Drijdraad: a lost strong brown beer (and sometimes weak coffee)

Label: jacquestrifin.be. Image: The yarn twister, Caspar Luyken, Rijksmuseum.September 1901. In the East-Flanders town of Sint-Niklaas demolition workers were busy tearing down the old post office. Suddenly, one of them saw something glittering beneath a wooden floor. A two franc coin. A stroke of luck that doesn’t happen every day! It was quickly decided to go and spend the coin in the adjacent pub. As you do when it’s Friday. ‘After the first round there was a second, and they liked the drijdraad so very much that soon they were all slightly “in the wind”.’ And then, they started arguing about the level of their wages…[1]

The merry drinkers then went back to their demolition site to persuade their co-workers to go on strike as well, causing heavy arguments and an intervention by the police, but we stop here to ask ourselves: what was that ‘drijdraad’? It was a beer of course, as you would have guessed. ‘Drij’ is Flemish dialect for ‘three’, and ‘draad’ means ‘thread’. Throughout the 19th century it was found in several places in Flanders, but most prominently in Sint-Niklaas. For instance, the ‘Drijdraad of Sint-Niklaas’ is mentioned in a song simply called ‘The beers’ by Napoleon Destanberg, a popular singer from Gent, along with beers like uitzet from Gent and brown beer from Oudenaarde.[2]

Map with places mentioned in this article. The Land of Waas is indicated in yellow.However drijdraad was also brewed beyond the Land of Waas, as the region around Sint-Niklaas is called. A survey of Flemish dialect words from 1865-1870 mentions drijdraad as ‘the best variety of Mechelen brown beer. In the Land of Waas it means: strong beer, also bland coffee’.[3] When in 1894 at the Antwerp World Fair the mock 16th-century town ‘Old Antwerp’ was inaugurated, the guests devoured 4500 bread rolls, four large hams, four kilograms of meat, six cheeses, but also six barrels of beer and 260 bottles of ‘drijdraad from Gent’.[4] One of the exhibitors at that World Fair was the Van Velsen brewery from Bornem, which had a blond, extra stout, porter, barley wine but also a ‘drydraad’ on display.[5] Two years later, at the ‘Exposition internationale de la table’ in Gent it was the Vandionant brewery from Sint-Niklaas that won a silver medal for its drijdraad.[6]

Driedraad on sale at the Hontenisser Welvaren brewery in Zeeuws-Flanders, NRC 2-7-1850.It was even made across the Dutch border: in 1850 the Hontenisser Welvaren brewery in Hontenisse in Zeeuws-Flanders (30 kilometres from Sint-Niklaas as the crow flies) advertised its ‘Driedraad’ of 12 guilders per 150 litre barrel.[7] From 1886 onwards we encounter it at the Café Belge in The Hague, where it was described successively as ‘Munich’, ‘Mechelen brown’, ‘excellent, excellent’ and ‘extra fine table beer’.[8]

Okay, it was a lost Belgian beer, but what did it taste like, and where did the unusual name come from? Once you start looking, you’ll quickly find that drijdraad (or in standard Dutch, ‘driedraad’) was a name for a certain type of yarn or rope, spun from three threads. But oddly, the name ‘driedraad’ also recalls a beverage found in England a century earlier, around the time that porter first occurred. In the early 18th century, London pubs sold a mix of beers known as ‘three-threads’. This mixing was actually a tax dodge, as beer historian Martyn Cornell discovered: they would mix a relatively low-taxed strong beer with an equally low-taxed weak beer, to arrive cheaply and illegally at the strength of an average pint. A ‘thread’ supposedly was another name for a ‘stream of liquid’, as ‘three-threads’ was made out of several jets of beer from different barrels.[9] However, by 1760 the English three-threads had fallen into disuse, and there’s nothing to suggest a relation between it and the drijdraad from the Land of Waas.[10]

Grote Markt square in Sint-Niklaas, location of the yarn will that gave its name to drijdraad. Source: image bank Sint-Niklaas.A more plausible explanation for the origin and name of Flemish drijdraad can be found in De Klok van het Land van Waes in 1891. According to this newspaper, in the late 18th century there was a yarn mill on the Grote Markt square in Sint-Niklaas, owned by Pieter-Frans van Naemen (1753-1824). Down the road there was an inn called Sint-Antonius, where the mill workers would often grab a pint. The workers thought the beer there was rather weak, so their foreman told the innkeeper: ‘The beer as it is, is good; it is equal to simple double yarn from our mill; but we would prefer a stronger beer, to drink when we’re spinning three-thread yarn, which is a well-paid job. We will of course pay you well for such a beer, because we can afford it!’ The innkeeper asked his brewer for such a stronger beer, and there you have it: drijdraad was born.[11]

