Nighthawks // Dekkera, or the making of a modern Brussels neighbourhood bar

Nighthawks // Dekkera, or the making of a modern Brussels neighbourhood bar

Stuck to the pastel-yellow walls of Dekkera bar and bottleshop is an ersatz print of Edward Hopper’s iconic Nighthawks painting. The painting is instantly recognisable and has been endlessly reimagined – Dekkera’s version adds several punkish characters in sliver studded belts and two tone jackets. The fundamentals remains the same, however: four figures – three drinkers and a barman – sit at the bar of a late-night corner diner in an unidentified American city, viewed through a sweeping glass window. Hopper said of the painting that he was “unconsciously…painting the loneliness of a large city”.

Accessible and available

In spite of the loneliness of Nighthawks, Dekkera’s owner Sylvain Lecomte chose it as an inspiration for his idea of what a contemporary neighbourhood bar in a quiet part of Brussels might look like. Over a couple of beers on a damp, Wednesday evening in winter, to a soundtrack of Ray Charles crooning from distant speakers, Lecomte explains his plan for Dekkera as a place “more accessible, available to people in Brussels”, how he was helped along the way by an unconventional architectural agency, and how the bar is an expression of his own commitment to small, local, and independent breweries.

Dekkera – another name for Brussels’ signature yeast strain, Brettanomyces bruxellensis – sits in the crook of a Y-junction in the city’s down-at-heel Vorst district. It’s a short uphill walk from the old Wielemans-Ceuppens brewery complex, an echo of now-vanished industries that once dominated this corner of Brussels. The bar occupies an old shopfront, with large bay windows that give way to two rooms - a bar that you enter directly through the front door, and behind that a smaller room, lined with green-wood-and-glass shelves stacked with beers to take away.

The idea ROTOR is trying to show is that working with second-hand materials is that you don’t have to just put pallets on the walls
— Benjamin Lasserre, ROTOR

The evening of my visit, a TV in the corner has an Anderlecht match on mute, and the sporting posters and scarves tacked onto the walls are a nod to Lecomte’s former life as a sports journalist, his position as the number one Belgian fan of English non-league team Chesterfield F.C., and the proximity of the stadium of cult local club Royale Union St Gilloise nearby.

Building a bar from recovered materials

But it’s the dark, wooden bar top, following the sweep of the windows opposite, which dominates the room. And that is just as Lecomte and Benjamin Lasserre of Brussels design practice ROTOR intended it when they set about designing Dekkera’s interior.

For Lasserre, who has joined Lecomte and I at the bar, Nighthawks was their jumping off point. “With this painting, you can see there is this one guy in the middle of the bar. The bar itself is low, it’s like a table, and it’s large…a table where the interaction with Sylvain could happen easily, and where Sylvain is in the middle of the room,” he says. Finding a bar the fitted this brief was, according to Lasserre, “really important, the centrepiece of the project”.

Lasserre and ROTOR thought they had the perfect piece. But it wasn’t a table, or even a bar. It was a floor, or at least it used to be before ROTOR got their hands on it. That’s because ROTOR is not your usual design firm. They work exclusively with recovered materials, extracting what they can from the interiors of office buildings and other sites scheduled for demolition.

Once they have extracted what they can, ROTOR either sell what they find – light fixtures, furniture, cladding – or, in the case of Dekkera, use them for their own building projects. This was how a parquet floor trodden on for decades at the Brussels headquarters of the Generale Bank was wrestled into service as the bar that Lecomte, Lasserre, and I were now leaning against.

The geometric, translucent light fixtures hanging above the bar came from the same office complex, and were hung by ROTOR to “follow the shape of the bar,” says Lasserre. “So, when you’re sitting at the bar, you have the sensation of being part of the same space as Sylvain.” The rectangular black tiling around the base of the bar was sourced from Brussels’ Arts-Loi metro station, and curved and glossy wood-laminate chairs from a decommissioned European Commission building. “The idea ROTOR is trying to show,” says Lasserre, “is that working with second-hand materials is that you don’t have to just put pallets on the walls.”

The base of our customers are really from here. I know them, I know where they are from, and I talk to them about the neighbourhood
— Sylvain Lecomte, Dekkera

The Dekkera Charter

ROTOR were not Lecomte’s first choice, but it was clear early on to him that their ethos aligned with his. Partly because working with recovered materials narrows your design options. “It’s not my thing to design or decorate,” says Lecomte. “Just come by my apartment, and you’ll see!” It also, by accident as much as design, reflected the value Lecomte places on sustainability, which he codified in Dekkera’s charter.

Everything on sale conforms to the following rules (with the exception of Brasserie de la Senne and Brasserie Dupont): no further than 200km from Brussels; produce less than 10,000 hectolitres of beer a year; own their own brewing kit; do not work through large distributors; and, are financially independent of major brewing concerns.

Knowledge is power

These strictures come from the frustrations that Lecomte himself experienced as his interest in beer has developed in recent years. He found the breadth of choice coupled with a lack of information. He craved the knowledge to be able to distinguish more easily between beers from industrial breweries and those from small or local businesses. “So I thought [with Dekkera], ‘Let’s explain clearly to people like me, people who think like me’.”

He also wanted to be able to promote breweries that, in his view, may have been bypassed by the “craft” hype. Lecomte is less in favour of the term “craft” preferring the French word artisanal. In his view, artisanal doesn’t necessarily mean innovative or new: “Artisanal for me in French means that, you’re small.” What’s more, “classical Belgian styles are very important,” to him.

The first time I drank Westmalle Dubbel is one year ago. I had no interest in brown beer. I tried Chimay Bleu too young – disgusting!
— Sylvain Lecomte, Dekkera

This emphasis on local, classical, and artisanal is indicative of where Lecomte is on his own personal beer journey, one that started sampling beers from his father’s cellar and one which he freely admits he is still on. While Lecomte was brought up in Brussels, his father comes from the francophone Hainaut region, the home of Saison Dupont. “Like a lot of French-speaking people, we drink more blonde beers,” he says. “I read that in Flanders they drink more brown beers. The first time I drank Westmalle Dubbel is one year ago. I had no interest in brown beer. I tried Chimay Bleu too young – disgusting!”

That he is still learning makes him well-placed to help his customers, because many of them are too. The traditionally working class part of Vorst where Dekkera is located has so far escaped serious gentrification and the concomitant influx of self-consciously knowledgeable drinkers that usually follow. Complementing his charter, in the back room bottleshop – a “library of beers” Lasserre calls it – there is a small information card for each brewery on sale, with the name of owner, the date of its founding, its location, and a bilingual introduction.

As if on cue, our conversation is interrupted when two women come through the door and up to the bar, brows furrowed as they search for something familiar from the scribblings on the chalkboard in front of them. Lecomte sidles over, and in French one of the women asks him if he has something like a Leffe Blonde – “sweet but not too strong,” she says.  

Lecomte pulls from the fridge a beer from local brewery Brasserie L’Annexe and proceeds to explain how the brewery is new to Brussels, and that this beer (a saison), while not exactly in the style of a Leffe, still ticks some of her boxes while also offering something new and maybe a bit more interesting? Satisfied with his suggestion, her companion orders the same, and both retire with their beers to a small round table under the main window.

A neighbourhood bar for Vorst

Interactions like this are exactly what Lecomte was hoping for when he opened Dekkera. “I knew this district because of friends who live not far from here…I thought there were maybe people that…could be interested in this kind of project,” he says. His hunch was validated at launch, when a crowdfunding campaign to pay for the fit-out of the bar’s terrace in late 2017 raised over €7,000. 

“The base of our customers are really from here. I know them, I know where they are from, and I talk to them about the neighbourhood.” He has also paid them back for their support, hosting community events at the bar – including a retrospective on the history of the Wielemans Ceuppens brewery. Through its ‘Soirée élector’Ale” Lecomte invites customers to decide with him what would be the house Tripel and Witbier.

As Dekkera nears its first birthday in January 2019, it has earned the subtitle Lecomte has given it – Bièrerie Locale. He’s found a formula that works that works right now for this part of town – not so bleeding edge contemporary as to scare prospective customers off, but adventurous enough to offer something new, all the while coaxing his customers towards small, local, and artisanal beer. As a concept it may not be replicable in other parts of the city, but it’s working for Lecomte and for Vorst. 

I thought there were maybe people that…could be interested in this kind of project
— Sylvain Lecomte, Dekkera

Our conversation is wrapping up, and night has long since come to Brussels. The diffuse light from the rectangular chandeliers above us is flooding out of the bay windows into the quiet streets around us. Looking over to the Hopper print, with its dark shadows, quietude and yet a flicker of community, Lecomte says, “We didn’t want to copy the painting.

“But, sometimes I come to the bar, I’m outside and people are sitting inside, and I think, ‘Yeah, there is the spirit there’.”


Dekkera

Rue Pierre Decoster 109

1190 Forest