Jef Van Den Steen of Brouwerij De Glazen Toren | Rock ‘n’ Roll Brewing

Jef Van Den Steen of Brouwerij De Glazen Toren | Rock ‘n’ Roll Brewing

After working on his father’s farm in the 1960’s, Jef Van Den Steen had saved up enough money to buy himself a guitar.

At his local youth group in Belgium he formed a band with some newly acquired friends. The singer of the group was John Woolley, whose father Harry had been an English soldier in Belgium at the end of World War II and who had settled down in Aalst after meeting a local girl.

“We entered a rock rally in 1968 and we won,” says Jef. “The first prize was a record deal. We released a song by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Normally it was played very soft. But we made a real Rock ‘n’ Roll song out of it.”

That track – ‘Ruby Baby’ – would go on to spend 13 weeks in the Belgian Top 30 charts. “The boss of the record company saw the success of that track and wanted us to make more than one,” says Jef. “During the next 5 years, we had a lot of success.”

‘John Woolley and Just Born’ would go on to release ‘Just Lyin’ in 1971 which spent another 9 weeks in the charts. Their singles were hits not only in Belgium, but in France, the Netherlands, England, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sweden and Canada. The group disbanded in 1974.

JUST BORN

Since his days as a lead guitarist in a successful rock band, Jef Van Den Steen has gone on to wear many hats. He’s been a local politician for over 30 years, fulfilling the role of elderman for culture, education and sport on the local village council. He was a high school mathematics teacher in Aalst. He engaged in agricultural work on a small scale, learning from his father on the old family farm.

And he has become an ever-present in the world of Belgian beer: as a respected writer publishing 10 books on the subject; as a beer judge at international competitions; and as a brewer, having opened a small brewery with two friends in Erpe-Mere: Brouwerij De Glazen Toren.

EXPLORING BELGIUM

The brewing and beer writing stemmed directly from the music career. “My interest in beer began when we started playing with ‘Just Born’,” says Jef. “We played everywhere in Belgium. We tasted the regional beers wherever we travelled. In that time, you could only taste local beers when you were in the region they came from. We would always drink local.”

That early exposure to previously unobtainable regional styles together with an analytical mind that would serve him well as a mathematics teacher drew him towards the world of beer. “I asked myself why the beer was pale or dark and why it was bitter or sweet,” says Jef. “I started asking questions and looking for answers. We didn’t have the internet. There were no books about beer. The first book came along in 1985 and it was by one of my heroes, Wilfried Patroons. He visited all the Belgian breweries at that time.”

TRAGEDY TO WRITING

Reading about beer turned to writing when it was announced that Belgium would have an official ‘Year of Beer’ in 1986. “Some magazines were looking for someone to write about beer in the run-up to the ‘Year of Beer’,” says Jef. “That was my start as a beer writer. When I read back some of my texts, I ask myself how it was possible that I wrote that. I did not know much then, but all of the others knew less. In the country of the blind people, the one-eyed-man is king.”

In 1989, Jef’s wife and two children were involved in a serious car accident. “Both of my children were killed in an accident and my wife spent 6 months in a coma,” says Jef. “She is now recovered, but there are still some after effects. My children would now be in their 30s.”

After the tragedy, Van den Steen threw himself into exploring the beer community in Belgium. In 1989 he started OPA, the Aalst beer club. He went on to help set up the beer clubs of Essen (OBER), Zottegem (BLES) and BAB (Bruges) under the ‘Zythos’ consumer group umbrella. “I helped those clubs conduct their first meetings by going there and showing them how to do it,” says Jef. “At that time, I was a missionary.”

He also threw himself into writing about beer. After several years working for regional magazines and specialist beer publications, he secured a book contract to produce a book about the ‘Taste of Beer’. Since then, he’s written 9 books, including books about Lambic, the Belgian Family Brewers, Abbey Ales, Beer Cocktails, Speciale Belge and Trappist beers. “When I wrote the book about Trappist breweries there were only 6 of them and they were all in Belgium,” says Jef. “I wrote a recent article in the ‘Bierpassie’ magazine entitled ‘the 12th Trappist?’. There will definitely be more.”

DE GLAZEN TOREN

Brouwerij De Glazen Toren brewed for the first time on 11 November 2004. The name – which translates as ‘Glass Tower’ – comes from the road in Erpe-Mere on which the brewery is situated, ‘Glazentorenweg’, a small non-descript residential street with blocky Flemish houses on one side and modestly kept bushes on the other.

“The Glazen Toren was to do with prostitutes,” Jef explains. “This street used to be a 1 metre wide path where farmers had only enough room to bring their wheelbarrows. At the end of the street was a pub with a glass tower where you could see the prostitutes through the glass. When the road was widened and later developed into a residential street and the council were looking for a name, they named it after that little pub and its history.”

Jef lives on Glazentorenweg. His house is beside the brewery. His brother lives in the next house over. His father’s land is opposite the house. “The brewery space was initially a garage for a new motor home I wanted to buy with my wife when I retired,” says Jef. “We thought we could also fit a small brewery in it. Of course, the motor home never made it into the space.”

It looks like a converted garage space, every square metre put to efficient use, well-thought-out with attentively professional levels of cleanliness. There’s a tall set of window panes built into the side of the wall as a nod to the history of the glass tower. The brewery itself is a two-vessel system which they shopped for together with Nino Bacelle of Brouwerij De Ranke when he was expanding. They’ve got 7 conical coned tanks and a small but impressive automatic bottling machine.

They brew twice a week on their 30 HL kit and bottle everything they produce in 75cl brown champagne bottles with paper wraps in the style of Liefmans Goudenband which Jef claims is one of his favourite beers. Initially the brewery had only a 5 HL capacity with the intention to brew one day a month, bottle one day a month and open a small bar one day a month. In the last 12 years demand has been such that they’ve expanded twice and substantially widened their beer range.

