Beer in the Grand Duchy of Luxemborg
Before we go any further, let me make a few things clear: There is a California in the U.S. and another one in Mexico. There is a U.S. state called New Mexico and a whole country with a similar name across the border. There is a state in the west of the U.S. called Washington and a city of the same name in the east.
This came to mind when a reporter on Newseek asked me about Belgium: "It is so fashionable these days; how come no one noticed it before?" My first answer was: "Maybe they blinked and missed it. It is very small, you know." On the other hand, maybe they just became confused when they looked at a map of Europe's coastal lowlands. Take Flanders (I would, any time).
Flanders is a region in France and a nation within Belgium. There are next-door provinces (counties, if you like) called Limburg in Belgium and The Netherlands, and a city of the same name in Germany. There are two provinces called Brabant in Belgium and one in The Netherlands.
There are two Luxembourgs: a Belgian province of that name and a tiny independent country called the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
There are two Luxembourgs: a Belgian province of that name and a tiny independent country called the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. I headed south-east in Belgium the other day, through the province of Luxembourg, then across the border into the Grand Duchy. The names may be the same, but the countries have their differences.
In the Belgian province, cafés offer beers from Achouffe to Vieux Temps. Its own Orval Trappist monastery brewery makes one of the world's greatest beers, with robust flavors from heavy hopping, top-fermenting yeast, Brettanomyces and bottle-conditioning.
Across the border, Belgian beers are only now, gradually, becoming available, as specialities. They were much evidence at a two-day beer festival organised in May at the premises of the Munhowen family business, which imports and distributes such specialities. Almost ten thousand people attended, so perhaps there is a demand for such delights.
The Grand Duchy itself produces no top-fermenting beers and only a handful of specialities among its Pilsener and Export-style lagers.
About 70 breweries over the years, though no more than 36 at any one time (and only 20 in any detail) are mentioned in the book Onse Be'er Ass Gudd! (compiled by five authors, including French brewery historian Philippe Voluer, and published by Editions Schortgen, of Luxembourg in 1993). The book is not available in English. It is published in both German and French, though the title is in the local language, which tangles those two tongues with Dutch. Of these breweries, only five survive.
I greatly enjoyed visiting the only brewery in Luxembourg City, the capital. The city was built as a fortress on a rock overlooking the winding river Alzette. The riverside district, known as Clausen, gave its name to a brewery deriving from its Mansfeld Castle (now a restaurant). It also had an abbey called Altmunster ("Old Minster"), which may have brewed as early as1083. From this developed the Munster commercial brewery in 1511, acquired by the Mousel family in 1825.
When I raised an eyebrow at the notion of a mule smoking, Madame Reifers laughed and explained that the mules ate the stogies.
The whole is now simply known by the family name, though its corporate style is Brasseries Réunies de Mousel et Clausen. There are buildings on both sides of a bridge on the narrow river, including a grand, 1880s, baronial tower and arched entrance to the brewery yard. There are still stables, where the U.S. military in the first World War left its mules. "They would not pull our beer drays unless we gave them a cigar first," I was told by the Margot Reiffers, of the owning family. When I raised an eyebrow at the notion of a mule smoking, Madame Reifers laughed and explained that the mules ate the stogies.
Across the yard, the turn-of-the century brewhouse has copper kettles but an ugly, modern, tank farm. Next door, is a 1930s building called Mousel's Cantine, which offers local smoked pork dishes for lunch and dinner (closed Sundays). I was taken to an inner dining room, which had a ceiling of Sistine elegance illustrating the Mousel brewing tradition.
Mousel's beers are made by double decoction, and tend to have a maltier mouth-feel than those of its competitors. This was true of our first beer, the very pale, golden, Export-style Altmunster (5.5 per cent alcohol by volume), though it also has an excellent hop balance and aroma. A seasonal spring beer called Novus 1 (5.6), introduced this year as the first in a series, had a darker, more honeyish color a light, smooth, malty, sweetish, nuttiness, and a label aimed at younger drinkers.
