The town of Lot, Belgium, is sure to become famous in the near future.
At least among lambic beer lovers.
On September 1st, what is likely to become one of Belgium’s top beer tourism attractions will open to the public. Legendary 3 Fonteinen brewer/blender Armand Debelder, protege Michael Blancquaert, business manager Werner van Obberghen, and the rest of those behind the beloved 3 Fonteinen brewery have been working for about eight months on a large new location where they will produce lambic beer. The site is a former warehouse in the village of Lot, about 4 kilometers from 3 Fonteinen’s home in Beersel.
The new 3 Fonteinen experience center for lambic beer will be the new barrel-aging, blending, and bottling facility of the brewery, and will also have a tasting cafe, a shop, and several conference/meeting rooms.
The idea is to provide visitors the opportunity to see the entire experience of what they do at 3 Fonteinen in one place, what you might call an immersive experience. The brewery aims to show what the art, the craft, and the traditions of lambic beer brewing, blending, and bottling are all about, with a focus on how things are done at 3 Fonteinen.
The city of Lot is a fine choice for the facility, as it is accessible by train and direct buses from Brussels, seven days a week. “When you come here by train to the warehouse, you have to walk across the bridge over the Zenne river, which is at the heart of lambic country,” Debelder remarked. The location of the site in Lot, near the river and canal, will make it very bicyclist-friendly, something 3 Fonteinen and the Flemish tourist offices hope will add to the allure of the site. It will be possible to visit the new site and also take a tour around many other places located off the same Zenne canal, which include Brasserie Cantillon and Brouwerij Boon. There are also many other nearby places, such as the lambic blenders Hanssens, Tilquin, Oud Beersel, and De Cam, and there are many cafes serving lambic beer are in these areas as well. The address of the new site is: Molenstraat 47, Lot, Belgium. Telephone: +32 2 306 71 03. That’s 02 306 71 03 if dialing from a Belgian telephone.
The site has a production area where over thirty large foeders are already in place, and will house a coolship, as well as the new lambic-O-droom cafe, event space, an orchard filled with Schaarbeekse cherry trees, and a park adjacent to a wetland area behind the facility. In a few years, a new brewery will likely be added. 3 Fonteinen has also amassed over 30,000 bottles of vintage Oude Geuze, Oude Kriek, Hommage, Framboise, and other special beers, which will all be brought to the new site and put into a special room.
Direct trains run to Lot station twice per hour from Brussels Central Station on weekdays, at 26 and 56 minutes past the hour. These same trains will stop at Midi/Zuid (south) Brussels’ main train station, on the way to Lot. The journey takes just 17 minutes from Central and ten minutes from Midi/Zuid. Note that Belgian rail is subject to change train schedules seasonally or yearly, so be sure and check out schedules to confirm they are accurate before relying on them.
Debelder and I walked into a field of Schaarbeek cherry tries planted behind the building before touring the new center on May 7. “Most of these are about three years old, and came from the yard of my father’s home. We transplanted them here, as we need Schaarbeekse cherries for our most special kriek beers, and we want visitors to be able to see these trees when they come for a tour.”
“What you see here in this project, I wrote down in my dreams thirty years ago. Nowadays, I can say that all of my dreams have come true,” said Debelder. “It’s really a beautiful present of life that this is happening,” he added, smiling.
Debelder has reason to be happy these days, as the business of lambic beer is very good, and the demand for the 3 Fonteinen beers has never been greater.
Having a solid, well thought-out business plan is of utmost importance to any business, and 3 Fonteinen has that now. Werner Van Obberghen, who wrote his master’s thesis on the economical and financial challenges facing small lambic brewers and blenders in Belgium, has been working for the brewery part time for several years, and started full time in February. “I handle the financial aspects and administration of the brewery, and developed a long-term business plan in consultation with Michael Blancquaert and Armand. Before joining the team, I already knew them well, as I was a regular customer of the brewery for years. I always thought the 3 Fonteinen geuze was the best of the traditional geuzes, which is just my opinion, of course. I left a corporate environment to work here, and I am very happy with my decision. It was very life-changing.”
Michael Blancquaert is Armand Debelder’s heir apparent as brewer and blender, and is co-manager of the brewery. He and Van Obberghen are both partners and co-owners with Debelder, who continues to own a majority share of the company.
“We have been looking to centralize operations for some time now,” Van Obberghen told me during my visit. “We have three main warehouses for barrel-aging, plus the brewery in Beersel, all in different locations. It is a nightmare from a logistical standpoint. When we heard about the warehouse and land being for sale, we were immediately interested,” he added.
The site was purchased by an investor who is said to be an important businessman, and 3 Fonteinen leases the site from him.
3 Fonteinen’s new facility is based around a 1960 building which began as a dairy and ice cream factory. There are 30,000 square meters of space in the warehouse, and the main barrel room is 2,000 square meters. The barrel room already contained about thirty Italian-built foeders during my visit, most already filled after a busy lambic brewing season. “These are all older foeders that came from a winery in Italy that closed. Their capacities range from 50 to 70 hectoliters (about 42 to 60 U.S. beer barrels, respectively)” Debelder remarked as we toured the new location. He added that the building will be 100% solar powered in the near future.
