A trip to our Southern neighbors: the Cherry Sour

At Brouwerij ‘t IJ we have had a great love for  the beers of our Belgian colleagues from thevery beginning. Kaspar Peterson, the founder of our brewery, got hooked on it when  he was still touring Belgium as a  bass player and when he was  a  brewer himself once he regularly went back there. He rummaged through breweries and talked to the people who worked there. This resulted, among other things, in a double and a triple with sounding Flemish names and a wheat beer that contains  the necessary herbs and lemon entirely in  the Belgian style. They form an important part of our DNA and with that we now have a few Belgian beer styles pretty well in the fingers. But there is still plenty for us to discover within the various beercultures that Belgium has to offer. For example, we would always like to make such a typical sweet fruit beer again. We therefore decided to go south again and sample inspiration with Belgian colleagues.

This  time  we   let  Marc Coesens  talk  about cherry beer  and  other  sour  brews.  Coesens  is responsible  for  the ins  and  outs  of Liefmans, a  brewery  in the East Flemish  town of   Oudenaarde. Beer has been brewed there since  the Middle Ages  on  the Scheldt. That location had its drawbacks in that period. “Then it was the case that Flanders  did not have  permission to  use  hops,” explains  Coesens. “ Hops were only  intended  for  the abbeys  and  for  medicinal  use.” Too bad for those who  brewed  outside  monastery walls  because the use  of hops protects  beer better  against  the influence  of bacteria. “If you don’t use hops, that  beer will  quickly  acidify.” The beer of the brewery that is now  called  Liefmans  had a pretty sour taste from time immemorial.  When the Vlaamse brewers were allowed  to  use  hops, it turned out  that there were also  disadvantages . “They quickly realized that the sour beer   got a totally different taste as a result.” The forerunner of the current  brewery decided to cherish the characteristic  acidity and use slechts in moderation hops. “That’s why we still make sour beers at  Liefmans. Those beers  all sour.”  While  most  breweries are in constant  battle with bacteria, they are very  welcome at  Liefmans. “Our  bier  is   still fermented  in open yeast vats. They are  still  made of copper  and cannot be sterilized. They can be cleaned, but we do not sterilize them because there are lactic acid bacteria in our brewery.” They are  of course invisible so Coesens has no idea what exactly they are. “Against  the walls? In the pipes? In any case, they are intertwined with our brewery and are always present in our beer.”        

The wort, the unfermented beer, is made elsewhere  and then  driven to Oudenaarde. “We will then sow them with our own yeast,” says Coesens. “We  harvested  that yeast  from the previous brew. That way we  maintain that mixture of yeast and bacteria, especially lactic acid bacteria.  That is what we mean when we say ‘we make beers from mixed gisting’. Yeast with lactic acid bacteria in it. Those lactic acid bacteria that come in  spontaneously  . We don’t have to do anything for that. They are in the environment and they cause   the beer to sour.”

All the beer at Liefmans ferments in this way. The basis of a small part of the beers, the Goudenband and Oud Bruin, is a bit darker but about 90% is blond. “It looks like  lager but it’s sour,” explains the brewmaster. “ That is basically  the basis for a lot of other beers, such as the Fruitesse and the cherry beer.”

For that cherry beer, Liefmans makes mixtures of cherries and beer  with which they then also mix the final beer, also called ‘stitches.’  This  requires  huge quantities of cherries, or (sour) cherries.  Liefmans   nowadays only uses the so-called gorsemkriek for this. “We  used to have all kinds of  kinds on different tanks  and year after year it   always  turned out that those gorsems tasted the best.” What’s  in it for him? “The cherry character that we want to achieve is best expressed  with the gorsem,” says Coesens. “ Just a little more intense in acidity and a bit fuller in taste.” In Gingelom, in Belgian Limburg,  Liefmans has had  an extensive plantation planted for gorsemkrieken. “We buy between  60 and 100 tons at once and they harvest that there at the end of June, beginning of July.”

When the harvest is in, everything has to be processed at once. “We  have  beer and  we buy  cherries  and  we put them together”, Coesens summarizes the production process. Per 100 liters, about  15 to 20 kilos of cherries  go  into the tanks. The exact quantity depends on the quality of the harvest. “If they   are very good cherries, then we put  a little less into them. If the cherries  are a bit flutter  now, we will put in a little  more  cherries .” In some  years, 2021 for example, the harvest is so disastrous that  the cherry beer is hardly usable to mix  with. “But we  always  have  cherry beer from different  vintages. We   always keep  a  number  of tanks of two to three  or even  five  years. As a result, we can now  mainly use  cherry beer  from 2020, 2019 and  2018, for example.  So we should  not  have  two of those disaster harvests  in a row. But we can  always  make some adjustments  if we are a  little  less satisfied with  another  vintage. Then that will always be fine. This way we can always  bring mixtures to the desired  level”.  Liefmans  regularly uses this opportunity.  Sometimes  there are three to five different vintages  in one  beer. “That  is quite specific  and  special  about  our  brewery, that  we have such a  large  stock  of cherry beer. But around  the time of harvest , we also  have to  make sure  that enough tanks are empty again. Beer is  added, beer goes out, mixed  and  done. It’s  a very dynamic  movement  in those tanks and that can’t be automated.”      

The final cherry beer is therefore created by  mixing the beer from different tanks.  That mixing  naturally requires knowledge of the taste and that requires the necessary proevand. “We go to taste on a fairly regular basis. Then  we list the beer from different tanks   and then  we taste it. Then  we look at: what are we going to use the next time  we mix.”  We were of course curious about  the magic of that mixing process itself and so  Marc Coesens took us to the tasting room of the brewery.  There, the contents of different tanks can be  mixed very easily via the taps. “We have the habit of taking a certain beer too aromatic or  too sweet  and  then  adding a bit of ordinary basic beer.”  Our brewers discovered ‘experimentally’  in the café how to  do that and that tasted like more.  We also  wanted this, such a Belgian cherry beer, but in its Amsterdam style.  So we  started working with cherry beer ourselves  and tasted and mixed until we  had a nice blend. A beer in which the Belgian tradition of careful ‘stung’ fruit beers and the firm character of ‘t IJ  come together beautifully. It has  become a lush cherry bithere. By describing the slightly sweet and mildly sour character as funky   and that is why  we  just went full of disco  on the label. 

A trip to our Southern neighbors: the Cherry Sourpeter

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