Brouwerij de Ryck – True Family Brewers

An de Ryck with her children and companions, Miek van Melkebeke and Bram van Melkebeke.
An de Ryck with her children and companions, Miek van Melkebeke and Bram van Melkebeke.

Brewery De Ryck, in the village of Herzele in the Flemish Ardennes, is the smallest of the Belgian Family Brewers. Dating back to 1886, the brewery is now run by fourth and fifth generation, and the future is looking bright. The brewery used to produce only three beers, darker in colour and only on tap in the local region. In 2007, bottles were introduced and new beers followed.

We began our brewery visit with a short introduction to the brewery history. Today, it’s run by An de Ryck, fourth generation of the family, and the first female brewing engineer in Belgium. She’s assisted by her son, Bram, and daughter Miek, and just one more employee.

When Gustave de Ryck opened the brewery in 1886, he had been a brewing apprentice at the Goldener Adler (golden eagle) brewery in Bremen, Germany, and he called his brewery Gouden Arend as a tribute. The eagle, and German references in general, were less popular after a certain war, and in 1920 the brewery was re-introduced as Brouwerij de Ryck, with Special de Ryck, one of the original, and still surviving, Speciale Belge amber ales.

Selection of De Ryck beers, in the brewery shop. Including the Special De Ryck in party keg.
Selection of De Ryck beers, in the brewery shop. Including the Special De Ryck in party keg.

The brewery continued with Special de Ryck and a couple of other amber and brown ales, and delivered beer on keg for local cafés and restaurants, and eventually also on party kegs for home use. When a bottling plant was introduced in 2007, it was also possible to brew a wider selection of beers, though the production puts a practical limit on the number of beers: The brewery equipment makes 6000 liters and is only in use twice every two weeks.

Our small (and quite early) tasting began with Special de Ryck. It’s just not my beer style with its caramel sweetness, and I admit that I just can’t taste a difference between this and a beer like De Koninck. So I can just say that it’s a beer with no technical flaws, and true to style (as the origin of the style, it should be, of course).

The local flavours in Steenuilke
The local flavours in Steenuilke

The other beer we tasted was more interesting to me. It’s called Steenuilke, and is brewed to raise awareness of the little, local “Rock Owl” (try thinking “stone owl” while you read the Flemish name of the beer). The owl is native to the Flemish Ardennes and is an endangered species.

The beer is dark golden, with mild spicy notes of local herbs, which were used to match the local theme of the owl. It’s brewed with angelica root, woodruff, and sloe (blackthorn) flowers (not the berries that are usually used). It’s balanced and subdued, a very elegant “terroir beer”, making good use of local ingredients, without overdoing it.

Miek van Melkebeke on the brewery tour
Miek van Melkebeke on the brewery tour

Finally, we each got a bottle of tripel to taste later. An excellent idea, since I had quite enough beer at our dinner the night before. This week, I shared it with the people at the local Belgian-dominated beer bar. We agreed that it’s a very good tripel, falling well within the classics. It’s no wonder that it took medals at the European Beer Star five years in a row, including two gold medals as the world’s best tripel.

The old horse stable is a lovely place to taste the beers
The old horse stable is a lovely place to taste the beers

The abbey range of beers, which includes the tripel, a blonde, a dubbel and a winter beer, is called Arend. It’s finally time to remember the original name and story of the brewery again. For the 125th anniversary in 2011, a special anniversary beer called Gouden Arend was introduced. This is a slightly stronger, more pale and hoppy tripel, just the way I like them.

I mentioned that there are four people working at De Ryck. On top of brewing 3000 HL of beer anually, they run a café (in the Belgian sense of the word – a beer bar) and beer shop within the brewery grounds, and they’re happy to do brewery tours for groups of at least 15 people. It’s a charming old brewery, and makes for a good tour, even if you know the brewing process and think you have seen enough modern stainless steel breweries already. Highly recommended.

The brewery is filled with nostalgic old signs and other memorabilia - Arend Tripel and it's European Beer Stars -  De Ryck Steenuilke has a great looking label and coaster
The brewery is filled with nostalgic old signs and other memorabilia – Arend Tripel and it’s European Beer Stars – De Ryck Steenuilke has a great looking label and coaster

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