Rediscovering old varieties of cereals

to preserve traditional beer practices

By Adèle Pautrat and Hannes Lorenzen

© Pajottenland cereal network

The 3 Fonteinen brewery, located in the Senne Valley region of Belgium, finds its origins in a bar and a geuze blendery created in 1883 and reactivated in 1953 by Gaston Debelder, father of Armand Debelder, passing on his vision and values to Michaël Blancquaert, Werner Van Obberghen and a team of 20 people.

Very closely linked to the agricultural developments of the region in which it is located, its history and very recent production commitments bear powerful witness to local varieties of wheat and barley.

We met Lucas Van den Abeele at the brewery on a sunny afternoon, for a tour visit and a nice tasting of some of the flagship lambic beers traditionally brewed a few streets away and fermented through a natural process for up to three years on the brewery’s premises.

Lucas is a dedicated young man who joined the brewery after researching the gradual disappearance, since the 50s or so, of local wheat and barley varieties that used to be the pride of the region and gave the unique taste of its lambic and geuze beers.

These beers are brewed with 40% of un-malted wheat, 60% of malted barley and typified by their spontaneous fermentation. For this brewing method the old varieties deliver special traits which new varieties don't.

Unfortunately, the locally grown cereal varieties are no longer suitable for brewing beer, and of the hundred lambic and geuze producers who used to work in the surrounding villages, only a few traditional ones remained in the early 2000s.

The tradition has been partially lost, because of the industrialisation of brewing and the globalisation of agriculture. While a standard beer today takes to six weeks of brewing, lambic and geuze, as well as fruit beers like Kriek can take up to four years and more. Also, most ingredients for brewing are imported from the cheapest possible provider on the global market. Nowadays, in Belgium, less than 1% of cereals used by breweries is actually grown on national territory.

To carry out his research about the value of the traditional local varieties for brewing practices and beer quality, Lucas decided not to only use the existing literature on this subject but to include interviewing local farmers who had been living in Pajottenland for several decades, with the aim to collect their memories, experiences and analysis of the local agricultural situation. Furthermore, he had the vision of building the marketing strategy and the quality focus on the involvement and inclusion of the farmers into the strategy of the brewery’s development.

3 Fonteinen supported his work from the beginning, faithful to the legendary determination of their owners to defend and promote, mainly by keeping them alive, the local traditions of beer production.

Indeed, from the 80’s, and regardless consumption of geuze and lambic had reached its absolute lowest peak, Armand Debelder was claiming that “lambic and geuze have a future because it’s local, and it’s ours”.

Through the work carried out by Lucas, it was demonstrated that Armand, Michaël and Werner weren't the only ones defending that maxim. Some farmers were actually hoping to return to traditional practices and varieties. This was the first step in building a network of cereal producers collaborating to reorganize the local cereal sector.

The network is now gathering 12 farmers. Some of them are growing organically, while others can benefit from their peers’ experiences to start transitioning. All of them cultivate traditional varieties of wheat and barley, collected by Lucas from gene banks or farmers' networks from around the world, which 3 Fonteinen committed to buy and use for its beer production.

This project is a great demonstration of cooperation and solidarity driven by the will to look for better quality and more diversity within agricultural production.

Interview with Lucas van den abeele

Coordinator of the Pajottenland cereal network

Conducted by Hannes Lorenzen and Adèle Pautrat in March 2021

Hannes Lorenzen and Lucas van Den Abeele, in 3 Fonteinen brewerij © Adèle Violette

One of the main challenges faced by the Pajottenland network of cereal farmers is getting access to a great diversity of traditional and suitable varieties for breeding and testing new cultures. Lucas Van den Abeele, coordinator of the network, tells us about their strategies and needs so far.

Seeds4All. Is the network familiar with testing non-registered varieties?

