Alken-Maes was borne out of the merger of two small breweries almost 25 years ago. Both had specialised largely in pilsner, but Maes deviated from this slightly with the purchase of the Union Brewery in 1978, which produced Grimbergen beer, among others.
After the 1988 merger, the group continued its expansion, swallowing up other breweries to increase their portfolio of beers. In 1989, they purchased a 50% stake in De Keersmaeker brewery, which specialised in spontaneous fermentation beers such as Mort Subite. In 2000, it bought Ciney and Brugs Witbier, as well as the remaining stake of De Keersmaeker before it was itself taken over by Scottish and Newcastle. Today Alken-Maes is the second largest brewery in the Belgian market although it is now owned by Heineken.
Tonight’s beer comes from their 2002 takeover of the Louwaege brewery. Originally opened in 1877, the brewery lasted five generations and is famed for its Kriek and Hapkin ales, the latter being my beer du jour.
Who or what is Hapkin then? Hapkin was born in 1093, and came to power as the Count of Flanders at the tender age of 18. He might have only ruled the region for eight years, but he did so in a spectacularly bloody fashion.
He led a rebellion against the murderers, thieves and oppressors of the people of his land. Hapkin was kind of like a sadistic Robin Hood, who instead of just robbing from the rich, despatched of them with a blow to the head.
Back in 1100 the Count, whose full name is the rather sensational Baldwin Hapkin with the Axe, commissioned the Cistercian friars of the Ten Duinen Abbey to brew him a strong blonde beer.
The legend says that the beer brewed made the Count and his soldiers invincible in battle. Sadly, this proved to be only hearsay, as Hapkin bought the big one on the battlefield in 1119 following a particularly nasty knock to his napper. So, his beer might not make you invincible, but does it taste good?
It pours a cloudy pale golden colour with a towering white head. It rises up the glass like smoke, as if desperate to escape. The peppery Belgian spice is ever present along with a slight sour aroma and bakery fresh malt.
To taste, it starts slowly with a sweet malt soprano. Then suddenly, over the palette they come; the hops. Crisp and bitter they wash over your taste buds. Their flowery flavours give the beer a lingering, prickly and perfumed fruit bitterness. It’s Champagne dry and while it might not make you invincible, you’ll certainly feel like you are.