That time I met Frank Boon at Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference

One of the best parts of the Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference is meeting so many great brewers and industry folks. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting industry bigwigs like Garrett Oliver, Ken & Brian Grossman, Randy Mosher, Mitch Steele and Jim Koch at the conference.

But none of those guys got me as excited as meeting Frank Boon (pronounced “bone”). I’m a Lambic/Gueuze freak, and he’s a legend in the field. When I saw his name on the schedule, I contacted his importer to see if I could interview. It was a great pleasure of sit down with Frank and his youngest son Karel and talk about Lambic, Geuze (Boon’s spelling), and more. A big thank you to Frank, Karel, and the guys at Global Beer importers for your time.

Frank Boon Interview comments in () are mine

Saturday, August 5, 2017  —  Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference  —  Milwaukee, WI

The first question I want to ask you is about climate change. It is affecting winemaking and farming, is it affecting Lambic Brewing?

It is affecting brewing in general in Europe. As you know, Lambic is brewed in the cold season, from October until the end of April. In the last 10 years, the summers became hotter and dryer in Europe and in Belgium. And the winters colder, and so dry. We lacked about, this year again, 6 inches of rain. That is why crops are smaller, a lot of small grains, so that they are not available for malting. It’s kind of problematic if it goes on like that. We have in some places, there was no crop of cherries, no wine either in Bordeaux, in some places in France, no wine. Let’s hope it just a one time or two times arriving condition, but we will see in coming 10 years if it really a certain evolution

You are mostly brewing Lambic from October to April in the cooler season. Is that window shrinking?

No. It is more like there are more extremes. Summers are warmer and the winters colder, so the length of the season is not really change, but from time to time it is warm in April and we have to stop earlier and in some years there is a warm week in October, like three years ago, it was a very warm week in the beginning of November, but it happens from time to time.

What is the ideal temperature for brewing your beer, for spontaneous fermentation?

Lambic beer is a spontaneous fermentation. They pick up their wild yeast in the cooling vessel. So it is important that you have the right bugs in the air. If you brew in summer time or hot period. Your fermentation, your yeast will be overgrown by bacteria. That’s not what we want. When fermentation is dominated by bacteria, you will have a lot of acidity, unwanted acidity, unpleasant acidity. Your beer will taste like, say, a sour soup, or if acidification goes on, like vinegar, acetic acid. So that is not what we want. That is not what we want. That is why we brew in the cold season.

Can it be too cold? You said it could be too warm, but can it be too cold?

When it is freezing for a long time, sometimes we have less yeast. But the air is very pure, so when it is very cold, it works very well. It is not a problem.

So you have less yeast, but it works well?

Yes, but yeast, because you get every so minutes another generation, so it is growing very fast. In after three days, we have about 10 million cells for a milliliter. So this is a lot of yeast.

We’ve talked about climate and weather, what are other challenges you have as a Lambic brewer? Are there rising challenges in the marketplace?

Not especially, because the brewery has been growing for the last 20 years. It’s growing well. And we used to grow 20 years ago more on the fruited lambics, but the last 10 years we grow on traditional Geuze. Mainly, in our home market. We do 85% of our sales in our home market. We are the largest producer of traditional Lambic in Belgium. Because people know these beers and they love them and know exactly how they should taste.

Wow, 85 percent! That’s a big number. I was thinking about increased demand in America, is that affecting your business model?

There has been demand all the time. But, because, you have to make choices. You cannot jump on all horses coming along. You have to make choices, and so we started to do our home market and gave a positive answer to all those who wanted our beer for export but have not been very active over there (US market). That is why we are here now (visiting the US) because we have a new importance since the first of April of this year (2017) and we want to be more active. I can be more active because my son Karel joined us this year at the brewery. And my son Jos, he is responsible for production and for techniques, since five years now. So we are three now.

What is the future of Boon Brewery? I guess you’re bringing up the next generation. Where do you see the brewery going, what are those goals?

(To Karel) You should do it. (laughs)

A lot of things were impossible 20-30 years ago because if you have a brewery, you know exactly, or maybe have an idea of things you want, or investments you want to do, the equipment you want, the quality of the equipment. And of course, it is so expensive and so difficult to build it up, because it takes time. The wooden, certainly the wooden casks are not just an easy thing?

Is it a challenge getting cask right now?

It is beginning to be a problem. We have 158 huge foeders, the largest are a diameter of 14 feet, so it gives us a stock today for the 24,000 US gallons aged in oak. So it makes it possible to make a fantastic bottle of Geuze.

It is a very traditional beer. You have the legacy of the lambic. But do you see it evolving in the future, or do you always think it will remain traditional?

It will remain traditional because we want to write the next chapter. We don’t want to say, ok, and let’s stop now and start making other things. The most fantastic thing in Lambic making is to get at a certain level of quality. And to get to that level of quality, I must say 90% of the energy that you have to put in that kind of brewery is for the last 10% of quality. When you get there, a lot more is possible. The quality of the taste of Geuze we have today, it was impossible for any brewery to make that 25 years ago. What we can do now, also the blenders of Lambic wort, the Lambic blenders, we supply 80% of their needs. And that’s what they say (the blender), the quality we can make today was impossible 30 years ago.

You want to continue that traditional quality, and your sons do as well?

Yes. it is a big positive. If you want to make a great bottle of Geuze, you have to think about not just buying some pilsner malt, but you have to think about the variety of the barley, and how it will affect the quality of your beer. So, now, there are 2 things. You can say “I found the barley that fits. It fits.” Or take another way, also, you can do some more work and say “we screened the barley available now and see what they do.” And make a lot of model Geuze, and see what they do. And then maybe pick some out and do some more test, each time. And you develop more taste, more fantastic, more wow in the bottle.

