Jef Versele is a sixth generation Master Brewer at the Van Steenberge Brewery just outside of Ghent. Not only has his brewery perfected the art of brewing speciality beers, he has also personally pledged to protect the ancient recipe for St. Stefanus. Despite being ridiculously busy, we managed to sit down with Jef and get him to give us some insight into his life as a Master Brewer. First up, where did you study? How does one become a Master Brewer? I studied social rights, which is quite general and meant that I could go in a number of directions. To be honest, at the age of 18, I had no idea what I really wanted to do. The only thing I knew for sure was that I loved the brewery. I spent all my holidays there working with my grandfather. I was always so proud of each beer because they all came from grandfather’s passion and hard work. After a brief stint at my father’s animal supplies company, I returned to studying at the brewing school in Ghent. But these lessons only focussed on making lager beer. Eventually I realised that I could learn everything I needed to know from my grandfather. He was already 80 years old when I joined the brewery, so he had endless knowledge to share. We used to do Friday tasting events together to show me how to discover things that a normal consumer wouldn’t pay attention to. I don’t drink anymore – I taste. I’m always thinking how the beer can be improved. How is the rest of your family involved in the brewery? Two of my brothers work for my father in his animal supplies business. My other brother works in tourism. Naturally, they all have an opinion on the beers but they aren’t involved on a day-to-day basis. They all taste a beer like a consumer; to be honest they don’t know much about beer! Find out more about the Van Steenberge brewery’s family history. Your brewery is all about family - who do you think will want to take it over next? The one who has the most passion. The brewery will only thrive under someone who wants to be there. My ‘rule’ is that no one can take over the brewery until they are at least thirty. You need to get work experience first and see how other companies do things. Here at the brewery we essentially live on an island, which can result in us being a little narrow-minded about how we do things. Any Master Brewer must know how to motivate their staff – that is a brewery’s biggest challenge. Why did you decide to join with SABMiller to launch St. Stefanus? I’m too big to be small and too small to be big. If I want to pass on the brewery to the next generation, we’d have to double our capacity, but we just don’t have the capital. One option was to partner with another brewery, but that would compromise our independence. Our other option was to sell. But I promised my grandfather that I would never do that. Luckily, SABMiller presented us with a third option that offered us the best of both worlds. We have retained our independence as a brewery and SABMiller have helped us expand our distribution. It is a working partnership that is fairly unique in the industry and I’m proud to be pioneering this new way for small breweries to grow. Do you have a question for Jef? Let us know in the comment section below.