“There is no blueprint for a space dedicated to fermentation”, says Yannick Schandené. He’s talking through the complications that followed his decision to uproot Fermenthings, a fermentation-centric shop he co-founded in 2017, from its home in Brussels’ Jette district and re-launch it ten months later as an all-purpose workspace for fermentation experimentation.
Along the way, Schandené lost his business partner but picked up a granola producer, a kombucha maker, and a brewer and brewpub. The brewer is Mathieu Huygens and the brewpub – La Source Beer Co – is about to launch alongside a revamped Fermenthings.
On the eve of the opening of their shared fermentation space, Schandené and Huygens explain how their collaboration came about, what exactly a “fermentation space is”, and how Huygens aims to beat out the competition with what he calls “the freshest beer in Brussels.”
From Byrrh to Beer
At the Be-Here business centre on a bright late-September morning in the cobbled backstreets of Brussels’ western canal zone, there’s an inescapable hint of spice in the air. Underneath the building’s pitched glass canopy the centre’s occupants are rolling up their shutters and getting to work. The complex that houses Be-Here was built in the 1920s as a distribution warehouse for Byrrh, a French aperitif. Byrrh departed in the 1960s and the building fell into disrepair until it was rescued as an indoor skatepark.
Local government eventually stepped in and renovated it as an economic hub for businesses working in the local and sustainable food industry. There is an organic fruit and veg market, a biscuit maker, and now – obvious from the bags of Simpsons brown malt stacked outside – a brewery. Inside a hangar facing onto the building’s central courtyard, Schandené are sitting at a wooden table in the middle of their space, the brewpub to their left and the Fermenthings workshop area to their right.
The two men first met in October 2017 when Huygens was invited to run a tap takeover at a bar in Jette, near Fermenthings’ then-location. Schandené, together with his now-departed business partner, opened their shop in August of the same year, having discovered the joys of fermentation while learning about brewing. Schandené soon abandoned aspirations of becoming a brewer: “There were people doing really good stuff [and] I didn’t have that touch,” he says.
In Sandor Katz we trust
Instead his attention was drawn elsewhere. “I discovered [fermentation guru] Sandor Katz,” Schandené says. “A whole new world opened up to me.” Fermenthings was the result, a shop stocking Schandené’s favourite fermented drinks alongside his and other local producers’ fermented foods – kimchi, hot sauce, pickles. It was also a place for him and others to host workshops around beer, wine, coffee, bread making and more [DISCLAIMER – Fermenthings hired me for a beer history workshop in March 2018].
But Fermenthings was never tied to Jette, and when the 2018 pedestrianisation of a nearby square failed to boost business, Schandené and his business partner started casting about for an alternative. That’s how he came to Be-Here and the opportunity to develop a gargantuan space that he could neither fill nor afford just with Fermenthings alone. Re-enter Huygens.
“I really liked his style of brewing, especially the more underground brews that were at that moment available,” Schandené says. They also shared similar philosophical approaches, and what’s more, for Schandené a brewpub would be useful in attracting prospective customers to a thoroughly unfashionable part of Brussels.
The offer came a year or two ahead of the plans of Huygens and his wife Nina Carleer, who runs the business with him. But they had always wanted to open a brewpub, and La Source is named for their desire to have people come to the source of the beer to drink it. When Schandené approached them, “it was like, this is the opportunity, we have to go for it!” Huygens says. He shifted from weekly homebrews to contract brewing first with Brasserie Valduc-Thor in Wallonian Brabant, and then at Brussels’ Nanobrasserie L’Ermitage. La Source launched its first commercial beer (an IPA) in the autumn of 2018, as Huygens and Schandené worked through the necessary paperwork for their new collaboration.
“Holes and dirt”
On their first visit to Be-Here in the autumn of 2018, there was little more than “holes and dirt” according to Huygens. So they set to work, fitting out the room they had been allotted, while Schandené took Fermenthings on an itinerant events tour of the city. As of the end of September 2019, that work is more or less done. What’s resulted is a space spilt into a Fermenthings section and a La Source section, each a reflection of their respective personalities and the end result is a reflection of their respective attitudes.
Huygens, a former graphic designer with a short beard trimmed to a point, and his wife have fashioned a brewpub that is all clean lines, sleek black walls, and gleaming stainless steel. Schandené’s beard is more Darwinesque, and Fermenthings’ space a little less ordered. There are three steel workstations lined up next to shelves stocked with beer, cider, mead and saké. Behind all this is a hidden storage area, a riot of glass jars, some filled with bright fruit and vegetables in pickling juice, others still waiting to be filled. The aforementioned granola maker has taken up residence in the adjoining kitchen, and above on the mezzanine floor a kombucha brewer is moving in next to an empty space earmarked for some of Fermenthings’ more experimental efforts.
Sourdough and Scobies
The space is separated functionally if not neatly, brought together by a stripped back aesthetic leaning heavily on wooden panelling and furniture made from repurposed wood. Schandené wants it to be an open laboratory for experimentation and collaboration, with workshops Fermenthings’ primary activity and the shop side-lined but still there. “That makes the project much more interesting,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to explain, to teach, just about fermentation. That’s what I like doing here.” As well as coming here for workshops on sake, hot sauce, kimchi and more, people will be able to source their sourdough starters or pick up scobies for their home-brewed kombuchas.
Their first big collaboration is the catering for La Source’s launch on October 12, and Huygens and Schandené have teamed up to offer a tasting menu featuring duck cured in Koji, rutabaga Tsukemono, and fermented oranges. These will be paired with La Source beers, and for these Huygens takes his inspiration from US and UK beer. At launch the brewery will be pouring a double IPA, a pale ale brewed with German hops, and what he calls a “more contemporary” tripel.
Huygens is also keen to use his new brew kit – 500-600 litre brewhouse, nine fermentation tanks and five serving tanks – to explore wild and lactic fermentation. He’s set up a trio of man-sized plastic eggs for his “sour” beers, which for now include a gruit made with foraged yarrow flowers and a 3.5% ABV hoppy light sour. Dark Wood, a canned coconut and palo santo imperial stout brewed with with Wallonian brewery Brasserie de la Sambre and ready for the launch tastes like a liquefied dark chocolate Bounty bar. Each beer is labelled with a hand-engraved illustration of an animal when canned – badgers, birds, dragonflies.
“Freshest beer in Brussels”
When ready, La Source’s beers will be served directly from five tanks, or from kegs through one of 15 taps. It is his experiments with “wild” beers and, more importantly, the freshness of La Source’s beers that Huygens hopes will set his brewery apart in what is becoming – for Brussels – an increasingly crowded local beer market. “For us, our uniqueness is mainly the short circle concept of the brewery,” he says. “Having the freshest beer in Brussels, served directly from the tank. No oxygen, no light, no heat, so there’s no way the beer can lose some quality.”
As well as competition from the city’s other brewers, Schandené and Huygens face the challenge of attracting people to their corner of Brussels, far from the more traditionally hip neighbourhoods in the centre and south of the city. Be-Here is supposed to be an answer to this. It’s one part of an on-going and concerted effort by the city’s administrators to attract to the canal-side neighbourhoods of Anderlecht, Molenbeek, Laken local productive industries bring accessible work, and a middle-class presumed more likely to spend their money at organic markets and brewpubs.
Hedging their bets
It’s a challenge they’re not facing on their own; a short walk from Be-Here back towards the centre of Brussels, inside the Tour & Taxis site, is Brasserie de la Senne’s soon-to-be-operational brewery. Across the street is the Greenbizz business incubator that is home to two breweries and an urban winery. And behind that is the site of the new, eco-friendly Tivoli neighbourhood, gleaming white apartment blocks intended for (some) social housing and middle-income families.
Both men acknowledge their fermentation project is risky, but they have first mover advantage. “The bet is that we’re pretty much alone here; when you’re the only bar within a few kilometres, that’s nice,” Huygens says. Schandené agrees, noting that, between the canal and the Jette train station near Fermenthings’ first outpost, there are few bars and certainly nothing like what they have put together. “It’s a calculated bet,” he says. Brussels’ drinkers and gourmands will soon see if it pays off.