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In a country with beers named after the Devil, or called "Sudden Death", one called "Misfortune" (Malheur, in French) is just another wry jest. The beer itself is no joke. On the contrary, it is an inspired beer. Malheur is made in a new, revivalist, brewery.

Its founder, Emanuel "Manu" De Landtsheer, opened the brewery to restore his family's brewing tradition. They had for five generations been involved in a brewing business that traced its origins to the 1600s. Their original brewery closed just before World War II.

The family continued to grow hops until the 1970s. Their home is in the little town of Buggenhout, on the road from Aalst, one of Belgium's hop-growing centres, to the historic city of Mechelen (which is between Brussels and Antwerp)

Manu, then in his late teens, remembers rushing home from school on his bike to help with the picking, and recalls the aroma in the oast as they were dried. His father became a local distributor for the suitably hoppy Czech classic Pilsner Urquell - and then the mayor of Buggenhout.

"As I grew up, we all talked about re-opening our own brewery one day. When my father died in 1991, I decided I must make this dream true".

The family house, still occupied by Manu's mother Monique and one of his sisters, Martine, is now linked by an entrance to a new building. The latter, in a similar architectural style, houses mash-tun, kettles and fermenters. The stainless-steel, 25-hectolitre, brewhouse was supplied by the Belgian firm of Meura. The brewer is Luc Verhaegen, who worked at De Koninck, in Antwerp, and more recently in Wieze, at Van Roy, which closed in April of 1997.

In 1997, Malheur put in its first brew, with a gravity of 1045-1047 (4.25 per cent alcohol by weight; 5.3 by volume). This is a golden ale, made from three varieties of French barley, malted in Aalst. These are all Pilsner malts. A fourth, speciality, malt is also used. This has variously been Caravienne, Munich and Aromatic, as the brewer has experimented in developing the product. No sugar or adjuncts are used in the brewhouse. An infusion mash is employed, with town water that is medium soft.

The hops are Saaz, Styrians and Hallertau-Hersbruck, all as blossoms, in three additions. "Having grown and picked hops, we could hardly use pellets."

The yeast is from the nearby De Smedt brewery, known for its Affligem abbey ales. The beer is bottled at De Smedt, with a priming of pale candy sugar and a dosage of the same yeast. It is then brought back to Malheur for bottle-conditioning. There is also a draught version.

"We want to use basic, straightforward ingredients to make a fresh, lightly hoppy, refreshing ale that is easy to drink. We think the draught is especially quaffable and the bottled version more soothing."

The label bears a number four. Why? "Four generations of brewers?" proposes Manu. "But surely there were more?" Perhaps, he suggests, it means that you can drink four without feeling drunk. "I don't know - I just wanted a number as part of the design."

Tasting note:
When I first tasted the beer, in Britain earlier this year, in the bottle, I was particularly struck by the Saaz hop accent. I also noticed a spiciness. Perhaps this was due to De Smedt's citric, perfumy, yeast, though the culture has been re-cropped at Malheur, and has gained its own character.

At the brewery, I found the bottled product very aromatic, rose-like and slightly oily. The draft had a more obviously orangey flavour and a big, fresh Saaz character.

This being Belgium, I was also asked to taste several vintages. At two months, the beer still had some yeasty sourness. At four, it was very assertive, with an almost stony, flinty, grassy, Saaz character. At eight, the oily, rosy characteristics were coming to the fore, and Manu thought he detected nuts and honey. I was not sure, but definitely found honey in flowery version of only 40 days that had been filled into a 75-centilitre bottle with a cork.

Food pairings:
As a delicate beer, Malheur performs well with lighter-tasting meats such as chicken, perhaps with a crisp bean salad in a vinaigrette. The grassy, herbal, hop character; yeasty sourness (a hint of yogurt?); orangey notes, and suggestions of nuts and honey, prompt thoughts of Eastern Mediterranean food. Perhaps Lebanese?

- The family business is alive again: A 1999 visit to the brewery.

Published: JULY 31, 2000
In: Beer Hunter Online

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