There are a number of lambic beer events across the world that every lambic lover should, no, must, have on their bucket list. One of these is “The Night of Great Thirst” which is organized by Yves and Kurt Panneels around the end of April or early May in even-numbered years. This event is held at the famous In de Verzekering Tegen de Grote Dorst cafe (meaning “In the Insurance Against the Great Thirst”) in Eizeringen, Belgium, about ten miles from Brussels, in the heart of Belgium’s lambic country. I attended the first “Nacht van de Grote Dorst” as it is called in Flemish, in 2004, and several times since then.
On odd numbered years, Yves Panneels and son Jan Panneels travel to Lovell, Maine, to collaborate with Christopher (Chris) and Jen Lively, owners of Ebenezer’s Pub, to organize a U.S. version of The Night of Great Thirst. The reason for the every other year timing is because Belgium’s Toer de Geuze is held in either late April or early May on odd-numbered years, and brothers Yves and Kurt are very busy helping organize Toer de Geuze, and also running their cafe, which is a popular spot, to say the least, during Toer de Geuze weekend. So, they don’t have time to organize The Night of the Great Thirst during the Toer de Geuze years.
The U.S. based Night of Great Thirst is held as part of the first weekend of the Ebenezer’s Pub Belgian Beer fest week, which usually runs from the last full weekend of August for six or 7 days. The week always begins with the (always) sold out Belgian Beer Dinner, on the Thursday preceding the festival start. This was on August 22 for 2019. “We had about 85 attendees at the dinner this year, which is about the maximum we want to cook for. We want to keep it an intimate affair, and it was. There were 15 courses this year, each paired with a very special beer, and with a rare bourbon for one course,” said Chris Lively.
I attended this incredible dinner in 2012 and 2013, and can attest that both were among the top beer dinners I have ever experienced. This year’s attendees were all very impressed. Mary and Craig Schanning of Milwaukee, who have been attending the festival and beer dinner every year since 2011, had this to say: “We went to our first Belgian Beer Dinner at Ebenezer’s in 2011 to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and now it’s our annual anniversary gift to each other. This was our 9th dinner, and it never disappoints! This year, there were more courses than ever before: 12 on the menu, plus 3 bonus courses, all paired perfectly with amazing beers. Favorites this year included the scallops, the lobster pie (of course), the foie gras figs and the pistachio and raspberries dessert. The bourbon course is always a nice way to slow down the meal and let the food settle. We’ve made many good friends going to Ebenezer’s for so many years, that the dinner is always kind of a reunion. Since it’s the first event of the weekend, it’s our first time in a year seeing all of the regulars, plus the staff, including our amazing hosts, Chris and Jen Lively.”
Newcomer Jesse Leibowitz of New Jersey had this to say about the dinner: “A few months ago, I found myself in a better financial situation than the previous year, and looking at a short leisurely excursion in the time period in which an interstellar gastronomical event would be taking place in Maine. More specifically, it was to be a fifteen course meal of farm to table quality food, paired with world class vintage beer from around the world, and featuring an exclusive blend of Bokke made for this event. Sometimes there are moments in life where, regardless of our religious or spiritual affiliation, we have a moment of clarity and reverence that leaves a profound impression on us as people. I felt that attending this dinner and the festival that follows it would be immaculate. I was right. To say I was excited would be an understatement. Finally, I would get to try this beer, Baphomet. Not only would I taste it, but I would drink a brand new blend that no one outside the blendery and possibly the bar owner and chef, Christopher Lively, had ever tasted. This beer would be the first Bokke of its kind. The blend was comprised of 1, 2, and 3 year old Belgian lambic and Fantome Saison, which was then aged in a former Weller Whiskey barrel that was handpicked by Christopher Lively for his establishment. To say this beer blew me away would not even be close to describing what this beer did to my palate. My dining companions, who were not Bokke virgins, and had their own opinions which were valid, but for me there was nothing else to compare this to, so I was just flabbergasted. Lambic style crisp funk, with a rustic saison, blended to perfection. The whiskey just gave this indescribable heat and warmth to the lambic that was absolutely unprecedented because no one had ever done this before! Whiskey barrel aged lambic? It sounds strange, but works so well. Needless to say, this beer was the highlight of the dinner. We also got to try the actual whiskey from the barrel that the lambic was aged in, which was incredible, in a full circle completion from the lambic to the whiskey.”
That’s quite an endorsement for the 2019 Ebenezer’s Belgian Beer Dinner!
I arrived just at the end of this year’s beer dinner, and could see that everyone was in a very happy mood, to say the least. The festival proper began on Friday, August 23, and Ebenezer’s Pub had brews such as Brasserie Cantillon Rosé De Gambrinus, Brasserie De la Senne Taras Boulba, De Ranke XX Bitter, and much more on tap, along with a big list of bottled Belgian beers ranging from vintage lambics to Trappist brews to just about any style of Belgian beer in existence.
The weather is usually in the upper 70′s or low 80′s for highs in late August in Lovell, and Ebenezer’s abuts a golf course, so it is a beautiful place to sit inside or outside and enjoy Belgian brews and great food in a serene environment. That Saturday, the restaurant was very busy with patrons enjoying all of the above.
Many were also eagerly anticipating the week’s second main event: The Night of Great Thirst, which was set to start around 5:30 pm On Saturday, August 24. This year’s event was also nicknamed “The Night of the Goat Thirst” because one of the guests of honor was Raf Souvereyns, often known as Raf Soef, of the lambic blendery known as Bokke (formerly Bokkereyder.) The logo of Bokke is a goat under a tree. Raf’s beers are some of the most in demand lambics on the planet, due to their incredible complexity and rarity (and to be clear, the rarity and demand are there because of the the high quality of Raf’s brews.) Raf only produces about 100 hectoliters per year (about 85 U.S. barrels) which is a drop in the bucket, even when compared to small lambic makers such as Brasserie Cantillon.
