I visited the much-loved lambic brewery and blendery, Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen, during two brew days in 2017. My visits in early February and late November of last year were superb, as I was able to talk with most of the 3 Fonteinen team, and see the small brewhouse in action through the two long days.
3 Fonteinen’s current (new) brewhouse dates to November 2012, and was built and installed by Kris Vermoesen of Welding and Piping NV of Mechelen, Belgium, which specializes in the custom-manufacture and installation of breweries in Europe. Vermoesen has installed new brewhouses at De Koninck, Haacht, Orval and Rodenbach, among others, so he is considered one of the best at his trade. He founded Welding and Piping and started building new breweries after years of experience in performing brewery installations.
The mash tun has a capacity of 40 hectoliters (about 34 US barrels.) The boiling kettle is also in a 40 hl size, and the double-decker koelschip (coolship) has four 1,000 hl vessels, two each on the top and bottom, so total capacity is again 40 hl. The doubles as a filtration vessel: “The custom-built filter at the bottom of the mash tun is in fact the most expensive piece of equipment in the new brewery,” Armand told me several years ago.
But, why use a double decker coolship with four separate vessels? “It’s cheaper to have four vessels in the 1,000 liter size each than one 40 hl coolship, and it takes up less horizontal space. I can’t make any significant changes to the building itself as all the old buildings in the city of Beersel are protected by the government,” Armand commented. “I might have liked to have put the coolship in on the roof, but it had to be put here. Hence, having it built on two levels saves a lot of space and allows it to fit in this room.” It’s all about space at 3 Fonteinen in Beersel.
Fortunately, space is much more abundant at 3 Fonteinen’s lambik-o-droom in the village of Lot, about 4 kilometers from Beersel. All of the barrel-aging, blending, bottling, and vintage bottle storage of 3 Fonteinen has been moved to this new site. The tasting cafe and retail shop have been delighting beer lovers since September 1, 2016. It is open from 10 am to 5 pm, Wednesday through Saturday.
Before all of that barrel-aging, blending, and bottling of lambic, geuze, kriek, framboos and other beers can happen, there, of course, has to be brewing. Of the spontaneous fermentation kind, in this case. “We use the turbid mash method of brewing here,” Armand told me several years ago. This is the same classic method as used by other lambic breweries, such as Boon, Cantillon, De Troch, and Girardin. This old method produces a wort with a milky, murky appearance, hence the name turbid. 3 Fonteinen uses a grain bill of 60% barley malt and 40% unmalted wheat.
The grains are crushed the day before a brew day, and water is heated the night before or early in the morning the day of the brew. 3 Fonteinen uses a multi-step process to mash the grains. Four different temperature steps are used, and each step has a higher temperature than the previous one. The boiling process takes 4-5 hours, during which the brewer must carefully watch the temperature of the wort and the length of time it has been at each temperature.
The boil is started without the addition of hops, which are added after the first sugars form a foam. After caramelization takes place, aged hops of the Challenger and Hallertauer Mittelfruh varieties are added. These hops are used only as a preservative, and can be 10 to 20 years old.
Brewing can begin anywhere from 6 am to 9 am, depending on the schedule of the brewer. On both the days I visited in 2017, it had been a roughly 9 am start, meaning the wort was not pumped into the coolship until after 7 pm, and the brew days were not done until around 8 pm.
Of the 40 hectoliters (4,000 liters) of wort produced by the mashing of the grains, about 4 hl is lost during the boiling process. After the wort sits in the coolship overnight, a further 4 to 6 hl of wort evaporates, leaving about 30 to 32 hl (3,000 to 3,200 liters) as the final yield from a brew day.
The day after a brew day, wort is pumped into portable vessels, lifted onto a truck, and driven the 4 km to Lot and the new lambik-o-droom site. The wort is then pumped into barrels the same day by Michael Blancquaert, who is a co-manager and partner in the brewery with Armand Debelder and business manager Werner van Obberghen. With Armand in semi-retirement, it is Michael who is overseeing brewing operations and production at 3 Fonteinen. Michael has been developing his blending skills for several years now, and indeed does most of the blending these days, as Armand trusts his judgement. The brewing season generally lasts from late October through sometime in May, depending on if the weather is cold enough.
***CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE***: The removal of spent grains and filling of the coolship
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