World Famous Belgian Beer:
An Interview with an Expert
Spend a few minutes with a beer afficiondo and the conversation will no doubt turn to Belgian beer. Like chocolate, Belgians have a knack for experimenting and successfully developing world famous brews - more than 800 to be exact.
Below you'll find an interview about Belgian beer with Brussels Walks tour guide Jan Dorpmans. An expert on all things Belgian, Jan gives us a behind-the-scenes understanding of Belgian beer: a topic that many travelers and tourists are interested to know about.
BBTG: Can you begin by telling me how Belgium came to be a 'world power' in the production of beer?
Jan: I guess a large part of it is luck, part of it is our international status. Lots of expats come to Belgium and find out about the various kinds of beer we serve in our pubs. If you realise how bad we are in promoting ourselves, it certainly wasn't our doing that made belgian beer a success. The fact that in the 1970's Michael Jackson (the late beer hunter) was quite positive about our products certainly helped a lot.
BBTG: What does Belgium do in beer production that other countries or manufacturers don't? In other words,what makes Belgium beer special?
Jan: We still have a lot of different ways of producing beers, like spontaneously fermented beers (lambic and derived products), wheat beers (witbier, blanche), and saisons are all different kinds of products. And a lot of brewers still go for a second fermentation in bottles, unheard of in (most) breweries abroad.
BBTG: We hear a lot about how many beers are made in Belgium. Can you tell me how many different kinds of beer are produced in Belgium? Any idea why so many?
Jan: Kinds, or brands? Huge difference. There are, as stated above, beers of spontaneous fermentation (Brussels area mainly) resulting in Lambic and derived beers as Gueuze, Kriek, raspberry beer etc., wheat beers, brown (or red) beers, trappist beers, champagne beers (oh yes!), lighter ales, saisons, lagers (unfortunately), abbey beers (which are different from trappist beers as they are not produced by monks) and I'm sure I've forgotten a few obvious ones.
In total, I guess there are something like 700 to 800 different labels in Belgium (from approximately 120 different breweries). Why so many? Because we've always preferred to look behind us instead of looking ahead. Belgians have never liked change, and we've always wanted to do things which were different from what others were doing.
All beers used to be of spontaneous fermentation (which would already result in just as many beers as there were brews). In areas where there was abundant wheat, they would add that to the beer (crops permitting), which makes the beers easier to transport.
Saisons were made by people employed by farmers. They'd brew in winter (when there was hardly anything else to do on a farm) and they'd drink in summer, when they were out in the fields. Depending on whether the county was a part of Flanders (France) or other (German Empire), brewers would use hops or not. End of the 19th century, German (Tchech) beers became quite popular, after the war, British beers were on the up. And we started copying those products.
BBTG: In your opinion, what are some of the most unique beers produced in Belgium?
Jan: Lambic and related beers, for their extremely complex flavours (e.g. Cantillon brewery), or the champagne beers (like Malheur Brut),which are produced using the kind of yeast they use in Northern France to make their bubbles, and which also undergo remuage in order to be able to evacuate the yeast after some months.
BBTG: Which Belgian beers are most popular worldwide?
Jan: In terms of volume: lagers like Stella. In terms of popularity by people who know a little about beer: just about anything. "Belgium" on the label seems to produce mass hysteria in a number of places.
BBTG: Tell me about your Belgian beer tour...what all does it include? Do tourists taste beer on the tour?
Jan: Well, if I'm to do the tour, I'll tell something about how beers are generally produced and we look for some history on the way: Danish taverns and Irish pubs were (are) fashionable. We cover which pubs one should visit in Brussels and which beers to look for (or not). People do indeed get the opportunity to order soms beers in the two or three pubs we enter (at their own expense) and I'll help them choose.
BBTG: What are some of the more famous beer pubs in Brussels and how did they gain their fame?
Jan: There are some old pubs like "Goudblommeke van Papier / La Fleur en papier doré", "Bécasse", "Goeie oude tijd/Bon Vieux Temps", etc. They do not necessarily serve great beers, but they have a history. Famous people went there, they got mentioned in books. And then there are those where they serve special beers, like the fairly recent "Delirium" which holds the world record in number of beers in stock, the Porte Noire, the Moeder Lambic (in Saint-Gilles), the Biercirkus. And there are the places where one should go to, just to see how great they look, like the Greenwich, the Archiduc, the Goupil le Fol, the Cirio.
BBTG: Isn't there a beer festival in the Grand Place every year? What can you tell me about it?
Jan: Yes there is. The first weekend of September. It's the weekend when all major breweries settle down on the market square to do business. Overpriced and a lot of beers I'd never drink. But tourists love it. There used to be an alternative festival in Saint-Gilles, called Bruxellensis. Small, excellent beers (mainly Belgian but also foreign), correct prices. But it seems it will not be organised this year as the guys behind it have made up their minds to open up a brewery in Brussels and are now doing all they can to realise that dream.
BBTG: Give me some names or types of beer and match them with what kind of Belgian cuisine goes with it. For example, if you were to have roasted thyme chicken, what kind of beer would go well with it?
Jan: Shouldn't you ask a chef about this? There is, near where I live, a great restaurant/pub called which serves great menus with the appropriate beers. In the Marollen area, there is Restobieres Basically, I'd say that it's all a matter of taste. You can either enhance the flavour of your dish by serving the beer that was used during the cooking (or a taste-alike) or serve a beer that has entirely different characteristics (bitter against sweet, sharp against salty, etc.) Trust the maitre'D on that ... or be adventurous :-)
BBTG: Is there anything else interesting that you can add to his interview? Statistics? Stories?
Jan: Statistics? Try BeerParadise.be
They have an English page as well. Stories? Eh ... how many years do I have? There are plenty of breweries that can be visited (Orval, Dupont and De Ryck organise weekend(s) in September, Cantillon is open all year round and organise public brewing sessions is November).
There's this story that the word "Gueuze" came from the 11th century revolutionaries against the King of Spain. Strange, as the beer was only made as of the 19th Century and the brand officialised in 1905 or 1906. Originally it was called "Lambic gazeuse". What would people order, when they already had had one too many ? A "G...euse (gueuze). Sounds more likely, doesn't it?
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