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Sampling the Gouden Carolus in Belgium

The Het Anker Brewery or Brouwerij Het Anker to give it its correct name is located in the beautiful Flemish city of Mechelen in Belgium.

The Het Anker Brewery tour was one of the highlights during our stay in Mechelen and an experience we can highly recommend, even if you’re not an ‘ale lover’ like me.

Although, having said that, I was pleasantly surprised with the two beers we tasted, the Gouden Carolus Triple and the Gouden Carolus Classic. I would certainly try them both again.

Brouwerij Het Anker is only a 10-minute stroll west of Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral and is situated where Mechelen’s old city walls were once positioned.

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Where is Mechelen?

How to get to Mechelen

- By Train
Start creating your own Mechelen adventure by train and discover the cultural delights of this picturesque city at a relaxed pace. Explore the sites amongst the charming city streets.
In under 2 hours and 45 minutes from the UK, you can hop on the Eurostar to Brussels, change onto a Belgium National Rail train to Mechelen, and your Flemish fun begins.

- By Car
If you’re venturing from the UK, jump on Le Shuttle and tour Belgium under your own steam.
Alternatively, it’s so easy to visit Flanders on a road trip. Rental Cars search multiple well-known car hire brands and find the best deals that suit you.

Sampling the Gouden Carolus in Belgium

In the footsteps of the Beguines

The Het Anker Brewery had a fascinating start in life, as it all began with the Beguines. The Beguines were a group of single women who lived within a self-sufficient community, practically a town within a town.

These ladies took no religious vows, lived modest lives, and supported the sick and disadvantaged within their surroundings. Mechelen’s original Beguinage was formed in 1471; however, it was destroyed in 1560. The ladies were rehoused within Mechelen’s city walls, which now forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The cobbled lanes of the Beguinage at the entrance of the Het Anker brewery in Mechelen, Belgium.
Where the Beguinage meets the brewery
The cobbled lanes of the Beguinage are close to the Het Anker brewery in Mechelen, Belgium.
Beguinage streets & Het Anker Brewery

The Beguines created a hospital to care for their sick. As the water in the city was unfiltered, they would boil the local water and add flavourings. This process evolved, and they began brewing their own beer.

The brewing production at the Beguinage grew and grew. Eventually, in 1872 the brewery was sold to the Van Breedam family. The brewery was renamed the Het Anker Brewery and has continued to be operated by the same family through the generations.

An old advertising sign for het anker beers featuring a sailor hoisting a beer barrel up using an anchor.
Historic advertising signs

The original Beguinage hospital, along with other 15th & 16th century buildings, continues to form part of Brouwerij Het Anker, which is proud to be one of the oldest breweries in Belgium.

Our only previous experience of a brewery tour was in Faversham, Kent, with Britain’s oldest brewer, Shepherd Neame. Shepherd Neame was formed in 1698; however, Het Anker Brewery has hoppy roots over 200 years prior.

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Visit Het Anker Brewery

Experience a tour and tasting

Our visit and tour of the Het Anker Brewery was fascinating from start to finish. For just €13 (2022), you are escorted through the floors of the ancient brewery, from the upper levels of the Beguinage hospital to the cellars beneath.

The Brouwerij Het Anker tour last around 1 hour 30 minutes to 2 hours and is offered in Dutch, English or French. Our brewery tour was incredibly informative and fun. Rudy, our guide, made us feel very welcome and effortlessly explained it to us in English and Dutch.

You can obtain your online tickets direct from Het Anker Brewery.

Welcome written in many different languages and the logo for the gouden carolus on a white wall at the entrance to the het anker brewery in mechelen
Welcome to Brouwerij Het Anker

Also included in your tour are two generous glasses of Gouden Carolus ale and a sample of Het Anker’s Gouden Carolus single malt whisky.

If this isn’t enough, you’re also given a gift at the end of your tour; you’ll find out what it is later.

The brewery is not accessible for wheelchairs or buggies/strollers.

Tourist Information

If you’re tempted to visit Mechelen, the local tourist office provides some highly useful information and handy pointers for around the city. They can be found at Vleeshouwersstraat 6 in Schepenhuis, the old Alderman’s House.

Guided tour of the Het Anker Brewery

The perfect ingredients

The relaxed Het Anker Brewery tour leads you on a charming and fascinating journey through the brewery’s life and processing practices. Our friendly and jovial guide gave us an insight into the family business, which has passed through the hands of five generations of Van Breedam and explains how they wish this legacy to continue.

Our tour began upstairs in the ‘Ingredients Room’ where we were educated about the four main elements used for brewing ale: grain, hops, yeast, and water.

