I recently talked with one of the owners of Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen, Werner Van Obberghen, to see how things have been progressing with the brewery and the lambik-O-droom expansion that I wrote about in this previous article here.
A lot has happened in the beer world during the pandemic that began in early 2020, and the plans of many businesses have changed due to that, and other factors. Werner was kind enough to fill me in on what has been happening with 3 Fonteinen since then, and what he and co-owner Michaël Blancquaert envision for the future. Michaël is 3 Fonteinen’s head brewer and blender.
I’ll lay out a little background about the recent years at 3 Fonteinen before I proceed further: Armand Debelder, who took over 3 Fonteinen from his father, Gaston Debelder, in the 1980s, told me during a visit in May 2016 that Werner Van Obberghen had joined the 3 Fonteinen team part time some years ago, and that he was now a partner as well. Werner became their full-time business manager in February 2016. Armand told me about their plans to expand to a much larger location, just 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Beersel, in Lot, and we then went and visited the new site, where Armand’s protege and other partner, Michaël Blancquaert, was working. I first covered De lambik-O-droom in this previous article here.
Fast forward almost five years, and 3 Fonteinen has expanded their barrel capacity significantly, and has been producing an impressive array of new fruited lambics and various oude geuzes, and other lambics. The lambik-O-droom cafe has also released a number of vintage lambics for drinking on site, such as the Armand 4 Oude Geuze “Seasons” set: Lente, Zomer, Herfst, and Winter (Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter) that were bottled in 2010 and released for sale in 2011. These vintages are now all available on the drink in only list as of January 2022. While I had tasted all of these when they were first offered for sale ten years ago, and a couple of times since, I relished the opportunity to taste the Lente and Zomer side by side in September 2021. Lambic lover Dave Atkins of the U.K. and I thought both had aged very well, but that we might give a slight edge to the Lente.
Werner had this to say: “We actually reached the maximum storage potential of our current barrel room at the end of 2019 (that being 8,000 hectoliters (hl), or about 6800 U.S. barrels) and our maximum bottling capacity (3,000 hl, or about 2500 U.S. barrels) which means that our lambik stays on the barrels for 2.5+ years on average. Beyond that, we do a long bottle conditioning (refermentation in the bottle) for 6 months for the lambik beers we offer year-round. This also applies to our one plus year of bottle-conditioning for Golden and Platinum Blend, Zenne, Schaarbeekse Kriek, and other beers.”
Werner continued: “By the way, due to covid, the weighted average of our lambikken used in our geuze has increased from 6 to 13 months! That means that we are approaching the historical weighted average of 45 months by a few months. That is the standard that we would like to pursue.”
That is a lot of maturation time. Which is a lot of what a lambic needs for maturity and complexity.
As far as the current circumstances, Werner remarked: “The current barreled lambik volume allows us to bottle up to 3,500 hl a year. As such, we remain the slowest in the lambik world (a year with us is 12 months, not the “bridging of the summer”.) Note that the “bridging of the summer” is a reference to a lambic that was brewed during the winter, and has spent at least one summer maturing in a barrel. Meaning, said lambics might not be but five or six months old, if they were brewed late in the winter season, and are bottled early in the autumn.
He continued: “We are going to use the new place to diversify more in barrels, to work more comfortably, and to bring out the average age even more. Also in the warm room. So, in a nutshell, we are going forward with the new building, but we are not expanding our annual production.”
Werner elaborated: “There are different elements that actually came together to have shaped our decision. Note that these are not in any order of importance. As you know, at the beginning of 2020, our U.S. importer, Shelton Brothers, announced they were filing for bankruptcy. Not only did this mean an immediate impact on sales, but they also owed a considerable amount that we knew we would likely never see. We had to come up with a new approach for the U.S. As the U.S. is an important market to us, it was quite a hit. That was also a call to take stuff in our own hands (enter Christian Gregory, working for 3F in the U.S. market since March 2021).”
Werner added: “In March 2020, the world, of course, was locked down, and we had just made our first beer release of that year. That was followed by a series of distributor order cancellations, both in Belgium, and other parts of the European Union. That also happened in other parts of the world. All together, we had a 40% drop in our sales in 2020, despite setting up an EU web shop (the latter allowing us to keep the engine running, with enough sales to cover our expenses.”
The sudden illness of Armand, more than a year before the covid outbreak, had also a major impact on 3 Fonteinen. Werner says: “Armand, the biggest supporter of the whole project, especially when Michaël and myself were in doubt, was suddenly not around anymore. Of course, he still wishes to be here in Lot and Beersel everyday.That actually triggered Michaël and I to consider again what we really would like to see happening with 3F in the long run.”
Werner added: “Some of our team, because of covid, and the lack of actual work to do, pursued different directions in their career. For example, Senne (Eylenbosch) founded his own blendery, Het Boerenerf Eylenbosch. Others on the team just wanted to work, rather than sitting home.”
Werner remarked: “This pushed us to rethink the balance of the team and the actual “ideal size” in terms of people, knowing that we were not just looking for workers, but for passionate people willing to undertake things within 3 Fonteinen. It has always been a vision for 3F to grow to a movement ‘rather than a company around a few faces’. We have currently reached that point, we think.”
