Rule of Three | Siphon & Kinnegar Collaborate for Belgian Smaak’s 3rd Birthday
Belgian Smaak is all about the tastes of this country, right? That’s what the Anglo-Flemish mashup of a name means.
So it’s a bit odd to learn they’re celebrating a third birthday with a beer designed to be atypical for Belgium: a low-alcohol, quaffable yet full-bodied light ale, with a distinct bitterness. They’re calling it the ‘Rule of Three’, befitting the occasion.
I’ve been asked by Belgian Smaak to report on this celebratory brew for the festival on 3 February, known by the unassuming title #SMAAKDOWN17. Tickets are on sale now:
The story begins as far back as the second birthday, or not long after.
The restaurant Siphon, more than a century in operation under the Callewaert family, made the brave move to start a brewery at their canal-side premises in Damme, West Flanders.
The restaurateurs, their hands full serving up classic dishes such as eel and pheasant, handed over Siphon Brewing to passionate newcomers Franklin Verdonck, and Breandán Kearney.
The brewery is now furnishing the restaurant with ‘Blinker’, a clean-lined, modern take on a saison, edgily hopped; ‘Damme Nation’, an assertively American-style India Pale Ale; ‘Cassandra’, a creamy stout made with oyster shells taken straight from diners’ plates; and Tronk, a quadruple ale imbued with vanilla and orange peels, also scavenged from the Siphon kitchen.
Distribution to specialty shops has just begun.
“That’s part of our identity, to be a bit more bitter,” Franklin says of the house style. There’s no mandate to try to match with the dishes of the restaurant, which boasts a celebrated wine list alongside more classic Belgian ales.
So, Siphon Brewing clearly had to be central to creating the signature brew for Belgian Smaak’s third anniversary.
And it was decided that input was needed from a third brewer, to fit the birthday theme.
In picking a collaboration partner, Breandán has bridged the divide between his countries, old and new.
He reached out to Kinnegar Brewing from the northwest of Ireland, in County Donegal.
“They get everything right,” Breandán says of the brewer known throughout his home country for hop-forward but well-balanced ales.
Breandán was impressed on his first visit to Kinnegar two or three years earlier. They’ve met up at festivals since then, once working together at a special tasting event in Belfast.
Rick LeVert, co-founder and brewer at Kinnegar, reckons they’ve also bonded over their “nontraditional beer backgrounds.” An American, he’s a trained filmmaker and graphic designer, while Breandán worked in law before life swerved toward Belgium.
Some six months ago, Breandán pitched the collaboration idea to Rick, who readily jumped in for his first experience of brewing in Belgium.
Rick’s wife and partner in Kinnegar Brewing – Libby Carton – was on hand to help out too.
Their starting point was the theme of the number three, but everything else was open.
Rick, Franklin and Breandán batted around ideas over Skype calls, before arriving at the unexpected formula of a 3.3% alcohol by volume, brewed with three malts, three varieties of hops, and even a trio of top-fermenting yeast strains.
Lower-alcohol brews have caught the imagination of American and English brew geeks, but remain a novelty in the land of the Trappists, at double and triple that strength.
“It’s definitely not well known by the average beer drinker in Belgium,” Franklin says. “It’s also nice to present something which, for Belgium, is quite special.”
Doing something different was a big part of the attraction.
“A lot of people would expect from something happening in Belgium that it would be a higher ABV, quite complex, definitely a beer with a lot more depth, possibly a beer working with wild yeast or different fermentation techniques,” Rick says.
“We said, let’s try to do the opposite and make a really good low-ABV beer.”
“Breandán is very respectful of the Belgian tradition and he wouldn’t want to be seen mimicking [it],” Rick adds. “Which I think is a good thing.”
Not that they mind a big beer. Siphon has its ‘Tronk’, after all.
SMAAKDOWN17 also will get another Belgo-Irish collaboration, between Brouwerij Alvinne, also of West Flanders, and Boundary Brewing of Northern Ireland. They’re bringing a sour beer aiming for 11-12%, called Phi³. It defies easy classification even while combining the Belgian signatures of boozy power and tart acidity.
