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The valley of the shadow of beer


I walked through the Maalbeek valley on 14 September led by Magali De Vinck and Senna Rees with nary a beer, just at the start from the Malt & Mout club, to which I belong, and at the end some 2.5 hours later with drink at the Abbaye de la Cambre. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of beer, I will have no sip while I listen to the story of the breweries that used to exist in Ixelles area of Brussels.

That was fine. We drank on history. De Vinck and Rees’ research was magnificent: obviously they had spent a lot of time on the research to uncover a taste of the history of the area for this walk on Beer Consumers Day, when Belgium’s beer clubs host an event.

We followed them along Avenue de la Couronne, looking over the valley from above Rue Kerckx at the old river route, before heading to Rue de la Brasserie, passing Rue de la Levure (yeast), crossing Place Eugène Flagey to join Avenue du Général de Gaulle, turning up Rue Lannoy, to Chaussée de Vleurgat, where the big payoff was seeing the entrance to the former Grandes Brasseries d’Ixelles, once one of Belgium’s largest brewers, at number 80, a large residential building.

The site once hosted the Grandes Brasseries d’Ixelles until the mid-1950s when it was converted to apartments. As we were comparing old photos with the entrance of the building, the garage gate opened as a car left and on an inside courtyard wall past the columns remaining from the original building we saw the name of the former brewer displayed in all its silver glory.

The XL of Ixelles

Initially brewing was concentrated around the hamlet of Boendael, outside what was then Brussels, but gradually moved to the Maelbeek valley from the 17th century. Brussels at the time imposed a law forbidding brewing within the area around it, to protect its own brewers, only allowing Abbaye de la Cambre‘s Cistercian community of nuns to brew beer for travelers and the pilgrims passing through the area.

Once the law was relaxed, brewing played a big role in Ixelles’ industrial development, though none remain today. I however suspect some home craft brewers are springing up in the area to revive the industry, hearkening back to the days of artisanal brewing until the many coalesced into a few big ones.

There was L’Italie, which was mentioned in 1616, and bought by the Van Overstraeten in 1696, then run by the Van Zeebroeck from 1773 to 1859 and leased to the Lannoy family. Grandes Brasseries d’Ixelles was born when Jean Lannoy, at the age of 25, quit the family brewing business in 1859, to live in Ixelles. By 1873 he had installed his brewing business at Vleurgat,  according to the booklet, A la découverte de l’histoire d’Ixelles (PDF).

Lannoy’s brewing business grew around the roads known as de la Brasserie, Cuve, l’Orge and Serpentin, around what was left of the river, the ponds of Ixelles. He used a top fermentation method, little used at the time in the region, to produce ales. At the time of the cholera epidemic in Brussels, in 1866, the XL brand was recommended by doctors as a hygienic drink to help patients recover.

Big XL

At the height of its production the Grandes Brasseries d’Ixelles occupied nearly a hectare and a half of land in the area, brewing beer under the XL logo, like Helles Export, and with a staff of about 150, who were all invited to a banquet celebrating the 75th anniversary of the brewer in 1934.

 In 1911, the management was passed on to his three sons, who renamed it Brasserie Lannoy and Brothers, then in 1921 Grandes Brasseries d’Ixelles. In 1954, the Grandes Brasseries of Ixelles merged with the Grandes Brasseries of Koekelberg, and production moved to Koekelberg. The biggest buildings of the brewery were sold and destroyed by a real estate developer to make way, in 1960, to a modern building, as well as to the new square of Biarritz.

Our walk ended at the beautiful Abbaye de la Cambre, where we drank a couple Abbaye de la Cambre beers, unfortunately one of those ‘abbey’ beers that are only connected to their namesake in name only. Not a good link for consumers, but a whisper of the history of the area.

Images of Grandes Brasseries d’Ixelles and Ixelles area

Sources for the article above and images

A la découverte de l’histoire d’Ixelles (PDF).

Inventory of architectural heritage (Brussels-Capital Region)

ArchivIris (Archives of the municipality of Ixelles)


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