Belgium: The Holy Grail for most beer-lovers, with a tradition going back centuries. Traditions, really – lambics, Trappist beers, Flemish brown ales…the list goes on. Beers been their thing for as long as anyone can remember, so it’s very easy to assume that the breweries have been there forever, too.
As it happens, in the late 80s and early 90s a number of new breweries got into the business, creating a microbrew scene similar to what happened in many parts of the U.S. around that time. These new brewers may not have the legacy of some of their neighbors, but they have signed on out of a love for their country’s diverse beer tradition.
Francois Tonglet, brewer and owner of Brasserie Caracole, knew his subject well before he dove in. For years he was the owner of one of the best beer shops in the Ardennes, La Cave de Wallonie, which offered about 350 Belgian beers. In 1990 he began brewing his own beers together with childhood friend Jean-Pierre Debras, and a few years later they moved south from Namur to Falmignoul, where the brewery is located today.
Francois, like not a few of the new generation of Belgian brewers, had a slight advantage over his North American counterparts. Old, disused breweries are not hard to find, the lingering remains of the 20th century brewing industry’s ups-and-downs. Francois’ new location dates back to the 18th century; it closed and sat unused from 1971 until he moved in.
Along with the buildings, there was also a lot of second-hand equipment around. Today Francois brewery has a mix of equipment from various decades, including a 150-year-old mash tun and a 95-year-old malt grinder. Most notable is the brick, wood-fired brew kettles; beautiful and still very functional, even if the dampness in the burning wood can make temperature control difficult (It’s not Seattle, but Belgium gets more than its fair share of wet weather.). Note that this is for boiling the malt and water at the start of the brewing process, not drying or roasting the malt, so it isn’t doesn’t make for smokiness in the beer itself.
Today Brasserie Caracole produces almost 40,000 gallons of beer each year, including some made under contract for other small brands. It’s still a hands-on operation, and very labor-intensive. In 2004 the Brasserie opened a beautiful tasting room which has become a popular stop for tourists traveling through this picturesque part of southern Belgium. They brew four beers along with occasional experiments and organic versions of a few of their beers. One of those experiments, incidentally, is some distilled spirits ranging from whiskey to eaux-de-vie in character; Francois says these were merely the work of some eager summer interns, but here’s hoping he follows up on them, as the results were encouraging.
Troublette (White Ale): A hazy white – it’s unfiltered, like many wheaten beers – the Troublette is remarkable for its weight and mouthfeel; while still refreshing, it has a presence to it that many white ales lack. The nose is dominated by lemon, gooseberry, and passionfruit notes; on the palate, wheat and a slight hoppiness become more apparent. A great summer beer for those who don’t want to give up flavor and texture in the hot weather.
Saxo (Blond Ale): As with the Troublette, Saxo’s aromas begin with fruit – orange zest, quince, and fig – that smoothly evolve into grain and hop touches on the palate. Spice and hop aromas also take part, giving a drying, cleansing bitterness. The Saxo Bio is its organic counterpart; its fruit notes are brighter and tarter, leaning more toward pear and apple. It’s also a bit fuller, with great length…unfortunately it’s not imported to the U.S. at this time. The name, by the way, is in honor of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, who was born nearby in the town of Dinant.
Caracole (Amber Ale): Made with five different malts, two kinds of hops, and a touch of orange peel, the Caracole is fuller and round, with a copper color. Flavors include malt and toffee juxtaposed against quince, apricot, and orange zest notes. It’s dry, and a touch bitter on the finish.
Nostradamus (Brown Ale): This full, rich brew is the most complex of the four. A core of fig and date aromas is supported by notes of licorice, caramel, and toffee; more subtle, decorative notes of ginger and marzipan flesh it out further. While it’s sweeter than the other beers, a slight iced tea note comes on later to add a drying, tannic touch to the finish.