Good news from the country roads of Flanders and Wallonia: American-style IPAs are not taking over Belgian beer. Not completely.
We could be forgiven for thinking so. Many Belgian brewers are making products with more bitterness, more hop aroma and flavor, and a few are even using those three familiar letters: I-P-A. They’re doing so in response to demand at home and abroad: Hops sell beer.
But these hoppier Belgian ales have not taken over the local cafes, although they are easier to find than before. And with a few exceptions they are not cynical imitations of foreign craft beer. Instead, they adopt ideas about bolder hopping and fold it into the Belgian scheme: intricate mash regimes, high attenuation, relatively expressive yeast, and refermentation in the bottle.
So maybe you weren’t worried about it, but Belgian brewing culture isn’t in any immediate danger.
In certain trendy bars in Belgium’s bigger cities one finds cause for doubt. Tap lists can feature the same names found in the trendy bars of other big European cities: Brewdog, Mikkeller, Stone, and so on. These companies sell fine beers but after a while one fears a loss of identity in the places that we visit. The spectre of a global craft monoculture casts its shadow, and it speaks with a loud American accent.
Europe has all the wonderful old castles. Wouldn’t we at least be annoyed if they wanted to turn them all into beardy Brooklyn coffee shops?
Or maybe I’m just paranoid.
In Brewdog’s own bar in Brussels, half the 22 taps are for guests, and most of those are reserved for Belgian brewers. In Antwerp’s new Beerlovers bar, taps pouring beers from British Beavertown, Italian Brewfist and Danish To Øl share billing with Gueuze Tilquin and Brasserie de la Senne.
But those bars are not indicative of what the rest of Belgium drinking. To learn that, it helps to hit the road.
In the past three days, for guidebook research, I’ve been to more than 40 beery cafes and one rather good beer festival. Large amounts of coffee and water have been consumed, and even a few beers. (Drunk driving during this sort of research is a good way to weed out beer writers, in the Darwinian sense.) I’ve logged more than 600 kilometers so far.
The cafes have been urban, suburban and rural, Flemish and Wallonian. (I’m using the word “cafes” as a catch-all for bars, restaurants, taverns, brasseries, and so on.) The ones I visit tend to specialize in beer, meaning they tend to stock at least 50 or so different brands, instead of the usual 10 or 20 that can be found in a more typical Belgian bar or restaurant.
Meanwhile, I’m looking for trends. Here is the old caricature of a typical Belgian beer list: a pils or two, a handful of Trappist ales, a couple of sweetened fruit beers, and 30 or 40 strong, sweetish, spicy ales with saintly names—as many as they can cram into the fridge and cellar.
So what’s different now? Based on these lists, what’s happening in Belgian beer that wasn’t happening five to 10 years ago?
Here is what I see:
More hops, yes, but not exactly IPAs.
In some cases there are more hops on the label than in the beer, as with Palm Hop Select and Kasteel Hoppy—but even that suggests that companies have learned what sells (now, try putting more in the kettle next time). There are a few that actually use that acronym “IPA,” like the one from Vedett via Duvel, or Martin’s, and even Brasserie de la Senne’s dark, strong and bitter Brusseleir is a “Zwet IPA” (zwet being Brussels dialect for black).
Duvel Moortgat has been one of the more active companies in adding hoppier beers to its portfolio, and a visit to a Duvel-tied cafe can turn up several examples now: Duvel Tripel Hop, Vedett IPA, Houblon Chouffe, and even the occasional IPA from Boulevard of Kansas City or Brouwerij ‘t IJ of Amsterdam.
But those are not common examples, and most of the evidence is more subtle.
Duvel Tripel Hop and Houblon Chouffe have become easier to find, but so have De Ranke’s XX Bitter, Senne’s Zinnebir, and hoppier tripels like Lupulus from 3 Fourquets in the Ardennes. The latter brewery also appears to be doing well with its Lupulus Hopera, whose hop-derived nose of fruit, spice and herbs is more compelling than muddled. No doubt the yeast plays its role there too.
