Two loves, one heartland
Eoghan Walsh on bikes and Belgian beer
Thursday 03 September 2020
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Ιt was a little after lunchtime when we arrived at Ghent’s Sint Pietersplein. Already the team buses in their gaudy, glossy team liveries were parked up on one side of the square. The race wasn’t likely to arrive for another couple of hours, but already clumps of people had spread themselves out along the metal barriers lining the final straight. A brisk wind whipped through the open square, heads wrapped in thick woolen scarves and hidden inside puffy coats. This is my first bike race, and the first of this year’s spring cycling season in Belgium. In the naive excitement of neophytes we’ve arrived much too soon. Our extremities are draining of blood, and we scout the square for refuge. We shuffle across the square past the finish line, where in a couple of hours we witness Italian rider Luca Paolini win the 2013 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. But before all that we warm ourselves next to an open hearth with dark chalices of Chimay.
“A juddering thrum”
“If the scent of Belgium is that of a good ale, then the defining sound of the nation is the swish of bicycle tires on wet roads, the whistling of wind through spokes, the juddering thrum of steel frames on cobblestones,” English author Harry Pearson wrote of the twin obsessions of his adopted country in his book on the subject The Beast, the Emperor and the Milkman. It is in Flanders where the twin obsessions of beer and cycling have been elevated to totems of national (or should that be regional) identity. And more often than not, just as with my visit to a chilly late-winter Ghent, they come together. While beer is a year-round passion in these parts, it is impossible to exaggerate the degree to which cycling saturates Flanders from the beginning of the classics season with the Omloop in late-February, through to the one-two punch of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix races on consecutive Sundays in April.
While beer has ascended to national treasure status in the past two decades, cycling has a reasonable claim on being the older of the two obsessions. A Belgian rider first won the Tour de France in 1912, and with his winnings Odile Defraeye returned to his home city of Roeselare in Flanders and built himself a café. With a velodrome out the back. While the three-week Tour de France features frequently in the palmarès of the country’s cycling greats, it is the so-called Classics that dominate the sport in Belgium. And the cobbled hills these races traverse – steep, unforgiving climbs on roads barely suitable for car traffic let alone modern-day carbon fibre road bikes – are as famous as the riders who conquer them: the Muur, the Paterberg, the Koppenberg and the Oude Kwaremont.
Eddie Merckx versus Watneys Red Barrel
Many of the city’s through which the route of the Tour of Flanders passes on the way to these hills are important brewing towns home to some of the region’s most recognisable beers - Roeselare and Rodenbach, Oudenaarde and Liefmans, Antwerp and De Koninck. Just as brewers constantly refine their recipes to respond to changing consumer tastes, so too the organisers of Belgium’s most important cycling race periodically swap out a hill climb or the location of a finish line to keep their races fresh. Even the characteristics of the mythical Flandrien - the riders who embody the cherished Flemish characteristics of dour stubbornness, willing to tough out uncompromising Belgian weather, successfully conquering these climbs on the way to rubbing their opponents into the dirt - could be the description of any Belgian Lambic brewer in the last 30 years. What’s more, Flandriens don’t have to come from Flanders to earn the respect of the locals. For every Fabian Cancellara, the Swiss rider who won the Tour of Flanders three times, there is a Michael Jackson (the British beer writer who proselytised Belgium’s beer tradition), or Breandán Kearney, the Irish founder of Belgian Smaak and the Siphon brewery outside of Bruges.
Sometimes the relationship between beer and cycling in Flanders is more overt. Like brewing, cycling is a profitable but not a lucrative business, and many riders on retiring from careers as so-called domestiques, churning away at the pedals in the service of their more illustrious teammates, set up cafés that then serve as unofficial shrines or pilgrimages for what fans they might have accrued. Or one of their fans sets up a café in their honour. And in his heyday Eddie Merckx, the greatest of all Belgium’s cycling greats, would sprint against rivals wearing jerseys with the red barrel of British brewery Watneys. Slow to get involved in contemporary cycling, Belgium’s regional family brewers have in recent years turbocharged their engagement with the sport and its fanatical adherents. Or at least, one family brewery has.
The Oude Kwaremont, an uphill road in the East Flemish town of Kluisbergen, has been a permanent fixture in the Tour of Flanders since 1974. Riders drag themselves up and over its shallow cobbled climb three times, each time passing through the small village of Kwaremont. Where you could have ordered a bottle of Oude Kwaremont in the local café, a beer licensed to the De Brabandere brewery (known for their Petrus brand). When Albert de Brabandere took over the running of the family business in 2013, it was not a beer he was particularly interested in. De Brabandere, based in Harelbeke, were sponsors of the local professional football team. But that sponsorship wasn’t doing anything for them - they couldn’t get their beers in the stadium, and football fans weren’t interested in drinking vast quantities of the kind of stronger (in alcohol and flavour) Belgian ales that De Brabandere wanted to sell.
