Once upon a time, Brabant was full of excellent malting barley and original wheat landraces—in particular, the 'Kleine Rosse van Brabant' or Little redhead from Brabant. Until the 1960s, these cereals were used for the terroir beers par excellence: lambic, geuze and kriek. The Cereal Collective is doing everything possible to restore them to their former glory.
Today, less than 3% of the cereals used by Belgian brewers are of Belgian origin. That’s rather disconcerting for the largest malting country in the world. The culprit for the demise of our own barley is the industrialisation and anonymisation of the entire agricultural and food system.
In one swipe, Brussels, the Zenne valley and the Pajottenland region have lost most of their authentic beer style and a piece of local culture. Maybe even worse: we also lost the bond with our farmers. Once upon a time, the lambik region counted more than 90 lambik brewers and 250 geuze blenders. The fact that only a handful remain today says enough.
Once upon a time, there was a brewer, a farmer and a student.
That is why in 2018, Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen started the search for local wheat and barley, driven by the stubborn vision of Gaston and Armand Debelder. It wasn't long before we got to know farmer Tijs. Tijs Boelens had long been looking for the old landraces and grew several varieties of wheat on his fields in Pepingen. He was already talking to Lucas Van den Abeele, still a student in agroecology then, who was developing a farmers' collective in the Pajottenland area.
One thing led to another, and things went fast. By now, Lucas works full-time at Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen and coordinates the cooperation between some ten farmers and the brewery. Together, the farmers grow about 40 hectares of wheat and barley at a fair and mutually agreed price. The brewery organises the cleaning, storage and malting of the grains.
A stubborn quest
Thanks to twelve local farmers, a strong and resilient collective is now in place. This goes well beyond the traditional tale of ‘growing and selling’:
we extensively research and propagate 25 old barley varieties and 50 original wheat varieties, all originating from our region and specifically intended to brew lambik beers.
we work on the field and in the brewery, so we can coordinate the techniques and the learning points used on the land with the dynamics of the brewing kettle (and vice versa).
we coordinate which farmer grows which variety on which piece of land.
we are looking for a stable cooperation between farmer and buyer, in the long term and with a balanced spread of risks.
we are driven by the same sustainable vision, a mutual appreciation for each other's craft and an absolute focus on quality.
we break through the monocultures in the field and expand the cultivated biodiversity.
on top of all this, we are already looking into how agro-forestry can balance the agrological landscape with Schaarbeek sour cherry trees, old damson and plum varieties, rhubarb etc.
The ultimate goal is to find a selection of cereal varieties that are adapted to:
the Brabant climate and its loamy soil
the agroecological and organic cultivation methods
the specific needs of the buyers, such as malt houses and brewers, millers and bakers
Fair prices leave a better taste
A farmer should be able to live from his craft. Hence, farmers in the Cereal Collective receive a price that grants them a future. It is an entirely different way of thinking about the agricultural economy: start with quality at a fair price instead of insisting on the lowest possible cost. The Cereal Collective hopes to inspire more farmers, brewers and bakers to turn this model into the new standard.
Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen pays more than double of the current industry prices for wheat and barley, directly to the farmers. The brewery also carried the investments in a grain selection machine and grain silos.
In the long run, Brabant’s agriculture must become resilient again. The search for new adapted varieties also makes the harvests more resistant to climate change. And no, it is never easy to compete with the big commercial players, but a fair price does a lot. Consumers, too, are starting to realise this. The traditional lambik beers can now once again flourish in their own region.
The switch to organic
The collective was formed partly with organic farmers, partly with 'traditional' farmers (who nonetheless grew their cereals without pesticides or artificial fertilisers). The latter observe how the organic cultivation of wheat and barley runs with their colleagues, so they can consider whether the conversion to organic would be feasible—which a few have already done. The farmers visit each other's fields and lend each other adapted machines for weeding or harvesting.
Gradually, Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen made the full transition to organic, which means that the brewers only work with certified organic grain. The Cereal Collective continues to actively support the exchange of knowledge in order to get as many farmers as possible on board. Our goal is the same, anyhow: an agroecological production that cares for the soil, the biodiversity, the cultivation techniques and the farmers' craft.
A fresh batch of beer!
The seasons pass, the cereals grow, the lambik ripens. By now, the first brews are quietly resting in barrels, and in a few years' time, the first geuze will be blended from the old landraces. The process naturally takes its time. In the meantime, we already released a blond wheat beer from the same grains: TERF.
Terf is the local dialect word for wheat. The fresh beer (5%) from authentic wheat landraces is brewed by the colleagues of Brasserie de la Senne.