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Raising a glass to craft beers
Although Belgium has a reputation for being a country of beer connoisseurs, in reality most consumers tend to opt for commercial beers, lagers or wine. Beer enthusiast Jake Shaw turns the spotlight on the craft breweries and beer sellers fighting to keep their country’s heritage alive.
Belgians may have little trouble distinguishing a Marcolini from a Wittamer, but when it comes to beer, most people here have become as institutionalised as the rest of the world. Case in point: the company that churns out Budweiser also produces Jupiler; its behemoth brewer AB InBev touts it as “the most popular beer in Belgium”. This may sound like blasphemy considering Belgium’s international reputation for beer, yet it’s popular opinion throughout the Belgian beer industry.
According to the Union of Belgian Brewers, wine is the alcoholic beverage of choice for 70 percent of Belgians, while less than a quarter of the population opts for beer. Data also shows that 844 million litres of beer were consumed in 2010, but that figure is 2.8 percent lower than in 2009. And in the same year, nearly 60 percent of Belgian beer was exported, mostly to France, the Netherlands, Britain and the US – an increase of 16 percent compared to 30 years ago, proving that while Belgian beer may not be the most popular drink at home, it is certainly appreciated abroad.
Only the most senior of beer drinkers can recall a time when every Belgian town had its own brewery which also served as the local pub – a gathering place as important to the community as the local church. At the turn of the 20th century, Belgium had 3,223 breweries, one for every 2,000 residents. In 2009, with just 124 active breweries, that brewery-to-resident ratio had fallen to just 1-to-84,000.
But more than any number, perhaps the most compelling evidence comes from the anecdotes of people like independent brewer Carlo Grootaert (shown at left). Together with three friends, Grootaert started brewing beer as a hobby in 2000 on an ostrich farm in West Flanders. The friends got so good they soon became colleagues, going professional and calling themselves De Struise Brouwers (the Sturdy Brewers). Beer connoisseurs everywhere soon took notice of the brewery’s exotic beers, particularly with the 2007 release of the stout ale Black Albert. In 2008, the popular website ratebeer.com named De Struise the top brewer in the world. However, this accolade didn’t exactly earn the brewers a key to their city.
“We often say that people on our street don’t even know there’s a brewery here,” Grootaert says without a trace of disappointment. He is frank with his assessment of Belgians’ appreciation of their beer. He estimates that 95 percent of Belgians prefer lagers, the quintessential German and Czech style of beer that ferments at cold temperatures, to warm- and spontaneous-fermenting ales, though he concedes that this is his own calculation. That still leaves his brewery, along with more than 100 other craft Belgian brewers, vying for what could be as little as five percent of market. “We would not exist if we only had to sell to the Belgian public,” Grootaert says, “because there just isn’t enough interest.”
But Belgians, argues beer specialist Pierre Zuber, can hardly be blamed for forsaking their ales for lagers or beers produced by global breweries. When the Swiss native moved to Brussels 20 years ago, “believe it or not, there was only one specialized beer store in Brussels, and that one wasn’t even in the city centre.” The former marketing student saw a business opportunity, opening Délices et Caprices, a speciality beer shop near the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. Zuber filled its shelves with hundreds of beers from craft and microbreweries, yet he noticed that buyers still tended to stick with what they knew.
“Customers would purchase a few beers, and what would they have? They’d have the Leffe, the Grimbergen, the Duvel,” he says. “In other words, they would purchase the beers that they had tried or they had heard of or seen at the grocery store. It just shows you the strength of marketing. Companies put millions into marketing because it works, and it just kills the whole craft beer market.”
Aside from print and TV adverts, commercial breweries also offer brasseries and cafés incentives – as well as restrictions. They’ll provide taps and beer refrigerators free of charge, but so long as the café only places that breweries’ products on tap or in the refrigerators. This practice not only squeezes out the smaller breweries, but it also limits customers to trying just a handful of the 1,000-plus Belgian beers on offer.
To make matters worse, for decades potential brasserie owners were subject to a taxe d’ouverture, an opening tax, which further lined the pockets of commercial breweries. “Because of that tax,” Zuber says, “you had to sign a contract with a brewer, presumably a wealthy brewer. Obviously they could only sell the beers from that brewery. Basically, over the last fifty years, they were really pushing quantity over quality. That’s partly what produced the consumption of lagers over strong beers.”
The taxe d’ouverture was repealed in 2006, but there’s still the matter of price. A 24-pack of Stella Artois goes for less than €20 at supermarkets. Though De Struise offers beers for as little as €1.50 per 33cl bottle, the ales that made the brewers famous – such as the Mocha Bomb, a blend of stout ales aged over Colombian coffee beans – cost up to €3 for a single bottle, or €72 for a crate of 24.
So why not just make cheaper beers to rope in new consumers? But there’s the rub for the craft brewer. What makes Belgian beer unique is the freedom brewers have to experiment and push boundaries. “Belgium is interesting because we have such a variety of beers,” Zuber says. “As long as your beer is not unhealthy, it can be sold. That is the number one and only rule of Belgium.” The creative environment for Belgian brewers, unfortunately, is also less cost-effective than brewing a lager, “which is not the Belgian style,” he says.
Fortunately, craft brewers have people like Jan Holemans on their side. Entering the wholesale beverage industry 50 years ago, Holemans ventured out on his own in 1980, hoping to expose his hometown of Aarschot to traditional Belgian beer.
