Once upon a time, there was the British Empire. An important part of this imperium was known as the “Indies.” Mind you, that was a far from specific term, as it might have been pointing as well to the West as to the East. These days, the Empire is history, but in the honourable association named CAMRA, the term ‘Indies’ is still very much in use. However, here it is not understood in its original meaning – which baffles me a bit, as judging by some of the more current opinions voiced in their monthly, one would think the Empire is still having a blast – it has become an abbreviation. More precisely for “independents” (-breweries are meant, of course), as barbaric an abbreviation as the one devised by their former colonists for the most venerable of Trappist brews. Even more strange, once going deeper into the subject, it soon appears that as a rule, not just all non-concern owned breweries are meant, but mainly those of the middle. Say, breweries once – or even today – considered to be “familybreweries.”
Besides those familybrewers – known not only in the UK, but also in other beerfaring countries – there is a pleaide of micro-, pub- and other small modern breweries that have risen during the last couple of decades. Much as CAMRA seems to applaud their sometimes remarkable successes, the tone of nostalgia towards the familiar, cosy familybrewers is never far away. Mind you – I fully understand them there. I’ve been lamenting the demise of our Belgian familybrewers more than often, and even had the temerity to doubt, once, if the newish micro-, pico- and nanobrewers would ever be able to replace them. Not that I grieved for the families themselves – it’s the quality of their age-proven recipes I admired, and was appalled at the prospect of seeing them disappear into the grey past. As to the families – to quote one of their colleagues, his name shall remain my secret – “they hired the necessary workforce, paid them the necessary pittance, told them they knew what to do, and went into their stately homes, wasting the money that their more and more neglected breweries yielded. And remained blind for the future.” I fear that in many cases, the UK situation was exactly similar. And much as it might hurt to say so, I fear that we’ve only seen the beginning of their final decline.
The microbrewers, however, are flourishing. And apart from their way of working – THEY have to do the work themselves – they had another approach at brewing, or at least some had. In the days described above, what went on in a brewery was a secret, more closely hidden than that in experimental nuclear plants in the Cold War times. A visitor would be a honoured friend or relative (and that might indeed be a brewer, as the familytrees of Belgian brewers in the last century was as close to inbreeding as could be safely tried). A casual visitor was about as welcome as a cockroach in their homely kitchens. During the visits, I fear, talking shop was about as welcome as talking money in a well-off Victorian family…
Now that’s exactly what the microbrewers didn’t do… Above, I once more couldn’t resist poking fun at the “colonists” – read: the Americans – that pointed the way. Honour to those deserving it, but almost from the word go, the new batch of “craftbrewers,” as they are known on the other side of the pond, formed a community that enthusiastically and gladly exchanged information, hints, and, in some cases, even manual and factual help between colleagues. A concept that must have shocked a lot of Belgian brewers to the core. Not all of them, mind you. From the very beginning, some of the newer Belgian brewers understood that a secret is just a misconception of time, as any excise agent could have told them…
So, in observance of this, American, and later European and other microbrewers started to work together, on several levels even, culminating in what today we know as “collaboration brews.” Don’t kid yourselves; it is not because three brewers had their hand in a particular beer that that one would be necessarily superior. Then again, avoiding mistakes is easier with more than with one, as any schoolboy will testify. Boundaries, national or other, didn’t have to exist. Belgian brewers came over to the States and showed Americans how a fruitbeer can be fermented and aged. German malters taught American and Scandinavian brewers how to use Rauchmalz to its best advantage. English brewers developed a recipe for a microbrewery with the appropriate yeasts and equipment. And American brewers offered their European counterparts their unbelievably fruity, citrusy hops, which brought hitherto untold flavours into the beers.
