110 years of Contreras in a 190 year old brewery
In the 19th century, the Latte family’s agricultural company resided on the highest point in Gavere. Next to the farm the family also managed a windmill and a brewery. At the time it was not unusual to be a farmer-brewer. They were both labour intensive crafts, without any of the current forms of mechanisation. Furthermore, both crafts could be combined perfectly: the grain grown in summer was malted in winter and processed in the family’s brewery.
Brewery Latte was founded in 1818. The second half of the 19th century the company was led by Valère Latte, who was not only a farmer and a brewer, but also the town clerk of Gavere. In 1898 the family Latte sold the brewery to René Contreras.
René Contreras, collector of excise in Watervliet and descendant of a family with Spanish ancestors, already owned a brewery in Evergem. It is unclear what exactly happened to this particular brewery. Supposedly he either sold or rented the Brewery in Evergem, until it stopped production in 1920.
In 1920 René Contreras chose to sell his brewery in Gavere to his nephew Marcel Contreras, born in 1901 in Dikkelvenne. Given Marcel’s young age, the deed of sale was drawn up in the name of Paul Contreras, Marcel’s father. However, Paul would never actually be involved in the brewery’s activities.
On the contrary, it was Marcel who would transform the brewery into a modern 20th century company. He shaped the buildings as they currently still remain and installed a refrigeration system that allowed the production of top fermentation beers next to bottom fermentation beers. Even before the Second World War, this led to the introduction of Contra Pils and Raf Export (named after the nearby Royal Air Force base). The brewery also produced a table beer, but the beer that really made them famous throughout the region was Tonneke and its derivative Maarts Tonneke.
Actually, at its launch the beer was not called Tonneke, but Special. It was a typical amber top fermentation beer, in the style of ‘Spécial Belge’, a very popular type of beer at the time, which many brewers included in their offer. As did Marcel Contreras. What discerned this Special however, was that it was initially solely offered in wooden barrels, filled without carbonate saturation. Customers who came to collect the beer didn’t ask a barrel of Special but asked “another Tonneke”, which is Dutch for “small barrel”. This is how the name gradually changed from Special to Tonneke. Later on the beer would be bottled as well.
Since April 2008, Tonneke is a protected regional product.
The Maarts Tonneke, with ‘Maarts’ standing for ‘March’, was different from the regular Tonneke in that it was only brewed in March, during the budding of spring, when the “water flourishes”. Furthermore the beer had a secondary fermentation.
Mid 20th century, Marcel Contreras started brewing a cheery beer and a brown beer, but production soon stopped. The cherry beer was dropped because it became more and more difficult to find real ‘northern’ cherries, a type of cherries typical for the region. The brown beer was actually a young beer that was mixed with 5 years old beer. The lagering took so long that it became too big an investment for the company and it was no longer financially profitable.
The heraldic family shield portrays an eagle, a star and a lion. These symbols clearly show a Spanish influence, particularly from the region of Castile and Estremadura, and also refer to the Bohemians. The original family name used to be ‘de Contreras’, but the ‘de’ was left out when the Spanish nobility fell into disgrace during the Spanish Revolution.
Marcel Contreras was married to Marguerite De Bruyne and had two sons: Roland (who became a magistrate) and Willy. The oldest son Willy would continue to manage his father’s company. After obtaining his degree in 1957 he started working in the brewery beside his father. When Marcel passed away on February 28th, 1982, Willy became the sole manager of the brewery.
2004 marked the start of the Valeir range, with the launch of Valeir Blond, a 6.5% proof top fermentation beer with secondary fermentation in bottle. That same year the X-Mas Beer was also introduced. Originally brewed for a local association, this Christmas beer was eventually added to the permanent offer of the brewery. In 2006 Valeir Divers was introduced, an 8.5% proof triple beer which was much stronger than any beer the brewery had produced before. Shortly after, Valeir Donker saw the light. It had already successfully passed a try-out in 2005 under the name Carlos, in honour of the commemoration of Gavere’s former mayor Carlos Dierickx.
At the start of the 21st century Ann Contreras, the only daughter from Willy Contreras’ marriage with Madeleine D’Hauwers, and her fiancée Frederik De Vrieze gradually took over the daily management of the brewery. Their first achievement came in 2002 with the reintroduction of the Maarts Tonneke, which was hardly known outside the town borders at the time. A complete restyling, including a new label with the name Mars and subtitle ‘Contreras’ Especial’ to refer to the Spanish roots of the brewer family, paved the way for greater commercial success and brand awareness.
In 2007, the passage of the Tour of Flanders in Gavere provided the ideal occasion to brew a new 6.5% proof blonde beer called El Toro. It was eventually renamed Valeir Extra and was included in our permanent offer.