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Driving through southwest Belgium, one is easily enchanted by the rolling hills, dense forests, and small quaint villages dotting the landscape.  This rugged region is known as the Ardennes.  Nestled in this magical landscape is a valley called Vallée des Fées or “Valley of Fairies”, and within this valley is a small town named Achouffe.  This fantastical locale is the home of and inspiration for a relatively young brewery on the Belgian beer scene – Brassiere d’Achouffe.

The Ardennes is a place that in many ways has escaped the touch of time.  While the consequences of modernity are, of course, ever-present, the people continue to hold on to the values and traditions that have marked this land for centuries.  Folklore still grips the hearts of those who live here – tales of fairies, dwarves, and gnomes flavor the local imagination.  In this milieu of fantasy, inspiration for a distinctive local take on the Belgian brewing tradition emerged.

In 1982, two local brothers-in-law set out to make their mark on the Belgian beer world.  They founded the small, independent Brassiere d’Achouffe naming it after their beloved hometown.  Naturally, the face of their new brewery drew from these same fairy tales and folklore that stamped their cultural surroundings.  It wasn’t that far of a leap either – Achouffe is very similar to the local word for gnome, which is chouffe.  The gnome became the symbol of the fledgling brand.

It is inspiring that this small brewery could make an impact on the beer scene so quickly.  To put it mildly, Belgian craft brewing is an intensely competitive market.  It surely wasn’t easy developing new and original ideas among perhaps the most sophisticated beer-drinking public in the world.  They carved out their niche by developing unique brews that combined the best of the Belgian tradition with ideas borrowed from beer offerings from around the world.

Their aggressive expansion beyond Belgium also helped their cause.  Today they are an anomaly in their home country having over 60% of their production destined for foreign consumption.  Achouffe is the only Belgium brewery that actually has more sales in the Netherlands than in Belgium itself.

In 2006, the two brothers-in-law sold their interest in the brewery to the Belgian beverage conglomerate, Moortgat.  It was disappointed learning that this traditional, family brewery had some time ago fallen into the corrupting influence of big business.  That suspicion was quickly allayed when I realized that Moortgat is the same company that controls Duvel and Maredsous.  The brothers still continue the day-to-day operation of the brewery ensuring the continuation of their exceptional craft.

So, what about the beer?  All of the offerings from Achouffe are firmly in the Belgian brewing tradition – top fermented ales that are unpasteurized and bottle conditioned.  However, this brassiere also has found inspiration from other brewing styles from around the world that they have incorporated into their beers, creating some original and innovative brews.

The flagship beer of Brassiere d’Achouffe is their La Chouffe, a Strong Belgian Pale Ale consisting of a classic Belgian pilsner malt with Tomahawk and Saaz hops spiced with coriander.  The brew pours a lush orange-yellow color with a light, foamy head.  What stood out immediately in the taste was tropical citrus like pineapple.  There was a definite herbal hop flavor in the middle which is where you get a sense of the coriander.  The taste then moves into a strong grassy hop finish.  The brew is a complex beer and a strong contributor to the Belgian ale style.

The great mystery of the bunch was their Mc Chouffe.  The mystery was, namely, what exactly is it?  RateBeer.com lists Mc Chouffe as a Scotch Ale whereas BeerAdvocate.com has it down as a simple Strong Belgian Ale.  According to the story, the brewers at Achouffe were inspired by a Scottish friend of theirs to bring a Scotch Ale flair to a traditional Belgian ale.  The result was the brown ale called Mc Chouffe.  Dried fruits, caramel, and earthy hops dominate the flavor of this beer.  Although it has a robust 8% ABV, you hardly notice any alcohol, which makes it one of the easiest beers from Achouffe to drink.  Think of this one as a Scotch Ale with a spicy Belgian take on it.

You wouldn’t be a Belgian brewer if you didn’t have a seasonal winter ale, now would you?  Achouffe, therefore, gave us their brew N’Ice Chouffe.  In this one, you find all of the usual suspects: nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon.  This spicy profile is supplement to a malt flavor centered around notes of dried fruit and caramel.  I’m usually not a big fan of Christmas beers, but this one was nice.

For me, the All-Star of the lineup from Brassiere d’Achouffe is their Houblon Dobbelen IPA Tripel.  The idea behind this beer was to combine a strong American style Imperial IPA with the Belgian Tripel.  With this beer, the story is the hops.  The brew has an amazing hop profile which is achieved mainly through their use of the American Amarillo variety, which passes on a very strong aroma and bitter flavor character.  This beer has it all.  Right out of the bottle there is a fresh aroma of floral hops and orange citrus.  The taste has the big malt body found in the best Tripels which then shockingly moves to a pronounced hop bitterness leading into a dry finish.  This brew is easily one of my top 5 favorites of all time.

When you’re talking about Belgian beer, it’s really easy to get overwhelmed with the vast amount of quality brews that come out of that small country.  Although Brassiere d’Achouffe only has 5 offerings (their fifth beer, Chouffe Bok 6666, is only sold in the Netherlands), they consistently produce amazing beers that are hard to match.  They have honed their craft well.  I hope someday to make my way over to the Ardennes to visit the small town and its brewery.  Until then, I’ll just have to rely on Deutsche Post to bring me bottles from this magical maker of beer.

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