You mentioned you have 2 sons getting into the brewery business, is that all your children?

No. I have four children, my daughter is eldest, is a teacher, and my other son lives in Manila, Philippines. He is an IT guy.

So, Jos and Karel are taking over the brewery?

Jos is a brewing engineer from Leuven University and Karel studied Economics. So they, these two together.

So, do you see a legacy going down to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, continuing to make Geuze?

Frank: We will see.

Karel: That’s gonna be my job I suppose. (Lot of laughter all around)

Frank: It’s no secret that very often the third generation is more difficult, so I’m the first generation. The second should be no problem at this point. We will see for the third.

Karel: We’ll work on that.

(Here’s where it got interesting. Frank has strong opinions about traditional Geuze. For more on the ongoing story of naming American wild beers, see this blog from Jester King.)

I know here in America there has been a resurgence among people getting into traditional spontaneous fermented beer. Geuze if very popular. Among my friends, we are very much into sour beers and traditional Belgian styles. What do Belgians think of Americans loving their beer and trying to start making it here?

Ah, very interesting subject! The first thing I wanted to say is that we often see that a lot of Belgian styles are not completely understood. There is a point about, there are names, they’ve heard about Lambic, sometimes about Geuze, or hear about Flanders Red, or by Belgian Sours in general, which does not exist! We do not know this naming. Belgian Sours is something that does not exist in Belgium. There are no French Sours for wine either. If you have soured in Wine, it’s called Vinegar, and in beer, it is the same.

So we know in Belgium the Lambic style family and the Flander Red family. And that is about it. And we see that a lot of brewers explore for many years English style and Belgian style beers, and top fermenting, and now I think there is a lot of competition and they want to be different. And now they explore all these beers with sour tastes. And that’s very interesting, but it is not a very easy style. Only two things (sour Belgian styles) are possible. You will see in Belgium, we only have these two styles, Flander Red and Lambic, but not all the other beers that go sour. It’s called production flaws. (laughing).

I remember 20 years ago, an English guy came to my brewery and he had a bottle of something, and he said, “do you want to taste this?” And we opened it, we tasted, and I was like, “what is this?” And he said, “I made an amber ale, and then we tasted it after three weeks, and at once, it became Lambic!” (more laughter) No. If amber ale, goes sour, it is a sour amber ale. It’s vinegar. That one tasted of vinegar and butyric acid, there are not a fantastic taste. If it goes sour, it’s problematic. It’s not a new style you’ve developed.

I had samples of wild beers, and we’ve been discussing with some American breweries about how you should name these beers. Rob Todd, form Allagash, he said, “we should use the name coolship ales, because what we do, we pick up wild yeast from our area, and we know that they are different everywhere, and we make a taste.” It is very interesting to us. To taste a beer made with wild yeast, but beers that are different from what we do. Inspired by, no problem. It will always be difficult just to try to make copies because, even Belgian brewers from one another are different, so what do you have to do.

So much of that is the character of the yeast in the area, whether Jester King in Texas or Allagash in Maine. Those are going to be very different beers even though both are doing coolship beers.

I just got a mail from Stuffings (laughs). So they want to find a correct name for it, and I think they will, they will go in the direction of coolship ales. I’ve tasted some nice beers from them. And I’ve tasted some other beers and they’re just vinegar, from other breweries. Vinegar is not beer, it’s malt vinegar.

Do you have any favorite breweries here in America that you like to drink?

That is a difficult one (laughing). But it is a difficult because you have so many. But it is an interesting question. Because, the question shows the approach of the market. You did not ask me what is your favorite beer, you asked me what is your favorite brewer. So, maybe my favorite brewer makes three fantastic beers, and two that are just good, so that is a difficult question for a Belgian (laughs). So it doesn’t matter who makes it, let’s do a blind tasting. And this beer was number one in blind tasting. And who made it? Then, congratulations. So I’ve had a lot of very very fine American beers. I’ve tasted hundreds of them, and very fantastic quality. Naming brands is a difficult thing for me. I remember beer from small, mid-size and larger breweries, and they became larger breweries not by accident, because their beer were outstanding.

You mentioned Rob Todd at Allagash, do you have any other American brewers that you correspond with, just talk about production?

From time to time I get mail from the guys over at New Belgium, because Peter Bouckaert, their engineer, is a Belgian. He worked there and he’s a great guy. He developed a lot of styles. He introduced the sour beer La Folie, the Flanders Red style sour. It’s been around about 20 years ago.

I know Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River) and Tomme Arthur (Lost Abbey), they’ve visited my brewery. I tasted oak aged beer from Tomme in Denver at the Great American Beer Festival in 2002. Peter Bouckaert took me to the festival, and he said there is one or two American brewers starting to do something we wouldn’t, should we taste it? It was a little bit confronting for us, because I see they poured the beer in a jug (pitcher) and in Belgium we would not because you would get rid of your gas (CO2) and your foam, but Peter said, “No, no, don’t bother, because people used to gas like in England!” So they filled the glass and everyone had no problems with it. (At GABF, they don’t pour sample from tap, but fill pitchers and serve samples from the pitcher. Frank’s concerns are right, I’ve had a lot of flat/undercarbed beer at GABF).

You see difference between counties, and that is not a problem, it’s a different approach and that is what makes the world so fine to live!

(It does indeed! Thank you, Frank, for your time and gracious conversation.)