“I was a driving force to promote the smaller breweries and their beers,” Holemans says of his store based just outside of Leuven. “I started by going to a large reseller. I went there with a van and I took back about five cases of assorted beer. If I saw that that beer was selling rapidly, then I went directly to the brewery to get that beer. I would take one or two pallets of the beer back with me.”
Although Holemans is currently enjoying his retirement, his formerly eponymous store, renamed Pelgrim’s after the change in ownership, is still serving the public’s beer needs. So do dozens of other drankenhandels – large warehouses that often stock upwards of 500 Belgian beers – in small towns around Belgium. Buying in bulk at drankenhandels reduces the cost of craft beer for the consumer.
Then there are beer-appreciation clubs like O.B.E.R. (Objective Beer-tasters of Essen Region), part of a larger organisation called Zythos. These glorified beer-drinking groups are actually quite serious, sponsoring beer festivals that (re)acquaint Belgians with hundreds of beers and styles. Each year O.B.E.R. runs the Kerstbierfestival, regarded as one of the world’s best showcases of Christmas and winter ales.
“It is changing,” O.B.E.R. chairman Gerard Peeters says of Belgians’ appreciation of beer. “Twenty years ago, there were about ten festivals. Now we have fifty-two – each weekend is a different festival. There are festivals everywhere.”
The final battle concerns beer’s image. After decades of promoting quantity, the Union of Belgian Brewers has changed its stance. It presents beer as something akin to wine, meant for gastronomy and not guzzling. Take a fine bottle of ale rather than Alsace to your next dinner party, the Union suggests. A large portion of the Belgian population may have forgotten its beer heritage, but a concerted effort is being brewed up as a reminder.
“For the last fifty years Belgians weren’t really appreciating the beers for their quality, they were just drinking alcohol,” says Zuber. “The industry has started changing the image of beer. It’s not just an alcoholic beverage to get drunk on. It’s starting to be perceived by the customers as something different, something much more noble.”
The beer converter
If you want to trade in your run-of-the-mill commercial beer for a Belgian craft one, why not trying using The Bulletin’s beer converter to aid your journey into the unknown.
Before: Stella Artois; After: La Rulles Blonde (Rulles); An ale, not a lager, but similarly refreshing for one of those occasional sunny Belgian days
Before: Leffe Blonde; After: Moinette Blonde (Dupont); Same golden shine but offers a more reserved sweet finish
Before: Belle Vue Kriek; After: Oude Kriek (Drie Fonteinen); Gone is the syrupy flavour and overt sweetness of commercial krieks
Before: Mort Subite Gueuze; After: Gueuze 100% Lambic (Cantillon); World-class lambic (also in organic form) from Brussels’ oldest active brewery
Before: Chimay Bleu; After: Oerbier (De Dolle); A craft alternative as Trappist Chimay inches closer to the commercial world
Before: Hoegaarden; After: Blanche Des Honelles (Abbaye Des Rocs); Notes of citrus and various spices give this wheat beer an extra kick
Before: Guinness; After: Hercule (Ellezelloise); Powerful stout ale named after one of Belgium’s most famous detectives, Hercule Poirot
*(Name of brewery in brackets)
Know your vendor
Belgian craft beers are right under your nose, though “it takes a special effort to find them,” says Pierre Zuber (shown at right), whose shop, Délices et Caprices, is a good place to start. Zuber offers tastings sessions for small groups of five craft beers paired with five different dishes. A certified chef whose culinary creations accompany the tastings, Zuber studied under Alain Fayt, owner and chef of the charming Restobières. As its name suggests, much of this restaurant’s Belgo-French menu is made with beer, as it is at the restaurant Bier Circus. Both are in central Brussels.
Delirium may have the best selection in Brussels, but head to either branch of Chez Moeder Lambic to avoid the late-night smoke and student crowds without compromising the beer variety. Or when a friend’s in town, use the Manneken Pis as an excuse to visit Poechenellekelder, an authentic beer bar next to Brussels’ famous micturating statue where knowledgeable staff serve a wide range of beers. The Kulminator is Antwerp’s most famous beer bar and a trip there is worth the journey, especially as its beer card includes hard-to-find vintage ales.
If you want to buy in bulk, SBS in Anderlecht and De Bierschuur in Groot-Bijgaarden are the most accessible drankenhandels around Brussels, but dozens can be found across the country. Of those, ABS in Winksele and Hopduvel outside of Ghent boast massive (500-plus beers) selections.
If beer festivals are more your thing, sadly two of the best, Alvinne and Zythos, took place last month but for a comprehensive list of Belgian beer festivals, visit belgianbeerboard.com, click on ‘Forum’, then ‘Beer Fests’.
Where to find them:
Délices et Caprices
68 Rue des Bouchers, Brussels (centre)
32 Rue des Renards, Brussels (centre)
57 Rue de l’Enseignement, Brussels (centre)
4A Impasse de la Fidélité, Brussels (centre)
Chez Moeder Lambic
68 Rue de Savoie, Brussels (Saint-Gilles) and 8 Place Fontainas, Brussels (centre)
5 Rue du Chêne, Brussels (centre)
32 Vleminckveld, Antwerp
15 Wolvenstraat, Anderlecht
7 Pastoor Cooremansstraat, Groot Bijgaarden
29 Vilvoordsebaan, Winksele
625 Coupure Links, Ghent