Glass jars containing the raw ingredients used for crafting belgium beers at the het anker brewery in mechelen, belgium
Ingredients for brewing beer

In addition to these key ingredients, Het Anker likes to add a twist to some of its beers and often uses herbs and spices to create alternative tastes and flavours.

Het Anker produces many variations of their Gouden Carolus beers along with seasonal favourites we know and love. The Gouden Carolus is named after Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles spent many of his formative years in Mechelen. When he eventually settled in Spain later in life, he arranged for Mechelen’s beer to be shipped to him.

If you’re heading off on a Belgium adventure, then grab a copy of this DK Eyewitness book. I love planning road trips and these guides are so helpful.

I find them extremely informative, easy to follow and the pictures and maps tempt you into discovering more of the back roads.

Mashing, fermenting and ageing

From grain to glass

Our next stop was to the Brewing Hall where the magic happens. Here are the stars of the show the huge bulbous copper brew kettles.

It’s here that Rudy explained the complete brewing process from grain to glass, which takes around six to seven weeks.

The copper mash tuns at the Het Anker brewery in Mechelen
The Brewing Hall

The steps along the way start with the mash tun, where the malts are mixed with water and gradually heated to 72 degrees. The mash is then passed through the wort filter, which removes the grain fibre.

The next phase is where the copper kettles come into play; at this stage, the hops are added. Also, if Het Anker is creating one of its flavoured ales, it’s at this point that the herbs and spices are added.

Three copper tuns at the Het Anker brewery in Mechelen
Copper brew kettles

The wort is heated further to 100 degrees and then leaves the brewing hall for fermentation. The temperature is lowered by using a heat exchanger to 21 degrees and pumped through to fermentation tanks.

Fermentation takes around seven days, and then the juvenile beer is cooled to -1 degrees, and the ageing process is underway.

The brewing process represent pictorially in the brewing hall of the het anker brewery in mechelen, belgium
The Brewing process

The beer is then filtered, and for most of their ales, a small amount of yeast and sugar is added for refermentation within the bottle. It’s then off to the ‘warm rooms’ for around three weeks’ et voila’, then the Gouden Carolus ales are ready to drink.

I honestly thought the whole process would have taken longer; it’s amazing.

Brouwerij Het Anker

Through the generations

As mentioned, the Van Breedam family purchased the brewery in 1872 and nurtured Het Anker through five generations. It is now in the safe hands of Charles Leclef.

When Charles took over the brewery in 1990, he gradually replaced and modernised the Het Anker brewing equipment, enhancing the brewery’s process.

Our guide for the het anker brewery tour, Rudy, explains the history of the het anker brewery in front of a timeline of events.
Rudy, our tour guide

During the tour, Rudy explained to us the core traditions implemented through the centuries and how each Van Breedam generation left its mark. Throughout the visit, you genuinely felt that there was a strong family ethos that was embraced by its employees.

Through the years, Het Anker Brewery has concentrated its efforts on making an incredible selection of ales, leaving the production of lagers to others.

A retro-looking advertising poster for the het anker brewery featuring three women drinking different styles of het anker beer.
Retro Het Anker advertising
That’s not to say that they would hold back in expanding their alcoholic range in other areas.

Gouden Carolus Whisky

Enjoy a tipple of the single malt

Yes, there is now a Gouden Carolus whisky too.

The Van Breedam family not only operate the Het Anker Brewery in Mechelen, but they also own a 17th-century family farm in nearby Blaasveld.

Oak barrels of the gouden carolus whisky secured under lock and key at the het anker brewery in mechelen, belgium
Het Anker wooden casks

In 2010 Charles Leclef came up with the idea of creating a whisky distillery at the Molenberg in Blaasveld. As beer and whisky are manufactured from grain, the mash produced from the Gouden Carolus Tripel beer could be distilled to make whisky.

It’s a win, win all around.

The whisky is distilled in hand-hammered copper pot stills. Then to enrich the ageing process of the whisky, it was first placed in Bourbon casks and then transferred to ‘Anker’ oak casks. The rich flavours of the wooden barrels impart into the whisky resulting in a refined and well-balanced taste.

The counter in the gouden carolus whisky tasting room at the het anker brewery in mechelen, belgium
Sampling the Gouden Carolus Single Malt

The first Gouden Carolus Single Malt was produced in 2010, with the launch only three years later in 2013.

Good news, you also get to sample the Gouden Carolus Single Malt on this tour.

Time to taste the Gouden Carolus beers

Will it be light or dark?

The last stop on the tour was to the ‘officer’s mess’ where we got to learn more about the different variety of beers that Het Anker Brewery produces and sample two of their traditional favourites.

