Monday, January 2, 2012

Some interesting facts about Belgian beer

I enjoy the occasional beer, although I'm not a heavy imbiber. I've always preferred Continental beers, and on the rare occasions I've passed through or near Belgium, I've sampled a few of its many brands of suds. However, I didn't know how dominant that nation's beer 'industry' had become in world terms. The Economist reports:

THE Trappist Abbey of St Sixtus of Westvleteren has little to offer those wishing to gawp at ecclesiastical architecture. The 19th-century buildings—squat, brick and functional—sit on a quiet country lane amid flat farmland, close to Belgium’s border with France. Yet the vast visitors’ car park is a clue that some people nevertheless consider the abbey worth a trip. For beer lovers, St Sixtus is a place of pilgrimage.

Abbey of St. Sixtus of Westvleteren (image courtesy of the Abbey's Web site)

The abbey and its most famous brew, Westvleteren 12 — a dark, strong ale — have taken first or second place in an annual poll of beer enthusiasts’ favourite tipples by, a widely trusted reviewing website, for the whole decade that the survey has been running. Yet exactly how the American drinkers who predominate on the site get to knock back a Westvleteren 12 is something of a mystery.

Visit the abbey — no easy jaunt on public transport — and you can drink it to your heart’s content, or your head’s. But it is hard to buy elsewhere. The monks tightly ration takeaway sales of the tiny quantities they produce. The abbey’s website gives details of the brief windows when buyers may attempt to call with an order. If they are lucky and get through, they will be allotted a time to arrive at St Sixtus. They are then permitted to purchase two cases (four dozen 33cl bottles) in return for a solemn undertaking that the beer will not find its way to a third party.

Evidently some people are prepared to lie to a monk for the sake of beer. Cases of Westvleteren 12, on sale at €39 ($53) at the abbey, turn up on online beer-sellers for as much as $800. (In a rare easing of the rules, in November the monks released a batch of 93,000 six-packs for the Belgian market, to pay for repairs to the abbey. Next year 70,000 six-packs will go on sale worldwide.)

Pour reputation

As well as having a good claim to brew the best beer in the world, Belgium is also home to the world’s biggest brewer. Anheuser-Busch (AB) InBev, based in Leuven, a small university town half an hour by train from Brussels, turns out one in five of every beer sold around the world. Across the road from head office, the ultra-modern Stella Artois brewery pumps out one of the firm’s best-known international brands.

If St Sixtus fails to match the splendour of a medieval cathedral, the main brewing hall at Stella Artois comes close. The quiet and cavernous interior is dominated by 15 immense stainless-steel brewing kettles, whose column-like spouts soar heavenwards. In different ways both St Sixtus and Stella Artois illustrate the reverence with which Belgians regard their beer.

Their country also makes a bigger range than any other — 1,131 at the last count. Apart from six Trappist ales and other abbey beers, it churns out lagers such as Stella Artois and its stablemate Jupiler, the more popular brew in Belgium. Tipplers can also choose from an array of wheat beers, brown ales, red beers from West Flanders, golden ales, saison beers based on old farmhouse recipes, and any number of regional brews. Oddest are the austere, naturally fermented lambic beers of Brussels and the nearby Senne valley, a throwback to the days before yeast was tamed. These anachronisms have survived only in Belgium.

There's a lot more at the link. Interesting reading for those who enjoy a cold one now and again - and perhaps for the Atomic Nerds, who make their own. I wonder if they'd like to try brewing a saison or lambic beer for this year's Blogorado gathering? Hmmm . . .



LabRat said...

Lambic is pretty dependent on having agreeable wild yeast around, which we have no clue if we do. Making a wild sourdough bread starter might give us one, though. As the wiki notes, the most successful Belgian lambics have a good wild strain hanging out in the brewery. That's a very old partnership, there.

Saison would actually be a good fit for our current running experiment, but only after we finish this one. Our native hop vines have finally paid off, producing a pleasant batch that tastes and smells rather like the European noble hops (but much more amenable to growing in our soil and climate), which is going to go into a batch of Pilsner. That style is clean and crisp and light and will show off what we have to work with well.

LabRat said...

I'd also add that among beer people Belgian products have a cachet out of proporiton to their actual quality much in the same way French wines have a cachet disproportionate to other wine-producing countries.

In both cases the old culture of brewing was exceptionally well preserved, along with an environment exceptionally suited to the craft.