He added: “In 2020, we had already begun some diversification projects that are more about deepening and strengthening the lambik culture and tradition, rather than pursuing growth in lambik production volume. There is the cereal collective, which is the direct sourcing of local wheat and barley; the Schaarbeekse sour cherry project; the use of more diversified fruit varieties directly sourced with organic fruit farmers; utilizing grapes from natural wine makers; and more unique barrels and variations of Zenne. We went to Jerez, Spain, ourselves, to source barrels for the first time in the beginning of 2020. Having reached the previously mentioned capacity ceiling, we wanted to put more time in these kind of initiatives.”
Werner continued: “These elements have made us reconsider what we actually envision for the long term future of 3 Fonteinen. During 2020 and the first part of 2021, we just left the plans as they were. With the market slowly picking up again, by summer 2021, we sat down and talked, and decided on where we wanted to go. The building and the site will be built as planned. It should last for the next 150 years, at least, spanning many generations. The whole site will encompass the following elements: In terms of buildings: The current building will become the barrel room, so that there will be more space to spread out special barrels, install a solera system, and have smaller barrels per square meter, and have a line of different types of wood to ferment and mature lambik on.”
Werner advised that a new building will be built soon, beginning in September 2022, for the logistics operations. This includes bottling, labelling, shipping and receiving, plus the warm room. For the latter, this means there will be more space than today, so they can grow the average bottle conditioning time, and have more blends stored away to become vintage geuzes.
Werner commented: “This will be a new lambik-O-droom, with direct access to the park, and different parts of the buildings. Plus, there will be guided tours done as team events, and a tasting area. The idea is to make it a contemporary tasting room, with the inclusion of lambic artifacts, artwork from local artists, and a a geuze-o-theek; an all-encompassing caveau.”
Werner explained what this “geuze-o-theek” will be, and where the idea came from: “The name is indeed derived from the lambik-O-droom, and will be large cellars, allowing us to store a few hundred thousand bottles. The idea is to have our current inventory of old bottles stored there for in-house tasting. We are also thinking to make it possible for 3F fans to have their own piece of the cellar within 3 Fonteinen! That way, we could age bottles for a part of the beer community. The name is derived of the Dutch word for “library”: bibliotheek > bibli-o-theek > geuze-o-theek as a library of blends. It was also Armand that came up with the name during a fun brainstorm of envisioning the future building. That was in 2017 – almost five years ago!”
Werner says: “There will be an event hall allowing for farmer’s markets; hopefully beer festivals; and a
brewhouse. The investment in a new brewery will be postponed until the time that 3 Fonteinen has the financial means to invest in it. For the time being, the plan is to continue brewing in Beersel alone.”
For a detailed look at brewing during two brew days at 3 Fonteinen’s original space in Beersel, see this previous article here.
He continued: “The surrounding area of the new building will feature a park. More than 60% of the site will not be built on, although we are permitted to do so. It also functions as a water buffer for the neighborhood, as almost the entire village of Lot is in a flood zone. During the last planning phase, we even increased our buffer capacity to alleviate the water pressure for the surrounding streets.”
Werner remarked: “There will be a Schaarbeekse orchard with 60 wild, ungrafted Schaarbeekse trees, which will be integrated as early as March 2022. This will also become an organically certified orchard in three years, which is the official conversion time to be considered organic. This orchard will complement the 150+ families in the area that have planted trees on their own land, with over 400 trees. In the meantime, we have over 60 families in our community that are on a waiting list to also have trees planted on their own land. We also have an ambition to make Schaarbeekse our only sour cherry variety, as it was in the past. That will take some ten years, we think.”
“Also,” Werner says, “We have tentative plans to build and ‘old fruit arboretum.’ Meaning, we are looking at installing an organic orchard filled with local heirloom fruits. But that will be a project that happens after 2025.”
Werner was not done with all the plans, adding: “We will have a more diversified offering, while respecting lambik’s history, and also will pursue the original values that once made lambik so grand. For example, we have brewed with 60% raw (unmalted) wheat and 40% barley, as was the standard more than 125 years ago. We have also replicated the ‘Langste Kook’ (longest boiling time) which is an 18+ hour boil, that is also inspired by historical sources. We are going to macerate sour cherries according to an old recipe, and on a small barrel. We will continue the above mentioned initiatives and enjoy ourselves while doing so.”
He continued “We will only grow our lambic production volume when we see a demand for it, and not to the full capacity of the building. We envision a team of around 20 to 25 people, which will allow for personal development and personal growth. All in all, we will stay true to what Armand has built and envisioned for 3 Fonteinen, while even strengthening it, contrary to the current dynamics of craft beer (in other words, beer made faster, cheaper, and more extreme.)
We will have 100% bottles; 100% local sourcing of cereals and hops (also in the works); 100% direct sourcing of fruit; and 100% barrel-fermented and matured lambik. For us, one year = 12 months, not the bridging of late spring and summer months.”
In conclusion, Werner remarked: “Hence, the plans as such have been merely delayed due to the pandemic, and the time has allowed us to have a longer period of reflection about where to take 3 Fonteinen for the long term, and how we would like to further shape 3F. In terms of production that is sold, and that will most likely concern readers the most, we will not evolve to doing more bottled volume than in 2019. We foresee to get there by 2025 again, but with a more diversified offering. That way, 3 Fonteinen will remain one of the smallest lambik producers, but with the longest production process. People see our majestic barrel room and think of us as being “big”, but the barrels they see allow to leave the lambik to age for extremely long periods – they aren’t for increasing the volume of our production.”
Sounds like there is a lot to look forward to at 3 Fonteinen! I look forward to tasting many more lambics there in the future. I recommend you do as well!