Stuart Forster meets brewer Johan van Dyck who explains about rediscovering Antwerp’s Seef Beer, which was popular before World War One.
Seef bier (pronounced ‘safe’) was a popular style of beer in and around the Belgian city of Antwerp prior to the outbreak of World War One. It was known as ‘the Champagne of the poor people’ yet its production died out and for many years the recipe was lost.
Unusually, Seef features buckwheat among its ingredients. Antwerp was the only place in Belgium were brewers were permitted to brew beers using buckwheat at the turn of the 20th century. Elsewhere its use had been banned, following the introduction of taxes on brewers’ ingredients in the 18th century. Antwerp’s brewers successfully appealed for an exception.
Reviving Antwerp’s long lost beer
Johan van Dyck was behind the Seef’s revival in March 2012 and tells the story of how he found the recipe and went on to win a gold medal at the World Beer Awards.
“I went to a retirement home, to talk to old brewers, 80 or 90 years old, trying to track down the recipe. It took me over two years,” explains Johan.
“One of the lot of things that I found was a book written in 1916 by a Belgian author, a professor who wrote about all the beer styles that were present at the beginning of the 20th century. He described Seef beer but that was the only style where he didn’t mention the recipe, saying that unfortunately the Antwerp brewers kept it secret. He called it “retarded and stupid”; scientific works of 100 years ago were a little different to those of today. He said “unfortunately they keep it secret and therefore science cannot progress” or words to that effect. That was not a good start but I kept on looking.
I got some information quickly but the details made the beer unique. I got in contact with a family – their great grandfather used to own a brewery – they said “we have one or two things in our archive,” which was a shoe box with some old pictures and things. Their great grandfather had worked in the brewery and the previous owner had given them all his knowledge in a handwritten booklet. They still had the manuscript. It was a lot of fun but not completely scientific.
If you now have a brewer’s book it’s really biochemistry, with the pH value of the water and the temperature plus everything you need. He wrote it down in 1887. He had all his recipes but also all the things that could go wrong and how to resolve them. A lot of things did go wrong then. He said “never let a woman into the brewery because that will change the beer,” as one of the things to avoid your beer going sour. It was not scientific work but, finally, I had the recipe,” he says.
Why did Seef beer vanish from the market?
“Three things happened in the 19th century. First of all there was microbiology and Pasteur; he discovered what yeast does to beer and how to preserve it for longer. Seef was brewed all around the city by small brewers. Their only competition was the brewer on the corner because by the time one three streets further away had delivered his beer it would go sour or spoil. Because of Pasteur they could preserve beer longer and it could come from the other side of the city or even out of the country, so competition changed.
There was also industrialisation, so you could brew on an industrial scale using steam equipment.
Also, in the Czech Republic they discovered Pilsner beers, which also became popular in Belgium. In order to brew them here you needed cooling equipment; Pilsners need cooling when they are maturing. The small family-owned and craft brewers did not have the money to invest in that equipment.
Just before the First World War there were three big industrial breweries being built in Antwerp…beer factories really, and the small brewers got into trouble. The Germans came and took away all the copper kettles and horses of the smaller breweries but left the modern equipment where it was, because they made Pilsners and the Germans liked Pilsner beers. So, in two to three weeks, the small brewers lost all of their equipment. Some restarted but the same thing happened again in World War Two,” answers the man who revived the beer style.
Relaunching Seef beer and the World Beer Awards
“After getting the recipe there were two challenges. I know how to brew with today’s equipment but some of the things described were from the 19th century and I didn’t know how to translate that into today’s equipment. The second was the yeast, which determines the flavour of beer.
I went to the University of Leuven, where they have a faculty of beer chemistry and professors in brewing. They have a database of yeast that goes back to the beginnings of the 20th century. Even today every brewer sends in their yeast, which is stored at two or three locations, so if something happens to the brewery you can get your yeast back. They helped me.
I talked to my wife. I said, “Honey, I have an idea. What if I give up my job and risk all our money and start a brewery. I know the beer market is declining, there are many good beers and no-one is waiting for yet another. The competition is strong and they control the distribution. So what do you think, should I start a brewery?” She said “yeah, that’s a great idea,” so we went to the bank.
We launched the beer in city hall in March 2012. It took off so quickly that what I thought was the brewing for eight months sold out in two weeks. People said it was great but for me it was a nightmare; our customers were upset because we couldn’t deliver and it takes eight weeks to brew this beer. For a period of six weeks we didn’t have our beer, which is an eternity if you’ve just launched something new.
After one week I sent out beer to the World Beer Cup, the Olympics of beer. 4000 breweries take part and jury members vote. To be honest I didn’t do it because I thought we could win but I thought it was the cheapest way to get on the radar of importers. I didn’t fly to San Diego but got a lot of phone calls and messages in the middle of the night telling us we’d won,” says Johan.
Seef is now available as a craft beer in bars in Belgium and beyond.
Seef beer is brewed using buckwheat, wheat, oats, barley and Belgian hops by the Antwerpse Brouw Compaigne. The beer is unfiltered, pale in colour and 6.5 per cent alcohol by volume.
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Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
If you enjoyed reading about rediscovering the recipe of Antwerp’s Seef beer why not take a look at this article on the Tour de Geuze in Belgium’s Pajottenland?
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