written by Matt Brasch
In the Seine Valley of Belgium, about thirty minutes south of Brussels, lies Quenast, in the Brabant region of Wallonia, the French speaking district of Belgium. Known for nearby quarries that produce porphyry, an igneous rock containing large crystals, Quenast was home to thousands of stone workers in the late 1800s who looked for beer to quench their thirsts at the end of the work day. Since 1876, Brasserie Lefebvre has been satisfying that thirst, first in Belgium and then abroad.
Seeing that the quarries in the Quenast region were surrounded by pubs filled by the stoneworkers, in 1876 Jules Lefebvre, a gamekeeper, farmer, inn keeper and brewer, established a brewery on the river Seine in the village to provide beer for the pubs. According to fifth generation brewer Philippe Lefebvre, the first beer produced by the brewery was a “blond beer at about 2.5% ABV, strong enough for the thirsty quarry workers.”
The brewery continued brewing locally up until the First World War. When the Germans invaded they requisitioned all metal, so the brewery was dismantled. However, a portion of the brewing equipment was saved by burying it in the ground, out of sight of the occupying force until the end of the war in 1919.
Under the direction of Jules’s son, Auguste Lefebvre, the brewery was rebuilt and began production in 1921. Also during this year, the brewery moved from the side of the Seine River to a hill outside the village. As explained by Philippe, the move was necessary due to the seasonal flooding of the Seine—”I don’t know if you have ever had a flood in your home, but it is nearly the same in a brewery; every winter approximately, production was stopped and beer in barrels was destroyed.” In addition, the spring that fed the brewery with water was declining, so another water source was necessary. Brasserie Lefebvre’s new hillside location was previously a brewery that went into bankruptcy, named Brewery Saint Joseph, and the site remains the location of the brewery today.
1921 was notable for Lefebvre for another reason as well—after the move to the new location, third generation brewer Gaston Lefebvre modernized the brewery by introducing the bottling of beer. Prior to this, the beer was only conditioned in 30, 50 and 100 liter barrels and was delivered directly to consumers in barrels. Bottling allowed wider distribution and better conditioning. Gaston further modernized the brewery in 1932 by installing cylindro-conical tanks, which provided a technological advance by making the beer more consistent. Philippe explained, “Before 1932, beer was fermenting directly in barrels and directly delivered to consumers. With cylindro-conical fermenting vessels, beer was more regular and had finer quality.”
In 1940, Belgium was once again besieged by Germans and production slowed. The occupiers instituted a rule that breweries could not produce any beer with an ABV higher than 0.8%; this was called “Bière de table” or “Family beer” and was sold in 1 Liter flip-top bottles. So, while Brasserie Lefebvre was not dismantled, this rule had a direct impact on its production. Sadly, in addition to the hardship on the brewery, Gaston’s wife died of cancer during the war, which according to Philippe, “totally demotivated” his grandfather.
After the war, reeling from the reduction in production and the loss of Gaston’s wife, Brasserie Lefebvre continued to produce one beer—the Family beer at 1.2% ABV—and only sold 1300 hectoliters (a little over 1000 U.S. barrels) in 1953. The brewery’s renewal began in 1960 when Pierre Lefebvre took over the brewery and introduced a new beer named after the local stone—”Porph-Ale”—despite the reduction in quarry operations occurring at that time. Porph-Ale, produced by high fermentation, was 5% ABV and was a large change from the Family Beer produced for the past twenty years. Pierre continued to grow Brasserie Lefebvre by introducing a 6% ABV beer in 1966—”Super Houblo”—a Scotch ale.
In 1975, Philippe Lefebvre, fifth-generation brewer, assumed his place as head of the brewery after obtaining his marketing degree. Recognizing the need for an expansion on the varieties of beer they produced, in 1978 Philippe entered into a contract with the Abbey of Bonne-Espérance. According to Philippe, he was “searching for a brand for a new specialty beer at 8% ABV” and found it in the “Bonne-Esperance.” It paid off. Philippe said, “With this new beer we had huge success in Italy, and we understood quickly the potential of export markets against the difficulties of the declining consumption of beer in Belgium and the competition with the pilsner style.”
Another significant event for Brasserie Lefebvre occurred in 1983 when the Abbey Floreffe entrusted the brewery with a license to brew its abbey beers. The Abbey was not happy with its previous brewery, “…quality was not stable and the Abbey wanted to be brewed in the French part of Belgium. We enlarged promptly the range to get a blond at 6.3% ABV on draft and then opened the portfolio to 75cl bottles. Shortly said, we were more dynamic,” explained Philippe. Initially brewing three beers, it quickly increased to five, and four are still brewed today—Floreffe Double; Floreffe Triple; Floreffe Prima Melior; and Floreffe Blonde.
The late 1980s through the 1990s was a time of major expansion of varieties for Lefebvre. In 1989, they introduced a white beer called “la Student,” but quickly re-named it “Blanche de Bruxelles,” which is now well known in the United States. In 1996, the brewery installed lagering equipment and launched a lager brewed with honey called “Barbãr” and later the seasonal “Barbãr brassin d’hiver,” brewed from October to February. In 1998, an apple beer named “Newton” was launched.
The sixth-generation of Lefebvre brewers, Paul Lefebvre, joined the family business in 2002. His arrival guaranteed the continued innovation of Lefebvre. As Philippe noted, “The arrival of Paul in the brewery was a good thing for research and development. As we had requests for such products, we launched, in addition to the apple beer, the other classical tastes sold on the Belgian market. As we are not a lambic brewer, we used the Blanche de Bruxelles as the base beer and mixed in fruit concentrate.” In 2003, a cherry beer, “Belgian Kriek,” and a peach beer, “Belgian Pêches,” were launched. In 2004, “Belgian Framboises” (raspberry) followed.
Despite these new varieties of beer, Brasserie Lefebvre is dedicated to relying on traditional methods, including not filtering their beer. Philippe explained, “Our traditional way of brewing is maintained by use of only original raw materials such as barley malt, wheat, natural aromatics, and honey. The brewing process is based on conventional systems: classical filtration vessel, whirlpool for decantation, cylindro-conical vessels (as 90 years ago), and centrifugator for clarification. All the plant is based on respect of the product and we use no filter at any moment.”
With six generations of brewers steering the brewery through the turmoil of war and economic change, it is no wonder that Brasserie Lefebvre is a proud member of the Belgian Family Brewers. As Philippe said, “Our roots and tradition fit perfectly with the focus of the BFB; we joined the association 10 years ago. It is the sole association in Belgium where brewers are collaborating in such a competitive market.” From serving low alcohol beer to thirsty quarry workers, to exporting abbey beer and fruit beers around the world, Brasserie Lefebvre has continued to quench the thirst of beer drinkers worldwide for 140 years.