Naturally brewing in Belgium for almost 200 years
By Matt Brasch
Lindemans Brewery is most well-known in the United States for its lambic beers, such as Framboise, Pêche and Kriek. While these fruit infused lambics are indeed a treat to taste, Lindemans should be more identified with its dedication to continuing to brew the style–a spontaneously fermented beer that is born from the microflora in its local valley. Despite its significantly increased international demand, the sixth generation of the Lindemans family refuses to manually introduce yeast to its beer, staying true to its farm-brewery roots and the rules on making lambic from the sixteenth century.
As is the case with most Belgian breweries, Lindemans traces its brewing history back to a farm located in Vlezenbeek, a small town in the Flemish Brabant southwest of Brussels, Belgium, part of the municipality Sint-Pieters-Leeuw. Records indicate that a farm was in operation in there in 1809–named “Hof ter Kwade Wegen” (“the farm of the bad roads”)–and was owned by Petrus Jacobus Vandermissen and his wife, Maria Anna Van Dorselaer. The couple had a daughter named Francoise Josine Vandersmissen, who was the object of affection of a man named Joos Frans Lindemans. In 1822, the two were wed and Joos Frans, while enjoying his life on the farm, wanted to do more than farm; much like many people today, he also wanted to brew.
According to the Lindemans website, “In the evening, with his hands still aching from having [plowed] the land, he would work at brewing lambic.” In addition, during the winter months, there was little work to do on the farm for his workers, so they joined Joos Frans in the brewery making lambic. During the first year of brewing operations, 360 barrels of beer were brewed in a brewery consisting of two vats, a mixing tray and two coolships. By 1832, the company was described as “a brewery equipped with two boiling tanks, one of 400 hectoliters and 20 liters, the other of 21 hectoliters and 40 liters, two tanks of 25 and 21 hectoliters and two cooling trays in good condition. The brewery produces 20-30 brews.” In addition to his farming and brewing, Joos Frans became the mayor of Vlezenbeek in 1840.
Typical of a farm family of the time, Joos Frans and Francoise Josine had eleven children, three who died in infancy, two who became priests and three who never married. One of their sons, Joos Frans Duc “Duke” Lindemans, took over the family farm-brewery in 1865. In 1869, Duke built the farmhouse and the old brewhouse–both of which still exist today. During this time, the farm extended over more than 75 hectares (185 acres) of farmland and meadows and produced traditional lambic and faro, a popular table beer with less alcohol.
In 1901, Theofiel Martin Lindemans, the youngest of Duke’s nine children, took on the mantel of the farm-brewery. Theofiel was responsible for the brewery during World War I and dealt with difficult times. According to sixth-generation brewer Dirk Lindemans, “During WWI the entire brewhouse was confiscated by the Germans. They took all the copper [and] wooden barrels– even the chickens and horses (it was still a farm in that period as well). It was not possible to brew anymore and the Lindemans family survived from what the limited agricultural activities yielded.” After the WWI, they bought a new brewing system from a brewery named “Desiré Dubois” and brewing activities increased while farming decreased. The brewing equipment is still in Lindemans’ possession and was working until 1993.
In 1930, Theofiel’s son Emiel Jozef Lindemans took over the farm-brewery. Like his father, Emiel was forced to endure a time of war. But in the face of the Nazi occupation, explains Dirk Lindemans, “The Lindemans family learned their lesson and hid the brew equipment in a pond nearby the brewery. On alternative, cheap equipment, they brewed only a few times a month. And because the grains were confiscated by Germans, the story goes that they had to brew with beets. After the war they recovered the brewery and started brewing lambic again.”
The farming activities ended when Emiel passed away in 1956. At the time of his death, Emil’s sons, René and Nestor Lindemans, were completing their studies, so a brewer named Triphon Antoons was hired to run the brewery. After the brothers joined the brewery full time, in 1961 they brewed the first kriek according to traditional methods–letting it mature in oak barrels with a second fermentation in the bottle–and used Schaerbeek sour cherries. By 1973, the Schaerbeek cherry became increasingly rare, so they switched to Scandinavian sour cherries.
In 1970, Lindemans began exporting its lambic to France. Also during this time, the brewery expanded into beverage distribution to support the brewery. According to Dirk, the late 1960s “was a rough time for a lot of lambic brewers. Lager beers and ales became very popular and this was at the cost of lambic. In order to survive this crisis the Lindemans family took over a beer distributor with quite a lot of pubs and started to deliver a wide range of beers (lager and specialties from other breweries) to pubs and restaurants in Brussels. In the peak period (late 1970s, early 1980s) they delivered to about 200 pubs and restaurants in Brussels and surroundings.”
Supported by the distribution business, in 1978 Rene and Nestor were able to innovate by producing a pasteurized kriek from cherry pulp and juice, and in 1980 they began to market kriek in barrels, which resulted in a dramatic increase in exports–70% of their production went out of Belgium, with the four main markets being the United States, France, Switzerland and Germany.
In light of the increased demand, a new brewhouse was built in 1992. It contained 1,200 barrels with a capacity of 600 liters in which the lambic ferments and matures. In addition to the kriek, other fruit varieties of lambic were created, and, as Dirk stated, as the “new range of fruit lambics became more and more popular in the 80s, the family faced a new challenge: how to combine both the wholesale and brewing activities in a limited space. They made the wise decision to stop the beer distribution and focus themselves 100% to the lambic brew activities.”
In 2006, cousins Dirk and Geert Lindemans took over the daily management of the brewery, and in 2013, in order to meet the increasing domestic and international demand, work began to expand the brewery to double the storage space for the maturation of the lambic. However, in the face of this increased demand, Dirk and Geert will not compromise, “We do not adapt the brewing process to modern equipment; but we adjust modern equipment to brew traditional recipes. We still brew lambic as it should be: spontaneous (or natural) fermentation using the local microflora. No yeast is added manually.” A 200 year history of brewing and dedication to the lambic style, however, does not deter Lindemans from trying new things. For example, they recently brewed a collaboration lambic with Mikkeller called “SpontanBasil,” described as “an authentic old gueuze beer with fresh basil and a surprisingly fresh taste.”
Dirk and Geert are proud of their family brewing heritage and have joined the Belgian Family Brewers (BFB), a non-profit association that requires its member companies to have been brewing beer in Belgium for at least 50 years non-stop. While the Lindemans Brewery today would appear to be significantly different from the “farm of the bad roads” in 1822, the microflora blowing over the valley and gently landing in the lambic–and the family who still nurtures that lambic –are the same as when brewing began there almost 200 years ago.