Friday, January 8, 2010

Drie Fonteinen to Stop Brewing, Keep Blending, Start Distilling.

Armand Debelder is sleeping better these days, thanks in part to a difficult decision: "I'm not brewing anymore. That's definite." Thus the master blender has concluded a decade of making his own lambic at Drie Fonteinen, a run that included several special bottled beers beloved by aficionados.

The Debelders have been blending the region's lambics to make fine geuzes in Beersel since 1953. Armand started brewing his own lambic in 1999, adding it to the blends that also included Boon, Girardin and Lindeman's. He put his own artful stamp on the beers but also added substantial workload.

Then the events of May 16, 2009 — which Armand simply calls "the Catastrophe" — played the role of fate. That's when about 100,000 bottles of Drie Fonteinen geuze and other lambics perished thanks to a busted thermostat. It was a severe blow to the business and one that had Armand thinking of quitting more than once.

Things looked bleak, but various friends offered support and Armand had a few ideas up his sleeve. One of them, to distill the ruined geuze into an eau de vie, came to fruition. Made at a distillery in Hainaut, the Armand'Spirit is 40% strength, clear as water, and dangerously smooth. The drink launched in October and by mid-December Armand and wife Lydie had already sold 3,000 bottles — half the stock. The liquor has helped the business pay its debts.

Another idea was to hold a "mega-sale" on October 22, to coincide with the liquor launch. Up for purchase were hundreds of bottles of vintage Drie Fonteinen geuze, most of them bottled in 2002. The sale paid off. "Thanks to my vintage geuzes, I have a future again," Armand said.

The decision to stop brewing came down to age and economics. Armand is 58 years old and brewing meant long, exerting days. To continue he also would have needed a new brewing kit. However, "the cost of the Catastrophe was the cost of a new brewery," he said.

Then there is the presence of Lydie, whom Armand married in August. "I'm not a free man anymore," he said with a smile. "I'm not 9 to 5."

Meanwhile, the success of the Armand'Spirit has fueled a new dream: to open a small, working distillery at Drie Fonteinen. Armand and Lydie would use the still to make a variety of special liquors, many in the jenever style.

Looking back on his time as a brewer, Armand said "I had the time to make my lambic and what I wanted to make, and I can say that I made very, very beautiful lambic. And we blended a lot of beautiful things. ... In the end it's not a Catastrophe. Maybe I can make a new start in my life by distilling."

It's worth noting that the craft of distilling is much less work, physically, than brewing. "Brewing is working in the kitchen like a chef," Armand said. "Distilling is like a patisserie; everything has to be correct. ... Distilling is more subtle."

Adding the distillery also addresses a concern: that he might get fewer visitors, since many people come partly to see the brewery. "When people come to see a brewery, they want to see a brewery installation," Armand said. "So I'm losing a part of my attraction. But we will add a new attraction by distilling."

About the geuze: Ideally, it won't change much. Frank Boon in Lembeek has agreed to brew Armand's lambic exactly like Armand made it in Beersel. For example, this means continuing to use Challenger hops, which Armand will still age himself. It also means the same malt and wheat in the same proportions. Thus future Drie Fonteinen geuzes will be a blend of Girardin, Lindeman's and Boon lambics, plus the Boon-made Drie Fonteinen recipe.

So Drie Fonteinen was a blendery before Debelder started brewing his own lambic in 1999, and it remains a blendery after 2009. It may also become a distillery soon. And there is every reason for lambic lovers to continue associating that name with quality.


  1. Do you have any info on what this might mean for visits to the brewery site / Drie Fonteinen cafe & availability of beers like their Kriek? Forgive my ignorance, I'm not clear on if the kriek is made at Beersel or not. Was planning a trip down that way when in Brussels at the start of Feb this year, any advice to give?

    It's definitely sad news from a beer point of view, but somehow a comforting tale that a brewer has achieved their personal ambitions, and can find ways to still be creative in producing something, while bowing out of brewing - it's much less galling to read than another brewery takeover & closure by 'big business'!

  2. Congrats to Armand for making a tough decision and making it through the disaster. I look forward to his new blends.

  3. Best of luck Armand.

  4. Veel geluk Armand ,u kennende de likeuren zullen perfect zoals u lambic.

    De Beule Danny

  5. With that news, I'm a touch even gladder that I was able to enjoy a 3F Oude Geuze for New Year's Eve far away here in wintery Ontario. Next time you see him, shake Armand's hand for me and tell him thanks.

    A Good Beer Blog

  6. Tania: No worries. Still open for visits, and all the 3 Fonteinen beers will still be available. The only difference is that the blends used to make the geuze will no longer include lambic brewed on premises in Beersel. The tasting café is still going strong, and same for the excellent restaurant. Highly recommended to anyone who's never been there.

  7. Congratulations to Mr. Debelder on his renewed success and on his new partnership.

  8. Many congratulations to Armand; we love his lambics in Philadelphia and will continue to seek them out.

  9. Best of luck to Armand, and bravo for his courageous decision.

  10. Agreed Armand's place is still a must visit for every beer lover. It will still taste incredible and seeing a more relaxed smile on Armand's face next time I visit will make it worthwhile. Seeing how hard he was working when I visited (the week of the catastrophe) almost made me feel guilty for the enjoyment I was having. Cheers to Armand and Lydie.