Dany Prignon wants to keep brewing his many renditions of herbal, earthy saison style beers. He is not about to give up “the ghost” just yet, though, now he is in his late 60s and with 32 years of producing beers that have garnered devoted followers across the UK and the US, he also has a vision about drawing more people to Soy, based on his brewing fame. But not too many.
Throughout his talk with the Beer Idiots, Prignon repeatedly echoes the phrase on Brasserie Fantôme’s website: “Pas TROP commercial!”.
He will have to find a fine balance between vision and commercialism. Prignon is on the hunt for a partner brewer to eventually take over Brasserie Fantôme, someone with a similar vision of brewing who will take on the task of running the micro-brewery, and who will also invest in refurbishing the ageing stone farmhouse, brewery and the land it sits on in Soy.
“Now I prefer to make new beers, but unfortunately, I have to sell. So, it’s not so funny,” he said citing financial constraints. “…I cannot only play with my small beers. It’s too late.”
Since starting Fantôme with his father in 1988, he has put the hamlet of Soy, pop. ~1470, on the map for beer nuts in the UK and the US. The brewery is a pilgrimage for overseas brewers, and quite a few of the newer craft operations in Belgium, despite Fantôme’s relative anonymity in his home country.
Working for the local tourist board, he saw the products from other Belgian towns in the stores and decided that the hamlet of Soy near Érezée needed a local product of its own. His father said chocolate, he decided on beer, based on the farmhouse brewing traditions once prevalent in the area, and local plants, spices and fruits as much as possible.
“It was more a joke than really work,” he said on starting up the brewery, and dealing with gushers and other unfortunate incidents. “But after five or six years it was work, not only a hobby.”
Prignon’s brewing style has been noted for its eccentricity, and early use of unusual ingredients, though such experimentation have now become de rigueur in the craft beer world. He uses his own yeast strains and brews from the heart, rather than following any particular recipe.
Not bad from a guy who says he is not a beer drinking, or at least not a “big beer drinker”.
Asked to explain his “style” he said: “For me it is Fantôme…For me each saison is different. This time I can take dandelion, just like last week. This month I took other ingredients from my area. So it is not a style really. I think Fantôme must be fun. Not IPA, classic…I don’t want this. I want to make my own system.”
A legacy to continue
Even the standard Fantôme brands can and do differ each year, either leading beer drinkers to frustration, or provoking a cult rush to source them when he produces a new version or edition. Almost 90% of his beers are sold overseas.
“I am happy to see that a lot of people know my beers – Fantôme,” he said, when asked about his legacy. “Many more than I think at first. At first Wallonia then we see. Now, it’s easier to find Fantôme in New York than 10 kilometres from here. I think OK. It’s a small, good thing for me.”
Needless to say, he did not open up an online shop with the varying COVID-19 restrictions. When the Beer Idiots visited him in April, he was selling his beers from a fold-up table near an open door.
“This is the first time I have driven by here and seen that door open,’ said an enthusiastic Belgian who popped in to buy his first Fantômes. “I have heard so much about these beers and always wanted to try some.”
Prignon was amused by this. His bottling room is stacked with cases and he was eager to reduce his supply. Actively selling local, while not unusual for him, had become more important to clear his growing stock. Note: You can buy his beers at the bakery a few metres away.
Craft before there was craft
His production is tiny, and his range of beers, under six standard labels, are much sought after, spurred on by the approval by the late Michael Jackson, who noted in the 1991 edition of his book The Beer Hunter “a new micro-brewery called Fantome is making very fruity, strong, seasonal beers in loosely this style.”
He believes this christening by the ‘Beer Hunter’ and others spurred the interest and devoted following, not to say the lure of the eccentricity of styles and relative rarity of the beer. When asked about the status of his beers overseas Prignon mentions the Jackson reference but also refers to his style.
“I think I was the first to make saisons different each season and recipes like this…Yes it was made before in small villages. So now I just take the old recipes and with a modern system, well not so modern, a modern system to brew . I need to have different saisons each season. I don’t make myself [the recipes]. It was made here a long, long time ago in the small farms. No more…no more.”
Prignon comes from a farming family. His grandfather had a small farm and made a low alcohol beer for everyday drinking, flavoured with local herbs and flowers such as chamomile.
“I just took this idea. No more. I am not…,” he paused and made a prayerful gesture to the skies to indicate praying to the gods. “It is very simple to make in fact.”
Origins and the future for Fantôme
Prignon, who previously worked at the local tourist board before turning his home brewing hobby into a business, had the idea with his father of attracting tourists to Soy by creating a local product. Soy is kind of off the beaten track, though the Ardennes lends its charm to the area.
“It’s very difficult because I want to keep my own area, and small world. But how to say, if there are too many tourists then it is a business system and I don’t want to make this so big and a lot of tables.”
Given the ramshackle nature of his brewing operation and the charm of his small tasting room and bar, which he opens when he feels like entertaining, he has kept the operation low key. It’s all in need of a good dusting off and more.
However, perhaps now he is looking to continue the legacy of the beers and fix up the whole, while adding more table and chairs. He is vague about what he wants to do. But first he needs to find an investing partner, who will work alongside him for a while to learn the methods that have made Fantôme so famous.
“I think it is time for me to officially grow old,” he said.
What’s for sure is that Prignon has kept Belgian saisons and farmhouse styles alive, while innovating based on that brewing heritage. He wants to ensure that Fantôme continues. The Beer Idiots will keep a keen eye on the next stage for Dany Prignon and Fantôme, whoever takes up the reins.
Note: Prignon and Brasserie Fantôme are participating in the Beer Idiots BelgHik collaboration project to bring Flemish and Wallonia brewers together. Read more here.