A Letter From Belgium - July 13, 2006
Two Festivals in as Many Weeks
July 13, 2006
Written by JorisPPattyn
To a father with 3 small children, the summertime usually is a bit quiet on the beerfestival front. Too many eyes needed for babywatching. This year, however, so far, has been surprisingly better. Never mind the reasons, both last weekend, as the one before, saw me in Antwerpen and Mechelen respectively to attend festivals I was expecting much of – even when on different levels. The results proved different, and I think the differences made it worthwhile to spend some time at my keyboard to tell you about my experiences.
They had a sunny day in common – unfortunately, while that meant relatively cool in Antwerpen, it was swelteringly hot in Mechelen (about 33°C…). Neither location helped: the Antwerpen one under a big tent, the Mechelen in what is essentially a large factory hall. The Antwerpen festival was as commercial as they come. OK, that was to be expected: BierPassieMagazine is not exactly known for its altruistic motives, and a location as this – the Groenplaats, central square in front of the 16th century cathedral – has to be paid for somehow.
It’s the way they forced you to pay for their expenses there, that galled me. Let me start about what I only heard, don’t know from firsthand. Compared to last year, quite a lot of smaller brewers were no longer there, and small wonder, if the figure of 6000 Euros for a stand, I heard, is correct. A few people made the best of it, by sharing, and some got angry. But again, I’m not fully sure on how it worked, so let me tell what I do know. In the, quite visible, publicity it was clearly stated that entrance was free, you “got” a glass – actually to be bought for 2 euros, no refund possible – and the beers were to be obtained with tokens.
More so, at the purchase of 10 tokens, one obtained the unmissable BPM-bottle opener. For the really curious, 20 tokens gave right to the Belgium Beers’ guide by Michael Jackson. Now, didn’t we all know that Michael has a new edition out of this one, and haven’t many of us seen MJ touring for signing copies, usually followed by the Belgian editor of this print, the same organiser as the BPM weekend? So, this naïve s**er did indeed go and bought 20 tokens, on which he was presented immediately… the former edition, hardly worth the paper it is printed on any longer, and, BTW, already in ones’ possession for a few years. What did I think, for chrissakes?
Now the Mechelen festival, organised by the local “BeerBrothers” branch of Zythos, was of another kind. First of all, these guys could only rent their hall on Sunday (the Antwerpen tent was there for a full weekend, Friday evening included), and they had had virtually no publicity – the free space in Zythos magazine and website excepted. I only learned about them a good week before the festival happened, and usually that’s too short notice for me. But whereas Antwerpen had drawn me by the presence of some breweries, where I wouldn’t have minded meeting some of the brewmasters of, the Mechelen venue had drawn me unerringly by the stupendous beerlist – but more about that later. In Mechelen, no need for glasses to pay for, they were issued upon demand of a beer. Tokens were € 1.25 apiece (which made them 25 cts cheaper than in Antwerpen), and no special advantages for numbers. Though everybody got one complimentary consumption upon entrance!
As said, Antwerpen drew me by the hope of meeting some familiar brewmasters. Actually, not one of them appeared, and I felt a bit foolish. Not that I didn’t meet any interesting people – Michael Jackson to start with, which was an agreeable moment; furthermore a lot of the Antwerpener beerscene, including people I hadn’t met for years. The beers, well, there were a couple of German brews that were of interest, and IIRC, 4 Belgian beers that made a rating – 1 even new. After counting, the Mechelen beerfest offered me 23 fully new beers, never seen before, as well as 5 exclusive amateurbrews, which were of course new too.
