To really get a feel for what the beer scene is like in a particular area or country, it is often most insightful to get the opinions of local enthusiasts, beer writers and members of beer promotion organizations.
I contacted a number of Belgians recently to ask them about what they do to promote fine brews and beer culture in their country, how they became involved in such pursuits, and how they think things have changed for better and for worse in the last five to ten years.
Joris Pattyn has been a staunch proponent of Belgiumís beer culture and great breweries for about 30 years now. He is well known to the members of Ratebeer, as well as sites like the Burgundian Babble Belt.
<IMG border=0 SRC=/images/features/JorisPattyn2.jpg> Joris Pattyn at the 2006 Ratebeer Kulminator Gathering
Joris has been a judge at the Great British Beer Fest (GBBF), Great American Beer Fest (GABF) and the World Beer Cup. He was one of the founding members of the European Beer Consumerís Union (EBCU) and was one of the early members of the OBP (Objectieve Bierproevers, the group that preceded Zythos as the premier Belgian beer consumer and promotion organization.) He also writes for several websites and De Zytholoog, the magazine of Zythos.
How did Joris get started on this path? "It was in 1978. I was 19 years old, and one day, I carried a corked, unlabeled bottle up from my fatherís wine cellar. I did not know it was a beer, until my father told me!" Joris said, and then added "I know it was a Kriek from the Payottenland, but I will never know which brewery. It was wonderful. I was hooked immediately."
In discussing the recent past, present and future of the Belgian beer scene, Joris said: "The worst thing to happen in the last ten years has been the stranglehold on distribution that InBev, Haacht and Scottish & Newcastle have here (note: InBev is the huge beer conglomerate formed when Belgiumís Interbrew merged with AmBev of Brazil.) "The closure, or takeovers, of small traditional family breweries, which often produce classic, disappearing beer styles, is a symptom of this disease."
The best things? "The still growing awareness, as well as appreciation, of Belgian craft beers in the world. While the USA is the most important, countries like Italy and Spain, which have very little beer tradition, have growing markets for fine Belgian brews now."
As to the future, Joris told me "Until very recently, I would have been utterly pessimistic. However, on my recent trips to the U.S.A., I saw an unbelievable variety of beers on offer. Not just domestic microbrews, but beers from all over the world, including Belgium. I think the future of Belgian craft beer lies in export."
Joris added "If I would say anything, or give any advice to the readers of this article, it would be this: however nice it might be to find a Belgian beer in your local store, the best place to enjoy Belgian beers is still in the neighborhood of their origin. If you can make it to this country, I think the experience can be infinitely rewarding."
Carl Kins has been drinking and advocating the enjoyment of fine Belgian brews for about 30 years. Carl was enjoying Duvel and Rodenbach by the time he was in high school, and soon, many others. "When I was 20, I was already drinking Trappist brews, Gouden Carolus, Verhaeghe, and more" he told me. "In 1986, I started following the OBP, and joined in 1992."
<IMG border=0 SRC=/images/features/CarlKins2.jpg> Carl Kins
Carl has since been a worker at the 24 Hours fest in Antwerp, the GBBF, as well as at the GABF. He has been a judge at the GABF tastings since 2004, and his Zythos club, H.O.P., organizes the Karakterbier fest held in Vichte each June. He is involved in many other things as well, such as brewery tours, tastings and beer and food pairing dinners. "I spend more than 50% of my free time in the pursuit and enjoyment of fine beers and beer culture" Carl commented.
"Some very good things have happened in the last five or ten years in the Belgian beer world. There are new breweries that produce nice and consistent products, like Bink, De Ranke, De Proef, and Malheur. Also, there are older, more established breweries like Dubuisson and Strubbe, which have begun to experiment again with new beers." He continued: "There are also new beers with more hop bitterness, like De Ranke XX Bitter, and La Rulles Estivale (Note: Carl even has his own hoppy beer these days: Slock, which is brewed at De Graal.) Plus, there are more specialty beer cafes opening, ones that are not tied to one of the larger breweries."
