Siphon Brewing

Building a Damme Nation | Siphon Brewing

By Breandán Kearney

There’s a meeting point of three famous waterways in Belgium where the main canal between Bruges and Sluis crosses two other canals, known locally as the ‘Blinker’ and the ‘Stinker’.

Because these canals are all at different water levels, the junction is facilitated by a system of Siphons. 

The area where they meet takes its name from this feat of engineering, as does the four-generation-old family restaurant which sits at the intersection.

Working with the family who have owned the Siphon restaurant since 1903 and with my brewing colleague Franklin Verdonck, I found myself starting a brewery here last year. 

Originally from Warrenpoint in Co. Down, my office window looks out not onto the rugged beauty of the Mournes, but onto the tree-lined canals of the West Flemish Polders. 

In Ireland, I practiced as a lawyer, first in Dublin and then in Belfast, before moving to Flanders to be with my Belgian girlfriend. Elisa and I met volunteering on an earthquake reconstruction project in Pisco, Peru in 2010.

When I first moved to Belgium in 2013, I was struck by how different the beer culture was to that of Ireland. I began tasting beers that I had never tried before and became interested in finding out more. I enrolled in a beer tasting class and later on a brewing course in Ghent. I became a Certified Cicerone® through the US Cicerone® programme and a beer sommelier through the UK Institute of Brewing and Distilling’s Beer Academy. I began writing for beer publications in Belgium, the UK, Ireland and the US. I also started my own blog, Belgian Smaak. In 2015, I was awarded the title of ‘Beer Writer of the Year’ by the British Guild of Beer Writers.

The Siphon (pronounced ‘See-fon’) is a special place. Smugglers have enjoyed its proximity to the sea and its short distance to both the French and Dutch borders. Fishermen in the early 1900s spent more time discussing casting techniques over a beer here than pulling anything out of the water. Smoked eel has long been a specialty of the restaurant and the eel even makes it into our brewery logo. 

Two years ago, the space in which the brewery is now located was a shed where sheep were kept. We tiled the floor and walls, put in drainage, connected water, gas and electricity and built our brewery installation. The sheep are still here, but now they’re grazing on the fields opposite the brewery and sometimes enjoying the spent grain we offer as a treat after brew days.

Our brew-house is a three-vessel steam-heated 5-hectolitre system. We’ve got six temperature-controlled conical-coned-tanks for fermenting and conditioning. We’re small, but we’ve got a system that allows us flexibility. 

In the same way that our restaurant focuses on sourcing the best ingredients for their meals, we look for the best quality raw materials for our beers. We work directly with a family hop farm in Poperinge (Joris Cambie’s De Plukker) to source our European hop varieties. We source American hops from YCH in the Yakima Valley. We get our specialty grains from Belgium, our roasted barley from England, our dark wheat from Germany and our pilsner malts from the Netherlands.

We brew a dry, bitter and ester-forward Saison with citrus notes (Blinker, 5.5% ABV); a classic East-Coast I.P.A. crossed with Belgian brewing techniques which utilizes Amarillo, Cascade and Citra (Damme Nation, 7% ABV); and a roasty, chocolately and full-bodied Oyster Stout (Cassandra, 7% ABV) for which we source oyster shells from the restaurant. We brew a new beer each season and offer one-offs, collaborations and experiments when we have the opportunity. 

All of our beers are top-fermented, unpasteurized, unfiltered and re-fermented in the keg or bottle. We have a penchant for champagne-esque effervescence so our beers are saturated naturally to higher levels of CO2 than might be the standard in the UK and Ireland. 

Our beer has been described as ‘new world meets old world’. Because of our own personal taste and perhaps given that we are brewing for a restaurant, our house style has tended to veer towards beers which are exciting but drinkable.

We care about what we do and we are clear about the values that we share.

We take pride in what we do and where we’re from: brewing with respect for tradition; respect for ingredients; and respect for the people who drink our beer.

We’re unafraid to be ourselves; to be alternative to what’s considered the norm; to take classic beer styles and to add our own twist; to go all the way to the edge.

We’re inclusive: we brew beer for everyone, whether you’re an occasional beer drinker or a self-proclaimed beer geek. Everyone – absolutely everyone – is welcome at Siphon Brewing.

It’s incredibly exciting for me personally to have our small-batch Siphon beers available to taste in Northern Ireland. 

The beer may be brewed in Belgium, but part of the soul of every glass belongs to County Down. 

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