As to the quality of the beers, well that’s a bit a double-edged knife. I confess going to festivals searching for new beers. If the new beers are made by my “favourite” industrial megabrewers, or by the aficionados of inexistent hygiene, I know I’m going to drink fairly disgusting, or otherwise uninteresting beers. In Antwerpen, especially the first, industrial category was present, always keeping in mind that more than enough decent beers were on offer. Being through the necessary to-be-tried ones, I consoled myself with a nice Rodenbach Grand Cru. Which didn’t prevent finding myself in the Kulminator by 6PM…
“Interesting” was all what Mechelen was about. In fact, that is even a euphemism. The BeerBrothers, actually, used a modus operandi that is virtually a guarantee for a happy beer-connoisseur: they (not exactly unknowledgeable beerlovers themselves!) went to search for beers they hadn’t had themselves before. In this way, even very demanding geeks will find something to their liking. I was over the moon, to tell the truth. One beer, Toverhekske, meant the first new beer from a brewery that is a relic of another age, Walrave in Laarne (near Gent) that is known to be archaic, still does its own maltings, and the old brewer is averse to anything people come to ask him. 30 years I’ve known about them, and all change I witnessed, was the gradual diminishing of its profile (Export resembling more and more the Pils, finally to disappear). And here they were, with a brand new beer! Which didn’t diminish anywhere the worth of some of the other beers on offer.
Truth to tell, I still was disappointed, even when this time, the breweries were at fault, rather than the organisers. The names were exciting enough – if only the quality had lived up to expectation! Once more a word of warning: there were actually some very good beers available. With one or two exceptions, however, those I had had already. But as to the tries – they varied from uninteresting to spittingly bad. I’m not going into these last. There’s nought to be done there. But I stumble over another tendency that I dread even more. There’s a lot of new, young brewers out there – be they real brewers, brewers “on the move” or bona fide commissioners of beers – that seem to excel in offering plain, average, technically not faulty beers, that could have come out of any larger regional without inspiration, or even from a megaplant when the accountants were looking somewhere else.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with these beers, but they just seem so… superfluous. Does anybody expect this from a microbrewer? If they want a niche, let them try for something that only the (fool)hardy will like. Or that you won’t forget, well, not because of physical sequels the next day, of course. Let me elaborate to show what I mean: I have known Brasserie Fantôme for the longest time now, and anytime I try a new beer by DanyP, I will never be surprised that it proves an impossible mix of herbs and spices, masking a background that is at the edge of the abyss of infection. But more than once, the mix is something made by the very beergods, and if infection there is, I want it infected every time. I take the risk on the first kind without thinking twice – just in case I’m rewarded with the second. THAT’s what I want from a microbrewer. An uninteresting umpteenth tripel or strong ale – I can get better any day.
Want the best example? Since quite a couple of years, there has been an association of some homebrewing friends, that started brewing in turns, at their various places, but always on the same installation. To that purpose, they installed their brewery in a kind of camper, enabling them to drive to any address. Eventually, they started giving brewing demonstrations on festivals etc., and called themselves therefore the “Verhuisbrouwerij”; the Brewery Movers, or the Moving Brewers… In order to allow others to taste their beer – not on their own expense – they went to the ubiquitous Proefbrouwerij to have their “Trisser IV” brewed professionally. This was available on the festival, and I tried it. Well, more bland, less character, you die. For a bunch of enthusiastic homebrewers??? What were they thinking of, did they try this thing?
Yes, the Mechelen hall was terrible: it took me three excursions into dangerously unlit corridors to dubious toilets, before I learned there were serious toilets in a neighbouring hall. Yes, the (quite welcome) fried sausages “innabun” or hamburgers’ aromas drifted disturbingly in my glass, that often reeked of burnt onion rings. But the people working were friendly, genuinely interested in your views on what you were trying, helpfully to the extreme. Nothing of that in Antwerpen (a few individual exceptions thankfully excluded): the smiles on the faces all seemed commercial. They could have been promoting the next washing product with Soap of Marseille, for all they cared. BTW, the gents in Antwerpen were paying, of course, only they had omitted to advertise this – which I shamelessly exploited to my own advantage. Methinks I’d lost money enough as it was.
I think you’re getting the picture by now. Next year, the BPM crew won’t have me on again (I felt a bit like Willie E. Coyote in a particularly tedious cartoon). If the gods and my wife want it, I’ll raise my sore head again at 7.00AM to paddle to a train to faraway Mechelen. Even when some of the beers awaiting me, might prove a little below my level of expectancy…
FestivallingJoris P. Pattyn
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The BeerBrothers, actually, used a modus operandi that is virtually a guarantee for a happy beer-connoisseur: they (not exactly unknowledgeable beerlovers themselves!) went to search for beers they hadn’t had themselves before.
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