Meuse Brewing Company Blends Heritage, Norfolk Pride
There is a consistency of theme and approach flowing through the Meuse Brewing Company’s branding and inspiration.
The river which lends its name to the craft brewery begins in France, charting a course through Belgium, on to the Dutch town where award-winning brewer Mischa Geven was born before emptying into the North Sea adjacent to life and business partner Estelle van Kleef’s birthplace. Meuse Brewery takes inspiration from the brewing traditions of those regions, however, the company logo also incorporates Eastern Flowering Dogwood leaves, bridging the gap between heritage and home with this county’s official flower.
“There is really no place like Norfolk,” said van Kleef. “This is where we want to be.”
They are not newcomers, she arriving 21 years ago at the age of seven, Geven taking the ‘scenic route’ through Belgium, Greece and Cyprus before emigrating 16 years ago. Beyond their birth country the couple shares entrepreneurial spirit engendered by parental example, the van Kleefs as the sole Canadian greenhouse producer of potted bromeliad plants outside of B.C., Geven’s family founding New Limburg Brewery near Nixon. His positive experience as brewer for several years and association with van Kleef encouraged them to seek their own unique path.
“As most young people do, we wanted to spread our wings and do our thing,” she explained.
Mischa’s parents gave their blessing to the endeavour, supportive both on their website and through a contract brew agreement helping defray infrastructure costs during start-up. He and van Kleef purchased and moved to a 25-acre Scotland-area property near the end of 2018, subsequently acquiring what was Wholesome Pickins’ offsite retail outlet along Highway 24, with the intention of using it as an associated summertime bottle shop/sampling space.
They began production in November 2019, initiating the process for ‘Saison de la Meuse’ to be included in the LCBO the following month. That culminated in May 2020, and was followed by a version infused with Norfolk Cherry Company cherries which turned out to be a ‘big hit.’
Coincidentally, an uninvited global pandemic halted ‘non-essential’ construction plans for onsite production facilities in the farm’s barn, and retail development in the adjacent farm market. Shifting gears, the couple reopened the farmers market under the Meuse label, focussing for the moment on locally-grown fruits and vegetables, along with plants, decorative items and preserves.
“The silver lining for us is we’ve gotten to learn the market side,” said van Kleef.
Ultimately, the market will run in supportive conjunction with the brewery. Among other offerings for example, cherries and cherry-based products dovetailing with their infused brew will be featured.
COVID has limited infrastructural, not product development. Saison (French for season) de la Meuse is brewed in the tradition of a Belgian blond farmhouse ale, originating from traditionally lower-alcohol beverages for farmhouse workers created with local ingredients, the process making beer safer than the drinking the water of the time.
“Over time the style has evolved,” said van Kleef, from two to three per cent alcohol by volume, to five to seven. French ‘saisons’ tend to be sweeter, Belgian lighter and dryer.
“Which is the style we gravitate to.”
Geven developed a third beer, ‘Extra Hopped Farmhouse Ale’ brewed with local Hayhoe hops, its official launch delayed with the cancellation of Eat & Drink Norfolk.
Beyond the Belgian-inspired line, he is also enthusiastically exploring barrel-aged lambic beers, relatable to characteristics wine takes on when aged in varying barrels. Geven won a Canadian Brewing Awards silver medal for a Geueze-inspired beer, based on the tradition of blending brews barrel aged, typically for between one and three years, fruited in some incarnations for a particularly complex offering.
“When the top critics agree with what you are doing, that’s reassuring you are going in the right direction,” said van Kleef, proud of three other national and five provincial awards Mischa has been involved in.
“He’s one of the most modest people you’ll meet, so I’m bragging on his behalf,” she smiled.
One might suggest access to quality beer is a plus while attempting to build a new business in the midst of a global pandemic. However, despite its unwelcome presence, neither van Kleef - who has an undergrad in marketing and a masters degree in International Management - or Geven has seriously second-guessed their decisions, or considered seeking alternative jobs.
“That always feels like plan B,” she said of a career path longer, but for them, more comfortable. “Running your own business is rewarding in so many ways,” she added. “If you had to sum it up, I’d sum it up as the only option.”
Ultimately a ‘mom and pop’ operation where they do most of the work and maintain control, add their own home-grown organic barley to the mix, and take customers along with them on a productive, enjoyable journey is the goal. In short, elbow room, fresh air, a challenge and a dream.
“If we can make it through this one (year), we should be able to make it through a few more,” van Kleef concluded with a laugh, admitting 2020 has not been ideal. “But we have the next 30 years to figure it out.”