I’ve just fallen in love with Belgian beer. Again.This must be the third or fourth time now. The first time was around 12 years ago, when I visited Belgium to discover its beer for a book I was writing.
The timing was perfect: I’d just been on my first beer appreciation course and my palate was primed for flavour. In one day, I tasted abbey beers, lambics and saisons for the first time, in their country of origin. I was hooked.
Then, two weeks later I visited Portland, Oregon, and tasted my first ever American IPA. I felt as though I was tasting in colour for the first time after only tasting black and white before. When I returned home I took Belgian beer for granted, always searching instead for a hop hit that wasn’t easy to find in Europe back then.
A couple of years I’d stopped buying Belgian ales altogether, and the ones I had were dusty and hidden at the back of the cellar. On New Year’s Eve 2010, I found a 750ml bottle of Chimay Bleu two years past its best before date. I decided to use it for cooking, and thought I’d just taste it to check it was OK. That beer ended up in a balloon glass rather than the stockpot. And that’s when I fell in love with Belgian beer for the second time.
Most people I speak to have had a similar journey. “For me it was Westmalle Dubbel,” says Nigel Stevenson of UK beer importer James Clay. “I had my first bottle for a couple of years recently and I simply couldn’t believe how good it was.”
For Rick Kempen, a Dutch enthusiast who sells Belgian beers in Holland, it was “a hazy beer that was handed to me in the Wilde man bar in Amsterdam, with a grape fruity aroma, warm, her by, spicy, it was a truly great beer,” which was later revealed to him to be Chimay Tripel.
American hops are like America itself: big and bold and showy, and they captivate us with their west coast glamour. But after a few years of chasing the lupulin, it’s common for people to rediscover a lost love for Trappist ales in particular that had been forgotten for years. “It’s all about balance,” says Rob Wain, licensee of the Elm Tree pub in Cambridge and a passionate advocate and retailer of Belgian beers. “New wave craft beers are like a sledgehammer, but the Belgians are refined. They don’t smack you around the face.”
But craft beer fans seem to like their beer to rough them up a bit. While Belgian beer is certainly benefiting from the current global boom, it’s quiet beside craft beer’s bombast. In 2010, Belgian beer accounted for 32% of James Clay’s imports to the UK. Now it makes up just 12% of an admittedly much larger volume.
Modern craft beer is a constant search for the new and different, while Belgium champions its traditional approach. “Belgium has always been quirky and individual,” says Jacopo Mazzeo, an Italian beer blogger and sommelier now living in England. “It never fitted in, and it still doesn’t.”
When micro brewing took off in Italy in the 1990s, German lager styles were seen as traditional and Belgium was seen as the centre of innovation. “But as soon as American craft brews arrived, Italy started following that trend,” says Jacopo. “Belgium is still there, but new brewers follow what has become the global craft beer tradition that came out of the US.”
The frustrating aspect of this is that however you choose to define craft beer, Belgian beer styles obviously fall within it. “People talk about Duvel Moortgat being a big brewer now,” says Nigel Stevenson, “but compare it to, say, Lagunitas – it’s much smaller, and definitely more artisanal.”
Saison and sour beers are the styles craft brewers move on to when they get tired of one-dimensional hoppiness. So while Belgian beer styles are at the heart of global craft beer, the country that created them is increasingly overlooked.
Rick Kempen points the finger of blame at the brewers themselves. “From the 1970s to the 1990s, thanks to Michael Jackson and the huge surge in interest from America, it was a golden age for Belgian beer. But they just sat on their old brewery equipment and watched the world go by.”
This begs the question: what should Belgian brewers do now? Should they innovate or not?
No one to whom I ask this question believes that adopting American-style, hop-forward beers is the way to go. With one or two honorable exceptions, attempts to do so have been underwhelming. Abandoning Belgian tradition just as it’s being copied by foreign brewers, in favour of copying what those foreign brewers have already done, smacks of insecurity.
“A brewer such as Roche fort doesn’t need to do anything different from what they’re already doing,” says Rob Wain. “They just need to remind people about these old stars.”
That doesn’t mean there’s no room for innovation – and who are we to declare that young Belgian brewers aren’t allowed to experiment? But as brewers from the rest of the world are proving, there’s plenty of room for new ideas within the Belgian template of characterful, fruity yeasts, the use of sugar to create drinkable high gravity beers, and creativeness additional flavorings. The graceful and exciting blends coming out of Tilquin, and the subtle blend of styles by De La Senne, are two examples of breweries that feel undeniably Belgian, but are also very much of the 21st century.
New drinkers are coming into beer in huge numbers. It’s inevitable that many of them will go on a journey similar to mine, being seduced by the heady glamour of the hop before their palates mature and gain an appreciation of balance. Someone needs to be there for them when they reach beery maturity.
The most recent time I fell back in love with Belgian beer was on holiday in Flanders. I had no big plans to discover new beer, but found myself in a cafe with a fairly standard list of about 30 beers, including famous Trappists and a couple of nice saisons, most of them the beers that a hardcore beer geek would consider mainstream, even boring. And I remembered what it was like back in those wilderness years before the craft beer boom, when beer was a niche interest and the fact that such a list was here – that it was ordinary by Belgian standards – seemed like a miracle.
Belgian beer culture, the drinking of beer in a pavement cafe where it’s served in the correct branded glassware, accompanied by cheese and meat which is objectively awful but curiously irresistible in this context, the slow pace where you take an hour to drink a dubbel as you contemplate the world going by, is an under-appreciated part of the whole appeal of Belgian beer. It’s a world away from the AWESOM Enervous energy of the global craft beer movement. And that’s an advantage that should not be lightly thrown away.