So you’ve been drinking a brewery’s beers for years; you know the beers of theirs that you really enjoy and at times have drunk far too much of them (remember when a London licensee had a keg of the brewery’s strongest and you made serious inroads into it, yes that moment of inebriation?).
You also know which one you don’t really feel like getting out of bed for in the morning, and, you also know, from past experience, which one of their beers is a good companion at the dining table. Yet you have never visited the brewery — and does it matter? Is your knowledge of a brewery’s beers incomplete until you visit it and drink them at the source?
I was mulling over these thoughts earlier this month after a Saturday afternoon visit to Brasserie de l’Abbaye des Rocs in the Wallonian village of Audregnies. This is a brewery whose 9% Brune I have always loved (the very same beer that a couple of times has nearly marooned me on the Island of Lost Causes). It is a big beast of a beer, as dark as the thoughts of an arsonist and brimming with stone fruits, caramel, spice, bittersweetness and the vast starry deeps of potent alcohol (in other words, 9%).
It was an august autumnal afternoon, dry but breezy, light but shadowed, cool and uncomplicated, especially if you drew the zip of your warm jacket up tight. The copper-bronze flitters of flailing leaves dotted the surroundings, a rustic assembly of old brick buildings of the kind of age that you wonder what they have experienced in the past 150 years (Mons is very close for instance). The music of wind chimes could be heard, light and ethereal, while a beautiful young vizsla bounded about, pleased to see people taking an interest in its home (I was with a group of beer judges — we’d spent the morning at the Brussels Beer Challenge and this was our reward).
The brewery itself, the FVs, the mash, the this and the that of making beer, were pretty humdrum to view, but it was the location, this hidden away, rustic conundrum of a place that somehow made me feel that I had received a glimpse of the soul of Brasserie de l’Abbaye des Rocs. And as I felt all metaphysical, the MD Nathalie Eloir (whose father started the enterprise in 1979) explained the whys and wherefores of what went on. I wasn’t really listening, but I can remember her saying, ‘we want to stay as a craft brewery’. In these days of relentless brewery growth and the correlation of looking for funding, this statement was rather refreshing.
The sense of being rooted to the land, organic in its place, elemental even, was also apparent in the brewery’s tasting rooms in an old mill down the road. Here, bare wood, rough worked-on wood, old sturdy struts of wood, stone walls, the world as a hardened carapace against all-comers was the interior, a place that seemed apt to study some of the beers of Brasserie de l’Abbaye des Rocs.
There was a saison, flinty and angular, spicy and rather skeletal in its mouth feel with a fleeting finish. Then there was a newish beer, the 7.2% Stout, which had a sleek nose of dark malts, chocolate and freshly ground coffee (espresso perhaps) beans, followed by suggestions of mocha coffee, chocolate, a creamy mouth feel and the sternness of bitterness in the finish. This was rather appealing and could be competing with the Brune for a favourite of mine from this brewery. Finally, there was the Triple Impériale, hazy gold in colour, honeyed and sweetish on the nose, fulsome in the mouth feel and bitter in the finish. I thought dessert wine and looked for cheese.
Later on, nursing an Orval in a bar in Mons, the chatter of drinkers flying about me like birds in a wood, I thought back to the brewery, and wondered if I knew more about it now that I had visited. On a superficial level, yes I had seen its home, its location, its rustic heartland, but more than that I’d seen the dedication, the love, the pride and the rootedness of a brewery, whose original founder was a pioneer in what became the Belgian micro-brewery boom of the 1980s and beyond. I’m glad I got a glimpse of its soul.