Another newish product, made for Luxembourg's year as European City of Culture, in 1995, is a Black Lager. The colour is more of a full amber, and the maltiness very sweet. It was not offered at the Cantine. The Pils, which was, had a notably firm malt background, and a crisp dryness of finish. My greatest interest was in its unfiltered counterpart, available only at Mousel's Cantine. This product, called Gezwickelte Beier in the local language, expressed itself in much maltier, heartier, fashion, with a good fresh, hoppy, acidity and spritziness in the finish.
As a brewery with such deep roots, and in the capital, Mousel is proud of its traditions, but worried that it might be seen as old-fashioned.
As a brewery with such deep roots, and in the capital, Mousel is proud of its traditions, but worried that it might be seen as old-fashioned. These concerns may be heightened by the incestuous nature of the industry in such a small country. Mousel has a beer very similar to its Pils under the label Henri Funck. This name derives from a brewery that Mousel acquired and closed. Another departed brewery was Funck-Bricher, which dated from the 1700s. The Funcks were related, but the latter branch in 1975 merged with the Bofferding brewery, in Bascharage, in steel-making country about ten miles south of Luxembourg City.
Bofferding is 150 years old, but has a very modern brewery, making lighter-tasting beers which are unpasteurised except when in cans. The brewery places a great emphasis on freshness, especially in the supermarkets, where it has a very strong presence. Believing that Luxembourg is too small for market fragmentation, Bofferding has put most of its efforts behind one beer, making its very delicate Pils the leading national brand.
Perhaps predictably, this eventually alienated some consumers, who wanted more choice. The brewery has responded with a slightly more down-home brew called Hausbéier (5.5). This comes in a swing-top bottle, and has some Munich-malt smothness. All of the Bofferding beers have some floweriness, though this is best illustrated in another newish product Fréijoers ("spring"), a unfiltered counterpart to the Pils.
At the opposite end of this tiny nation is rural Wiltz (divided into an "Upper Town" and "Lower Town") in very hilly Ardennes countryside. Within site of the church in the Lower Town is the Simon family brewery, founded in 1824.
When I called on a Sunday, Wiltz was so quiet that children were playing football outside the brewery. The original building announces that the enterprise has provided beer to the Grand Duke. Opposite, the copper kettles are visible through the windows of a functional, pebbledash, tower built in the 1930s. Inside, the brewery has open fermenters.
While some of its competitors have similar ratings, it seems clearly the most hoppy tasting Pils in Luxembourg.
Its Pils begins soft yet dry, has an almost spring-water softness in the middle, the a late hit of hops. This weighs in at 28 units of bitterness. While some of its competitors have similar ratings, it seems clearly the most hoppy tasting Pils in Luxembourg. (The next is probably Diekirch, made not far away. I have tasted this beer on a number of occasions, though I have yet to visit the brewery).
Simon's Export-type, called Régal, is lightly malty, firm, and rounded. At the brewery, I found no hint of the popcorn-like diacetyl that I noted in a sample a friend brought back from Luxembourg some months ago.
Like its competitors, the brewery has been treading gently into new pastures. Its entrant is Dinkel beer. Dinkel is the German word for spelt, an early form of wheat. This grain accounts for 30 per cent of the mash, and the beer has a gravity of just under 1048 (actually, 11.8 Plato). It is only lightly hopped. The beer is fermented with the house lager yeast (Weihenstephan 34), and unfiltered. It has to be me the aroma of fresh bread; a smooth body and palate; and a lightly dryish, almost dusty, finish.
Despite my best efforts, I was not able to visit the country's smallest brewery, Battin, in the town of Esch, in the "far" southwest. I did taste its Gambrinus beer, and found it rather sweet and sticky but with an attractive hop balance.
Next year in Esch?
Published Online: JULY 20, 1999
Published in Print: JUNE 1, 1999
In: Ale Street News
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