So what was the beer like? An interesting source is the treatise on beer published in 1829 by Leuven-based physician Jean-Baptiste Vrancken. He writes: ‘In Sint-Niklaas they wanted to imitate lambic, and the result was a beer that was browner, very pleasant, with an excellent aroma that only reaches its highest level of perfection after keeping in barrels for two years. This composition has since then been continued in the region, where it is highly regarded and has obtained the name Dry-draad, as a symbol of its strength’[12]

However, a few pages further on, he has this to say about beer from Mechelen: ‘The first [mash of] beer is kept apart, to form the strong beer that is generally known under the name dry-draed‘. However, if the strong beer was mixed with the second mash, it was simply known as ‘Mechelen brown’.[13]

Aha. In any case, it was strong, brown beer. During the 19th century, the drijdraad’s strength must have diminished somewhat, because the story goes that a certain Meuris, tax collector in Sint-Niklaas, asked a brewer to make a beer that was even stronger. This beer was sold under the name of Meuris of Moris, and actually does feature in old adverts along with drijdraad. For instance, at the public auction of the brewery of the late Nathalis Van Raemdonck-De Schepper in Sint-Niklaas in 1888, ‘a good quantity of old beers drijdraad and moris’ was offered on sale.[14] As a side note, in 1913 a driedraad from Gent was found to contain 4.8% ABV.[15]

Advert by the Van Velsen brewery in Bornem, that produced a 'Flemish Porter' but also drijdraad. Handelsblad-28-3-1890.A noteworthy drijdraad producer was the aforementioned Van Velsen brewery in Bornem, which produced not only faro, garsten (‘barley’), Anglo, ‘Flemish porter’ and table beer, but also a drijdraad. They marketed it as ‘Vieux-temps’ (not to be confused with the amber beer introduced in the 1930s by the Grade brewery in Mont-Saint-Guibert in Wallonia) and, oddly, under the English name ‘Threethread’ (!).[16]

The First World War killed off drijdraad for good. The war shook the Belgian brewing industry down to its foundations, with all its destruction, scarcity of raw materials and especially the requisitioning of brewery kettles for their copper. The subsequent modernisation spelled the end for many old beer types. In 1923 the Leeuw brewery in Temse announced they would be selling pre-war ‘ordinary beer, double beer, drijdraad etc.’[17] Two years later Adolf Verspecht from Hamme advertised his ‘drijdraad, triple, stout, table beers and liqueurs’ and that was the last time it was ever seen.[18]

Finally: to get an impression of how drijdraad was made, we could look at the strongest variety of Mechelen brown beer as mentioned by Vrancken in 1829.[19] According to Vrancken, a typical brew consisted of 37 barrels, of which 21 barrels of heavy beer and 16 barrels of small beer. For this, they used 1000 kilograms of torrified malt, 500 kilograms of wheat and 300 kilograms of oats. The wort from the first two mashes was boiled for one hour in a so-called ‘slime kettle’ and then poured over the grain once more. In the end, the mashes were boiled together with 30 kilograms of fresh hops, for no less than 13 to 14 hours. After cooling one litre and a half of fresh yeast was added. In the meantime, more water was poured over the grain to make the small beer. The Mechelen brown beer obtained by combining everything together would have contained about 4.9% ABV with a bitterness of 34 IBU. How much stronger the actual drijdraad was, is impossible to say.

In any case, the Mechelen beer could be kept for two years maximum, and often it was already broached after four or five weeks. It was customary to mix young and old beer to obtain a stable flavour profile. Recently, someone from the Land of Waas already e-mailed me about drijdraad, with the intention of brewing it again. So who knows, you may be able to taste this beer once more, in the foreseeable future.

[1] Het laatste nieuws 30-9-1901.

[2] Snoeck’s liedjesboek, Gent no year mentioned, p. 83-85. This is a ca. 1880 compilation of songs published in the Snoeck’s almanach, a yearly publication that was a forerunner to the yearly glossy ‘Snoecks’ that is still produced today.

[3] L.W. Schuermans, Algemeen Vlaamsch idioticon, Leuven 1865-1870, p. 106.

