Mescan Brewery from Ireland Take Part in Historical Belgian Brew at Bokrijk
A hard-nosed Belgian farmer arrives at the historical brew house in the Flemish village of Bokrijk on an old Dexta tractor to pick up the spent grain.
Having come all the way from Ireland to take part in the brew day, Rob Hynes makes a bee line for the tractor. “That’s a thing of beauty,” he says. “I used to own one years ago but I sold it. I regret that.”
He turns to the farmer. “Do you want some advice for tightening up the steering?”
Rob is here with Mescan Brewery, a small brewery situated just outside Westport in Co. Mayo which was founded by Bart Adons and Cillian O’Móráin. All three men are here to brew a 250 year old recipe on a historical brewing installation with De Gilde Demerdal-Vliermaalroot VZW, a Guild of Brewers in the Belgian province of Limburg.
Bart is from Belgium and Cillian is originally from Dublin so Rob is actually the only Mayo man at the brewery. And he’s pure Mayo. He talks about GAA, rugby and tractors. He’s a farmer by inheritance and a mechanical engineer by trade. An important skill set for any aspiring brewer.
Bart and Cillian have brought Rob on board because of Mescan Brewery’s growing success. Demand for their beers has been insatiable and in the time since starting up, they’ve jumped from a 500 litre mash tun to one twice the size and have recently acquired some 2,000 litre fermenters to facilitate double brew days. “Rob is a hard worker,” says Cillian. “And he’s really hungry to learn. That’s the most important thing.”
Bart comes from a village only 12 kilometres away from here called Waterschei. Its literal meaning is water ‘separation’ or ‘divorce’ and refers to the fact that the village is the place of division for two of Belgium’s most important rivers: the Maas to the east and the Schelde to the west.
Bokrijk itself is a fascinating village, a kind of recreated historic world complete with magical forest, authentic bakeries and crumbling brick schoolhouses. It’s also home to Het Paenhuys brewery, a system which was once owned by Hoegaarden but since 1995 has been housed here at Bokrijk.
“It’s the installation on which Pierre Celis learned to brew,” says the President of the Guild, Stefaan Huybrechts. If it was Celis’ brewing playground, then it’s apt that the beer being brewed today is a Belgian wheat beer, made from malted barley and spelt grains. They’re making 2,000 litres and the 5% ABV Spelt beer will be poured for guests at a Christmas party which will take place in the Bokrijk museum in a few months time.
Stefaan is a beer historian as well as the Guild President and has conducted considerable research on recipes and processes so that the day can be as authentic as possible. The lautering involves wort being pulled from a tap on the side of the wooden mash tun and passed in buckets across a human chain of 8 guild members to the kettle. The boil takes 5 hours and is heated by a huge fire oven, fuelled by constant wood additions. The cooling takes place in a koelschip which sits high on the wooden beams above the vessels.
There is, however, some admitted cheating when it comes to fermenting. Instead of relying on a spontaneous fermentation as would have happened at the time the recipe was first created, Stefaan feeds some sterile wort to a strain kindly offered by Brouwerij Slaghmuylder, preparing for a cultured pitch later in the day. Otherwise, it’s as authentic as they can make it.
“We first brewed here like this in 2004,” Stefaan says. “This is our 12th year doing it.” The Guild is a non-profit organisation affiliated to the Association of Amateur Winemakers and Brewers which started up 30 years ago in Diepenbeek. It counts 80 people as members of which 15 are winemakers and 65 are brewers. Its purpose is primarily educational, helping people to learn traditional methods of producing wine and beer on a small scale.
COMING HOME WITH NEW FAMILY
It’s Bart’s third time brewing here with the Guild. It seems that after quite some time travelling in Africa and then living in Ireland, there’s been a reconnection with the place he is from. “For a long time I didn’t come back here,” says Bart. “There are a lot of things I don’t like about this place. But now there are a lot of things I love.”
This reconnection – both with the landscape and the people – has facilitated Mescan’s assimilation into the Guild. When Cillian and Bart started brewing in Mayo, they would often contact Guild members for advice on specific brewing matters. Help was always forthcoming.
The bonds between Mescan Brewery and the Guild continue to deepen. 14 Guild members made the trip to the west of Ireland over Easter this year. It was both a thank you to the guild for their help and a celebration of Mescan’s first year in business. Not only did they assist with brewing and bottling on that visit, but they did their fair share of drinking. “I spent 6 weeks making that beer,” mocked Rob in front of the group on a break from brewing. “And you guys went and drank it all in 6 hours.”
MESCAN BREWERY LINKS
Mescan’s place in the Irish market will always be linked to Belgium. They brew with multi-step mashes, deploy characterful yeast strains, produce highly attenuating beers which are drier and higher in alcohol than many Irish ales, and they bottle condition everything they brew, developing effervescent beers with more pronounced ester and phenol character than many in the market.
Their conservative approach to hop usage is also rooted in the Belgian obsession with balance. “We’ll never brew an IPA,” says Bart. “This whole aggressive hop thing is just a trend. It will be over in 10 years.”
They’ve just followed up their Blonde, Wit, Stout Porter and Red Tripel with a new beer – the Mescan Extra, a Belgian Strong Golden Ale of 9.3% ABV. Bart thinks it’s their best beer yet. “It’s got extra malt, extra hops and extra alcohol,” says Bart. “So we figured that ‘extra’ would be the perfect name.”
NOT HERE TO TAKE PART
Like Mescan, there are several breweries around the world who brew Belgian style beers. Think of Allagash in Portland, Maine or New Belgium in Colorado. Many of these breweries bring their employees on a trip to Belgium once those employees have been working with the brewery for at least 5 years.
It’s a rite of passage and a way for the breweries to baptise their staff into a unique brewing culture.
“This is our first annual employee trip,” jokes Bart. “We’re on it right now.”
Maybe there will be more Irish brewers taking part in this event in Bokrijk next year.
It’s like what Conor McGregor said.
The Irish aren’t here to take part. We’re here to take over.