Hip Hops in Belgium
You don't need to live like a monk to make great Belgian beer. Just ask the brothers behind Duvel ale.
The temptation is irresistible to brew a folk tale about the three brothers of Breendonk: Michel, Philippe and Bernard, whose family's most famous creation is a beer called Devil that was produced by mistake. That the story of the 130-year-old Moortgat brewery and its Duvel beer has a happy ending is a testament to the business acumen of the fourth generation of the Flemish Moortgat family. Michel and Philippe (Bernard is on the board) have been running the operation since 1992, when their father died... and they were all of 25 and 28 years old, respectively.
The three brothers inherited a remarkable legacy. Their beer's distinctive label, with its scarlet, gothic-script Duvel beneath the Moortgat family arms, is familiar throughout Belgium, as are the bulbous glasses specially designed in 1960 to enhance Duvel's particular qualities. Americans also seem to love this strong, triple-fermented brew, which is full of spicy, hoppy, fresh-grass flavor and boasts a full, creamy head. (At 8.5 grams of carbon dioxide per liter, the beer probably has the biggest foam in Belgium.)
It was all a happy accident... the flavor, the head, the entire style of Duvel. Jan-Leonard Moortgat founded his brewery in Breendonk simply because this small village 20 miles south of Antwerp lacked an indigenous beer; in 1871 nearly every village brewed its own. After World War I, the brewery was run by two of Jan-Leonard's 13 children... Michel and Philippe's grandfather Victor and his brother Albert. In the 1920s, Albert, noting Belgians' penchant for British ales, went to Scotland to seek yeasts and secrets, intending to reproduce Britain's fashionable brews. He failed. But, with some yeast he'd smuggled back, he did produce something new: a beer so different that a friend, on sampling it, was heard to exclaim: "It's a real devil!" And, in local dialect, Duvel is indeed what it became.
Duvel isn't Moortgat's only beer. Still, though the company, which is publicly held, produces eight more small-batch beers... including three Maredsous abbey ales and two pilsners, Bel Pils and Vedett... Duvel is king. It has inspired a deluge of competitors, yet remains nonpareil.
So the mood is deservedly jovial as Jan-Leonard Moortgat's great-grandsons gather at Michel's house, downingtheir ancestral brew with some of the beer-spiked dishes that the Flemish do so well: beer-battered shrimp, a salad with cherry beer vinaigrette, and chicken braised with juniper berries and abbey ale. Each course of Belgian cookbook author Ruth Van Waerebeek's delicious menu is paired with its perfect brew: Even the mussel soup flavored with curry powder is matched by the citrus-coriander notesof a wheat beer, and the dessert, a yeasty Flemish sugar tart, is complemented by the rich fruit of a framboise lambic, a raspberry beer. Not every beer is a Moortgat, but no one seems to mind.
Even when there's no business to conduct, the Moortgats get together frequently, sharing meals either chez Michel or at the family beach house. "You must understand," Philippe says with a laugh, "Michel and I lived together for eight years in Brussels... separate apartments but same house. Bernard lived nearby. Michel moved in with his wife, Stephanie, and I married Manu. We had two kids each there. We're close!"
So will there be a fifth generation of Moortgat brewers?
"I don't know, and I don't know if I wish it for them," Philippe says. "It has to be company first, family second." He pauses, then smiles. "But when you have family that can also run the company? Well, then, it's perfect."