Beer has become a more accepted drink, in all environments, since the craft-beer revolution: where Americans would never think twice about paying premium prices for strong, flavourful beers, Belgians rediscovered their own legacy, and these days Michelin-starred restaurants would not baulk at offering beer to a course, or use beers subtly in their elaborate recipes. And last but not least, a curiously named beer might be an excellent vessel to get something promoted – from a designer boutique to a whole town, in search of touristmoney. Now there is where it went wrong, somehow…
If you haven’t asked yourself by now what the dickens I meant by those “two festivals”, you’re either a very patient person, or haven’t read the title. Whatever, I’m finally coming to that. Because a weekend last month, I visited two festivals, which offered a tantalizing insight in two diametrically different directions brewing is turning to, in this early 21st century. The Zythos Beer Festival, itself a sequel on the explosively popular 24 Hour of the Belgian Special Beer, is a true institution. Without doubt the most important beerfestival in Belgium, it lures tasters from far and near in order to sample brews from an important fraction of the Belgian beerindustry – from the high-and-mighty to the beginning nanobrewer offering his first-ever try to the public at large. Alvinne Craft Beer Festival (formerly known as Pré-ZBF), is an involuntary offshoot of the other festival – at a certain point a couple of Belgian brewers, disgruntled with the conditions at ZBF, set up their own mini-festival, and gradually started inviting other brewers – but not from Belgium, however. Having reached a gentlemens’ agreement with the ZBF organizers, they turned to foreign breweries, having in the meantime established contacts with those curious exotic colleagues, not in the least at ZBF itself – and having realized that some of the things done abroad were in no textbook they had ever consulted during brewing school days.
Not surprisingly, the brewers turning up at this new venue are exactly those that firmly believe in international exchange of recipes, techniques, styles and other. It resembles a bit a chain-reaction: everybody learns from everybody, and neutrons of beerknowledge shoot around at random, infecting more and more of those willing to listen. The result? A festival that bulges from superb brews, exciting flavours, and enthusiastic people – tasters and brewers alike. Now, don’t get me wrong. A certain amount of equally exciting beers was available at the “mother”festival as well. The famous Western Flemish brewery “De Dolle Brouwers”, having never missed a ZBF, makes a point of offering every year some try-out, usually to the delight of punters as me, and this year was no exception. And in fact, I cannot say that I went more happily to ACBF than to ZBF – as the first was a logistical nightmare to get to, whilst the second is not much more than an easy railconnection away…
I loved, sorry, love, both festivals. But in the end, the balance heavily tips towards the smaller one, all disadvantages taken into account. As a firm believer in trying always new beers – in order to be able to form an opinion on them, rather than to rely on hearsay, and also always hoping for the discovery of the true pot of gold – my life is a lot more rewarding on the ACBF than at the ZBF. In this year’s ACBF, I managed to try a staggering 22 beers on my own. In all honesty I can testify that not a single of them presented any true negative point. True, one (German) brew disappointed me a bit, as I had formed a higher expectation of it – which is far from stating that I didn’t like the beer. On ZBF, however, I usually have to work myself through a seemingly never-ending series of disappointing brews, ranging from plainly bland or dull, to downright infected, and this year was sadly no exception. Even when the last couple of years the procliviness of boring brews seems to have diminished a bit, the rare gems that represent a rewarding try are far and between. Sometimes it comes as a surprise, and then sometimes all the blurb announced makes me fear the worst in advance.
Now, a question that imposes itself, is about the relevance of my observations. True, it is not because I find a beer boring or dull that the next punter must feel the same. Having said that, I am not an island in an empty ocean. More people seem to feel the necessity for some challenging flavours, and what’s more, their number seems to be increasing, for as long as I have been sampling brews. A couple of decennia ago, I felt like selling sand to the Berbers, when I wrote about my beloved British cask ales in a Belgian beermagazine; today I know Belgians that have forgotten more about real ale than I ever knew about it. And thus, if more people think likewise, there is a very important observation to be made, I think.
As many a beerlover, I have a visceral aversion of the products of the Brazilian sharks that hide underneath a Belgian traditional brewers’ skin. I’m talking of AB-InBev, of course. Similarly, brews as Cristal Alken, Maes or Haacht pils, or more of that ilk, will never be able to charm me, despite their sometimes euphoric fans. It doesn’t stop with pilseners – the likes of Leffe, Grimbergen, Tongerlo or Affligem – or pseudo-lambics à la Belle-Vue – are pretty characterless, uninspiring drinks. But try to catch me calling them “bad”. They AREN’T. They just lack excitement – because they want to please as many everyday drinkers as possible, often by the suggestion they represent a rich and partly secret heritage. Technically speaking, they excel, and they count brewing faults as hens’ teeth.
