In this conversation, recorded for the Craft Beer & Brewing Podcast, managing director Werner Van Obberghen muses about growing pains, the impact of COVID, the next generation, refocusing on craft malt, and going organic.
Notably, a few weeks after this conversation, 3 Fonteinen’s longtime brewer and master blender Armand Debelder died after a long battle with illness. Now, Van Obberghen, brewer Michaël Blancquaert, and their colleagues aim to carry Debelder’s vision and legacy forward.
As told to Jamie Bogner and Joe Stange
WO // Our entity actually started at the end of the 1800s as a cafe in the village center of Beersel, which is a stone’s throw away from Lot. It has gone through five different generations since then. And in the last, let’s say 20 years or more, has actually built from a one-man blendery to a team of 20 today, where we have evolved from purely blending to brewing and blending. About 75 percent of the lambic that you see around us is actually brewed by 3 Fonteinen, and the other 25 percent, we still buy from different breweries, and we elevate it to lambic in our own barrels.
CBB // You “elevate” it?
WO // It’s taken from the French word, élevage, coming from wine. The process of lambic brewing and the whole fermentation, maturation, and aging in a bottle is actually closer to winemaking than other types of beer making. And it bears a very historical approach to beer brewing. That makes lambic still very special in today’s beer world. To give you an overview of what has happened since 2013, 3 Fonteinen was spread out in four different locations. We had the brewery in Beersel itself, we had a small barrel room under the brewery, we had a barrel room two streets from the brewery, and then two other barrel rooms, also with bottling equipment and labeling equipment in Halle, which is a 15-minute drive in normal hours. But, of course, brewers don’t work normal hours; they work in the morning, they work in the evening. And that’s the rush hour around Brussels. A normal 15-minute drive actually took about 45 minutes on average. At that time working there were four people at 3 Fonteinen, and one full-time employee was actually doing the logistics among the different locations. At that time, we were thinking about getting everything together to work more efficiently to have more options in terms of operations and so on.
CBB // For someone who comes from a business background, you also have a very firmly held philosophy about supporting that creative vision and creating an entire sustainable economy around this artisanal product.
WO // That’s an interesting question, and it’s not a short answer. Going back to those first days of thinking ahead and thinking about the future, there was always one thing—there was a very big layer of gut feeling. And the gut feeling is just the energy you get from people sitting around the table. And in the beginning, that was Michaël, Armand, and myself.
CBB // This kind of generational thing is something that even American craft brewers are now facing. You have a generation of brewers who are retirement age, and how do you continue? You need to find someone to pass it on to, and the same thing has happened here—if you don’t have a next generation within your own family that’s interested in taking over that business. But if it’s a business that is driven by passion, then you need to find someone with the passion to do that.
WO // Absolutely. Michaël was trained as an accountant, but those traits of being very structured are also very helpful in brewing because you have to follow some different steps, and you have to keep your head on the whole process. Armand not having children of his own, he was looking for the next generation— that’s why he referred a lot to Michaël and myself as being the sons he never had.
The most difficult part of planning the future for a lambic brewery or blender is the complexity of having a balance within the barrel room. You need to have one-year, two-year, three-year barrels, and in the case of 3 Fonteinen, we have barrels of three, four, five, and six years. You need to plan that ahead if you want to buy new barrels, and you have to start to model the financial side of it to go to a bank for a loan, and so on. That was up to Michaël and myself to do.
CBB // You are spending a lot of money to make beer that you won’t sell for several years. You also then need to predict demand several years out so that you are making the right amount of beer three years from now. And, of course, you can’t plan for something like a global pandemic that happens in the midst of all of that.
WO // We don’t have a linear process. We brew something just to put it away for a very long time. We brew and we blend with a very huge delay. We plan ahead, we join different experiences and expertise, then we decide, and we go. It took six years to come to that balance—we pre-invested quite some effort in terms of human capital. We hired an extra brewer, we hired people for the barrel room, before actually selling the very first bottle, and then COVID hit. That was the worst timing because we actually got to the new kind of balance at the end of 2019, a few months before COVID.
CBB // You built this new, more much more expensive facility, you filled it up with barrels and beer, more foeders, everything else in order to increase production and hopefully make enough beer to meet more of the demand for it worldwide. And then COVID hits.
WO // The initial plan has always been to go to 8,000 hectoliters (roughly 6,800 bbl) of barrel capacity to actually produce around 2,000–3,500 hectoliters (1,700–3,000 bbl) in bottles. It’s more or less a rotation cycle of two and a half years. Between the brew and the actual usage of the lambic for fruit maturation or to blend it to a gueuze, every drop in a weighted-average approach is two and a half years before we use it in the barrel room. That’s not including the bottle conditioning. It’s a very long process.
