A craft brewery 100 years ahead of its time
Saturday 23 October 2021
This article is from
A Brief History of Beer
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Fiercely independent, family-owned and deeply Belgian, Haacht is one of our favourite traditional breweries. Starting out as a dairy company in the 19th century, it was something of an enfant terrible in its day, being among the first to bring Czech-style pilsner to the country in the 1920s. It has rebuffed every offer to sell-up to larger competitors (there have been “several”) and stuck to its guns when the rest of the pilsner market started adding corn syrup. So, cross-cultural innovation, resistance to Big Beer and a stubborn commitment to authenticity in the face of commercial pressure: in short, a craft brewery, 100 years ahead of its time.
It’s well documented that several of the early American craft pioneers had a deep love of Belgian brewing, and it’s a line I’m keen to try and trace through to the present day. So I ask Haacht’s Matthew Langley whether he sees any Belgian DNA in modern, US-inspired craft.
“Oh, definitely yes. I think there are the obvious ones like Alagash, which are deliberately Belgian in style; but much more widely you can see how Belgian ideas have permeated the whole scene, with those higher rate ABVs and stronger flavours – particularly those malty flavours with deep, rich chocolate notes that you would taste in a triple or a dubbel. They’re playing with those kind of things, those things the Americans would pick up and run with, and then doing all sorts of amazing stuff.”
For Matthew though – a Brit – it’s not just the techniques and styles that have carried over into modern craft, but also certain cultural elements, most notably the reverence for the art of the brewer.
“I think one of the key things with Belgium, which you don’t really find anywhere else, is that respect for the brewer and the beer never really went away,” he says. “When I started working on this and I compared the Belgium marketplace to the UK marketplace, what really stood out is that Belgium doesn’t have a craft beer category. That’s because all beers are viewed as having been made by a craftsman.
“So when you hear craft people saying they want a culture where we can drop the word ‘craft’ because it’s assumed, they’re basically describing Belgian beer culture!”
This reverence expresses itself in a number of small, practical ways, which Matthew argues could be adopted by the craft movement as it continues to evolve. For him, the UK drinking culture (and to a lesser extent the US) hasn’t yet properly accounted for the shift away from low-strength pints consumed relatively swiftly.
“With the kind of beers we’re drinking now, it shouldn’t be all about the pint any more. It’s like we in the UK have taken these strong, flavourful beers and are still drinking them like a 4% mild, because that’s our tradition. In Belgium, it’s about drinking a smaller amount, but appreciating it more, so you'll find a lot of beers come in 33cl servings, which for us would be a schooner or there about. If we can normalise drinking halves for example, it brings really interesting beers like tripels – which can be around 9% – back into the ring, because that you can sip and savour rather than trying to chew your way through the pint,” says Matthew.
An appreciation of glassware is another area of Belgian brewing history and tradition that Matthew feels we would all do well to incorporate into our own practices. The history of drinking vessels in the UK is long and rich, and we have some great examples of specific glassware, but that hasn’t necessarily translated into much thought being given at the bar. It’s pretty common here to order three pints of the same beer and have each arrive in a completely different style of glass.
“Again, it's a big cultural difference. When I started working for Haacht, one of the first things they did was send me a big box full of beer glasses, so I now have a glass for every beer. It's about delivering that perfect serve, and again I think it comes back to respect for the liquid. Belgian breweries put an insane amount of time and effort into making sure each glass for each beer helps concentrate the foam in the barrel, delivers the aroma perfectly, shows off the colour at its best. These are often completely bespoke designs, and I don't mean just an off the shelf, closest fit – actually bespoke.”
An appreciation of glassware is another area of Belgian brewing history
When it came to selecting a beer from Haacht though, we wanted to demonstrate that this isn’t just a brewery telling the rest of the world how things should be done. It’s Super8 range, from which the Blanche Wit is taken, was conceived as a way of taking iconic styles from the global craft movement and brewing them with a quintessential Belgian character.
Matthew explains: “With the wit, we’ve taken what would be a classic US-style wheat beer and added coriander, and orange, which gives it a real sort of citrusy kick and a bass note of spice. It’s there, but it’s not overpowering; just enough to assert that Belgian character.
“Super8 is such an exciting range, because the folk at the brewery love craft beer and find a lot of inspiration in it. So it’s acknowledging that it’s a two-way street, and celebrating the style of that beer, but also the craftsmanship of the Belgian brewer.
“That’s one of the great things about the exchange of ideas that you get in modern brewing. Your newest analogy I think is music, where you see influences go full circle to be re-interpreted again and again. It’s the same with beer; people can take an idea and make it their own way, build on it, and then bring it back for everybody else to get into it. That’s where the creative process happens, with people feeding on each other, and being inspired by each other.”
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