The point? If a small brewer sets up shop, he has to choose carefully his niche, his potential customers. Now he might find himself lucky, being a socially popular lad in a small community, and every other landlord in the area willing to take in his newborn babies. That scenario, alas, will not occur all too often. More likely, he will need to cajole, beg and implore free houses, off-licenses and warehouses to fill in a little space on their shelves – and he’ll have to bring it himself, often at sales prices and with free titbits thrown into the lot. Whom will he be targeting? His goal will have to be the people willing to search for the unusual, even at a premium price. There are those at home, but there are more abroad. Meaning, what he offers them cannot be the repeat of the existing, not even the little tweaking of the usual, the rebadging of the daily offer at the liquor shop on the corner. The usual, the average blonde, average dark ale, well within the known boundaries, will be done BETTER by the big companies, whatever way you present it. And don’t get me started on the average Belgian witbier. In fact, any Belgian in two – if not more – asks for a “Hoegaarden,” rather than for a wit…
Ergo, our microbrewer has to go for the unusual, veer off the trodden paths, and in such a way that the customer trying his beer will say “Heeey! This is good!” In order to achieve that, he will have to do some serious experimenting. Not all experiments will turn out right. The worst mistake he could make, worse even than offering the umpteenth tripel, is offering an experiment that didn’t turn out right, that he himself is doubtful of, just in the hope that somebody out there will like it. There might be someone just like that, but I predict there will be twenty times as many that will vilify it. Question is, if the next batch does turn out alright, how many of those twenty will still find the courage to try it? As stated above, I will… but it is always better to try without prior misgivings, if you catch my drift.
I haven’t come to the end of my lamentation yet, as part of the dull beers are not quite the fruit of the endeavours of a willing, if misguided young, starting brewer… A considerable percentage of them – I was tempted to write the majority, but that would be right about the situation on the market, not for the situation at ZBF – are the fruit of the commercial mind of an entrepreneur… We’ve devised different names for those – beerfirms, beersellers, or brewery hirers. The last term is somewhat more specific, but unfortunately enough not always entirely correct. Yes, there exist really certified brewers that will go to an existing brewery, and be present at each batch made for them, and in some cases, actually doing the work – not just shoving the labels in the etiquetteuse. But some of those crafty thirstquenchers have brewed only invoices during their busy little lives…
Now mind, there were quite a few people at ACBF selling beer that had been brewed in a brewery that firmly belongs to a third party (if usually somebody quite similar to themselves). But none of them would not have collaborated actively in some way to the end result. They might not own a brewery, but they own at least some brewing experience. I fear that in the big festival, some of them didn’t. And this is my beef: I predict that it is just a matter of time before the sad category of beersellers will own up. Those that produce interesting beers, no problem (I couldn’t care less how a beer was achieved, as long as the taste interests me) – as to the others… Then, there will be crying and gnashing of teeth. Some misinformed groupies might even cry wolf, and start up support actions – to little avail. There will be, in the end, no future for them. But that is not the only thing. I repeat: the average can be achieved best by those that specialize in it. Read: the big players. Not only a willing breweryhirer with a lack of imagination, but also the familybrewer, the traditional one from above, will fail to be competitive compared to the big players. Big players that will become larger and larger – didn’t I hear some rumours about Femsa, or even SAB-Miller, and our Brazilian-Belgian raptors?
Some of those familybrewers, players of the middle field, have found an answer: either buying up smaller competitors or brewing for the beerfirms. The first might succeed, at least in some cases. In fact, they repeat what the big players do, on a smaller scale. But the last – they remind me of the serpent that swallows its own tail. If, as I fear, there’s hardly a future for their customers, why would there be a future for them? There might be the odd exception – and for once, I will mention a name. De Proefbrouwerij, at least today, is a unique concept. Today, they seem to be brewing for the whole world. Even when today’s flood of orders might diminish, as long as they keep their installation state of the art as it is today, they will be on top of every change. Still, I fear they might not hold their unique position forever. Sooner or later, near or abroad, somebody will successfully imitate their example.
I have come to the end of my rant. Brewers, I do not admonish any of you to sway with every fad – a fad being just what it is. Neither do I say that there would be “styles” (much as I hate that term) that a smaller brewer ought not to attempt, or that has been repeated all too often. Innovative, or interesting, doesn’t equal big and aggressive – for those that fail to see how a simple, down-to-earth beer can be utterly fascinating, take a trip to the – yes! – family-pubbreweries in the centres of Düsseldorf and Köln! What I say to you is that you ALWAYS have to be on the lookout for the innovative, and in the same breath, for the excellence (and I’m not talking about the labeldesign). In my mind, both are indissolubly linked. I am under the impression that the vast majority of the brewers present at ACBF understand this too. And I think that at least one aspect of that insight has been realized through collaboration.
If my view of the brewers’ future comes as shocking to some – and indeed, it would seem so, as this article was criticized BEFORE it was written (!), then I apologize. For its shockingness, mind, not for my conviction.
Joris Pattyn (with photographs courtesy of William Roelens)
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