Origin: Oudenaarde, Oost-Vlaanderen, Vlaanderen
The consolidation and transformation of the brewing industry and the beer market in the 20th century swept away numerous local and regional beer styles, with beers once ubiquitous in their own territories rapidly declining and almost being wiped from memory. Porter is perhaps the best known example, but there are more, and some are only now being rediscovered as the growing interest in specialist and craft beer drives a corresponding interest in brewing history.
One such rediscovered style is ‘seefbier’, which for over a century before World War II was the signature beer style of the city of Antwerpen and its surroundings. It’s mentioned by several Flemish authors, and in folk poems and songs. According to Domien Sleeckx, writing in 1863, seef was “a white beer [‘wit bier’]…that foamed like Champagne, went to the head like port, and cost 10¢ a litre” (my translation). Lode Baekelmans, in 1904, made a similarly effervescent comparison in dubbing it “poor man’s Champagne”. It gave its name, which most likely derives from Latin sapa or Dutch sap, meaning juice or sap, to a district of the city, the Seefhoek to the north of the city centre. Incidentally, it’s not pronounced to rhyme with ‘beef’ as it looks to English speakers — try saying ‘safe’ in a Yorkshire accent and you’ll get closer.
Yet seefbier completely vanished. Today we think of the Belgian pale ale, De Koninck, as the signal Antwerpenaar beer – a style developed to compete with the seemingly unstoppable postwar popularity of golden lager, the latter now of course outstripping in volume all other beers in Antwerpen as it does throughout Belgium.
But seefbier has returned from the dead. Industry figure Johan Van Dyck, the marketing director at Duvel-Moortgat, became intrigued by the style a few years back and set about researching its elusive history. Seefbier brewers tended to keep their recipes secret, but Johan finally tracked down a brewer’s handwritten notes, which he analysed with Freddy Delvaux, brewing scientist at KU Leuven, and his son Filip, who had worked with Dogfish Head on their attempt at recreating an ancient Egyptian beer.
Previously, that description of seef as a ‘witbier’ or white beer had misled people into assuming it was a spiced wheat beer in the Brabant style typified by Hoegaarden, itself a revival of a temporarily extinct local speciality. But the research indicated a beer quite unlike any contemporary example, made from a mixed grist bill including oats and buckwheat as well as barley malt and wheat. The ‘wit’ description turned out simply to indicate a cloudy beer that was lighter in colour than most of its contemporaries.
Over several test brews, Johan and Filip evolved a new version of seef using the four grains, Belgian hops and an historic yeast strain not much removed genetically from a baker’s yeast. Johan set up his own beer firm, the Antwerpse Brouw Compagnie, with the initial aim of marketing the revived beer. It would have been a nice idea to brew it at De Koninck, but this proved impractical, so in December 2011 the first commercial brew of seefbier in many decades emerged from the mash tun at small family brewery Roman in Oudenaarde, and was finally launched to the public in March 2012.
I found it at the Zythos Bierfestival, bottle conditioned and poured from the bottle. It emerged a cloudy deep yellow with a smooth white head. A lightly spicy aroma had notes of ginger, clove and lemonade citrus. A soft and refreshing but very interesting palate yielded liquorice, custard, tangerine, fresh white bread, banana and vanilla cream.
The softness persisted into the finish, with a citrus peel tang, an unctuous smoothness perhaps from the oats, and a late note of hops. Overall it was a very cheerful and refreshing beer, and amazingly easy going for a relatively robust gravity. Distinctive and indeed different from any other beer I’ve tried, it’s a worthy resurrection which makes you wonder what other potential delights might be still be hidden in dusty and forgotten notebooks of long dead brewers.
Update 17 May 2012. After I posted this, Johan Van Dyck from Antwerpse Brouw Compagnie got in touch with some more information. The beer was officially launched on 9 March at Antwerpen town hall where the Mayor, Patrick Janssens, declared it the second official beer of the city, after De Koninck of course. The beer proved so popular that what was planned as seven months’ worth was sold out in a fortnight. Seef Bier was also submitted to the World Beer Cup in San Diego, California, earlier this month — “a bit over-courageous maybe,” reflects Johan — and ended up winning a gold medal in the Other Belgian-Style Ale category. In the process of researching the recipe, Johan unearthed numerous interesting old recipes that have inspired other ideas for new beers, but for the time being he is focusing on Seef.
I’m grateful to the following source for background information:
Johan ‘Wanne’ Madelijns (2012), ‘Johan Van Dyck wil oude bieren nieuw leven inblazen’ in De Zytholoog 36 (February 2012)