The tortoise or the hare?
Eoghan Walsh looks back at a decade of change in Belgian beer
Saturday 13 March 2021
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2011 seems like a different world. A decade ago, regularly topping the list of Best Brewer or “Best Beer in the World” put together by the beer review website Ratebeer, was one brewery whose ecclesiastical name didn’t quite fit with its rivals for the top spot: the St. Sixtus Abbey of Westvleteren, and its Westvleteren 12. In 2011 it finished second on the Best Beer in the World list. The year before and the year after, Westvleteren 12 came first, and the monastic brewery regularly ranked in the top 15-ranked breweries in the world. Such was the global clamour for Belgian Trappist Ales, the monks in charge of the brewery in West Flanders carefully rationed beer to the masses of beer pilgrims that descended on their quiet corner of Belgium.
Tempus fugit, as the monks might say, and never mind topping the list, Westvleteren 12 is nowhere to be seen in the best beer lists, and at #58 the brewery is not even the highest-ranked Belgian brewery (that honour goes to nearby neighbours, De Struise Brouwers at #35). Beer geeks have moved on from dark strong Belgian Ales to heavily hopped IPAs, viscously-thick barrel-aged stouts, and complex spontaneous and mixed-fermentation beers. Belgian beer imports to the USA and the UK have slowed as the variety and quality of their domestic beer scenes have experienced exponential growth. These days, the talk among excitable drinkers is of Kveik and DDH IPAs.
But even as the tide of beer hype recedes, Belgian beer has continued to do what it has always done: synthesising modernity and tradition, the foreign and the local, evolving at its own speed to something new but stubbornly Belgian.
There’s a saying attributed (apocryphally) to German poet Heinrich Heine: “When the world ends I’ll go to Holland, because everything happens there 20 years later.” He could have been describing their Belgian neighbour. “The most conservative beer consumer in Europe is Belgian,” says Sofie Vanrafelghem, writer and beer sommelier, adding that trends just take longer to get purchase in the country than elsewhere. Being constantly reminded you have the best beer culture in the world doesn’t help. “I think they [brewers] have been very inward looking, beating their chests like we’re the best in the world,” says Kristof Tack, founder of beer importer Gobsmack Craft Beer Import. “I think...they have been lacking the effort to stay the best.”
The most conservative beer consumer in Europe is Belgian
Take the steady creep of IPAs as the standard reference beer for much of what you might call the global craft beer movement. As people like Joe Stange, co-author of the Good Beer Guide Belgium, have written, Belgian breweries have not traditionally been hop-forward, and those who have integrated hops into their beers have done so in a nuanced way, emphasising balance over exuberance. “Most Belgians have never tasted an IPA,” Vanrafelghem says. “A lot of people have said to me, ‘You can’t expect the Belgian to love an IPA’. And I don’t believe that. I think it’s really bullshit. I think that Belgians will learn to love hops, but it’ll just take them far longer than any other country.” With the emergence of hoppy mainstream beers like Duvel Tripel Hop, Brussels Beer Project’s Delta, and The Musketeers’ Troubadour series of beers, the typical Belgian beer drinker may like IPAs more than they realise. “They drink IPAs already. But they don’t know it,” says Jo Panneels, co-founder of Lambic brewery Lambiek Fabriek and beer buyer for national supermarket chain Colruyt. “Want to sell an IPA in Belgium? [Then just] don’t call it an IPA!”
Beyond the mainstream, IPAs of all stripes have already captured the imagination of Belgium’s latest generation of brewers, who often look not to Belgian breweries but to London or the East Coast of the USA for inspiration. These new breweries that have emerged in the past five years are often located in urban centres, operating taproom models open to drinkers in a way that older breweries rarely have been. Brussels has been ground zero for this new trend, starting with the opening of Brussels Beer Project’s brewery and taproom in 2015 and quickly followed by a wave of taprooms and the brewpubs capped by Brasserie de la Senne opening the city’s largest brewery and taproom in early 2020.
Where Brussels has led, others have followed; La Manufacture Urbaine in Charleroi, Houppe in Namur and Curtius in Liege, Antwerpse Brouw Compagnie in Antwerp, and Dok Brewing Company in Ghent. The brewers behind them are as comfortable brewing a New England IPA as they are a traditional Belgian Blonde, and anything in-between. Daniëlla Provost, co-founder of Dok, which opened in 2019 in a post-industrial location in Ghent’s docklands has seen first-hand the benefits of the brewpub model. “While this has been very mainstream in the US for decades, it’s still kind of new here,” she says. “I think it’s going to gain in popularity because...you have this sense of getting to know the people that like to drink your beer….And now maybe more than ever, there’s the possibility to sell your beer directly [to consumers].”
If larger breweries continue to be less inventive or adventurous than their more nimble, youthful and colourful inner-city competitors, there is one growing chunk of the market where they have stolen a march on their smaller rivals: the low- and non-alcoholic market. Low and NA beers still make up a marginal portion of the overall beer market, but a combination of a serious marketing push and changing consumer demand has resulted in a glut of NA beers in recent years. “Before, say, five years ago, I would never have brought a non-alcoholic beer to a tasting event,” Vanrafelghem says.
