Brasserie Des Fagnes | The Worst Kept Walloon Brewing Secret Ever
Frédéric Adant is the owner of a small brewery and restaurant in the village of Mariembourg where I am stopping off with my parents for sustenance on our whistle-stop tour of the Namur province of Belgium.
There is not much information online in English about Brasserie Des Fagnes and their beers are not easy to find outside of the region. Besides some small shipments to France, they export almost nothing.
Within minutes I discover it’s not hidden at all. On arrival there’s a large designated car park and the restaurant is a spacious and homely eating space, with family friendly seating and open log fires. There’s even a makeshift museum with various brewing paraphernalia and the pièce de résistance, an impressive brew house visible from the restaurant area.
Around here, it seems, everybody knows Brasserie des Fagnes.
BRASSERIE DES FAGNES
A Belgian blonde of 7.5% ABV arrives at the table for my parents, myself and Frédéric. Even though they brew over 20 different beers, the one we are being served now dominates their line-up. “Super Des Fagnes Blonde makes up 50% of our production,” says Frédéric. “It’s our flagship beer without question.”
It’s biscuity, fruity and yeast forward, well balanced with high carbonation and a spiciness deriving from additions of coriander and liquorice.
This ‘Blonde’ is part of the Super Des Fagnes range at Brasserie des Fagnes, which also includes a ‘Brune’ (7.5% ABV), a ‘Griottes’ (4.8% ABV), a ‘Scotch’ (7.5% ABV) and the ‘Noël’ (8.5% ABV) as well as a highly regarded Blanche Des Fagnes (6% ABV) and lighter Saison Des Fagnes (5.5% ABV). They also experiment, for example with an apple beer called Fagnes Cuvée Guillaume (4.5% ABV) and the quite unique Fagnes Cuvée Vigneronne (8% ABV), a biological beer made with grapes.
NEIGHBOURS IN BREWING
By Belgian standards, there aren’t too many other breweries in the immediate vicinity of Brasserie Des Fagnes. To the east, there’s Brasserie Du Bocq in Purnode, a brewery famed for its quality control as well as its extensive contract brewing. To the west, there’s the Abbey of our Lady of Scourmont which houses the Trappist brewery of Chimay.
Du Bocq contract brew for Des Fagnes. “We have a great relationship with them”, says Frédéric. “Some of our beers are brewed there and my former brewer works there with them now.” To be precise, 8,000 hectolitres are brewed at Du Bocq with 1,000 hectolitres brewed on site in the small brewpub installation which we can see glistening and steaming from the restaurant area where we are sitting.
The former brewer referenced is Xavier Yernaux, a brewer who Frédéric teamed up with in 1998 after four years of home brewing and who worked at Des Fagnes until moving to Du Bocq in 2004. “Xavier’s understanding of our beers makes our partnership with Du Bocq a really successful one,” says Frédéric. The anecdotes we hear make two things clear: that Xavier is a headstrong and ambitious brewer, and that Frédéric values their close friendship.
Luc Pirons is now the head brewer here, a guy who at first glance looks like he has stepped straight out of an Asterix cartoon and into an Agatha Christie ‘Poirot’ novel. Out of curiosity, I ask whether he ever uses any new world hops and the response is a firm shaking of the head. “I like a beer I can actually drink”, Luc tells me. “If it’s too strong or too bitter, I can’t drink more than one. And sometimes I want to drink more than one.”
I see large conditioning tanks which feed straight into the long line of brewery taps so that visitors to Brasserie Des Fagnes can enjoy beer fresh and brewed less than 20 metres from where they are being served. And like many artisanal breweries, bottling done on site is carried out entirely by hand. Luc makes sure I am aware of this when he jokingly rolls his eyes when I ask how long it takes to bottle.
All this activity was met with some hostility from the biggest brewery in the area when Brasserie Des Fagnes first surfaced. “Because of some of the previous management, we didn’t have such a good relationship with Chimay,” Frédéric says. “They didn’t like that we were so strong locally. They tried to shake us up a little bit. But with the current management, the relationship is much better and we get along well.”
The name of the brewery might be simple to write, but it gets butchered quite often at the hands (and in the mouths) of English speakers. “I’m aware that non-French speakers have difficulty pronouncing the name,” says Frédéric. “But that’s ok. I’m not trying to be big in other countries. I’m not out to be an AB-Inbev.” Perhaps the rather peculiar (but perfectly relevant name) is the reason why Frédéric has been slow to join other Belgian brewery owners in focusing on export. Pretty much their only market in this regard is France, who one would presume are in a much better position to make a good fist of the pronunciation.
The brewery is so named because we are in the Fagnes. It’s a topographical reference to the local area, a natural region in southern Belgium which translates from Walloon dialect as ‘swampy ground’. The Fagnes stretch across the provinces of Namur and Hainaut, extended west into France and bounded to the east by the river Meuse. I’m staying here with my parents almost exactly half-way between the Fagnes’ two most notable towns, Phillipeville and Couvin, at a quaint and characterful farmhouse called Tromcourt.
The locality is a source of great pride to the brewery owner and it seems Brasserie Des Fagnes has become somewhat of a local champion. Frédéric’s hospitable manner has built an unwavering respect among those living in the area to the extent that the Super Des Fagnes brand is an omnipresent at almost every family and community party in the region. They even run a number of festivals during the year.
THE BUSINESS OF BEER
Frédéric talks as much about his family as he does about his business. It’s a reminder of how the two are inextricably linked for people in the beer industry. “The children’s ages have been milestones for me,” he says. “When my son was 2, we started the kitchen. When he was 6, we started to export a bit.”
The brewpub isn’t Frédéric’s only business. In addition to Brasserie Des Fagnes, he runs a beer wholesale business and a food import business, all three with his wife, and all with great success. Every Sunday, the brewpub caters for almost 2,000 people and every single day in the summer sees between 400-700 people pass through their doors. They’ve had to take on 50 student staff to deal with the traffic. For what I thought was a hidden secret, it’s not really all that hidden.
And here’s me spilling the beans too.