Brewery with the hill of Vézelay in the background

Burgundian beer: Brasserie de Vézelay

The Burgundy in France is better known for its wine than for its beer. The slopes leading up to the medieval hilltop city of Vézelay are clad with vines, and the area provides many opportunities for wine-tasting. However, there is plenty of room for brewers offering pure organic beer, which is why Marc Neyret set up his Brasserie de Vézelay in the village of Saint Père, near Vézelay.
 
Purity

The French word “brasserie” has two meanings. Most people know that it can be more or less synonymous with “caférestaurant”; fewer people know its original meaning, “brewery”. Most of France’s industrial breweries are located in Alsace in the east of the country. However, Marc Neyret set up the Brasserie de Vézelay in the central region of Burgundy. He wanted to produce a type of beer that is rather different from the mass-produced mainstream: only organic ingredients are used, and no sugar is added after fermentation. The various recipes all follow the “purity law” that originated in Germany in 1516, the world’s oldest continually valid food and drink regulation. The beers are aromatic, subtle and complex, best appreciated by sipping slowly and rolling round the mouth. Yet this richness of flavour is achieved by only four ingredients: water, malt (germs of barley), hops and yeast.

Brasserie de Vézelay offers four basic types of beer: white, blonde, amber and dark. The beer is brewed on site using stainless-steel equipment that can clearly be seen from the bar. It is available on tap or can be taken away in bottles or in recyclable stainless-steel casks.


The beer is available on tap or can be taken away
in bottles or in recyclable stainless steel casks.

Ingredients

Water quality is a large determinant in brewing, and thankfully the water of Burgundy is exceptionally pure. However, it is rich in calcium, which is filtered out by osmosis in order to prevent the fermentation from occurring too quickly and subtracting from the roundness of the taste. The malt can be roasted at different temperatures and for different durations to achieve tastes varying from coffeelike bitterness to caramel and chocolate. The “coffee” flavour that I sampled had an agreeable taste. The taste of beer is also influenced by the hops, whose bitter taste balances the sweetness of malt. Hops come in several varieties – apparently there are around 600 different types – and at least two kinds are used in every beer.

They are added in two instalments during the boiling process: first to add bitterness, then (two minutes before the end) to add aroma. Before being added to the beer it is crushed into a paste of almond green colour. I was offered a taste – very good for the health apparently – and it reminded of that bitter, gaseous smell which clings to taverns the morning after beer has been drunk. And that was a mild variety! Romain tells me there are around 3,000 different types of beer, and that several more types could be invented simply through permutation of the basic ingredients in various ways. However good the beer, the commercial fortune of all breweries fluctuates heavily according to weather conditions. For Marc and Romaine’s sake we most hope for a hot summer, in which they will see many visitors flock to their brewery on banks of the quiet river Cure to sample their fine products.


Mash and wart kettle, with computer console in the foreground
The brewery process

Stainless steel is generally central to the beer-making process, and Brasserie de Vézelay is no exception. After the malt has been milled in a stainless steel crusher, it is transferred to a complex consisting of two large tanks. The left tank is a mash and wort kettle, the right one a lauter tun (top section) and whirlpool (bottom section) (see photos 1 and 2). Between the tanks is a console connected to a computer, from which the process can be monitored and controlled. In the mash and wart kettle, the malt is soaked in water then boiled to allow enzymes in the malt to break down the starch in the grain into sugars.

The resultant mash is transferred to the lauter tun (top right-hand), where the grain is filtered out. The resultant paste, called “wort”, is then transferred back to the left-hand tank, where it is boiled while hops are added. The liquid then flows to the whirlpool (bottom right), where any remain solids are eliminated by centrifugal spinning. After the wort has cooled, it is transferred to a fermentation tank, where yeast is added so that fermentation can occur (photo 3). Fermentation lasts five to seven days, after which further time is required for the liquid to settle and clear (lagering).


Fermentation tanks.

Stainless steel is used throughout the process, starting with the crusher and continuing with the two brewing tanks and the fermentation tanks. Some of the fermentation tanks have an easy recognizable form, being cylindrical on the top and coned at the bottom. Finally, even the bottling machine is constructed of stainless steel. The conditions in a brewery are a combination of heat and corrosion. Other reasons for using stainless steel include taste (the taste of the various different kinds of beer will not permeate the material) and hygiene (the smooth surfaces can easily be washed). All tanks are made of an interior and an exterior layer. For the interior, stainless steel is required. Exteriors can use other materials (such as copper), though it happens that the exterior cladding used at Brasserie de Vézelay is also stainless. The equipment is supplied by Kaspar- Schulz, Bamberg, Germany. Most of the equipment, including the fermenters, is made from 1.4301 (304), but 1.4571 (316Ti) is used for the high-temperature applications (1).


Marc Neyret (left) and Romain Flesch (right).
In the background, the lauter tun and whirlpool.

About Marc Neyret:

After studying commercial and 
international law at the Sorbonne, 
Marc worked as a human resource 
manager in 25 countries for various 
French and American companies. 
While travelling from Europe to the 
Middle East, he conceived the idea 
of founding a brewery offering organic 
beers respecting the purity laws, with 
no added sugar.

About Romain Flesch:

Romain has a background in biotechnology. During his training he worked as an internee in a small brewery and also worked for Carslberg. Deciding that he would be happier working for a brewery than in a biotechnology company, he considered several offers before moving to Burgundy from Alsace in October 2012 to work for the Brasserie de Vézelay.

References

(1) My thanks to Olivier Latapi of Kaspar-Schulz for this information.
 

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