‘Rule of Three’ will set off its own debate. Some may call it a session ale, although that sounds to some hopheads like an IPA at 4-5%. Others may suggest table beer, thinking of how the English and Americans describe that strength, but the Belgians would dismiss that as a Piedbœuf-type soft drink.
“We call it ‘Small Beer’,” Rick says, while admitting that the label has historically defined even weaker brews. “I suppose we were taking creative liberties with the term.”
It’s not an easy sale.
NO SMALL FLAVOUR
“The problem with the perception out there is that most low-ABV beers are associated with the style of English ales,” Rick says. “I think a lot of the flavour profiles of those are not speaking to the modern palate.”
Whatever they call it, they face the challenge of offering the Belgian drinker a full and complex flavour.
Easier said than done, however. The lower alcohol level aims for easy drinking. Yet it makes for hard brewing.
“It’s a challenge to find a recipe for alcohol yet full body and plentiful hops, including dry hopping for the aroma”, Franklin says.
Rick says, “That’s even more difficult than doing it as 7-8%.”
“Your grist bill is that much lighter,” at that strength, he explains. “So you’ve got less sugars, you’ve got less malt backbone to be working with.”
“If you don’t have the malt backing it can’t carry the hops as easily or as well. You can end up with a beer with thin mouthfeel or flavour,” Rick says. “It just tastes watery.”
The solution was to brew grains producing longer sugar molecules that won’t be gobbled up by the yeast.
They selected a Belgian pils malt to carry the load, with a dose of Carapils, and 15% rye. As a dextrine malt, the Cara builds body and head retention. The rye gives yet more mouthfeel plus “a nice spice character,” Rick says.
The grain was mashed at 5-6 degrees higher temperature, nearly 70 degrees, to produce yet more residual sugars that the English yeasts won’t digest.
“It’s not sweet at all,” Franklin assures. “The impression you get isn’t sweetness… it’s body.”
Using rye presents yet more challenges. Barley come with a husk that helps filtration. Rye doesn’t, letting the grains pack together more tightly. The sticky concoction makes for a longer lautering process — or worse, “a stuck sparge” that won’t surrender its liquid.
“You have to be aware of how it works, and make sure you don’t force it or go against the grain of what it is,” says Rick, who uses the quirky cereal in Kinnegar’s ‘Rustbucket’ ale, and other rye blends.
Hops are never an afterthought at either of Siphon and Kinnegar.
For the collaboration, they’re aiming for balanced bitterness — “not something whacking you in the face,” as Rick puts it. “[We] wanted a certain kind of elegance to it.”
Their choices hail from the German nobility of Saaz for bittering and Hallertauer Mittelfrüh for aroma before bringing in Hallertau Blanc for the dry hopping.
The last is a less pedigreed offspring from the same soil, but offers flavours described like a Sauvignon Blanc wine.
Rick suggests white grape, gooseberry, lime and “a bit of peppery note, which would work well with the rye.”
The target level of bitterness is of a German helles or a light pilsner, in the low-20s for International Bitterness Units.
Yeasts, too, get the thematic treatment, with three English strains. For the main fermentation, two have been selected for lower attenuation. Leaving more of the residual sugars on their plate should help with “reinforcing body and fruitiness,” Rick says.
The third yeast goes into the packaging, to help saturate the beer with carbon dioxide — important for Belgian drinkers, Franklin insists.
“We want a fairly high level of effervescence in it,” Rick says. “With the light character [of the beer], it gives it a more refreshing kind of feel to it.”
Back in those planning calls, the brewers talk about loosing a wild yeast onto the brew, before deciding it could overpower it. So the triple yeast selection remains a bit of a gimmick for the third birthday.
The collaborators missed only one trick with the Rule of Three: they used just the single water source at Siphon.
With Damme sitting at the intersection of three watercourses, it seems like an opportunity missed. Then again, maybe not, with the Schipdonk Canal referred to as ‘De Stinker’, for carrying the runoff from Kortrijk textile mills.
Still, they didn’t think of a “vial of holy water from Ireland,” Rick says with a rueful laugh.
Even without those blessings, the brewing went on as planned, on the 20th November…
‘Rule of Three’ is now conditioning away in a tank at Siphon Brewing. It goes into kegs on 2 January, and then up the driveway to the Siphon restaurant for the birthday party in February — on the third, naturally.
You can buy tickets here: