrator, Jean Goovaerts.

Stouterik – St Pieters Leeuw, 2004, The Brussels Stout

As interest in Brasserie de la Senne grew, their old milk vats proved insufficient to meet demand and in 2005 De Baets and Leboucq decamped to De Ranke and to French brewery Brasserie Thiriez to brew.

Stouterik, Brasserie de la Senne’s dry and darkly bitter Irish stout was introduced just before this move. “It’s very funny. From 1910 to 1960-something, if you were a brewery in Belgium and you didn’t have a stout in your range, you would go bankrupt,” De Baets says. “The Belgians were stout drinkers. And then since the 1970s, for some reason I never understood, there was a total decline of this beautiful style of beer.” The stouts being brewed in Belgium in 2004 were, De Baets says, “undrinkable”, and he and Leboucq were tiring of Guinness. So they brewed their own.

It’s the brewery’s lowest selling permanent beer, still brewed because the brewers still enjoy drinking it. And, because they’re stubborn. “Otherwise we would be brewing like 15 different IPAs, we would be making bigger volumes and more money,” says De Baets. “We have nothing against a good IPA, but there are so many shit IPAs on the market. And the market doesn’t need another IPA.

“We always brew what we want to brew.”

Saison du Meyboom – Brussels, 2014, Saison

It’s a mystery to De Baets why it took Brasserie de la Senne a decade to properly brew a saison. He is, after all, the author of ‘A History of Saison’, an essay in the seminal 2004 book Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition. He had dabbled in 2008 with a mixed fermentation version blended with lambic, but it took a move to de la Senne’s current site in Molenbeek in 2010 before they got serious. In 2014, settled in these new surrounding, De Baets got down to work to brew Saison du Meyboom – brewed to celebrate, and named after, an annual folklore tradition whereby Buumdroegers race to plant a tree in Brussels before 5pm on August 9.

The conventional story of saison is that it emerged as a light refreshing beer for farm labourers in Belgium’s Hainaut province. The beer has different interpretations, but it is generally characterised by what De Baets calls a “rustic” quality. In the 19th century, this would have come from the mixed yeast cultures (multiple different yeasts as well as some bacteria). A challenge for Brasserie de la Senne because in 2011 they started using a relatively clean single yeast strain in all their beers.

But coaxing yeast to give him what his beers need is what De Baets lives for. To him, yeast is not simply a raw ingredient to be handled the same way as hops or grains, but “it’s alive,” he says. “And something that is alive cannot be called an ingredient. It’s an insult to life.” The Molenbeek brewery was designed specifically with yeast management in mind. De Baets installed squat fermenters of his own design – wide and shallow, inspired by pre-WWII open fermenters – to reduce the water pressure on the yeast as it ferments.

In this respectful, stress-free environment, De Baets’ yeast offers up the “typical” de la Senne flavour he wants. “She’s my best friend, and she’s the most important character in the brewery,” he says. “Way more important than me. She does everything; we are extremely lazy people compared to her. I want to cherish her.”

Unwilling to adapt his yeast to the beer, De Baets adapted the beer to the yeast, using spelt, rye, and oats to achieve the “rustic” saison character. It was a move true to his assertion that recipes are rubbish; that what actually matters is how you treat your yeast and the technology you do – or don’t – use. “A lot of people think that the secret of beer is the recipe. That’s pure bullshit,” De Baets says.

Bruxellensis – Brussels, 2016, Local Brett Beer

Two years after the launch of Meyboom, de la Senne introduced Bruxellensis, the brewery’s newest permanent beer. Dubbed a ‘local brett beer’, it’s bottle-refermented with Brettanomyces yeast. Much like a certain Belgian Trappist beer. “It’s a bit obvious, and maybe too obvious,” says De Baets. “It’s Orval…It is a style of beer I love, and it gets hard to find Orval these days. So, being selfish people we decide to brew ourselves. Obviously it’s not Orval, it’s not a copy of Orval, but it’s an inspiration.”

As the brewery matures, De Baets has started making beers that break with some of the brewery’s orthodoxies. Many of these are limited run collaborations with other breweries, but designing Bruxellensis allowed him to introduce some of his on-going experimentation with alternative yeast cultures into his core range, as well as advancing de la Senne’s barrel-ageing programme.  

To make Bruxellensis, De Baets contacted a friend whose homebrews were constantly spoiling. Confident that he could secure a local strain of Brettanomyces from this mess, De Baets sent off a sample to a lab technician, who was able to isolate a strain of Brettanomyces Bruxellensis. As Bruxellensis ages for four months, the brettanomyces yeast continues to eat up residual sugars, transforming the beer into an effervescent, dry, and funky homage to Orval.

Some Bruxellensis beer is siphoned into Nuits-St-Georges wine barrels for an additional year of maturation to create a “Reserva” version. This is part of a barrel-ageing programme that de la Senne has expanded since 2016, and which will accelerate when the new brewery is completed and the current Molenbeek site is converted into a full-time barrel storehouse. The brewery’s ambitions are clear from the rows of barrels already stacked on the edge of the brewhouse, and from the recently-installed hulking oak foeder that has been maturing for a year a saison that de la Senne have brewed with Oregon’s De Garde Brewing.

Beer X – Laken, TBC, Pilsner

Back in de la Senne’s makeshift lab, it’s hard to miss architectural plans for the new brewery pasted to the ceiling. It has been designed to De Baets’ precise specifications, down to new, larger but still yeast-friendly fermentation tanks. He’s already installed one of these in the current brewery, making sure that his yeast is ready for the big move. 

De Baets is ready. Ready to try out some new beer styles on his new kit. Well, one style in particular. It’s been a dream of his to brew a light, crisp pilsner in the German style since before brewing school, but has been reluctant until now. “It’s the most difficult beer to make. Even a very small fault, and you taste it directly… It is totally naked.”

“It will probably take me ten years to make one, but that will be my challenge.”