The range of beers that Het Anker has is fantastic; I felt there was something for everyone. From the pale blond ales and hoppy beers through to the russet ambers and onto the rich darks.

Inside the tasting room of the Het Anker brewery of Mechelen.

The Het Anker Brewery tasting bar

Brouwerij Het Anker produces their seasonal Christmas beer and a whisky-infused ale. One to look out for is the ‘Maneblusser’ the Moon Extinguisher, an easy drinkable city beer. Take a peek below to discover the tale of the Maneblusser.

The two mouth-watering beers we were given were the Gouden Carolus Tripel and the Gouden Carolus Classic.

The ‘Gouden Carolus Tripel’, brewed to ancient traditions using pale malt, is golden in colour and has a very clean taste. This award-winning tipple has an alcohol volume of 9% and is one to be savoured.

Two glasses of the golden yellow gouden carolus tripel from the het anker brewery in mechelen, belgium
The Gouden Carolus Tripel

Our second beer was the ‘Gouden Carolus Classic’, originating from the city of Mechelen. This rich, dark, ruby-red beer has incredibly smooth flavours, and I was pretty surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Gouden Carolus Classic has an alcohol volume of 8.5%. Like many Belgian beers, it is to be appreciated with every sip.

Apparently, centuries ago, every Belgian city had their own city beer, and the people of Mechelen drank “den Mechelschen Bruynen”. During the Late Middle Ages, Mechelen was the capital of the Low Countries and to honour their Emperor Charles V, the Grand Imperial beer was brewed. The golden coins of Emperor Charles were named ‘Gouden Carolus’.

To commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Charles the V in the year 2000, Het Anker brewed the Gouden Carolus Imperial Dark. It proved to be a very popular beer, so every year on the 24th of February, a limited edition Gouden Carolus Imperial Dark is produced.

Two glasses of the dark chocolate brown gouden carolus classic from the het Aanker brewery in mechelen, belgium
The Gouden Carolus Classic
As the tour drew to a close, we were each given a plastic gold coin of Charles the Bold. Rudy explained that if we were to pop into the Het Anker shop, we could exchange it for a Gouden Carolus glass. Although, he warned us that if we poured any other beer into the glass, the gold rim at the top would disappear.

Maneblussers, the Moon Extinguishers

I always love a little bit of folklore, and still today, the people of Mechelen proudly hold the nickname Maneblussers, the Moon Extinguishers.

The delightful tale shared amongst visitors is that on one night in January 1687, a slightly inebriated local stumbled out of an inn in Grote Markt.

As he glanced at St Rumbold's tower piercing into the hazy skies, he noticed the tower was ablaze. He raised the alarm, and the city came out in force to extinguish the fire with hand-to-hand buckets of water.

Before the chain of buckets reached the top of the tower, the moon slipped away, and the reddish glow disappeared along with it. The loyal citizens of Mechelen were trying to extinguish the moon.

Where to stay in Mechelen

Will it be a church or a brewery?

During our stay in Mechelen, we were hosted by Hotel Martin’s Patershof.

Hotel Martin’s Patershof is a beautifully restored church hotel located along the quiet street, Karmelietenstraat and was an incredibly peaceful day and night.

This beautiful hotel was a former 19th-century neo-Gothic convent and was converted into a Martin’s Hotel in 2009. The accommodation and recreational areas are tastefully blended with the historic church and modern-day amenities.

The Hotel Martin’s Patershof is only a five-minute stroll to the Fish Market and 10 minutes to the Grote Markt in Mechelen, so perfect for a weekend getaway.

We visited Ghent as part of a Flanders road trip, so the on-site car park was perfect and was chargeable at €30 per day.

Our extraordinary room in Hotel Martin’s Patershof in the upper reaches of the Apse of the former church with authentic stained glass windows.
Our room in Hotel Martin’s Patershof

Another accommodation option is to stay at Hotel Brouwerij Het Anker, Belgium’s first brewery hotel.

No sooner will you have stepped out of your bedroom door, and you’ll be the first in line for your Het Anker Brewery tour.

The brewery’s location is quite unique as it is in the heart of the ancient Beguinage. The brewery hotel is within easy strolling distance of Mechelen’s main sights. It is only 10 minute stroll to the Grote Markt.

The Het Anker Brewery offers car parking at €15 a day, reservation is required.

* This post may contain links to affiliated sites where we earn a small commission at no additional charge to you.

Disclaimer

This article was produced in partnership with Visit Mechelen and Visit Flanders in exchange for an honest review and an account of our personal experiences.

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