[4] Gazet van Antwerpen 22-4-1894.

[5] Exposition Universelle d’Anvers 1894. Catalogue officiel général. Préliminaires, section Belge, sections spéciales, Brussels 1894, p. 182.

[6] La Flandre libérale 13-5-1896.

[7] NRC 2-7-1850.

[8] Haagsche courant 5-7-1886, 22-11-1886, 5-9-1887, 24-6-1889.

[9] http://zythophile.co.uk/2015/06/05/the-three-threads-mystery-and-the-birth-of-porter-the-answer-is/

[10] On a side note, the Sluis-born poet François van Bergen wrote a poem as early as 1692 which mentions various drinks, such as beer, wine, brandy, gin and ‘driedraad’. It was published in 1716: cf. François van Bergen, Gemengelde Parnas-loof bestaande in verscheidene soort van gedichten, zo ernstige als spot-dichten, Amsterdam 1716, p. 220. In 1733 Jan de Regt speaks of ‘a glass full of driedraad’, cf. Jan de Regt, Slegten-Tyd, mengel-dichten, gezangen en nacht-wachts, Amsterdam 1733, p. 9. In both cases it is unclear whether the driedraad mentioned is supposed to be beer or another type of drink.

[11] De klok van het Land van Waes 25-1-1891; Antwerpse BierCourant nr. 37 (March 2015), p. 16-18.

[12] Jean Baptiste Vrancken, ‘Antwoord op vraag 81’, in: Nieuwe verhandelingen van het Bataafsch Genootschap der Proefondervindelijke Wijsbegeerte te Rotterdam, Rotterdam 1829, p. 182.

[13] Vrancken, ‘Antwoord’, p. 185.

[14] De klok van het Land van Waes 12-2-1888, 25-1-1891.

[15] A.J.J. Vandevelde, ‘Leidraad voor lessen over de voeding van den mensch, voor hooger huishoudkundig onderwijs’, in: Verslagen en mededelingen van de Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie voor Taal- en Letterkunde, 1921, p. 361-445, hierin p. 425.

[16] Het Handelsblad 18-6-1889, 28-3-1890; Le soir 18-2-1892; L’indépendance Belge 14-5-1905; Het weekblad van IJperen 10-11-1906; http://jacquestrifin.be/etiqanciennes/etiqanciennes-anvers/plancetiquettes-anvers/bornem-vanvelsen.php.

[17] De Schelde 31-3-1923.

[18] De Werker 29-3-1925.

[19] Vrancken, ‘Antwoord’, p. 183-189; Georges Lacambre, Traité complet de la fabrication de bières et de la distillation des grains, pommes de terre, vins, betteraves, mélasses, etc., Brussels 1851, p. 370-372. Lacambre’s version provides some more clarity on the measures used. He mentions barrels of 225 litres, while his version makes clear Vrancken used the term ‘livre’ (pound) for a kilogram. Lacambre’s version is hoppier, at about 46 IBU.


3 responses to “Drijdraad: a lost strong brown beer (and sometimes weak coffee)”

  1. Terrific stuff as ever, Roel, really interesting. I give it about five minutes before someone (and I’m pretty sure who it will be) tries to claim drijdraad is connected to three-threads, though …

    One beer I was also fascinated to see in that advertisement forom Bornhemsch Bier was Vlaamche Porter – what was the difference between Flemish porter and Enflish porter? And what was “Anglo”?

  2. Roel Mulder says:

    Hi Martyn, thanks for your comments. I’d say another important reason why three-threads and drijdraad are not connected, is the fact that three-threads was a) a mix made at the pub and b) illegal. Not the sort of thing that would ever be exported to Belgium or anywhere else.

    As for Vlaamsche Porter, it probably is exactly that – a Flemish imitation of British porter. Porters were rare in Belgium, but in the late 19th century there were quite a lot of Belgian breweries that brewed stout, not in the least because imported stout from Britain was hugely popular there. I suspect Anglo was a pale ale or something that was meant to resemble it. In the 20th century, a lot of Belgian breweries produced a pale ale, the most popular ones were Op-Ale, Ginder-Ale and Horse Ale.

  3. Aaron Gore says:

    Legitimately as I was reading I said to myself “Oh, Martyn is definitely going to chime in about how some jackass somewhere in the world is going to try to draw a line between this and English Three Thread”

    I wasn’t disappointed. Fantastic post as always, Roel!

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