Discovering Nectar Master brewer Modeste Van den Bogaert reveals why a bolleke of De Koninck is such a memorable experience Dick Suter sips and listens
Anterp is renowned for many things - having one of the busiest ports in the world, being the centre of the diamond industry, for many its fine aqrtists and, more recently, for its fashion designers.
But for beer connoisseurs, the city's great attribute is De Koninck. Until shortly after World War II, Antwerp boasted some nineteen breweries but over the years they closed, one by one,and today just one remains.
Fortunately, De Koninck has not only survived but is flourishing under the leadership of master brewer Modeste Van den Bogaert and his two sons Bernard and Dominic.
De Koninck's commercial origins go back to 1817 when a family of that name ran a coaching inn in Antwerp, De Plaisante Hof. After her husband's death some years later, the widow De Koninck remarried and her new husband started to brew beer. The brewery that he built in 1833 is still in use today.
Although the De Koninck family was involved until 1919, a limited company had been incorporated in 1912. One of these new directors, Florent Van Bauwel, ran the brwery during the 1914-18 war while Mrs De Koninck lived in The Netherlands. On her return, she decided to sell the company and gave Van Bauwel first option. Not having sufficient funds of his own, he invited one of his friends Josef Van den Bogaert, to join him in the enterprise. Together, they acquired the brewery and a number of pubs in 1919.
"Josef my father, was a brewing engineer and was one of the first such engineers to have come out of the Brewery School at the University of Leuven, receiving his diploma in 1901" explains Modeste Van den Bogaert. "Leuven had the most efficient and best professor and beer scientist, Professor De Claerq. We owe much to our brewery schools and especially to him. He was a fantastic man" he enthuses.
Developing The Brewery......
After demobilisation and like many other young heroes at that time, Modeste Van den Bogaert realised that he didn't have any qualifications. "I had to go first to the Jury Centrale to obtain my diploma in humanities" he recalls, "then I went to Leuven University to study brewery engineering. And in 1949 I joined this company. I was here exactly 15 days when my father died of a heart attack".
"The brewery was in a rather derelict state at the time" he continues, "The first thing I did was to call in my professor De Claerq, as a consultant and I explained the situation. We could make good beer but it was not always good and so we had to take strategic decisions about what to do and then I realised that this brewery had acquired quite a lot of workmen's houses, which were very much in demand at that time. So each time I invested in new brewery equipment, I sold a house", he chuckles. "That's the way we did it and succeeded!"
At the time, there were some nineteen Antwerp based breweries and De Koninck was about the fifth largest. One by one the others disappeared but De Koninck survived. How was this achieved?
.....And Ensuring Top Quality
"Itwas my hobby and my job to make a very good beer" he replies. "It was one of our main strategic decisions to concentrate on quality. But the old Mr Van Bauwel was a very conservative brewer and when I was a very young brewer here, he didn't want to change anything, so I had quite a few problems with him. The only real thing we needed, to improve the beer, was the centrifuge. I wanted to buy a filter but I couldn't convince him to buy one. But he suffered geatly from rheumatism and every yeasr he visited Spa for a month or six weeks to take the treatment. And in 1952 or 1953 he left for a long stay in Spa and, when he returned, the first thing he did was to visit various pubs to taste the beer. He tasted it for one week and the next week he came to congratulate me"..
" Mr Van den Bogaert, what quality in your beer" he exclaimed, I remained very quiet and after three weeks he said 'the quality of the beer is fantastic' and made the same comment the next week. Then in the fifth week I said 'yes, Mr Van Bauwel, I must confess something' And when he asked what that was, I told him that I had invested in a filter".
The consistent high quality of the beer convinced Van Bauwel that Modeste Van den Bogaert had made an extremely wise decision and that same attribute is the key to to the brewery's success. Although computerised state of the art equipment is now used in the brewing process and whilst the brewery has regualarly expanded over time, traditional brewing methods are retained. Strictest hygiene standards are maintained through all stages of production, which is why the brewery is closed every Friday, year after year to guarantee a thorough clean-up, leaving the entire installation in a pristine state.
Of the current annual production of 200,000 hectolitres, 35% is exported. The biggest international markets are The Netherlands, Spain and the UK, in that order. But other countries are begining to discover it. Antwerp and St Petersburg are 'twinned' and De Koninck has set up joint ventures with a brewery and a chain of pubs there.
Bernard Van den Bogaert is heavily involved with the project, which includes opening some pubs with modern tap installations and in helping the St Petersburg brewery make better beer. "We have" explains Modeste Van den Bogaert, "been selling the brewery complete propagation materials so they have good, fresh aqnd pure yeast available to use on a daily basis"
That's essential, for De Koninck is a top-fermented beer brewed only from natural ingredients: the best barley, highly scented hops, special yest. Like so many things in life, favourite flavours are a matter of personal taste.
In bottled form - and available, I recently discovered, from the Delhaize supermarket chain - the beer is excellent. Even better is draught. De Koninck served in its original glass, the 'bolleke'. That's pure nectar.
So if you appreciate beer, try a bolleke of De Koninckor the Cuvée De Koninck. And this year there is aspecial beer , called Antoon to commerate Sir Anthony Van Dijck, which De Koninck is brewing in co-operation with the city of Antwerp. The news just gets better and better.
Cheers, geezondheid, santé
Hops in The Family Like their father, Bernard and Dominic Van den Bogaert know the brewing business inside out. Bernard, a master brewer who concentrates on the production side, learnt his craft at the Brewery School of Leuven University, while Dominic, who has an MBA to his credit, focuses on the commercial side of the buisiness. The brewery owned 100% by the Van Bauwel and Van den Bogaert families, has some 48 people on its payroll and is a member of the CBMC, the Confederation of Brewers of the European Union.
A Baptism of Fire Modeste Van den Bogaert was only 17 when World War II started. He left for England in 1940 and, shortly after arrival, volunteered for military service. He completed his training in Tenby, Wales, where the Belgian army was being regrouped and landed in Normandy at the begining of August 1944. "We liberated the coat from the mouth of the river Orne to the mouth of the river Seine and we were in th streets of Le Harve with our tanks and armoured cars when somebody told us to turn round for Belgium and then we liberated Brussels with General Horrocks and the Welsh Guards"
In November 1944 while liberating a town in The Netherlands, he was seriously wounded and spent some months in hospital convalesing prior to demobilisation in September 1945 - Gordon McKay
©Dick Suter - 1998 - (images source - Internationals in Belgium)
Original article appearing in "Internationals in Belgium" Dick Suter was an editor of the magazine and contributor and Ginny Suter was a regular contributor in the late 1990's and 2000's - The magazine had a circulation of 10,000 Please note that this article was first published many years ago and telephone and fax numbers are likely to be out of date and email addresses have been removed.
Source of images, unless otherwise stated - Suter family archives