As it happened, De Brabandere’s hometown of Harelbeke was on the route of many of the big Spring bike races. Albert saw an opportunity, and he got on his bike to investigate. “I bought myself a bike, and started to integrate with my potential target audience,” Albert says. What he found were two distinct groups. The first approached the sport as ‘amateur professionals’ and ate and drank accordingly. But another, more interesting group, enjoyed nothing so much as a bike ride on a Sunday. “And an excuse to go for drink,” Albert says. “They’re going to do some sports…and install themselves on a terrace and have some beers. When you look at that table there wasn’t a single lager or pilsner to be seen. What we did see on those tables was high fermenting speciality beers, trappists, Duvels, blonde beers.”
A secret ingredient – crushed cobblestones
And it just so happened that Albert had a beer on his books that not only fit in alongside those beers, it also had the perfect name. Or, almost a perfect name. “The marketing was rubbish and the beer was great,” Albert says of Oude Kwaremont the beer. And yet, fusty and unfashionable as the beer and its branding was, sales were ticking up precisely because of the central role that the Oude Kwaremont climb now had in the Tour of Flanders. Albert and his colleagues took a hard look at their Oude Kwaremont. The ‘oude’ was dropped and out went the old ice tea glass the beer used to be served in, replaced with a specially-designed glass in the upturned shape of a cobblestone (with a little glass bicycle climbing up the stem). Oude Kwaremont, described by Albert as “a not too great blonde beer” was replaced with Kwaremont; a full-bodied, slightly sweet beer with an ABV of 6.6%. The brewery added a little extra - what they call their secret ingredient of a dash of “crushed cobblestones” but which Albert explained more mundanely is an infusion of various spices traditionally used in Belgian brewing.
Two years on from its launch in 2014, Kwaremont was the headline drinks sponsor for 80% of Belgian races, and its popularity in the intervening years has increased accordingly. On podiums across the spring classics season, riders like Slovakia’s Peter Sagan and local hero Greg Van Avermaet have been photographed quaffing Kwaremont from enormous glassware filled from towering magnum bottles after race wins. For now, this visibility has been enough for Albert and De Brabandere, and they’re as yet uninterested in going beyond sponsoring races and putting Kwaremont on a team jersey as Watneys did 50 years ago. But other Belgian breweries have been less reticent in aligning with a particular team.
Beer and cycling – the perfect partner
When Maes - Heineken’s Belgian subsidiary - were looking for an opportunity to market their new 0.0% lager, cycling was an obvious choice. And for a brewery the size of Maes, there was only one team they could really support - Belgium’s de facto national team Deceuninck Quickstep (cycling teams are professional outfits, but the nationalities of their management and rider rosters often determine their national allegiance and fanbase). “The fact that there are a lot of Belgian riders [on the team], such as Remco Evenepoel, Zdenek Stybar, Yves Lampaert, Iljo Keisse, Tim Declercq, Dries Devenyns, Pieter Serry, Bert Steels also ensures that our Belgian beer is always put in the spotlight in a relevant and credible way,” says Maes’ Marketing Director Jan Bosselaers. And while Albert De Brabandere chose to target the casual riders who enjoyed a fortifying post-ride drink, Maes for obvious reasons were looking at the other cohort of weekend riders to align with the brand values of their non-alcoholic lager. “Awareness for the responsible use of alcohol and for a healthy lifestyle is growing,” says Bosselaers. “When we launched Maes 0.0%, we were looking for the best possible way to market our product. [And] as cycling is the second most popular sport in Belgium, we found the perfect partner.”
They may not have the health-conscious cyclist market all to themselves for very long, however. De Brabandere were in the middle of the rollout of a new version of Kwaremont - Kwarement NA (non-alcoholic) - when the Belgian cycling season along with every other facet of society was abruptly halted by the Covid-19 induced lockdown in spring 2020. Pitching this new entry into the Kwaremont brand is “bidon-proof” because of its absence of alcohol. Albert is targeting drinkers “who are more focused on cycling itself,” he says, “And secondly, it’s also isotonic!” With the new beer heading out the brewery gates, albeit under different circumstances than he might have first imagined, and Flanders’ bike season planning on swapping spring rain for its autumn equivalent, Albert has been getting back on his bike and rediscovering the cobbled climbs around Harelbeke. Making sure to hit the slopes of one draggy, bumpy climb in particular. “Over the past two years I haven’t been the best cyclist. [But] since Corona (sic), I’ve definitely taken up the cycling again,” he says, looking ahead to escaping his office in the brewery De Brabandere. “This afternoon I’ll do the Kwaremont route. Around 110km.” Which, he might have added, was merely the perfect warm-up for a beer.
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