(Hat tip to one of my favourite authors Robert Rankin for the borrowed title quote)
The beer scene in Belgium is quite fractured, with no real large grouping to represent all brewers interests. I spoke the other day about the tension between established brewers and brewers sans brewery (gypsy or cuckoo brewers). Taking Brussels as a microcosm I hope to reflect on some of these differences but also point out the obvious common ground.
Cantillon is the obvious contender here at 115 years old. I loved finally being able to visit this hallowed beer mecca where (for the lowly sum of 8Euro) you can get a self-guided tour of what is essentially a working brewery museum and avail yourself of two free pours at the end. The brew kit is the original and is all wood and polished copper, replete with cobwebs in the corners to attract the right microflora into the beer.
Tour beers comprise the unblended lambic and then a choice of whichever of the core range beers are available on that day. Then you are of course welcome to stay for more; which I did (also returning a second time) working my way through such beers as Lou Pepe Framboise and Cuvee Florian (last year's Zwanse a cherried version of fresh-hopped Iris), though it was the grassy fresh and zippy hallertau dry-hopped 2y/o lambic, Cuvee Saint-Gilloise, that really stood out for me as well as the sour yet jammy fou foune fresh from the tank.
|Mash tun with elaborate paddles for turbid mashing|
|Beers silenty slumbering in Cantillon cellars|
Cantillon is a Brussels institution but until recently they were almost omitted from the plans for Belgium's Beer Temple...to be based in their own city! Cantillon and the other lambic brewers are seen as a bit of an oddity and thus often forgotten about. It seems us non-Belgians care more about their heritage than the natives.
Two contenders here, but as we shall see later my choice fits nicely here. Traipsing around half a mile from Cantillon back in towards the centre will bring you to En Stoemlings, the newest brewer in Brussels, note its not quite the newest brewery as explained below. Unfortunately it was closed on our visit (Despite being advertised as open); so I cannot speak for the beers but gazing through the large plate glass windows we're treated to the typical craft-beer bar stainless & bare-brick set-up with a minute hobby-size kit (indeed I've seen many larger home-brew set-ups) taking pride of place along the back wall. Very much a taproom only brewer then, I look forward to a proper visit in the future.
|Tiny kit at En Stoemlings|
|co-founder Sebastien at Brussels Beer Project|
|They might be new but they still|
plan to do some things the old way
That leaves us with De La Senne out in the suburbs. They're very well regarded amongst Belgian beer fans and produce good, balanced UK style ales with a Belgian accent and US aspirations. Their tap room was abandoned on our visit but a clanking noise alerted us to the 5-strong team assembling the new bottling line which will be able to knock out 9000 bottles an hour. (This is some expansion for a brewery found throughout Brussels but seldom makes much noise beyond it.) Worried that the taproom would close (its only open 10-3) before I could sample anything I went in search of someone and found Joelle having a smoke before knocking off for the day. He kindly came inside to pour me what was on draught and grabbed a few bottled beers too. I settled in to drink them whilst perusing my copy of 80 beers, all were solid with Schieve Tabarnak (a collaboration with Le Trou de Diable) really impressing all fresh tropical fruit & black pepper bitter yes but well moderated by the malt body.
Of course until recently they were the only ale fermentation brewery in Brussels and now have two younger neighbours to potentially compete with. This would of course leave one feeling a bit jaded - more competitors for tap space, people being less inclined to trek out to the suburbs and of course more flexibility with smaller kit. This will only be exacerbated as the number of brewers continue to grow and drinkers look beyond Belgium's borders with flagship beer bars and shops already beginning to stock the best of UK and US beers and Brewdog's (very) recent arrival likely to result in more establishments branching out into "world" beers.
Sixpence in the shoe
This perhaps shines a light on to how the Belgian Family Brewers are feeling at the moment. There are an increasing number of beers in a fairly stagnant market, with a number of "brands" appearing with no provenance, poorly developed recipes and dubious quality. However its only by working together as a group (not just Family Brewers or Trappist brewers or lambic brewers, but all brewers, with and without brewery)* to promote the fantastic range of Belgian beers (there's more than just Trappist and lambic!) that they'll be able to grow the market whilst getting native drinkers to turn away from ubiquitous pilsner-inspired lagers to more traditional and yes new Belgian brews. Take that heritage, the focus on quality and provenance, add a twist of innovation and collaboration and the beers will sell themselves. I don't know if anyone is brave enough to attempt such an organisation, but the rewards would be swiftly forthcoming. I'd certainly support them.
Incidentally most of these brewers were invited to attend the beer bloggers' and writers' conference but for various reasons were unable to (largely due to exorbitant fees). That's a topic for another post, however knowing in advance we'd not meet them in the festival; I did my best to get out and see them in situ. All beers were paid for by myself or fellow writers with the exception of four sample bottles from BBP, who also gave me a glass, thank you Sebastien.
*Well maybe not that Behemoth in Leuven, that'd just be counterproductive.