Saturday, 29 August 2015

Belgian beer at the crossroads

Palm's beer wagon
To say I've learnt a lot about traditional Belgian beer in the last couple of days would be putting it mildly. It's because I'm in Brussels at this year's European Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference*, and I've spent much of that time with members of the Belgian Family Brewers association, which is the conference's top sponsor.

Being able to talk to these brewers – and these days you do get to meet the brewer, where 20 years ago you met the owner or managing director, while the brewer was probably kept out of sight with the other technicians – was hugely informing. We talked about the intricacies of beer maturation, the use of spices and barrel-ageing, the different ways to make sour beers, and lots more.

That said, it's also clear that Belgian beer is at a crossroads of sorts. In one direction you have the BFB members, all of them family-run companies who've been brewing for at least 50 years (you can't join otherwise!) and many of whom are in their fifth or sixth generation of family management, in another of course you have AB-InBev, with its HQ here in Belgium and brands such as Stella Artois and Jupiler, in a third you have new young breweries, whether traditionally-focused or craft/fusion-inspired, and in the fourth are the private-labellers, making cheap beer to be relabelled as supermarket own-brands.

De Ryck's blond
You also have a saturated and declining market where the primary way for small brewers to grow is to export – the country produces 18 million hectolitres of beer a year, imports another one million, and exports 11 million. As one of the BFB spokespeople put it, it produces ten times its demographic weight in beer. (Interestingly, the only other countries exporting anything like as much of their production are close by – they are Denmark and the Netherlands, presumably for Carlsberg & Heineken.)

All of which is why the BFB is sponsoring the conference, of course – although there were times yesterday afternoon though when it felt more like the only sponsor, not just the top one. Where were the young breweries or even the Trappists?

I'm in two minds about the BFB. Its focus on tradition and family – it requires members to have been brewing for at least 50 years, they also have to be family-owned, with several breweries now in the 5th  or 6th generation – is admirable, but some of its tactics come over as defensive and lacklustre. At a press conference yesterday it announced an advertising campaign focusing on the family-owned aspect which would not have looked out of place 50 years ago.

Barrel ageing at Dubuisson
Still, its members make some lovely beers. There's classic Belgian styles such as its spicy golden pale ales, Dubbels and Tripels of course, but there's also innovations, such as Dubuisson's wine barrel-aged versions of its Bush Blond, Lindeman's collaboration with Mikkeller on Spontanbasil, a weirdly fascinating herbal Lambic, and the growing use of dry hopping and ageing on oak chips.

The question I'm still turning over in my mind is whether these are really innovations, or just the latest fads, followed in order to target the huge US market, where for many beer-lovers Belgium remains the epitome of specialist beer.

*Since some people seem to worry about these things, the disclaimer is that yes, we get given quite a bit of beer at EBBC, but we've also paid to attend, paid to get here and paid for hotel rooms – for most of us that's a few hundred quid.

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