Meeting Pierre van Klomp is nerve-wracking. ‘Be very, very careful,’ one beer writer told us. ‘He doesn’t suffer fools. And he thinks everyone is a fool.’
The email we received shortly before setting off from our Brussels hotel didn’t inspire us with confidence: ‘You WAIT at the crossroads from 9 a.m. PRECISELY. I come in my van and collect you, but when the brewing schedule permits it. I am not a chauffeur.’
Waiting at the crossroads was interesting in its own right. The late beer writer Michael Jackson, for whom Van Klomp had a grudging respect, recalled that once, while drunk, the legendary Belgian brewer revealed a secret to him: ‘I was a failure until I went there at midnight on Walpurgis Night. I signed a paper and, bouf!, the next day, I brewed the first batch of Extra. It was as if lightning flowed through my mash paddle.’
Eventually, an old, rusting Citroen van appears out of the fog. Somehow, the driver contrives to make the engine sound impatient as he waits for us to run across the road and climb inside.
‘Boak and Bailey,’ says Boak by way of introduction.
He grunts from beneath a fur-lined cap. ‘Who else?’ It seems we have already irritated him. We can’t see his face, and there is only one known photo of the great man, in Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium — a scowling, untidy heap of a man in a dusty black suit. Is this the same person? It is hard to tell.
We drive in silence through the grey for a few minutes before, quite suddenly, he swings out an arm. ‘It is from this — from the mist, the damp, the stillness — that great beer is born.’ Taking his eyes off the road for a disconcertingly long time (a test of our nerve?) he fixes us with his gaze. ‘Not from the shouting, whooping, singing and dancing — the big festival of fun! From this only comes candy-floss beer.’
Bailey clears his throat. ‘So the landscape inspires–’
‘I concentrate on driving!’
* * *
The brewery is on the site of what was once Belgium’s largest dairy farm, founded by Van Klomp’s great grandfather, most of which now lies deserted — just as he likes it. The building where the magic happens is decrepit to the point of collapse, and repairs are undertaken only when strictly necessary. Even then, he insists on using antique wood and reclaimed nails: ‘Beer is not about newness, the shiny Space Odyssey.’ He pauses. ‘If beer is to have character, each sip must taste like the tears of an old man looking back on a long, bitter life of loss and betrayal.’
The tour — if that’s what you call chasing after an impatient man in late middle-age as he stomps from one room to the next pointing at things — came back to bitterness, loss and betrayal frequently. A smashed wooden cask is a reminder of an apprentice who stole a recipe (‘We put him inside, we beat the wood with sticks…’); the trophy cabinet displays not only a fistful of international brewing awards but also contains gaps, marking years when ‘injustice was done’; pages from an American book on beer, singed and slashed, are pinned to the wall. ‘They trivialised me,’ says Van Klomp. ‘They write about me as if I am a dancing bear, performing a Foxtrot on my hind legs, so to make them laugh, as they stuff popcorn and hotdogs into their big mouths.’ It sounds like a warning.
The brewing vessels are old but look prehistoric. They appear, frankly, a little dirty. ‘It’s not… I mean, some breweries we’ve seen are…’ Bailey struggles to find a diplomatic turn of phrase, withering under the bulldog glare of the brewer who spins on his heel. ‘It’s not as clean as some breweries we’ve seen,’ says Boak. Van Klomp nods slowly, as if yet another knife has been planted in his back.
‘A skilled brewer does not need a clean brewery, like a spinster’s parlour. He is not hosting the tea party! The bacteria and the wild yeasts…’ His fingers flutter in the air. ‘They dance for me, like fleas in the circus, hm?’ He waits, boggle-eyed, until Bailey croaks an affirmative response, then strides on.
‘Malt!’ he barks point at several sacks which have clearly been gnawed by mice. ‘I take it, like this,’ he says, picking up a grain and twisting it between his fingers. ‘I squeeze it long and hard until, hocus pocus, it becomes a diamond.’
* * *
Eventually, we reach the ‘tasting room’. If you’ve ever seen a film about a serial killer, you’d feel at home. The windows are covered with red plastic film; a stack of obscure, possibly illegal pornographic magazines is barely concealed with an oily rag; one wall is covered with photographs, apparently taken secretly with a telephoto lens. ‘Who are they?’ asks Boak, pointing. PVK grimaces. ‘The — ha! — “master” brewers of Belgium. My rivals, insofar as a plastic lemon is the rival of a fresh, ripe peach.’
As we stand in stunned silence, contemplating his distinctly un-peach-like form, he opens a filing cabinet and pulls out a 330ml bottle. ‘The special beer,’ he says, scowling. He looks us up and down, deciding whether, after all, we are worthy. Eventually, the internal dialogue concludes with a sharp, reluctant nod, and he removes the cap of the bottle in one swift movement with his yellow teeth. ‘Come, taste, enjoy.’ He takes three glasses — immaculate and gleaming, despite the evidence of rodent droppings on the shelf where they sit — and pours into each of them the merest trickle of beer.
Boak reaches out and he slaps her hand away. ‘It must make itself comfortable, stretch a little, take a look around. It is like the newborn baby, crying in the arms of the doctor.’ After a moment he nods, and passes the glasses to us.
We sip. We are stunned into silence. Imagine drinking an espresso concentrated a hundred times, or falling from a aeroplane into a swimming pool full of tangerines. Imagine licking the sap from a tree on an alien planet. It is something like that.
Then, suddenly, he snatches the glasses away. ‘I said taste, now you have tasted.’
As he shoos us back through the brewery towards the gate, Boak attempts to scrawl a note. He grabs the notebook. ‘No notes,’ he says, hurling the pad and pencil into the rolling boil of a nearby copper. ‘You cannot capture in words. Go, faster, faster! I have work to do!
The gate slams behind us and we find ourselves at the roadside. ‘You may thank me in a letter,’ are his final words.
As we walked back into town, the flavour that lingered longest, over the entire four hours, was of genius. True, uncompromising, brilliance.
Pierre van Klomp is on Twitter @brouwervanklomp and his flagship beer, Extra, is imported into the UK via Gourmetisanal Bières du Monde Ltd of Chingford, Essex.