Lucas Van den Abeele. We work mainly with varieties that are not listed in the official catalogues, because most of the wheat varieties available on the conventional seed market today is feed wheat, not at all suitable for brewing or organic production. Their selection has been guided by the needs of the industry and has been based mainly on yield criteria. Agronomic criteria such as soil cover, disease resistance, straw size, have been abandoned because conventional agriculture uses chemical alternatives to control them. The brewery and the network of cereal farmers have therefore embarked on this research project with the aim of developing varieties adapted to 1/ brewing production, 2/ our Pajottenland terroir and 3/ organic farming. And for this purpose, old varieties and population varieties are more suitable, because they are more progressive.

S4A. Where do the seeds come from?

LVdA. Most of our seeds come from seed banks, but also from other farmers and networks. Through this way, we can receive 10, 20 or 30 kilos of seeds, which allows us to carry out major tests. However, when we go through the seed banks, we generally receive no more than 100 seeds, which considerably limits the genetic potential of our tests, but allows us to have access to a broad range of rare varieties.

S4A. The seed varieties you receive and try, are there from Belgium?

LVdA. We are primarily looking for Belgian varieties, but unfortunately, there are not that many. In Belgium, there has been almost no political or industrial interest in the conservation of cultivated varieties. In fact, there is no decent seed bank. So, everything that has ceased to be used has been lost. Within the network, we are however interested in cereal varieties from regions bordering Belgium, like northern France, Germany, the Netherlands... regions where the soil and climate conditions are close to or even similar to those in the Pajottenland region. But not only, because in the end, the most important thing is to test. We already tested Italian varieties that have grown very well in our fields.

S4A. How do you manage the breeding and testing?

LVdA. In general, we start on a small scale, on plots of 1m2. Then we regularly visit the fields with all the members of the network to compare the different varieties and follow their development. Each farmer has a different perspective and can choose the varieties he wants to test on a larger scale in his field. The second phase of testing is done at the brewery: one test per variety and two barrels per test. The varieties are left to age in the barrel for at least two years, as the 3 Fonteinen brewery works according to traditional fermentation methods. Last February, we actually tasted our first barrels of beers produced from old varieties!

S4A. How many varieties are currently tested and multiplied within the network?

LVdA. Since the creation of the network, we have tested 60 old wheat varieties in our fields. Next year, we plan to test 7 more. At the brewery level, 13 of these old wheat varieties have been tested in the barrel. For barley, it's a bit more complicated, but we want to try producing our own malt within the network. Last year we tested 5 varieties in the fields; this year we have 20; and we have done brewing tests on 5 different barley varieties.

S4A. What are the criteria you are looking for in a variety?

LVdA. We try to define this with the farmers, to have a collaborative and participatory approach in order to bring out what’s best for farmers and brewers. Of course, very often for farmers, the first criterion is yield. But within the network, other elements become more important. For example, it has happened that a farmer selects a variety primarily because he finds it beautiful. This is also the pride of a farmer: to have something beautiful, even if it is completely subjective. The other more technical criteria that we observe are the percentage and the tillering habit, which favour the yield, but also the soil cover, the width of the leaves, the resistance to diseases, the height of the straw and its resistance to rainfall, etc.

S4A. How is it difficult to breed your own varieties?

LVdA. For us, this is a lot of work for little short-term results. We multiply the varieties for at least 5 years to reach the 300 kilos of seeds necessary to carry out a single test brew. For the brewery, in terms of investment and commitment, it is huge and a bit insane, but we have no choice, this is the only option we have today.

S4A. What kind of support do you get for your research on plant breeding?

LVdA. Unfortunately, we hardly get any support. We have already tried to obtain Flemish subsidies, but most of the time, we do not exactly meet the criteria of the calls for projects. We feel that in Flanders there is no real political will to develop and strengthen the Belgian cereal consumption sector or alternative projects like ours. Flanders is still very much focused on industrial agriculture. Wallonia supports more local initiatives and organic farming, but we do not have access to Walloon subsidies because we are located in Flanders. It's crazy because in fact we collaborate a lot with Wallonia, and it's even a beautiful aspect of the project: to have Flemish and Walloon farmers collaborating and learning from each other.

