Where the Breweries Are
Near Seefhoek, Antwerp*
Note: post updated with a detailed history from founder Johan Van Dyck below.
I’m sitting in Antwerpse Brouw, a newish brewery in Antwerp that makes an impressionistic revival of an old style of beer once so popular in this precinct north of the city that it lended it its name. Based in the brief info I’ve seen, it’s probably not particularly close to the original, though it does use buckwheat, oats, and wheat as well as Belgian-grown hops (which is rare). It tastes halfway between a witbier and a modern saison, with a yeast-forward profile and gentle spicing. It’s got a touch of sweetness but is quenching after a hike through the city.
Which is what I really wanted to talk about. In past generations, beer hunters probably spent much of their days in remote countryside locations. Folks pursuing and writing about beer before the 1990s found precious Few breweries in cities. The breweries that survived were often in small towns outside of larger population centers. In the 19th century, the breweries that grew big within cities, fueled by technology and industrialization, eventually got priced out of these locations. Hulking empty reminders like London’s Truman, Portland’s Weinhard, and Milwaukee’s Pabst are everywhere.
The hunters of our day have a different experience: we’re headed back into the cities. Sort of. But the breweries we visit are almost never downtown, where real estate is expensive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wandered toward a brewery purportedly within the city, only to find myself on the marginal, decaying fringes, wondering what I’ve gotten myself into. As I did minutes ago.
Seefhoek is an old neighborhood, but the buildings have no ground-level businesses and stand quiet. The buildings are cool but run down; some have boarded windows. This is near the ports, and has been a place for working people—clearly for decades. As I got closer to Antwerpse Brouw, the buildings started to look deserted. I should always know I’m about to find a brewery when I get that sinking feeling that Google maps has done me wrong. That’s the moment I usually catch the sight of new steel somewhere and relax. Sure enough, there among the weeds and silence and crumbling bricks it emerged. First the sound of children playing, then the sight of stacked kegs. I still hadn’t seen the brewery, and it seemed unlikely anyone would put one there—but as we all know, this is where the breweries often are.
Some day it will have changed, as the fringe neighborhoods become central and vibrant. You and I will remember these odd times fondly, though, when we had to seek out little breweries in strangely provisional, sometimes blighted, pockets of old cities. Since I like those parts of town anyway, I quite like these little adventures—and one is always rewarded with a beer.
* I was informed by Jan Foubert, an Antwerp native, that the brewery is only near Seefhoek, and indeed the neighborhood is identified in maps.
Brewery founder Johan Van Dyck left a detailed history of the brewery, which I’m reposting here.
Seefbier goes back to the begining of the 1600's (at least that's the oldest written document we have found, so probably even older). It was thé regional beer style of Antwerp, with buckwheat as the most distinctive difference vs f.e. other wheat based beers more towards Leuven.
As the 'working man's' drink of choice, it was very popular with the people working in the harbor. A 'new' working man neighborhood, built in the 19th century was even notorious for the number of bars and volumes of Seef being consumed there. The neighborhood was nicknamed the 'Seefhoek' (corner of Seef/or neighborhood of Seef), indicating that the people there drank a lot (and Seef was thé most popular beer in town, so basically the 'beer'corner of town). So the neighborhood was named after the beer.
With the rise of big commercial breweries, and due to WWI, most of the +- 100 regional breweries were closed down by the invading German army (they wanted the copper & horses), and Seefbier disappeared.
Almost a century the beer , but also the recipe was presumed lost.
As a hobby (got a bit out of hand), we started looking for the recipe, and after 3 years of searching (which did also amount to so much info on all the old breweries in Antwerp that this was turned into a 300 page book), we finally tracked down the full original recipe (or at least one of the breweries version), which - with the help of the University of Leuven - made it possible to brew our 'ancestors' beer again.
With the clear dream and ambition to revive Antwerp's rich brewing history, we set off to not only bring back Seefbier as Antwerpse original historic ale - but also give Antwerp it's own, fully independant local brewery. Over the years all other breweries were either closed down, or sold to big brewery groups.
We started brewing at a friend's brewery, while looking for a spot to build our own brewery.
With limited budgets (as fully independant, with no big brewery behind or investment groups), but also the legal restrictions (permits etc. ) this was quiet a challenge.
As Antwerp is mostly determined as a 'residential' area, meaning that housing, shops, bars are permitted, but 'industry' is not, it took 2 years to find our current location.
Situated on the 'Eilandje', this area is a former dockland area, that is being transformed into mixed residential - recreation. The building itself is in origin an industrial building, and also protected as a landmark. Combining the location with the status of protected industrial landmark, made it possible to install a brewery. Hence the reason we are located here. In most other parts of Antwerp - including the Seefhoek - the building and streets are so condensed that putting in a 'real' brewery (not just for show, or brewpub, but actual full production) would be impossible.
The brewery was built with the support of about a 1000 beer enthousiasts, who - through crowdfunding vs free beer - helped us build the brewery and remain 100 free of other breweries or investors. A conscious, but not always evident choice, especially in an overcrowded, declining Belgian beer market, dominated by big players.
I hope this clarifies a bit the background of the location, and naming.
Cheers and thanks for visiting!
Johan, Founder of the Antwerpse Brouw Compagnie, Antwerp's Local Independent Brewery