written by Matt Brasch
Despite the name, Brasserie De Silly has been serious about traditional Belgian brewing since 1850. Now in the hands of the sixth generation of family brewers, the company is managed by cousins Lionel and Bertrand Van der Haegen. While the brewing process at Brasserie de Silly hasn’t changed much since 1850, today the brewery’s stainless steel tanks and other equipment ensures that they can produce more than the original farm brewers would have ever thought possible.
The village of Silly is located approximately 25 miles southwest of Brussels, in the Hainaut province of Belgium. In the 1800s, the large farms of Hainaut grew barley and hops so they could brew seasonal beers— saisons—for their field workers. Marcelin Hypolite Mynburghen was a typical farm owner in Silly, but also produced malt from his own crop of barley to brew a special beer each winter. In 1850, Marcelin founded his own brewery and named it “Cense de la Tour.” At that time, the farm had about 10 seasonal workers in the summer. Marcelin’s original beer, “Saison Silly,” was served to the field hands who worked the farm. According to Lionel Van der Haegen, “The workers were drinking between 5 and 8 liters of beer per day while working hard in the field.” While Lionel said that it is still a very refreshing beer today, it’s interesting to note that the alcohol content has moved from 3.5% back then to 5% today. (The field hands were probably a bit more productive than we imagine.)
Lionel explained that the original Saison Silly’s barley was malted right on the farm, so it was not a really a precise or scientific process. “They always heated the grain more than enough to be sure that it was malted. The malt was always dark and not pale—the color of Saison Silly has thus always been darker than most of the saisons you can find on the market today. “Saison Silly is still produced today, following the recipe created by Marcelin in 1850; “he brewed at the beginning of the winter and at the end of the winter, then blended the aged brews with young brews to make Saison Silly. We still do it that same way today.”
Marcelin passed away in 1884 and the brewery was taken over by his son Adelin. Adelin was more of a brewer than his father, and he won a silver medal at the “Exposition de Paris” in 1900 for his beers. Because of this, more of their beer began to be sold outside of the village of Silly.
Adelin passed away in 1908 at the age of 46, and his son (who was also named Adelin), took over the brewery at the age of 16. He was head of the brewery for 56 years. Adelin was in charge of the brewery during both World Wars and was responsible for ensuring its survival during those trying years.
During World War I, Adelin was able to continue brewing because he had painted all the copper of his brewery in black to make it look like cast iron. When the Germans came to confiscate the copper, they didn’t take the main pieces necessary to brew and so Adelin was allowed to continue to brew. Other breweries in the village of Silly had their copper confiscated and were unable to brew ever again. Although his equipment had been saved, it was still not an easy task for Adelin to brew during the war, due largely to the lack of available ingredients.
At the end of WWI, a group of Scottish soldiers who had been garrisoned nearby during the war stayed and settled not far from the brewery. They asked Adelin to brew a Scottish-style ale similar to their beer from home. According to Lionel, “Initially Adelin refused because he didn’t know how to make it and because of the lack of ingredients. They persisted—they gave him the necessary ingredients and one soldier, who had previously been a brewer in Scotland, even helped him brew the beer. Eventually “Scotch Silly” was born and the soldier who helped him, Jack Peyne, never even went back to Scotland. He chose to stay in Silly and even worked for the brewery until he retired.
Between WWI and WWII, Adelin grew the brewery through distribution, using five horses to deliver the beer by wagon. Lionel tells the story that Adelin’s daughter, Josette Meynsbrughen, would get upset at the horses when she rode them on the weekend because they were “used to stopping at every pub during the week. Thanks to his successful distribution, Adelin needed more space to expand the brewery. An old school next to the brewery seemed like the perfect solution. Conveniently, Adelin was also the Mayor of Silly, so he decided to build a new school in the village and sell the old one. He bought the old school to expand his brewery in 1937.
Adelin’s daughter Josette married José Van der Haegen, and José became involved in the brewery operation. During WWII, José and Adelin were both at the head of the brewery. Similar to WWI, the brewery was able continue to brew but on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, the malting operation ended because the malthouse burned; Adelin and José allowed English soldiers to dry a rain-soaked tent canopy on the roof of the malting facility, but it caught fire and burned the malt house to the ground.
After WWII ended, all farm activities stopped as the family instead focused their efforts on brewing. When José became involved in the brewery, he invested substantially in building pubs that would exclusively sell their beer. He realized that if he wanted to keep their customers happy, he needed a wider range of beer. They began to brew a Pils-style beer, which was popular in Belgium at that time. By 1950, they owned about 70 cafés within a 20 mile radius of Silly.
In 1956, they changed the name “Brasserie Meynsbrughen” to “Brasserie A. Mynsbrughen SA,” dropping the “e” from Meynsbrughen. Lionel explained, “The ‘e’ disappeared due to the fact that taxes were paid on the number of letters on the advertisement boards. As they were always putting the name Meynsbrughen on those boards they decided to skip the “e” to have fewer letters and to pay less in taxes. “During the late 1960s the “Mynsburghen” name was dropped altogether and they became “Brasserie de Silly” because they were the only brewery actively brewing in Silly.
In 1975, José Van der Haegen and his sons Jean-Paul and Didier took over Brasserie Tennstedt Decroes, a brewery that had been in operation in the town of Enghien since 1884. The owner at that time, Jules Tennstedt, offered it to Didier Van der Haegen and his brother because none of the Tennstedt children wanted to continue the brewery. The offer was more than just a business transaction—when Jules Tennstedt suddenly took over the brewery after his father died, he was very young and it was expected that due to his young age he would never manage to succeed. At the time, Adelin Meynsbrughen—who had taken over his brewery at the age of 16—went to visit Jules and told him, “If you ever need any help from me, I will always assist you.” Jules asked for, and received, Adelin’s help several times during his career, so in 1975, Jules went to see Didier (grandson of Adelin) and proposed that he take over the brewery in recognition of all the help that he had received from Adelin and his family.
Since the 1970s, Brasserie de Silly has continued to grow in distribution, facilities and portfolio.
In 2001, sixth generation brewer Bertrand Van der Haegen took over as head brewmaster from his father, Jean-Paul. In 2006, Brasserie de Silly received a license to brew an Abbey beer, “Abbaye de Forest,” which had not been brewed at the Abbey for some time. In 2007, Lionel Van der Haegen, also of the sixth generation, joined the brewery to take over his father’s job in sales and administration. In 2010, they created “BIO Silly Pils,” which, according to Lionel, was the first organic Pils-style brewed in Belgium.
Lionel believes that although the equipment may have changed, their beer is still as traditional as when it was brewed on the farm in 1850. “We’ve never, ever compromised on quality. The spirit of our ancestors has passed through the generations to stay the same. We give a lot of importance to time and let the beer come to its final taste without interfering with chemical or artificial additives. We still brew in the same way as when the brewery started in 1850 but the equipment and follow-up of quality is very modern. Everything is stainless steel and we have a lab for analysis. “This dedication to their family tradition is a reason why Brasserie de Silly is a member of the Belgian Family Brewers organization; the BFB is important to Lionel because “it promotes Belgian beer that has a common thread—generations of families of brewers.”