"Unfortunately, there are some bad things which have happened as well in the same period of time. A number of Belgian breweries are trying to copy the InBev products, by reducing the taste and flavor of their own beers. Many existing beers and new brews are nothing but ísugar bombsí with too sweet a taste. Several Geuze breweries have closed. InBev has been buying distributors, and not allowing them to stock other breweriesí beers. This reduces consumer choice."
There was more, as Carl obviously has strong feelings on the subject: "The problem with the growing number of ílabel beersí (a new or different name for an existing beer) which confuses consumers. The fact that table beers (low in alcohol, session type brews) are fast disappearing. The tampering with the term "Belgian" beer in other countries. Also, choice within Belgium: good regional beers are sold within their home region, and abroad, but can be hard to find elsewhere in Belgium, outside their region."
As to the foreign influence on the Belgian beer world, Carl had this to say "This has been a gigantic influence. Loads of foreigners come to Belgium to drink our artisanal beers, and are amazed by them. Specialized beer tourism is getting more and more popular, which is a good thing. Also, I know that breweries have to export to survive. Some even make special beers due to requests by their importers. As long as these brews are available locally, we are happy."
"However, I totally disagree when a beersí recipe is changed for export. This should not be done. Period." Carl said, adamantly. "I do think Belgian beer is making a significant positive impact on the beer cultures of other countries. My many visits to the U.S. and other places confirm this."
As to the future, Carl prognosticated: "The Belgian beer world will continue to evolve as it has been. InBev will remain big, and many people will continue to drink ultra sweet íbeersí. But I am not pessimistic. I think young people here are looking for quality products, and many will be willing to spend more for such. Some of them will discover the great beers the smaller breweries make."
Jef Van den Steen is Belgiumís most prolific, and best known, beer writer. His books include "Trappist: the Beer and the Monks", "Geuze and Kriek: The Champagne of Beers", and "Abbey Beers." Jef also writes for De Zytholoog magazine, as well as several others. He somehow manages to give about 200 lectures/talks on the subject of beer, every year. Obviously, he has boundless energy.
<IMG border=0 SRC=/images/features/JVDS.jpg> Jef Van den Steen
"I was first exposed to beer when I was a child. We always drank faro with our meals. Later, I wondered about how many different great beers there were in Belgium." Jef told me, retrospectively. "I started advocating the appreciation and enjoyment of fine beers in 1985. I joined OBP in 1989 and then Zythos when they took over OBPís role. I am a part of the team that produces De Zytholoog now."
Jef retired about a year ago from a career as a math teacher. He recently told me: "Now, all my free time goes to beer. Research, writing, tasting. I am optimistic about the future of Belgian beer, as Belgians have good taste. So, good beer will always be brewed."
He continued: "There are some good things which have happened in the last five or ten years in the Belgian beer world. The success of the Trappist beers, the foundation of HORAL (the organization set up to protect and promote Belgiumís remaining Lambic breweries) the return of the bitter, hoppy taste in some beers, as well as the success of Belgian beers being paired with cuisine here, are some of the important things." The bad things? "The whole situation with InBev is not really positive for the Belgian beer culture" Jef opined.
What about the future? "Belgium needs the world to sell our beers. More than 50% of our production is export. For the Belgian brewers, it is very important to keep brewing the best beers in the world."
"You asked about my favorite breweries" Jef reminded me. "All the Trappist breweries, all the Lambic breweries, plus Dupont."
Somehow, I think De Glazen Toren must also be on that list!
Gunter Mertens knows Christmas beers. His Zythos group, O.B.E.R. (the Objective Beer Tasters of the Essen Region) runs the very successful Kerstbier (Christmas beer) fest every December in the small town of Essen (not to be confused with Esen, where Brouwerij De Dolle is located.) "We try to obtain and offer all the Christmas and winter beers that are brewed in Belgium. We had 35 beers at the first fest in 1993. Last December, the eleventh edition of the fest, we offered 120, with 12 on draft, plus two Gluhkrieks served warm!" Gunter exclaimed.
