Beer is to Belgium as Cheese is to Switzerland as is Guns to the US as is ceviche to Peru: you can’t separate the two. At home we have a book called “1000 Belgian Beers” and browsing through it you’ll notice that there’s a plethora of breweries you’ve never even heard of. Thus when we got an invitation from Flanders Investment & Trade to drink… uhm, I mean discover, beers from the area, we obviously had to go. The event catered to people in the gastronomical and retail industry, and we were there as a multiplier, apparently, to spread the good word about Belgian beers. All with the intention of these beers hopefully being available in Switzerland soon.
This manifested itself by the host welcoming us, taking us by our hand and introducing us to some of the brewery representatives. He then left, only to return when we stood with the same people for too long. He collected us again and shoved us to the next stand. That sounds worse than it was, because after all, there was beer involved.
It feels like everything has been said about Belgium beers, so what can we add to the discourse? Actually, there is one conclusion that we left with: Belgium is not just ancient breweries doing classic beers in bigger quantities. Just like any other country, there is variety in age, innovation and size. Let’s break that down.
Big and small
At the event you could find both big names, say Westmalle and Verhaeghe Vichte (home of the Duchesse du Bourgogne), but also small breweries. The Brouwerij Lambrecht – Van Hamme is a tiny brewery from Oostkamp: they produce 150 liters per batch, while also having access to a 30 hectoliter system at another brewery to produce their flagship Hoppelaar. Their Blond was slightly sour with a good carbonation, while the Braun was pleasantly complex with the liquorish melding well with the other flavors. They shared their stand with Castalia Craft Brew, a gypsy brewery that produces the beers on the same 150-liter system. The TWOS uses Moroccan spices and is surprisingly dry, but rather pleasant to drink.
Old and new
The spread of age goes from very young (like Castalia) to fairly young (like the nine year old Broeder Jacob) to the truly ancient Brouwerij Roman, which started in 1545 and which is still run by the same Roman family. They are producing both the Ename abbey beers as well as specials like Adriaen Brouwer Dark Gold. Lode Roman, Commercial Manager at the brewery, while his brother is head brewer, was obviously proud of his heritage: He talked about how sad it is, when a brewery doesn’t have a heir to continue the family business. This strong connection of family and business was also expressed by Bram Vandewalle, brewer and owner of the previously mentioned Castalia. He expressed sorrow that he could not name his brewery after his last name, because there already is the Seizoensbrouwerij Vandewalle.
Traditional and innovative
Not only was there variation in age of breweries, but also in age of styles. Between the very well done classic Tripel, there were always new and interesting ideas, for example two beers that played with brettanomyces. Rebelse Strop by Brouwerij Roman is a perfect example that brett itself is not sour, this having the cleanest brett-profile (if such a thing can exist) we’ve ever tasted. The second one, SchupppenAas by Het Nest Brouwerij, had a more restrained brett-character. Probably the most interesting “new-style” beer was the Vuur 3-Dubbel by the Brouwerij Pirlot. It’s supposed to be a dark triple and it tastes exactly like you’d expect a dark triple to taste like. This was seriously good. Then lastly, there was Bijnens, a lager/ale hybrid that went into a similar direction as DeuS, just with two different styles. Interesting, an accomplished marriage and easy to drink, but not the most complex beverage in the world.
So, if we did take anything from this event, it’s that Belgium beer is way more than just those amazing traditional styles from these incredible classic breweries. It’s also De Plukker, a biological hop farm and brewery who only uses their own hops and brews very clean beers with them. Just like in any other country, beer is defined just as much by its tradition as it is by people who build on it with new ideas. And Flanders is no exception.