Innovation is a term that’s hard to define but impossible to ignore, especially in the brewing world where traditional incumbents are often compared unfavourably to forward-thinking upstarts. Should breweries feel under pressure to be innovative? Is innovation a virtue in itself, or is it something that hinders rather than supports quality beer? And in particular do established Belgian breweries need to keep up with craft beer movements in other parts of the world? In a discussion with more questions than answers, we asked some outspoken brewers and commentators what they think about innovation in the beer world.
Brewery consultant Krishan Maudgal sees several innovations across the spectrum of Belgian beer.
In technology, automation equals continuous and stable quality of beers. There are process improvements in order to prevent oxidation and protect beers against aging while making them ‘travel’ better and further.
In recipes, we’re seeing blends of top fermented beers with foeder beers. We’re seeing more sour beers, as well as low alcohol beers with taste and flavor.
He adds: “All these innovations can be less spectacular, eccentric and funky than in other countries, but Belgians only make balanced complex beers for the long run; not to pull back from the market after 6 months and offer something new.”
“Then from a marketing point of view beers in Belgium have been acquiring equity. They are positioned as a response to various need states of the consumer, branded and packaged accordingly. There is a beer for every consumer and every occasion.”
Jef Janssens from family brewery Hof ten Dormaal is less optimistic and thinks that Belgian drinkers refuse to venture out of their comfort zone. “There is room for developments that most Belgian drinkers haven’t seen yet such as double IPA’s and strange sour beers. But innovating in Belgium will be almost impossible unless beer drinkers wake up and educate themselves,” he says.
“In the Netherlands, craft beer is getting everywhere with beers that are a lot more fun than the tripels people expect us to brew. If you go to a festival and ask for a ‘blond’ or a ‘dark’ you’re not encouraging craft brewers to start experimenting. It makes innovation extremely difficult.”
Jeff goes as far as to say that his brewery’s biggest downside is that they originated in Belgium, “one of the most boring ‘traditional’ beer countries on this planet. If we had the audience for it, the beers we produce would be completely over the top. But the sad truth is that 99% of the market is scared to drink the softest IPA.”
“The type of innovation I’m after changes the brewing process so that people perceive beer in a different way. If everyone brews in the same way, at the end of the day it’s normal beer with a different flavour. I like the New England IPA style not because it’s a fantastic style, but because the brewing method brings something refreshing.”
And as far as Hof ten Dormaal is concerned: “I’m proud of the way we helped to change the perception of using wooden barrels with beer. We didn’t go for a big smoky stout; but we went head first with blond, clean and simple beer to give the barrel all the responsibility for how the beer would come out.”
Alvinne is often considered to be one of Belgium’s most innovative breweries. But Glenn Castelein says that it’s more important for a brewery to stay true to its own identity than to try to innovate for the sake of it.
“For some people, tradition is boring, for others innovation is too extreme. Above all it’s worth remembering that innovation is not a synonym for better-than-tradition. The difference has nothing to do with beer quality per se, it’s more about the identity of the brewery, the type of customer you would like to reach.”
He says that Alvinne’s fundamentals are quite traditional; “We used mixed fermentation in the region of Belgium best known for it. You can hardly call barrel aging innovative, as it has been around forever. However, we used this traditional method and gave it our own twist. It’s about experimenting with techniques and ingredients.” To consider a barrel as an ingredient is innovative in a way.
Alvinne’s Morpheus yeast represents a technical advance for a small brewery. “Most craft brewers use yeast and bacteria strains you can buy or will create a house-blend using dregs from bottles. To capture, cultivate and stabilize a mixed yeast culture from nature is something few have accomplished. Morpheus gave us the opportunity to brew traditional mixed fermentation styles such as Oud Bruin. For me the innovation is the use of this yeast in blond sour ales, creating a new style of Flemish blond sours. You could call it the missing link between Oud Bruin and lambic.
“We are also proud of our use of less classic fresh fruit in beers, such as sloeberries foraged in the wild, quince, rhubarb, smoked peaches and cloudberries.”
There is room for more beer innovation in Belgium. “It should come from new breweries. Let traditional breweries be traditional, most do a fantastic job. A word of advice though, innovative brewing is never the easy path. Even if you brew a great beer, the Belgian market in general is not the most open one for new and more intense flavours, compared to many other countries.”
Speaking of intense flavours, the Brussels Beer Project creates over 30 different recipes per year, exploring various styles from imperial chocolate stout to a yuzu-infused saison and berliner weisse.
“We play with dozens of hops and are not shying away from using Japanese pepper, vanilla beans from Uganda or cigar leaves from Nicaragua. We love exploring beer further and making our community discover new flavours, says brewery owner Sebastien Morvan.
“We are quite proud of Babylone, the first top fermented beer brewed with unsold bread. The beer has a very distinctive biscuit/crust flavor as well as a long- lasting bitterness that pleases many beer lovers. We also recycle 1 ton of bread per month and indirectly give jobs to staff in rehabilitation via the NGO Groot Eiland.”
For Sebastien, a French beer-lover who relocated to Brussels, innovation is a Belgian trait. “I believe Belgium got its worldwide recognition for beer thanks to its audacity and its aspirations for experimenting with different styles. They didn’t have the same limitations as the German brewers and this led to great achievements.
“Maybe as a victim of their own success, and with more to lose, brewers started to become more conservative and brew more of the same beers and styles. There’s been a clear revival in the last few years and I’m very enthusiastic to see still more brewers coming up with their own interpretations, with the ambition to add something more to the mix. When it’s about sharing, learning and improving, the more the merrier.”
Dutch beer journalist Raymond van de Laan sees single- mindedness rather than innovation as capturing the essence of Belgian beer culture. “It was always a part of the Belgian beer world. Look at Dolle Brouwers: craft beer avant-la-lettre. A brewery like De La Senne is a continuation of this tradition: powerful quality beers, local focus, driven by its own conviction. Innovative? No. Belgian? Very.”