“We also have many other barrels that have a capacity of 400 to 1,000 liters. Over the next few years, once barrels at our other warehouses are emptied, they will be brought here. This barrel room is temperature controlled so that it will always be between 18 and 20 degrees celsius (64 to 68 degrees fahrenheit) and all walls and the roof of the building will be insulated,” Debelder added.
The front entrance of the new Experience Center will lead to the tasting cafe, which will be called the new lambic-O-droom. “We had some old foeders that we have now made into tables where groups can sit. You will also be able to see the production area from windows the cafe, as it will be separated by fire-proof glass. Also, for an entrance fee which will include a tasting of young and old lambic, and possibly kriekenlambic and framboise lambic, beer lovers will be able to visit the foeder area. We want to offer a unique lambic experience to beer lovers here. We also have many ideas for new, small batch beers that will only be offered for sale here,” Van Obberghen said. While they have not set the visit fee price as yet, Debelder said it would likely be 15 or 20 euros per person.
“One of the ideas for new beers is to start using different fruits in addition to cherries and raspberries,” Van Obberghen continued, as I sipped an experimental honey lambic that was very good.
Armand Debelder added: “We really want to double the quality of our beers here. For starters, our Oude Geuze will condition in bottles for a minimum of 6 to 8 months before we release it for sale, and we will even try to have it condition for 12 months.”
About the vintage bottle room, Debelder had this to say: “We want to have a really exceptional place to exhibit these 30,000 vintage bottles, which will only be offered for sale to drink at the lambic-O-droom. You will be able to see the bottle room from the tasting cafe.”
For now, brewing will continue in Beersel, but plans are in the works to add a new brewery at the new location in a few years. “But we will add a small coolship here soon. We will bring some of the wort we brew at the current brewery in Beersel here, and let it cool overnight. We want to see if the resulting lambic is similar to what we have in Beersel,” Debelder added.
More than likely, it will be very similar, as the two sites are only about 2 miles apart. As far as the lambics already on barrel at the Experience Center, Debelder poured me a sample from a foeder and commented: “This is a blend of Lindemans and 3 Fonteinen lambic, that I think you will like.”
The six month old lambic was dry, complex, and refreshingly tart and delicious. Superb, in fact. So good that Debelder offered me a second glass, which I readily accepted. He added: “In the months of October and November of last year, Michael brewed and blended thirteen different geuze blends. All of these blends will be different bottlings, and it will be possible to taste each in the cafe once they are conditioned,” Debelder said.
“It’s been a very busy lambic brewing season. We have brewed over a hundred days since last October, as we need to fill as many of these foeders as we can before it gets too warm. We are still brewing this week (week of May 7th) as the overnight low was 4 degrees celsius (39 degrees fahrenheit) here last night, which is still cold enough,” said Michael Blancquaert, during a quick break from filling barrels.
Debelder also poured me a glass of young kriekenlambic that was very good. “We used to source most of our cherries from Poland, but this year we found a grower in Serbia, with exceptionally good cherries. They are used in this beer,” he commented.
We took a walk outside another part of the building, and Debelder had this to say: “This area is somewhat prone to flooding, as it is kind of a swampy wetland, which is common for areas near the Zenne river. We are going to build a sort of park here, where you can walk around and see what the ecosystem is like. There will be trees and plants and lots of water.”
Van Obberghen added: “Long term, we’d like to build a new warehouse in about 5 or 6 years, as we expect we will need to expand by then. Even now, producing about 3,000 to 4,000 hl of lambic per year, we estimate that the demand for our beers is five to seven times higher than what we actually can produce. It’s a nice problem to have, or a luxury problem, as we say here in Belgium!”
As planned, Michael Blancquaert has taken over the hard manual labor of brewing and blending, while Debelder is still around several days a week to continue to impart his knowledge of lambic brewing and blending to him. “We are getting Michael some assistants, as there is so much work to do. We will hire two new employees this year,” Debelder remarked.
“My role will continue to transition to that of advising the 3 Fonteinen team, as well as being a sort of tour guide and ambassador of the brewery. I will be present in the new lambic-O-droom cafe and available to speak with beer lovers much of the time when it is open. In this way, I can personally tell the story of our brewery, of the history of lambic beer, and of this region, while visitors can see Michael and others at work. I’m looking forward to a lot of interesting discussions with beer lovers from all over the world in the future,” Debelder told me, happily.
Van Obberghen told me the new lambic-O-droom cafe opening days will be Wednesday through Saturday. The site will first open to the public on Thursday, September 1st, at 10 am. Drie Fonteinen will hold their annual “Open Beer Days” from 10 am to 5 pm every day through Monday September 5. “The reason we have our open beer days that weekend is because there are always a lot of beer lovers in Belgium for the beer festival on the Grand Place in Brussels. It’s a busy weekend for Belgian beer. Also, the weather is usually good.”
Van Obberghen summed up his thoughts this way: “The basis of our future and the future of 3 Fonteinen is what Armand has been fighting for, for 50 years, and he never gave up on the tradition of lambic beer. Neither will Michael and I.”
The future of 3 Fonteinen is in good hands, and great things are happening in Lot.
There’s only one thing I can say to you lambic beer drinking readers: get there, and experience it for yourself. Who knows what beery treasures they will break out for this special weekend. I’m sure it will be an amazing time.