SAISON D’ERPE-MERE

They’re perhaps best known for Saison D’Erpe-Mere, a cloudy straw coloured ale of 6.5% ABV with a dry effervescence and spicy hop finish. The grist bill constitutes 87.5% pils malt and 12.5% malted wheat with a multi-step mash and lots of low alpha Saaz for bittering.

“People forget that Saison beers were not very bitter beers,” says Jef. “They used low alpha hops but they used a lot. Some breweries ask hop farms or merchants for the highest alpha they have. We ask for the lowest alpha so we can add a lot. Our Saaz is 2.5% alpha. We want lots of hops to contribute to hop flavour but keep a normal level of bitterness.”

The brewers of the Hainaut region in the French speaking part of Belgium where the Saison beer style originated have created a ‘Saison Association’ where brewers can work together to promote the style as well as their individual brands and shape how the authentic versions are perceived across Belgium and internationally. “There are 23 breweries in that association in total,” says Jef. “22 of them are walloon breweries from Hainaut and one is from Flanders. De Glazen Toren. We are the only Flemish brewery. We meet 3-4 times a year.”

IN THE KNOW

Jef’s writing and research have given him the opportunity to avail of inside brewing advice from respected breweries. When he presented Saison d’Erpe-Mere to Marc Rosier of Brasserie Dupont – the uncle of current owner Olivier Dedycker – he received memorable praise. “He told me it was more Saison than some of the Saisons produced in Hainaut,” says Jef. “That’s praise enough for me coming from Dupont.”

When devising De Glazen Toren’s winter beer, Canaster (8.7% ABV), Jef took a bottle to Brouwerij Het Anker in Mechelen for the brewers there to taste. “Gouden Carolus is one of the best dark beers in Belgium,” says Jef. “After the brewers there tasted the beer once, they simply told me to lose the 64°C step in the mash scheme. We tried it and it softened the beer.”

Their wheat beer, a ‘dubbel witbier’ of 7% ABV was largely inspired by Dentergem’s Wit, a beer produced at Brouwerij Riva (which no longer exists). Jan de Lichte is brewed with 50% pils malt and 50% malted wheat with the addition of coriander and Curaçao orange peel. The classic Belgian beer also contains American hops. “We use cascade,” says Jef. “We were using it before anyone else. It’s the only US hop we use. We use it because of the fruitiness it contributes to our witbier.”

They also brew a classic Tripel – Ondineke Oilsjtersen – and are planning on a summer seasonal next year which will be shaped largely by their love for Westmalle Extra. “It will be no more than 4% ABV,” says Jef. “Low alcohol beers are becoming more popular in Belgium.”

Having these strong contacts in high places has given Jef and De Glazen Toren the opportunity to acquire yeasts with impressive heritage, pronounced character and high attenuation. “We use the yeast of colleagues for primary fermentation,” says Jef. “But they don’t like it if I say who they are. I know all of them for a long time. If people hear that we are using the yeast from a certain brewery, everyone will want to go there.”

They use commercial yeast for refermentation in the bottle, due to exponential fermentation activity which Jef demonstrates in true mathematical fashion with a graph on the back of a beer label wrap. “When the yeast comes out of a tank, it’s not young any more,” he says. “With refermentation, you want this to start up within 6-8 hours. The commercial yeasts are dried at that particular time of activity.”

LEARNING THE PROCESS

His visits to other countries also assist him with process. When he was updating his Trappist book to include newer non-Belgian breweries, he travelled to Spencer in Massachusetts to talk to the brewers at St. Joseph’s Abbey. “That’s where I saw the Hop Dosing Tank,” says Jef. “It’s a vessel which helps us avoid loss due to foaming when we add hops to the boil as well as ensuring we don’t lose temperature. It also makes it safer.”

They’ve installed a small self-made ‘Hop Back Unit’ which they use for every beer. “We built the Hop Back ourselves,” says Jef. “It acts as both a kind of filtration where warm trub sticks to our Hallertau Mittelfrueh hop cones, but it also gives all of our beers the aroma of those hops before going to fermentation.”

He talks about learning about the addition of oxygen to his wort to speed up the start of fermentation. “We add pure O2,” he says. “When Froome has O2 in the mountains, he can go faster on his bike. It’s the same for yeast. We use all the tricks big breweries use to make our beer better.”

OUT OF RETIREMENT

Jef Van Den Steen is 68 years old. The other two brewers in De Glazen Toren are Marc De Neef (64 years old) and Dirk De Pauw (60 years old).

Despite being well over retirement age, his profile in beer continues to grow and the requests keep coming in. In November he’ll be judging at the Brussels Beer Challenge, one of the biggest competitions in Europe. He continues to farm fruit on a small scale. He’s writing another book. He regularly makes TV appearances on national television to talk about beer culture. And he still plays music with ‘Just Born’ at special gigs.

But he’s not under any stress. “If I was 40, I would care about a career,” he says. “But it’s like the Rolling Stones song. ‘If you need me, Why don’t you call me’.” He excuses himself and begins singing the 1964 track as he walks across to the lauter tun. “Don’t wait too long; When things go wrong; I’ll be there, yeah; Where I belong.” The filtration is finished and the spent grain needs removing. This tank isn’t going to empty itself.

Certified Cicerone®. Accredited beer sommelier (UK Institute of Brewing & Distilling). Certified 'algemene bierkenner' (CVO Panta Rhei, Ghent). Beer Writer of the Year 2015. Best Young Beer Writer 2015. Best Beer and Food Writer 2015 (British Guild of Beer Writers).