DUVEL’S SCOTTISH ORIGINS

When World War One ended, the Moortgat’s family brewery produced Victory Ale as a way of celebration, a beer that eventually morphed into Duvel in the 1960s. Katrien Bruyland tells the tale of this gorgeous golden ale and reveals a surprising Caledonian connection.  

Albert Moortgat was never expected to become a brewer. That was the job of his eldest brother Joseph, but then in 1914 Joseph passed away. After this sad event, the gossip in Breendonk was that the Moortgats would cease brewing. However, with a determination condemning him to a visionary’s life in Belgian strong ale, Albert swore: ‘Like hell we will!’

‘My grandfather was an open-minded, combative man.’ 

Veerle Baert-Moortgat loves to tell tales of “bompa” Albert Moortgat. A member of Duvel Moortgat Board of Directors, Veerle Baert-Moortgat keeps the fondest memories of the man who gave the beer world a strong blonde devil to dance with. ‘Until I was 16, I spent every weekend at my grandparents in Breendonk. On Sunday, we would rise early for a bike trip. After mass, the men went off to tour the village pubs. At the villa, across the road from the brewery, I waited for what I knew was next. Lunch waiting to be served, my aunt went outside to ring a bell. The men never responded. Every time, I had to go and fetch them. Even as a child, I knew the itinerary. If they weren’t in one pub, I continued to the next. I never failed to find them.’ 

Saint Arnold is the patron saint of Belgian brewers, while Gambrinus a legendary beer-loving king. In Duvel Moortgat’s 1984 comic strip story about the origins of Duvel, the heavens’ lack of tasty beer causes an angelic uproar. It follows paradise’s two biggest beer experts back to earth. Their mission? To find a beer to stop the angels’ mutiny. 

The official Duvel story on the company’s website doesn’t stray far from the romantic comic strip line depicting the family’s story in beer. In his quest to tailor a beer after the First World War, based on the popular ales of Belgian’s British allies, Albert is said to have embarked on an epic journey across the North Sea. In Edinburgh, Younger’s Brewery was said to having shared their yeast with the Belgian visitor, while the story claims Albert returned with the yeast in an aluminium milk jar. 

At less than 30 kilometres from Breendonk, John Martin already imported British beer in 1908. Ten years before the First World War, Younger’s beer was available in Belgium. The strong ale being live beer, it makes no sense that a technically skilled, perfectionist brewer would choose a time-consuming journey to harvest yeast in Edinburgh instead of cultivating yeast from a bottle of imported ale. However, Moortgat worked with Professor P Biourge, a world-renowned yeast expert, who is said to have combined several strains from the Edinburgh yeast to be used in Victory Ale. 

Albert was trained by the best. A skilled perfectionist with a penchant for cleanliness, nothing escaped his scrutiny. ‘He kept the brewery impeccable’, says Veerle Baert-Moortgat. His focus on hygiene would later land him a contract to bottle Tuborg. Surfing on the popularity of Danish luxury pils, Albert’s brother Victor sent Duvel samples to each pub that ordered Tuborg. Duvel boomed.

From dark and strong, Victory Ale became the pale blond and equally strong Duvel in the 1960s. The transition is mainly credited to Albert’s collaboration with Jean De Clerck, a professor of the University of Louvain brewing school. Meanwhile, the true story of Duvel is told by its yeast. The truth is still there for everyone to smell. The key? 4VG or 4-vinylguaiacol. While considered a phenolic off-flavour in bottom fermented beer, 4VG is well-known to aficionados of top-fermented Belgian style golden ales. Duvel has a subtle 4VG character. Leffe, being the quintessential example of 4VG beers, offers strong hints of clove or ‘sausage-type meat’ aromas.

Chris Bauweraerts is co-founder of Brasserie D’Achouffe, which Duvel Moortgat purchased in 2006. He suggests discerning noses will still be able to detect Belgian beer descendants of the original Younger’s yeast that, somehow, found its way from Edinburgh to Belgium. Raymond Moureau, who worked at Brasserie Grade, told Bauweraerts that Jules Grade – as Albert Moortgat years before him — went to visit William Younger’s in Edinburgh. He came back with yeast. Brasserie Grade both brewed Vieux-Temps and Leffe. Are Duvel and Leffe unsuspecting cousins? Both being of British ale blood, they most definitely are. 

 

Read Issue 20 of Original Gravity here