Armand Debelder stands outside his brewery in the small town of Beersel, holding his hand about waist-high from the ground. He’s describing his early years, growing up around the family business that was established by his father Gaston in 1953. Since he was up to his father’s waist, Armand’s life has revolved around the brewing, blending and fermentation of lambic; it formed the soundtrack to his early years. “Children didn’t follow fathers,” he says, as the sun streams down on the small yard just opposite the train station where people are waiting for buses to their Sunday afternoon destinations. “But I started believing in myself. I got the passion more than I had to work. Saturday, Sunday – it was the work. I could go out to any time on Saturday night – but at 9am I had to work.” From a young age, he was immersed in the way of life of a family that blended lambics.
For much of their history, 3 Fonteinen were a ‘geuzestekerij’ a place where, rather than brewing their own lambic, the brewery blended those from others. Acting as the repository for lambic breweries without their own barrels, 3 Fonteinen safeguarded the work of others, using the skill of Gaston (and later Armand) to continue to let the beer develop in the wood and then blend the different barrels to the specifications of the brewery. It’s a classically Belgian industry – over here we have contract breweries (as they do in Belgium too, of course) – but a ‘contract conditioner’? Beersel sits in the Seine Valley, the river flowing just to the west of the town; the centre of the lambic region. Back in the 50’s there were fourteen different blenders just in the one town of about 20,000 people, until they began to close and 3 Fonteinen were proposed as the ‘regional blender’.
Armand admits that he was daunted by the reputation of his father, when he took over the business. Although having stepped down, it was clearly Gaston’s realm – Armand describes him as the ‘padre familias’ looking down on everything that he did. “He only ever gave me one compliment, his entire life,” he tells us. “‘Armand’, he said to me one day. ‘You never have to change what you are doing anymore’ and that was it.” The acknowledgement from his father that he had finally mastered every aspect of the blending process. Without a son of his own, Armand has passed on the baton to a young brewer Michael Blancquaert, and this ‘next generation’ continues with the day to day operations. Armand, who is 64, is slowly taking a back seat, having been persuaded by his wife to do less around the brewery.
He still has a fire burning though – he suddenly mentions brewing giant InBev and immediately sucks air though his teeth like a hex, sounding like a hissing cat. “When you’ve worked all your life,” he says, about their tactic of taking over other breweries. “You can’t see that passion go and be left only as a name, if that.” Although he never reveals whether 3 Fonteinen have been approached by a bigger fish, Armand is obviously not interested in handing over anything – you get the impression he wouldn’t do it simply for the sake of his father, if nothing else. Particularly since the brewery has moved away from simply blending other people’s lambic, to creating their own (brewing started at 3 Fonteinen in 1998).
It has not been plain sailing ever since, however. With a series of facilities for brewing, blending and storing their beer, in 2009 a faulty thermostat almost bankrupted the entire business. Gueuze re-ferments at between 16-18°C, and in May of that year an electrical fault removed the upper limit at 3 Fonteinen’s warehouse. 13,000 bottles exploded due to the build up of pressure caused by overheating, and in all the temperature spoilage accounted for a total of 80,000. With no insurance – and presumably others’ beers lost as well as their own – it was on a knife edge as to whether the accident would finish 3 Fonteinen overnight. “But everyone helped,” Armand recounts, with a rueful grin on his face. “‘Armand’ they said. ‘If you promise us you will continue, we will help you.’“
Local brewers rallied to the cause, producing one-off beers that raised money (“Many of which ended up on eBay” he sighs). Others donated funds, or manpower. The surviving bottles from the warehouse were sent to a distillery and concentrated down to the 40% Armand’Spirit (which proved so popular, it is still available to this day). You can tell that he was genuinely amazed by the support given, as people helped get 3 Fonteinen back on its feet – even if it took until 2013 (when the brewery moved to its present location) before they began brewing again. They are actually looking at moving again – everything under one (thermostat-checked) roof – but it could take up to five years, as they can only move their larger oak foudres when they are empty.
It was a real pleasure to spend a couple of hours with Armand as he took time to show us the brewing area, the coolships (stacked on on top of the other to save space), and the amazing cellar filled with ageing lambic. Beer bloggers are often charged with hyperbole and over-zealousness – but to be served beer such as this from the man himself, where it was made – it doesn’t get any better than that. And yet throughout our visit, Armand was clear what is really important to him, everything else being equal. “The beer is the star,” he concludes, pointing at his oak casks. “Not us. People ask me to be the star. I am not. I will not be the star.”
Disclosure – The visit I took to the lambic region of Belgium was provided courtesy of Visit Flanders.