Thursday, January 22, 2009

First: a New Warm Room. Next: World Domination.

Thanks to its new boss, America is getting some good vibes from the rest of the world these days. But there is at least one little place in Belgium where those good vibes never stopped: Glazen Toren.

Largely thanks to U.S. demand, this small but savvy brewery in East Flanders is doing well and looking to expand. As you may suspect if you've ever tried to find its distinctive, tissue-wrapped bottles in Belgium, this success has virtually nothing to do with the local market. A full 80 percent of what Glazen Toren makes is bound for the United States.

We stopped in there last Saturday, in the village of Erpe-Mere, ostensibly just to buy beer. We hoped for a peek at the brewery but were pessimistic. Its website warns that visits are for groups of 15 to 35 people, to be arranged in advance, and that they're all booked for the coming months. As I said, we were just looking to buy beer.

Instead we got a long chat, brief tour, and tasting with brewery partner Marc De Neef, while co-founders Jef Van den Steen and Dirk De Pauw said hello and continued brewing. I didn't even mention the bit about being a writer until the end; Marc – who is a librarian in his day job – was very generous with his time (incidentally, Jef is a writer and retired mathematician, while Dirk is a hospital administrator). Also we were lucky since they weren't bottling at the time. Apparently that's a three-man, five-hour operation.

Glazen Toren began as a 50L hobby but now has a 2,500L capacity. Its backyard has the makings of a small construction site so that capacity can grow further. The installation of a new warm room, where the bottled beer conditions at a toasty 29.5 °C (about 85.1 °F), means more storage. And that, Marc explained to us, means that the trio can double their weekly output if they want, brewing on two days instead of just one.

When asked about the brewers' ambitions – how big do they want to get? – Marc said they planned to take over InBev eventually.

In case you don't get the joke, I'm going to ruin it. Glazen Toren's output last year was about 800 hectoliters (or bout 1,363 kegs worth). In 2007 InBev sold more than 230 million hl – and that was before its merger with Anheuser-Busch, cranking the amount up to an estimated 350 million hl. So there's some perspective for you.

I have a soft spot for Glazen Toren's beers, and it has nothing to do with the small American flag posted on one of its fermenters. The brewery's house character is dry, crisp and hoppy. It's more carbonated than some people like, but I don't mind that much personally, and a related effect of that is a beautiful head – pour for pour, consistently one of the prettiest in Belgium. I reckon the Saison d'Erpe Mere as one of the country's best saisons if you like beers of that character. In Marc's humble opinion it is the best. (I'm not ready to take the crown away from Saison Dupont.)

If you want to find these beers in Belgium, you'll need to check the more prolific bottle shops and beer-specialist cafés. In Brussels that means mainly Moeder Lambic, Delirium, Bier Circus, Bier Tempel and Beer Planet. Anyway, those are the only places in town I've seen them lately (feel free to tell me differently). There are also a handful of cafés in the area around Erpe-Mere. In the U.K. or U.S. check your favored specialty bottle shops and there's a decent chance you'll find them.

Of course you can always visit the brewery itself on a Saturday. The posted shop hours are Saturday 10.00-12.00 and 14.00-16.00. The address is Glazentorenweg 11, 9420 Erpe-Mere. The brewery is named after the street, if you're curious.

With luck and friendliness you may get to see more than just the shop.


  1. Sounds like you had a lovely day as well as lovely beer. I have to admit, I love seeing these stories of writers, hospital administrators and the like creating their own brewery and making it a success.

    Inspirational :)

  2. Jef is more or less retired, but Dirk and Marc work their normal jobs then come to the brewery every weekend. It's hard work but still sounds like a pretty good life.

    You wonder if their wives ever get to see them... But I know that one day per year their wives take over the brewery and make their own special beer. It's a different recipe every year. I had last year's, named Finneke, at a fest in Hasselt. It was damned nice.

  3. This sounds better and better. I've been trying to get my wife interested in my brewing for ages :D