Jef Versele on Brewing St. Stefanus

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The monks of the Sint Stefanus Monastery in Ghent first brewed St. Stefanus over 700 years ago. Today, Master Brewer Jef Versele of the Van Steenberge Brewery is responsible for the recipe. We chatted to Jef about his brewing methods and just what makes St. Stefanus special.

What has changed now that the Van Steenberge Brewery is responsible for brewing St. Stefanus?

Many things! It is not so much that beer brewing itself has improved, but rather that techniques in each stage of the process have gotten better. It is already day and night between now and 20 years ago – let alone 700 years ago!

For me, bottling is the biggest change – we are always looking for ways to get the beer into the bottle as cleanly as possible.

But then again, there are many things that are still exactly the same. We still use the same yeast, brew at the same temperatures and follow the same method of refermentation. Some essential elements just cannot be improved upon.

St. Stefanus is fairly unusual in that it uses three yeasts and continues to mature in the bottle. Why is the beer brewed in this way?

This method comes from the monks themselves and is a way to conserve the beer for a longer period – whilst also offering the drinker the unique opportunity to choose how they want their beer to taste.

For most beers, oxidation means that the quality begins to degrade as soon as it is bottled. For St. Stefanus, we add two more yeasts during the bottling stage. The first yeast removes the oxygen to prevent this oxidation and ensure that our beer is always of a premium quality.

The second yeast ferments the remaining sugar. This fermentation continues right up until the bottle is opened again. As the beer ages or matures, and more and more sugar is fermented, the beer will increase in body and the taste will become more complex.

Ultimately the flavour comes from the yeast and the sugar. If you open a bottle of St. Stefanus soon after cellar release, it will have a fresh and fruity taste, as there will still be significant levels of sugar present in the beer.

But if you wait and allow the beer to mature, the yeast will have had a chance to transform more of the sugar and the taste will have completely evolved. This hands the power to the drinker. They can leave the beer to mature or open it straightaway – effectively letting them choose how they want their beer to taste.

Do you have a question for Jef? Let us know in the comment section below. 

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