Brewer’s Corner: The Division of Belgium

Locke McKenzie travels to Belgium, home to some of the world’s most creative, complex breweries, and still manages to try a truly awful lager.

Riding the little regional train through the Belgian landscape, I had big expectations. In less than an hour, I would disembark in Bruges for the weekend, beginning my first visit to what many regard as the “Beer Mecca of the World.” When you enter a pub, it’s easy to see why.

De Garre, a small locally owned bar with table space for no more than 30, offers over 130 different Belgian beers. A short walk away, Brugs Beertje features a list of over 300. You sit down and scan a beer menu reminiscent of a high-end wine list. At times, you have the opportunity to try the same beer of different years. My travel partner and I did a taste comparison of the Oer Brewery’s 2008 and 2009 winter beer, Stille Nacht. While the 2009 was smoother, the 2008 unquestionably won out, bearing a stronger hop character and a fine yet excitable carbonation not as present in the newer version.

With over 135 breweries producing more than 700 different beers — some of which are impossible to reproduce elsewhere — Belgium presents some of the most complex beers in the world. Much of a beer’s individuality stems from the character of the local ingredients — water, grains, and hops, etc. Hence, the Becks brewed in America tastes significantly different (read: worse) than that brewed in Germany. Considering the entire country of Belgium is the size of Massachusetts, it baffles me how they have managed to create so many different and complex brews.

Compared to the conservative German market, Belgium is a melting pot of beer diversity. One of the main factors of the beer’s complexity is Belgium’s open-mindedness when it comes to ingredients. Inge Verniere is a beer sommelier and employee of De Halve Maan Brewery, and she says, “We’ll put anything in beer as long as it’s natural.”

This has earned Belgian beer worldwide praise.

“I’m a very big fan of Belgian beer,” said Lars Seyfrid, leader of the German Campaign for Good Beer. “They put all kinds of different spices in their beer that provide an excellent flavor palette.”

In a conversation I had with Dick Haggerty, head brewer at New Holland Brewing Company, he seconded Seyfrid. “Belgians do whatever they want. They have specific notions of flavor. They will do whatever they have to do to get that flavor.”

Needless to say, my tongue was already tingling with excitement when I walked down the quaint, medieval lanes of Bruges’s inner city. I checked into my hostel as quickly as possible and made my way to the streets. My first stop was the local grocery store.

The beer aisle was the first thing I saw when I walked in: Leff, Hoegaarden, Kwak, Kriek, Brugse Zot, Chimay, and a handful of other assortments comprised what I assumed to be a relatively modest beer selection (the store was, after all, more of a market). Wanting to save my taste buds for the bars, I bought a pen and notebook and went to the checkout counter.

While standing in line, I noticed that the two Belgians in front of me were buying a beer I didn’t recognize: Jupiler. To my right, I also noticed a fridge almost a big as the whole beer aisle packed full of the red and white Jupiler cans.

Intrigued, I bought the smallest one they had (.2 liters). Outside on the street, I cracked it open and took a sip. It was like drinking a Bud Light without the Bud. What the hell was this piss water? Thankful that I only had half the can left to go, I slammed the rest and made my way to little pub called Joey’s Café.

It was around 6:00 p.m. and Joey’s was full of men and women in their mid-twenties who looked like they had all just gotten off of work. Except for one man sitting alone at a table, each one of them was drinking Jupiler.

Here I was, in quite possibly the most highly regarded beer brewing country in the world, and everyone was drinking watered-down light beer. I decided to find out what was going on.

“The lager beer is what the locals drink,” said the owner of Joey’s. When I asked him what he would recommend for me, he told me there were a number of choices. “If you drink something strong, like Duvel, though, you’re not going to get more than five in you.”

His message seemed to be that I wasn’t going to be able to drink all night on high quality beer. At the next bar, De Garre, we sat next to a very talkative Belgian man, François, who had a similar theory.

“The lager beer is what we drink when we’re thirsty. You drink the strong beer when you’re talking or watching TV. Then you want a good beer.”

It was similar to American drinking culture. Drink a couple of good beers when you are doing so for the taste, but buy a $70 keg of Miller High Life when you want to have a party.

Admittedly, I was still surprised. The strong Belgian doubles, triples, and quadruples along with the Lambic have been around for some 400 years. The Rochefort Trappists, for example, have been brewing since 1595. According to Verniere, lager only came to Belgium after the First World War. Now Jupiler alone accounts for over 60% of all Belgian beer consumption.

Whereas the microbrewery movement in the U.S. is now moving in on the traditional lager’s market share, the opposite seemed to be happening in Belgium. It also seemed to be causing a rift in the population that was potentially bigger than the French-Flemish divide.

“I hate bottom-fermented beers!” Verniere, the beer sommelier, exclaimed. “It’s not exciting enough.”

She was waging war, however, against the rest of her countrymen. When I asked Carl, the owner of De Garre, if you could split the population into those that drink strong beers and those that drink lager, he said, “Yes.”

“So does this mean tastes and preferences are changing?” I asked. “Does this mean that Belgium is slowly slipping away from its highly praised brewing traditions?”

“No,” said Carl. “I think you can divide those things in two categories. You have the people from 20 to 35 years and from 35 to 70. Younger people are only going to pubs where they sell lager types of beers, and they aren’t going to drink special types of beer… they don’t like that anymore, the youngsters. There is, however, a new group coming in who like tasting beers, even the bitterer ones. Every year it’s changing with the new generation.”

Things are changing again for the better, he seemed to say. The new generation is much more open to these strong beers than they were before. But Carl suggested that this could be the result of a 40-year-long dark period in Belgium’s brewing culture that has only begun to reverse itself in the last ten.

“Before ten years ago, there was InBev, the largest beer conglomerate in the world.”

How could I have forgotten this? Now known as Anheuser-Busch InBev, this corporate monstrosity was a product of Belgium.

“They bought up a big, huge assortment of beers,” Carl said. “Some beers, which were very good, like Hoegaarden Julius, stopped because the production wasn’t large enough. That means they’re getting rid of very good beers, and that is what has been happening over the last years.”

InBev also owns Jupiler. Just as Bud, Miller, and Coors squashed out all competition during the mid-20th century, InBev slowly destroyed Belgian beer culture over the last 40 years.

“Now there are a lot of smaller guys trying to make their own beer. Microbreweries, like in the United States. Now there are all these small breweries again trying to make beer like they did 30 or 40 years ago.”

Considering the Trappists managed to stay alive through everything, it’s not surprising that we rarely hear about the horrors of corporate brewery takeovers in Belgium. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t fighting the same fight as the rest of us. Just as the U.S. is currently fighting the beer monsters known as Coors, Miller, and Anheuser-Busch, Belgium has its own fight.

According to François, the local brewery, De Halve Maan, receives a police escort as it moves its product from the brewery to the bottling station. This seems like a good sign. The authorities are on the side of the little man.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.