In a country tavern called the Kroon, in an idyllic pastoral setting and with old farm implements on from the walls, I spot a promo for a beer called Dilleke from the Angerik microbrewery. It’s a light pale ale that gets its grapefruity aroma from Cascade. In another one called the Buurthuis, with its well-treed playground, cyclists arrive to find not Saison Dupont, but rather Saison Dupont Cuvée Dry-Hopping.
At that festival I mentioned, Modeste in Antwerp, my own favorite beer of the day was the Babylon from the Ardennaise nano Inter-Pol, dry, fruity and bitter but easy to drink at 4.5%. But fest-goers voted and gave the top honor to one from another nanobrewing outfit, the Keukenbrouwers of Hove. The winning beer was called Hip-Hop, and it claimed 100-plus IBUs using Columbus, Simcoe and Citra. It tasted more like 50 IBUs, with enough malt to carry it off.
Come to think of it, it didn’t taste very Belgian. Maybe we should be afraid after all.
More saisons, more Orval, and more aged Orval.
Besides the obvious hoppy beers, I am seeing more saisons appear. These are not the jokey spice-bombs we tend to find in the States, for some reason, but instead tend to follow the drier, bitterish mold of Dupont.
Saison Dupont, like the XX Bitter, was not that easy to spot here 10 or even just five years ago. Now it has become (thankfully) common to find it on decent beer lists across Belgium, offering something different among the sweeter, stronger stuff. Sometimes it is there alongside other saisons from St. Feuillien, du Bocq, Dubuisson or De Ranke.
And if none of those are around, there is always Orval. It was never hard to find in Belgian cafes but I think it has become nearly universal, as long as you want to drink it public. Buying some to take home and hoard in your cellar has become a challenge. Orval has become scarce in the drinks stores. Some of them limit the Orval to four bottles per customer, or else they only let you buy it if you spend at least €50, for example, on other beers.
But now I know where all the Orval is. It’s in almost every Belgian cafe, in their fridges and in their cellars.
Also: Not so long ago, it seemed like only a few specialist bars would bother to set aside some Orval for aging and sell it at a slightly higher price (usually €4-5). Nowadays most beery cafés seem to be doing it. More of them are certified as Orval Ambassadors—always a good sign if you see that hanging outside the door.
Orval is a well-hopped beer itself, and a dry one, with a compelling complexity from that brettanomyces yeast in the bottle. It is decidedly different from most Belgian specialty beer, and its rising popularity—along with that of hop-forward beers, and saisons—suggests that Belgian tastes may be changing.
But wait! There is more.
More authentic lambic beers.
The Belgian beer list of 10 years ago would have had a couple of token fruit beers, probably cherry and raspberry, and undoubtedly sweet. They might have even had the word “lambic” on their bottles, allowed only by a legal technicality. Sometimes you even found—and can still find—a sweetened “gueuze.”
These days the real stuff is making a comeback locally, even if it’s happening after the rest of the world caught on.
Here I am referring to oude gueuze and oude kriek especially, acidic beers made in the traditional way, not the versions that have been sweetened and pasteurized. These more authentic lambics used to be rare outside of Pajottenland, but not anymore.
It would be absolutely incorrect to say that a majority of Belgian cafes now stock oude gueuze, but it’s certainly easier to find than it used to be. Most often it takes the form of Boon Oude Geuze or Mariage Parfait, but in better cafes it might be alongside gueuzes and krieks from Oud Beersel, Girardin, or occasionally Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, Hanssens or Tilquin. A 37.5 cl bottle usually costs $5 to $8. A nice selection of gueuze has become the telling sign of a really serious beer cafe.
One of the common sweeter “geuezes” I mentioned is Mort S
ubite, from the Keersmaeker brewery in the farming village of Kobbegem. The brewery also makes a traditional and sour Oude Gueuze—though for years it was hard to find.
But yesterday I visited the Wit Paard cafe, right across the alley from the brewery. The menu listed a Mort Subite Gueuze, so I asked the landlady if it was the Oude one.
“Here, we only sell the old gueuze now,” she said. So I enjoyed a refreshingly sour one while watching the tractors roll by.
Mort Subite is owned by Alken-Maes, which is owned by Heineken, and we can understand if the big boys are a bit slow to adjust to changing tastes. Giant tractors are slow to maneuver, as you learn very well if you drive around Kobbegem.