by Matt Brasch
The battle cry of the U.S. craft beer revolution is “drink local,” which stands for the concept of drinking fresh, well-crafted beer made in your town. While this is not a new concept in the U.S., but rather a return to early 1800’s distribution philosophy, “drink local” generally has been the status quo in Europe. One Belgian brewery that truly upholds the “drink local” concept is Brouwerij De Koninck. Not only the oldest brewery in Antwerp, but also the second oldest registered company in Antwerp (second only to the Antwerp Zoo), the history of the De Koninck brewery is one of local pride and tradition.
Brouwerij De Koninck’s story begins in 1827 when Joseph Henricus De Koninck bought a hostelry called De Plaisante Hof (“The Pleasant Garden”) on the border between Antwerp proper and the district of Berchem. A stone boundary marker engraved with a hand identifies the border and remains there today, across from the brewery. When Joseph De Koninck died shortly after the purchase, his wife, Elisabeth Cop, married Johannes Vervliet. In 1833, Vervliet converted the hostelry into a brewery and named it “Brouwerij De Hand” in tribute to the hand on the boundary marker. The hand can still be found on the brewery’s logo today.
In 1845, Carolus De Koninck, Elizabeth Cop’s son from her first marriage, took over the brewery. When Carolus died in 1883, he was succeeded by his son François Joseph, and later by his daughter Josephina Joanna, as head of the family business. In 1912, under the ownership of Charles De Koninck, Brewery De Hand changed its name to Brasserie Charles De Koninck, however, as a result of World War I, the renamed brewery was not properly launched until 1919. During that time, the head of brewing operations was Florent Van Bauwel, but was assisted by Joseph Van den Bogaert, a brewer from Willebroek who had been formally trained at the Agricultural and Brewing School in Leuven. In 1919, Joseph Van den Bogaert became an owner of the company.
In 1949, Modeste Van den Bogaert, Joseph’s son, joined the family business. At the age of twenty-seven, he took over the brewery operation and remained in charge of the brewery for over 50 years. His early years were challenging. Brewery De Koninck did not escape World War II unscathed—bombardments damaged the facility; in fact, a V-1 bomb was dropped about 100 yards away and the impact lifted the roof off the brewery building. In addition, during those years, the beer—while usually exceptional—regularly became infected. With the help of a professor from Louvain University, Modeste was able to get the brewery back in shape.
During and before WWII, a Belgian hop variety called “de groene belle van Asse” was used in De Koninck. After the war, Modeste determined that Saaz hops were the most suitable variety for the brewery and made the decision to exclusively use Saaz hops from that point forward. Another major change after WWII was the decision to filter the beer. After making these two changes, the De Koninck beer improved dramatically.
Lovingly referred to as “meneer” (“governor”) Modeste by the citizens of Antwerp, once the recipe of the De Koninck was perfected, he refused to follow the popular Belgian trend of brewing pilsner beers. During his 50 years in charge, he maintained a consistency in the taste of De Koninck while also making piece-by-piece improvements to the brewing process. Although Modeste ensured that the recipe of the traditional De Koninck never changed, several other beers were created and continue to be brewed today, including the De Koninck Winter and the Triple D’Anvers, both available in the U.S.
A point of pride of De Koninck and the citizens of Antwerp is the “bolleke.” If the traditional De Koninck is served correctly, it will appear on the bar in a half moon shaped glass with the De Koninck logo on it—this is referred to as a “bolleke.” It is a Belgian tradition that every beer has its own glass; when you order a “bolleke” in Antwerp, there is no question that you will receive a De Koninck in it.
In 2010, De Koninck was sold to Duvel Moortgat. Since the sale, the brewing equipment has been overhauled and fine-tuned. In addition, stricter requirements for raw materials and beer deliveries have been put into place, and quality control has been improved. One change to the De Koninck beer itself has been made—the beer now has additional aroma and character as a result of “late hopping” during the boil.
While De Koninck has always welcomed visitors to the brewery, it is currently under renovation and unavailable for tours. It is scheduled to re-open to bolleke fans as a “beer experience center” in the spring of 2015. Plans include nine themed rooms, in which the history of Antwerp, its individuality as a beer city and the brewing of De Koninck beer will be explained using the latest audio-visual techniques. According to the De Koninck press release, “the historic tie with the city of Antwerp is underlined at every moment of the visit. In an authentic, educational and interactive way, visitors will experience the rich beer culture and history of Antwerp’s last remaining city brewery.”
In 2013, De Koninck ventured into a local collaboration with world-renowned cheese refiners, Michel and Frédéric Van Tricht. Van Tricht, who has been based in Berchem since 1970, needed a larger space to ripen and keep their cheeses. De Koninck had space in its old bottling plant next to the new brewery, and after six months of renovation, eight ripening chambers were ready in July 2013. As explained by Frédéric Van Tricht, “We were looking for a large space where we could build various ripening chambers for different kinds of cheeses. We think it’s fantastic that we can do this in the attractive brewery building where beer is still being brewed. As genuine sons of Antwerp, we are enormously proud of our bolleke beer.”
With a brewing history of over 180 years and a close connection to its community, De Koninck has established itself as a role model for the mantra “drink local.” Whether it’s through a new and improved tour of the brewery, a sampling of Van Tricht cheese aged in De Koninck, or simply being handed a De Koninck when asking for a “bolleke,” anyone visiting Antwerp will easily learn first-hand that Brouwerij De Koninck is an integral piece of the community. a