<IMG border=0 SRC=/images/features/GunterMertens2.jpg> Gunter Mertens (left), with the author
Having attended this event twice, I can safely say it is among the best beer festivals Belgium has to offer. "We just moved the event to a bigger location in 2005, due to the increasing number of people who attend. Also, there is no smoking allowed at the Kerstbier fest" Gunter commented. The next edition is Dec. 15-16, 2007. See <a hrefhttp://www.kerstbierfestival.be>www.kerstbierfestival.be.
"I am the secretary and webmaster of the O.B.E.R. club. We have many activities throughout the year. We have guest speakers at meetings; we organize brewery visits; plus a Halloween beer walk, and a beery cycling trip. Also, I am one of the webmasters of the <a hrefhttp://www.zythos.be>Zythos website" Gunter told me.
How did he discover his countryís great beers? "I had tasted lager and pils, but never liked these styles. Later, I was at a friendís 18th birthday party, and we tasted Hoegaarden. I enjoyed that, and soon my friends and I were tasting lots of different brews from local drink markets (beer stores) as well as pubs. Later, I discovered O.B.E.R. when I was reading a beer guide written by Peter Crombecq. I joined in 1998, at the Kerstbier fest."
I asked Gunter his opinion about the good things and bad things which have happened in the Belgian beer scene in the last decade or so: "The modest revival of real artisanal Geuze, plus the general increase in interest in all craft products are good things. Everything that InBev does to destroy the Belgian beer culture is, by far, the worst thing. Think about the closing of the DeWolf-Cosyns maltery, the intended closing of Hoegaarden (though Inbev seems to have changed their minds about this) and InBev buying distributors, who will only stock the beers they dictate."
"Speaking about the influence of foreigners here, our Christmas beer fest was really put on the map by beer lovers from around the world who visited and publicized the event. Local people here really did not pay us much attention before that."
"As to what the future will look like, I hope Zythos can help keep our beer traditions alive by educating people about, and promoting, our artisanal beers and beer culture.
I am optimistic" Gunter opined.
Danny Van Tricht is a staunch proponent and supporter of Belgiumís Trappist Abbey breweries. His website, trappistbier.be, has photos inside and outside all these reclusive enclaves, as well as images of Trappist (and other) beer glasses. The website is also very informative, and is a fine resource for anyone interested in the subject of Trappist beer.
<IMG border=0 SRC=/images/features/DVT2.jpg> Danny van Tricht
Dannyís early favorite was a secular brew: "The first beer I liked was Jack-Op, a famous beer in this area (Heist-Op-Den-Berg) based on Lambic. I drunk it a lot in my student days. I began advocating the enjoyment of our fine Belgian brews about 25 years ago, when I had my first Westmalle Dubbel. In the last ten years, I have always tried to convince people to have a quality beer, instead of crap!"
"I am a member of Zythos, with íDe Limburgse Biervriendení as my branch. I like to visit breweries and cozy pubs. I spend almost every Sunday enjoying the Belgian beer culture" Danny commented.
"Some very good things have happened in the last five or ten years in the Belgian beer world. There are more people drinking quality beers. The Trappist beers have become more popular. Several quality special beer cafes have opened, like Cafe Welkom in Noorderwijk, among others" Danny said, optimistically. "In my opinion, the worst thing to have happened is the whole InBev story, and everything they do to kill the Belgian beer tradition."
"However, I am optimistic about the future, as I see several new microbreweries making it to the top. Itís a struggle with InBev in the way, but they do it." Danny said. He continued: "You asked me about foreign beer-tourists. It is always good to meet such people, as they often study the Belgian beer culture more closely than I do, so I can learn from them. However, it is frustrating to see that some of our Belgian beers are made only for export."
Dannyís parting words? "The Belgian beer scene is world famous. Beer is one of the best export products we have...I think we must fight to preserve it!"