The Belgian beer fans with the bottle to set up their own brewery
Nik Lemmens and Scott Williams discovered their shared passion for home brewing six months after they started working at John Lewis head office, as MICHAEL VAUGHTON reports...
Combining their different talents with their love of beer is sure to be a recipe for success for Bishop’s Stortford’s newest brewers.
Nik Lemmens and Scott Williams officially opened The Belgian Brewer over the Easter weekend, with mayor Cllr George Cutting on hand to get the celebrations under way on Good Friday.
It has taken pints of passion and dedication to get their microbrewery and shop, at the Links Business Centre on Raynham Road, up and running as they aim to tantalise people’s tastebuds with their range of premium Belgian-style beers.
But had it not been for a couple of quirks of fate then their dream of quenching people’s thirst with delicious tipples may never have become a reality.
Nik, 46, and Scott, 40, met three years ago when they were both working at the John Lewis head office in Victoria. They had been based in the same office on different teams for six months and sat behind each other, exchanging the odd pleasantry.
It was only when Scott brought one of his home-brew attempts into work that he and Nik became friends and ultimately decided to go into business.
The other lucky twist had come two years previously when Nik, who is from Eindhout in Belgium, had discovered that his cousin Dirk and his wife Greta were brilliant brewers with 40 years’ experience under their belts. Nik, who has “beer in his blood” and always brewed at home, sampled some of their drinks at a family reunion and was blown away by the taste.
Having their expertise to call upon – they still mentor Nik and Scott via phone and email – gave him the added motivation to get the beers he was working on in his garage consistently right, and then he knew he had delicious products that could be scaled up.
They quickly found a small place of their own just outside Ongar. After brewing there for eight months, they found the Links Business Centre premises, which was a good choice with Nik having lived in Stortford for ten years.
There were plenty of tense moments as they waited for the relevant licences and permissions to be granted by Hertfordshire County Council and HMRC after they had already signed a three-year contract to rent their premises.
But spurred on by excellent feedback received at the Bishop’s Stortford Christmas Fayre and market stalls, the support of landlord Helen Pinder-George and the backing of their friends and family, The Belgian Brewer became a reality this year.
“This is probably better than a dream. Sometimes I still can’t believe it when you walk through the door and it’s actually ours, producing something that’s exactly how we want it to be,” said Nik, who lives with his wife Diana and children Alexander, 8, and Sasha, 4, both of whom attend Northgate Primary School.
“It’s really, really personal, and then customers come in and they love it too – what more do you want? It’s fantastic. I don’t think there’s any better job than this. It’s the bee’s knees!
“It’s been taxing on the families and taxing on our personal time. In the last few months we’ve been putting in 70, 80, 90 hours per week just to get it going. But to sit here and be ready is a great feeling.
“I have to thank my wife for putting up with it. Every month I was brewing on three weekends and bottling on the other weekend, but she put up with it because she believed in me.
“If you’re going to set up a business you need to have everybody behind you otherwise you’re going to struggle.
“Sometimes you mess up and make mistakes, but you’ve got to learn from it and not be down about it. Hopefully now we can start to build and really flourish.”
Efficiency analyst Nik is still a part-time contractor at John Lewis, but Scott, who worked in space management, took voluntary redundancy last October after 24 years with the company.
Scott, who is married to Silpa and has a five-month-old son Kishan, commutes to Stortford from Wandsworth. He is the salesman and Nik is more into the technical side of things, so they make a great partnership.
“I’ve always been a fan of Belgian beers and Belgian-style beers,” said Scott. “I’ve actually tasted a lot of Belgian-style beers that are made in the UK and never been super-impressed with them, if I’m honest, until I met Nik.
“When Nik asked me to try his beer for the first time, it was like I was in Brussels, drinking a proper beer in a proper glass with all the characteristics I’d expect and with all the flavour profile I’d want.
“We want to focus on our uniqueness and point of difference. There are so many breweries in the UK that do overly-hopped English ales or American pale ales, but I don’t think anybody else just specialises in Belgian-style beers.
“We also make a good team and hopefully this is the future for us.”
Their range of premium varieties include Tripel (9.9% abv), Saison (7% abv), Wheat (6.5% abv) and Dubbel (7.5% abv), while the Framboos, or raspberry beer, is a wheat beer with real fruit added during the fermentation process.
The beers were initially presented only in 750ml sharing/gifting bottles, but demand led them to add 330ml bottles to the range. The labels feature the brewery’s story and tasting notes, while eventually all of them will have Bishop’s Stortford proudly emblazoned on them.
“The feedback from Stortfordians and the people who have engaged with us on the market stalls has been brilliant,” said Scott.
“There are some who’ve just said, ‘I support local’. How wonderful is that? If they hear something is local they’ll gravitate towards it, buy it and support you.
“If I’m totally honest I never understood that as a principle, but now I’ve become part of a small business myself I will absolutely do that.
“I just get so much energy from people’s feedback when they drink the beer, love it and say ‘Wow, that’s different’. That gives me my buzz.”
Nik and Scott currently brew twice a week, with around 450 pints per brew day.
They expect to outgrow their premises eventually, with Nik having big plans for where The Belgian Brewer could ultimately go.
“My honest vision is to find an empty, dilapidated pub that’s on a big plot of land and, if I had the cash, buy it, build a brewery, have a restaurant and tap room, and really make it a fun destination for people to come to,” said Nik.
“Five or ten years down the line I want to have something like that and to provide an honest and quality product.”
* The brewery shop, at Unit 11, Links Business Centre, Raynham Road, Bishop’s Stortford, is open Fridays 11am-6pm and Saturdays 10am-5pm. Visit www.thebelgianbrewer.co.uk to find out more.