Beer and Loathing in .. Ghent
Food writer Emma Beddington is ashamed to admit she hasn’t drunk beer for decades and only likes “those pink cherryade ones”. Could the founder of Belgium’s Women and Beer movement convert her? She went to Ghent to find out.
I have a dirty little secret that should by rights disqualify me from appearing in these pages: I don’t drink beer. The last time I drank beer with any regularity was nearly 20 years ago as a teenager in York, trying to ingratiate myself with my first proper boyfriend. We spent our evenings in an insalubrious pub affectionately nicknamed ‘The Stabber’ where I would try to hold a pint of John Smiths, look alluring and discuss the oeuvre of Japanese post-punk trio Shonen Knife simultaneously. When he dumped me, I dumped beer and I’ve never looked back.
The thing is, it’s getting embarrassing. I’ve lived in Belgium for seven years, and I’ve only dabbled with those pink ones that taste like fizzy pop and when my husband and I went to a festival that served nothing but beer, I made him smuggle in a shampoo bottle full of gin stuffed down his trousers. A big part of my job involves writing about Belgian food and knowing less than nothing about a huge part of the country’s gastronomic heritage is, frankly, shameful.
I’m not alone in my beer aversion, however. Most of the women I know don’t drink beer. There’s a distinct sense in beer marketing that it’s not for us: look at the imagery: it’s macho, silly, testosterone-heavy. The daft Jupiler slogan – “Men Know Why” – says it all.
Thank goodness, then, for Sofie Vanrafelghem, qualified brewer, beer sommelier, author of a recently published book on women and beer and founder of Belgium’s Vrouwen en Bier (Women and Beer) movement. Sofie herself is a fairly recent convert: working on a tourist guide to Belgian beers five years ago, she was seduced by the quality and variety of the national drink and by the passion of Belgian brewers. She was also struck, however, by how few women were involved in the industry and by the lazy assumption she met on her travels, that women and beer simply didn’t mix.
“The brewers all started by asking me the same question: don’t you think it’s weird for you to work with beer, as a woman?”
The Vrouwen en Bier initiative was devised as a positive response to the prejudice she faced: “I could get annoyed, or I could do something about it”.
Sofie’s goal is to encourage women to try beer, and to dispel some of the myths that turn them against drinking it: that beer is fattening, for instance, or that women just don’t enjoy it. She organises tasting sessions for women, serving beers produced by female brewers in delicate wine glasses and exploring pairings with chocolate, or cheese. There’s also an annual ‘Women and Beer’ day in November. The idea is to encourage women to look beyond the sugary, artificial fruit beers that the industry lazily foists on them. “The main reason women don’t drink a lot of beer is because they really don’t know it: if you don’t know it, you can’t love it”.
As amply illustrated above, I certainly don’t know beer, so we’ve met on a sunny Ghent terrace for Sofie, to help me navigate my way around the very basics. I desperately need this: before we meet, I wander, bewildered, around a specialist shop in Brussels to choose a few myself. It’s a disaster. I try a Brasserie de la Senne Zinnebir because it’s one of the few bottles I like (yes, I am that shallow) and struggle with the bitterness, then an Alvinne Undressed which is so sour, I can barely manage a mouthful.
First of our three tastings is a Witkap Pater Stimulo. “Accessible” is how Sofie describes this atypical abbey beer and even I have to admit that it really is: it’s mellow and fresh, with no bitterness and I’m thrilled to find something I could actually imagine ordering and enjoying.
The second beer Sofie picks out is a Chouffe Houblon, which it turns out is tactical. “I’ve done around 150 beer presentations for women and afterwards I always ask them which beers they liked best. The ones that always gets the most votes are the hoppy beers.” I love the strong citrussy notes in the nose and the slight, not overwhelming bitterness.
The Vrouwen en Bier movement’s own beer, Eva, devised and brewed by Sofie and her team of “Eva Ladies” is in a similar vein, though lighter. “We use the American hop Cascade for that citrus flavour, and we add the harder edged Hercules hop which gives it a punch at the end”. Eva proved so popular it has sold out, but Sofie is planning to brew again later in the year.
Our third beer is a Boon Oude Geuze: I can tell this one’s going to be a challenge from the face the photographer is pulling. “A gueuze has a particular nose” says Sofie. “Some people say they smell like dirty socks.” Oh good. I take a cautious sniff, then a sip. It is redolent of our basement following a flood, musty and sour, an acquired taste to say the least. It reminds me of the Alvinne Undressed (Sofie laughs and tells me this was “probably the worst beer you could have chosen” as a beginner. She’s lovely and not at all judgmental of my crass ignorance). I can sort of see how you could come around to it though: like anchovies or olives or coffee, it’s a kind of complex, grown-up flavour I’m just not quite ready for.
Even so, I feel better equipped to go off and try a few more and that’s all Sofie really wants us to do: give beer a try. I ask her for a few tips for women who’d like to explore beer but can’t get to one of her tastings.
“You have to look at what you like. If you’re into sweet white wines, I’d suggest trying a rich brown beer. They have some sweetness, but also accents of chocolate and coffee. If you’re more into dry sherry, I’d suggest a dry bitter, like a Duvel. Or you could simply start with an accessible lovely beer like the Witkap Stimulo or a Westmalle.” Buoyed by Sofie’s infectious enthusiasm, that’s exactly what I plan to do. Is this the end of soapy gin?
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