Raf produces quite a few different lambics, especially fruit lambics, every year, but the batches are extremely small. So when attendees of the Night of Great Thirst heard that there would be about 20 different Bokke brews on offer for this 2019 event (all in 75 cl bottled format) the excitement grew. For many, it was their first taste of a Bokke lambic. Raf’s beers are only available at a few special beer cafes around the world, and Ebenezer’s is among those few. I had visited the Bokke blendery a couple of times in the past year, as well as tasted a number of Bokke brews at In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst. However, at most, I had tasted about a dozen different Bokke beers since 2017. This night, I would more than double that number.
One of the Bokke “virgins” up until August 24 was the afore quoted Jesse Leibowitz, who remarked: “The Thursday night beer dinner, as grandiose and amazing as it was, was still not the highlight of the weekend for me. The Belgian Beer festival at Ebenezer’s is legendary, and the Saturday of the festival is what is known as the Night of Great Thirst, every other year. This year, the word was that one of the lambic producers on hand would be the infamous Bokke, with its beers to be poured by the blender, Raf Soef, himself. This was it. Forget that little 4 oz pour the other night, this is F’n Game TIME!! Bottles on bottles of Bokke, at great prices. I was limited to a hundred dollars in chips initially, and I chose a bottle from the list: Framboos Pjassel Kriek, a lambic blend with vineyard peaches, raspberries and cherries. This was probably the hardest choice to make, because the list of Bokke was so long, with over 20 different brews on offer.”
Jesse added: “With the chips I had left, I went to the booth next to Bokke, which was occupied by a Southern California brewer called Three Chiefs, and they had bottles available of their own beer that was especially made for Ebenezer’s, which is a Rum barrel aged Imperial stout with bananas. Now, some of you might be saying, why in god’s name would you want to drink a domestic banana stout with all this lambic all around you? To that I say: a man needs variety. In all truth, going from one Bokke bottle to another was overwhelming, to say the least. I had never had a taste of these incredible and incredibly hard to get lambics until the night before, and now I was swimming in them. Imagine being surrounded by everything you could ever want in your whole life, and only have 4 hours to experience it. Needless to say, I drank as much as could. I should mention that while this was going on, there were other world class beers being opened and poured all around. The camaraderie was outstanding, and it was truly a glorious time. I met so many amazing people, and tried so much beer, mead, and other amazing spirits that I felt fantastic. Still me, but a newer, advanced version of myself. This weekend changed they way I feel about beer, and what life can be, and what’s possible. If you really want something, make it happen. That seems simple enough.”
Jesse and friends, in fact, bought a bottle of every single Bokke on offer and placed them on a table. I purchased a Steen 2018, which was made with 1, 2, and 3 year old lambic, with white peaches, apricots and red vineyard peaches. It was fabulous. I then joined a group of attendees that already had a dozen different Bokke bottles on a table, and added mine to the lineup.
As the fest was nearing its end, Chris Lively invited Raf, as well as Jerry and Mario of the now in production independent film “Bottle Conditioned”, a documentary about Belgium’s lambic makers, into his legendary cellar, for an interview. In fact, Chris Lively has what could well be the premier lambic beer cellar in the entire United States. There is one room that has a bar and is full of only lambic beers and memorabilia. “It’s my haven. It reminds me of all my trips to Belgium, and visits to beer cafes and cellars there,” Chris told me during one of my visits.
Lively was made a “Knight of the Brewers Mash Staff” by the Belgian Brewers Guild in September 2014. I just happened to be there, photographing and filming the event. See photos above.
As Jerry and Mario interviewed Raf and Chris about the Bokke beers and lambic in general, Chris opened some very special bottles. The first was the Cantillon “Cartoon” Kriek, a rare bottle from circa 1988. I had never tasted this, and it was still holding up well, judging by other Cantillon bottles I had the pleasure of tasting from the 1970′s and 80′s. Chris then handed Raf a circa 1990 Cantillon Kriek, which still tasted superb, as had other bottles I had tasted before from that period.
Next up was something even more rare: Chris pulled out a bottle, and yelled “jackpot!” and advised us that he had located one of Raf’s earliest geuze blends, the last known bottle of Huisstekerij Bokkereyder Experimental geuze #14, bottled on June 26, 2014. Raf then explained that this was an important, benchmark beer for Bokkereyder, now Bokke. Only 15 or 16 bottles were filled. See the two videos below, parts 1 and 2, for full details.
Part 2 is below:
As if this amazing beer was not enough, Chris then opened one of the most famous lambics of them all: Millennium Geuze, which was created by Willem van Herreweghen of De Oude Geuzestekerij De Cam in collaboration with Armand Debelder of 3 Fonteinen. See this previous article for full details of this fantastic geuze. The bottle that Chris opened was still the stellar geuze that I have had the good fortune to taste on half a dozen occasions.
What a great way to end an interview!
The Night of the Great Thirst also featured many other lambics, from breweries such as Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen, Brasserie Cantillon, and more. I encourage anyone that enjoys lambic brews to attend both the Belgian event at In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst, as well as at Ebenezer’s in Maine. The next Belgian event will be in spring 2020, and the next Night of the Great Thirst in Maine will be in late August 2021.
Josh Applebaum of Austin, Texas, had this to say after the Ebenezer’s event: “The Night of the Great Thirst was an unbelievable event. It was truly some of the greatest people coming together for a night, really a long weekend, of camaraderie and hanging out. I made some great friends, and I will definitely be joining them again in the future for more lambic tasting.”
For more information about where to find the beers of Bokke, as well as a detailed look at both Abrighost 2018 and Framboos Pjassel Kriek 2018, see this previous article.