The breweries that we visited in this series so far all had one thing in common: they all mainly brewed for local customers, and they are still relatively unknown abroad. Brewery De Ranke, however, is a totally different story. This brewery, founded by Nino Bacelle in 1994, exports more than half of its production and some of their beers rank amongst the top beers in their category on beer rating sites like Ratebeer and Beeradvocate.
We met Nino in his brewery in Dottignies, a little village on the border between Flanders, Wallonia and France, and he explains how it all started: “When I started to get interested in beer in the early 1980’s, I noticed that there were two kinds of breweries. On one hand there were the large breweries with modern equipment in stainless steel, and on the other hand there were the small local breweries with old copper equipment. However, it was still the small, old breweries which made the best beer. The reason for that is that the modern breweries used hop extracts (instead of real hop flowers), they filtered their beers and they pasteurized them. These three steps allowed them to produce faster and cheaper, but it also led to beers with much less flavor.”
Nino had been experimenting with his own brews since the 1980’s, but it wasn’t until 1994 that he thought it was time to start commercializing his first beer, Guldenberg, a golden blond triple ale. In the early days, he didn’t have his own brewery; he brewed his beer at Brewery Deca in Woesten. In 1996, he met another passionate amateur brewer, Guido Devos, and they decided to join forces. The name of the brewery changed from ‘Brewery Nino Bacelle’ to ‘Brewery De Ranke’ and things really started to take off from there.
“In the early days, we rented Brewery Deca in Woesten to brew our beers. It is a brewery that still has the equipment to brew beers the traditional way. I was actually the very first one to use the concept of ‘rent-a-brewery’. We didn’t just send my recipe to a brewer and asked him to brew it for us, but we rented the entire brewery and brewed it ourselves. It wasn’t until 2005 that we started brewing here in Dottignies. This brewery is very modern, entirely in stainless steel and equipped with the latest technology. But it is also set up in such a way that we can still brew traditional unfiltered and unpasteurized beers with real hop flowers. We use gravity to remove hop and yeast residues from our beers and produce a nice and clear beer. The brewing kettle, the yeasting tank and the lager tanks are all designed in such a way that impurities are removed from the beer without being filtered.“
The name ‘De Ranke’, refers to the ranks of hops. The most important ingredient in a good beer according to the brewer: “We were both disappointed that, at the time, a lot of large breweries started to sweeten the taste of their beers by using hop extracts instead of real hops. As beer lovers, we really didn’t like that evolution. On top of that, we are convinced that using real hops and top quality ingredients is the only way to make a good quality beer. All our beers are characterized by a typical bitter hop-flavor. One of them, XX Bitter is one of the most bitter beers in Belgium. And people are really fond of it; it is our best-selling beer. Did you know that we get all our hop flowers from one hop farmer from Warneton, near Poperinge ? We buy them once per year for the entire year and store them in a cooled room.”
Besides Guldenberg and XX Bitter, De Ranke brews five more beers. First there are three ‘regular’ beers:
Pere Noel (Father Christmas): a very untypical Christmas beer with an amber color, a round and full flavor and - of course - a bitter hop flavor.
Noir de Dottignies: a strong and dark beer, rich in flavor and with a slightly bitter aftertaste, something between a stout beer and a dark trappist like Rochefort.
Saison de Dottigines: a typical light and dry saison beer, the latest addition to their product range.
And on top of that they also brew two unique beers:
Cuvee De Ranke, a blend of Flemish Red aged in barrels made of stainless steel, Flemish red aged in oak barrels and lambic beer from brewery Girardin. And Kriek De Ranke, a blend of Flemish Red with cherries (a lot of cherries) and again lambic. This results in two wonderful beers with a sour lambic-like taste and a slightly bitter aftertaste.
“We don’t look at what we think other people want, or what would be the cheapest to produce. We brew a beer that we love and that we would like to drink ourselves. Then we brew it, with the best possible ingredients, and then we calculate at what price we can sell it. We want to produce the best beer, not the cheapest.”
Brewery De Ranke currently brews 3,500 hectoliters per year and they export to Italy, the US, Japan, South Korea and several other countries. “That is indeed quite a lot,” says Nino. “When we started out we had a target of 1,000 hectoliters in mind, but the popularity of our beers in countries like Italy and the US, as well as the renewed Belgian interest in craft beer has allowed us to grow incredibly fast, 25% last year alone. You can say that we are one of the largest ‘small breweries’ now (laughs). We currently have a staff of five people and we brew two to three times per week. But in a way we are also still a small brewery: when we brew, everybody helps with the brewing and when we bottle, everybody helps with the bottling.”