S4A. So, to put it more bluntly, in terms of support, this project relies mainly on the private convictions and efforts of people committed to make it exist?

LVdA. Yes, and it's a shame, because all the research we do in our fields and at the brewery level could be of interest to many people. It is sad to be reduced to work only within the network, without receiving feedback or being able to disseminate our results and share our experience.

S4A. A new European regulation on organic production is due to come into force in January 2022. One of its major effects will be to stimulate, and in the longer term to make it mandatory for farmers to use organic heterogeneous material and varieties specifically adapted to organic farming. This should accelerate the growth of the organic seed market and foster the access to a greater diversity of organic varieties. Do you expect your testing activities to be impacted by the implementation of the new regulation?

LVdA. The brewery recently decided to become certified organic, so from now on, the network's farmers will have to grow organically. However, regarding seeds, we don't only use varieties developed for organic farming and sometimes we multiply population varieties that don't exist in organic farming. So yes, it might change a little our way to work with seeds.

But personally, I feel that there is a fear among farmers regarding the provisions of the Organic Regulation, and more particularly regarding the stakeholders who will soon be able to offer organic seeds under the label of Organic Heterogeneous Material: many are afraid that this will open up the market to everything and anything.

On the other hand, once organic farmers will be able to sell their own seed production, what will they have to comply with? Will it be easier or more complicated than buying seeds to seed companies? This is not clear at the moment, and it's possible that initiatives will be nipped in the bud, leaving other players free to take over the market.

S4A. Clearly, the risk exists. We are in a decisive phase regarding the possibilities of support that will or will not be granted to sustainable research projects on plant breeding and seed production. The other possibility is that the industry takes over the organic market and replicates the same practices that plague the conventional sector: creation of hybrid, non-reproducible varieties protected by Intellectual property rights, etc.

LVdA. Exactly, and that's why the success of these measures will be linked to strong political initiatives supporting seed producers and suppliers who are truly committed to a paradigm shift. The companies that are seriously doing organic seed production in Europe can be counted on the fingers of one hand at the moment, which is not very reassuring.

What really matters is indeed to support the actors most committed to seed autonomy, crop biodiversity and food sovereignty in their practical and political struggle. It is with them that we wish to work, by promoting relationships of trust and proximity. An anonymous seed market is more prone to abuse and fraud. The organic one is not immune to this, on the contrary, given its exponential growth and the profits it brings in.

It is to put forward the truly sustainable and cooperative initiatives committed to seed production and dissemination that we created the Seeds4All platform. The Pajottenland network of cereal farmers appeals to us precisely because it demonstrates that quality is based on commitment, sharing of risks and cooperation. Political measures and opportunities which are now open must be grasped and implemented across the farming and seed savers initiatives.

So, we will keep on sharing the stories of amazing people leading such alternative projects, hoping that they will continue to grow and be spread everywhere!

Visit of the 3 Fonteinen brewerij © Adèle Violette

Have you ever heard of "le petit roux du Brabant"?

Until the 1960s, the star of Pajottenland was the little redhead from Brabant, a very old wheat landrace that was used by all brewers of Lambic and which owed its name to the size and colour of its grain. Since he became interested in the plant heritage of Pajottenland, Lucas has searched for it everywhere: in seed banks, farmers' barns or breweries' granaries, le petit roux du Brabant is not to be found anywhere.

We don't know much about its specificities and it's a safe bet that it would have evolved a lot by now, but Lucas has embarked on a real quest to find the trail of this once emblematic Belgian variety. Thanks to the information he gathered, he has succeeded in tracing the history of its movements and crossbreeding.

To date, Lucas has collected 20 wheat varieties that he considers to be close or similar to the little redhead from Brabant. All of them are currently being tested on very small plots, one next to the other, to observe their similarities and specificities. The ultimate aim is to select the most interesting ones, sow them together or cross them with the aim of obtaining a new population specifically adapted to the fields owned by the network and to the local growing conditions; in other words, to create a petit roux du Brabant 2.0, for the pleasure of Lambic and Belgium.