Now, as societal attitudes to healthy living and drink driving change, even if she’s not running a workshop on NA beers, Vanrafelghem brings some along, because a participant is likely to ask for it. Breweries have responded to demand with new beers, including 0% versions of Leffe and Jupiler, Sport Zot, a NA version of the Halve Maan brewery’s Brugse Zot, and beers like De Brabandere’s Kwaremont 0.3% explicitly targeted at sportspeople. These beers are the extreme end of a broader Belgian movement in recent years towards greater moderation. “It’s a trend that has been going on for a while,” says Dok’s Provost, and one which she fully endorses. “If I can choose between a very flavourful beer of 8.5%, or one of 6%, then I’ll go for the 6%. For the simple reason that I can enjoy more of them.” For Luc De Raedemaeker it’s a development linked to brewers who are growing out of obsessively experimenting with barrel-ageing and adjunct Stouts towards something more sessionable. “I see more breweries now brewing a nice session ale or a very balanced blonde,” he says. “Very, very slowly I think we will move to a world where more brewers try to make better beer and fewer crazy experiments.’’ Brussels Beer Project’s a good representation of this, their highest-ABV core range beer a 7% Dubbel.
De Raedemaeker may not exactly be in thrall to the experimental beers coming out of new breweries, but it’s on these wilder margins where the most exciting developments are taking place. If the 2000s were all about Trappists, then Lambic owned the 2010s. From a situation where Lambic - spontaneously fermented wheat beers indigenous to Brussels and the Zenne river valley - almost disappeared in the 1980s, the tradition is experiencing a new golden age. In 2011 Pierre Tilquin opened his eponymous blendery and lambic was in a modestly healthy position. By 2021, not only have Tilquin and the established Lambic breweries continued to thrive on exponential international demand and a revival of local interest, they’ve been joined by a wave of new producers. As the first new Lambic brewery to open in decades, Jo Panneels was told he was mad to open Lambiek Fabriek in 2017. Too costly, he was told, and people aren’t interested in these beers. But in Lambiek Fabriek’s wake has come two or three new brewery projects, and Panneels thinks the tradition’s future is secure for some time to come.
Wild and mixed fermentation brewing has also benefited from Lambic’s rebirth. “It’s really early, but I think the wild beers are going to come back, because they are definitely close to the [older] Belgian traditions,” says Kristof Tack. The brewery to make the biggest splash in this niche is Antidoot Wilde Fermenten, making seasonal spontaneous and mixed fermentation beers, wines, and ciders in the Flemish village of Kortenaken. “When Tom and Wim [Jacobs, brothers and founders of Antidoot] announced the project, I thought it was outrageous, like, ‘How can that work?’” Tack says. “You need some big balls!” Since opening in 2018, the clamour for their beers has been so high the Jacobs brothers had to halt on-site sales that were causing traffic jams and huge queues at their brewery-cum-farm.
That’s a lot of change for a conservative beer culture in a relatively short timeframe. Some traditions remain constant, though. Duvel and other Strong Blonde Ales continue to eat into the market share of Abbey and Trappist beers, even as Pils remains the country’s most-drunk beer. Dark beers remain a hard sell. Breweries continue to focus export growth efforts on France and the Far East. Legacy breweries remain concerned with the quality of new beer being made, and how this may impact brand Belgium. And Belgian beer remains a male-dominated industry.
“I would like to see the beer community be maybe a bit more of a reflection of society,” Provost says. “It’s not only the question of more women in beer….But beer [in Belgium] is generally a white, middle class story.” Sofie Vanrafelghem has seen some progress, with more female brewers, sommeliers and experts. But she’s worried about backsliding attitudes. “We have still a lot of work to do. For the wider public, the prejudices are still there,” she says. “It’s getting difficult to know how to get rid of them because I’ve done the events, I’ve done the book.
We have still a lot of work to do. For the wider public, the prejudices are still there
I’ve done so much….Now we’re reverting into [old habits]. So I think there’s still a lot of work to do.” Provost and Vanrafelghem agree gender discrimination and minority representation is not something that the beer world can solve alone, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try.
All this talk of evolution, of thesis and synthesis, doesn’t even yet take into account the impact the Covid-19 crisis will have, as bars have been on virtual lockdown for almost a year. As Belgium gradually re-opens, the consequences of the pandemic are likely to accelerate ongoing changes, clearing away some of the dead wood in the industry, and continuing the squeeze felt by the midsize family brewers caught between multinational giants and new urban upstarts. But as yet, it’s too early to make firm predictions.
Ratebeer may not hold the beer drinker’s imagination as it once did. But evidence for the evolution experienced by Belgian beer since 2011 was evident in the website’s selection of three Belgian breweries in its top 10 “Best New Breweries” in January 2020: La Source in Brussels, Dok in Ghent, and Atrium in the Wallonian town of Marche-en-Famenne. Each of these three are brewpubs. They take a freewheeling approach to brewing, making brett-fermented Quadrupels, Brazilian barrel-aged Imperial Stouts, and even hard seltzer; comfortable brewing session-strength IPAs alongside mixed fermentation Saisons.
And together they’re a weathervane for the exciting directions Belgian brewing is about to take in the coming 10 years. Santé!
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