It’s the continuation of the process that Armand has always respected. With this new facility, we’re doing the same thing only on another scale.
Growing a business is one thing, but it’s also important to keep in mind the values with which you do it. And that hasn’t changed with 3 Fonteinen.
CBB // The craft malt idea has been growing in the world of craft beer. That’s something that you have embraced deeply here. From an American perspective, when we think about lambic brewing, we think about the romantic idea of fruit and spontaneous fermentation. But grain is something that you have focused on deeply. Talk about the program that you have engaged in to more closely connect your lambic beer with the grain it’s made from.
WO // That takes us back to 2017, a nice summer day outside when we were thinking about the very long term for 3 Fonteinen, and while we were discussing buying new barrels and trying more fruits, the next question popped up—”what about cereals?” That’s where Armand put his fist on the table and said, “We have to go back to our own back garden.”
Luckily, we are close to the bio talent. It took only a few phone calls to get in touch with some farmers. Very quickly, we were in touch with a botanist who was already multiplying very old varieties of landrace wheat. He pointed us to Lucas, who at that time was doing his thesis around agro-ecology. And from then on, everything happened—pun intended—spontaneously. When sitting together with farmers, you not only share the same passion, but you also feel their challenges, you feel their values. The beauty of it all is that while everyone says it’s quite innovative, it’s not. It’s actually doing again what was once the standard. That’s the expression of terroir—when talking about lambic, of course, you’re talking about the air, the sun, the river. But we’re forgetting about the soil, which is also very fruitful and very rich in these regions. It was just pure logic that we would do it because it’s also an expression of the steadfast direction that 3 Fonteinen is going.
Our interpretation is that [lambic] should not be a standardized beer. It never has been, and it never should be. It’s a natural beer, and you cannot control nature. It starts with the cereals. A lot of today’s industrial grains are being cultivated for the very specific feature of efficiency in the brewing kettle. How much sugar do you get out of the grain? A lot of breweries today brew for efficiency. But our brewing installation is as inefficient as can be. Just to give you an idea, and I think the brewers among us will really like what I’m going to say, on a normal brew day we brew between 12° and 13° Plato [wort]; that’s about the density of lambic, but in our spent grains, there’s still 6° Plato left when it goes out. So the cattle of the farmer to whom we give it, they’re very happy because there’s still a lot of nutritional material in the spent grains. But it’s absolutely not efficient. And to also answer to your question about the agronomical model and the flavor impact. We are now working and researching on more than 50 different cereals spread over wheat and barley. But we actually started sometimes from only five or six grams [of seed].
It’s a handful, and it takes about five to seven years before you have a volume that you can actually brew with. There are a lot of things that we’re doing that we will only know the results of in so many years. And that’s part of the effort. Meanwhile, we are learning as a whole group—the farmers are learning, we are learning, we’re doing small tests. And that’s the part of the adventure, I think. But we’re documenting everything so that at least in a certain time, we can learn from it—we can see what we’re going to continue or discontinue. Another interesting fact is that a lot of these grains were not found in Belgium, but a lot of grains were actually found in seed banks in the United States.
We test the different varieties first on the field to see whether their agronomic traits are good enough to grow in our region. If they’re not, then we can delete them. If they do pass the test of five years, then we brew with them. And we try to first brew 100 percent with one variety and not mix them up, to see how they evolve in the beer.
We have a very interesting project going on here with the barrels behind me, where there’s a PhD student looking at how these lambics evolve. The yeast and bacteria inside—are they different? Or do they behave differently? The only parameter that changes is the wheat. We have 60 percent of barley malt; that stays constant. Then we have 40 percent of wheat. So we have one red old landrace variety, one white landrace, and then one is just regular modern wheat for comparison. These results are extremely interesting because there are differences.
CBB // The wheat variety could impact the microbial development of the beer itself?
WO // We’re also talking about organic cereals. So whether it’s the cereal itself or on the grains themselves, there’s already a life existing, and that can really change from one type to the other, or one variety or landrace to the other. That’s also part of the study because there’s already a lot of material existing on the ingredients. Look at natural wine—it’s the same thing. There’s already yeast and living material on the grape itself, and the grape skin is used in the whole fermentation.
CBB // Obviously this isn’t a process that anyone would want to rush, but when do you think it would be possible for somebody to finally have a bottle in their hands of 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueuze that was made with these landrace grain varieties?
WO // The first full bottle of grown gueuze will be for next year, 2023. And then because we have started with the ambition of going fully, officially organic, that will be for 2024 or 2025.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.