THERE’S one very good reason why we pretend there are no famous Belgians. We’re frightened of them. Or more to the point, we’re scared of their beer. Fear more often than not comes out of misunderstanding and we just don’t get the hang of a nation that brews abbey beers, trappist beers, white beers, fruit beers, spontaneously-fermented beers, Antwerp barley beer, West Flanders brown, Duvel, Oudenaarde, Gildenbier and Saison de Silly.
We understand Bitter, Mild, Lager and Stout. Familiar terms, friendly names, comfortable, enjoyable, pleasant and loose-fitting styles. Lambic, Faro and Gueuze could be Anderlecht’s midfield for all we know. But, actually, some of us care. Some of us love Belgian beers with a passion and enjoy their vast range of flavours, aromas and strengths. Many of us would rather have one glass of Maredsous 8 than six pints of English mild, or the merest sip of ’t Gaverhopke Kriek to several gulps of British ersatz lager.
The good news is, we are an expanding bunch. Consumers are becoming more discerning, pleasingly adventurous and increasingly daring in their beer choice, and now the on-trade is showing signs of picking that up. At the turn of the 20th Century, there were 3,200 breweries in Belgium, an astonishing figure. Today there are 109 producing some 350 different beers which are sold under more than 1,000 brand names. Most of those 350 beers, however, are heavenly delights.
Who could resist shaking hands with Delirium Tremens, Verboden Vrucht (Forbidden Fruit), Guillotine, Judas, and Mort Subite (Sudden Death)? You’d die to learn more about them, but a Mariage Parfait might be tested to its limit. Then there’s the unpronounceable – Bokrijks Kruikenbier, Breda’s Begijnte, Huyghe and the wonderful Couckelaerschen Doedel. And, for the ever-curious, there’s even a beer museum in the corner of the Grand Place in Brussels – Musée de la Brasserie – where brewing education and palate-training run side by side.
The Belgians can also claim the patron saint of brewers as one of their own. It all started in the 11th Century with a knight who became famous as Arnulph the Strong of Oudenaarde. The Pope sent him back to his native Flanders to protect his townsfolk against the might of a pillaging baron. Arnold (his sanitised name) did the job so well that he was invited to stay over and help found an abbey in the town near Bruges. There he noticed the inhabitants were dropping like flies after drinking the polluted water from the local river – while beer-drinking ne’er-do-wells looked the picture of health.
He summoned the congregation to the local brewery where he plunged his ceremonial cross into the fermenter and told them: “Don’t drink the water, drink the beer.” Arnold knew, of course, that the brewing process killed off all the nasty microbes in the water while adding healthy proteins, vitamins and mineral salts. Everybody thrived – particularly the brewers who made him their patron saint. Now there are lots of Saint Arnold beers.
Saint Arnold Brown Ale is a beautiful, deep copper beer with a full, malty body, hints of chocolate, a touch of sweetness and a light hop flavour. Saint Arnold Fancy Lawnmower Ale is a kolsch-style ale (like those brewed in Cologne in Germany which are straw-coloured and decidedly hoppy). The idea is, when you need a beer after cutting the grass, reach for this. But you don’t have to limit yourself to saintly products. Several brews come into the Lambic category, created by spontaneous fermentation which rely on wild yeasts in the atmosphere to do their work. For example, the Cantillon Brewery has hundreds of vents in its roof which are left open to let the necessary microbes in. Among those is our midfield trio from Anderlecht. Gueuze (pronounced to rhyme with “cursor”) is slightly sour – an acquired taste – which is made from combining old Lambic with young then blending them into champagne-style bottles. Some refermentation takes place and the beer bursts out with a remarkable fizziness.
White beer – biere blanche or witbier – is becoming increasingly popular in UK bars and led by the Hoegaarden brand. They are delicious and spicy, and not only for drinking on a summer’s afternoon. Faro is generally lighter in alcohol and is a great refresher.
The best known of the fruit beers – which are Lambics – are cherry (kriek) and raspberry (framboise). Brewers dabble with other fruity ingredients such as damson and peach, but there is also banana and even mint to pamper every tastebud. The more commercially-successful are Timmermans, Lindemans, Belle-Vue, Cantillon and Morte Subite. Like many foodstuffs, however, the better tasting ones – and usually the more expensive examples – have fresh ingredients added rather than syrups and flavourings.
Trappist beers, brewed in Belgian monasteries by monks and “lay brothers”, tend to be strong, dark and malty. There are five Trappist breweries in Belgium – Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren. In addition to those are Abbey beers which are produced by brewers rather than churchmen, although the depiction of monks and stained glass on their labels would suggest otherwise. Belgian beer is a real area of sub-division and monastic beers split themselves down the middle into doubels and tripels. Doubels usually contain 6% or 7% alcohol by volume, while tripels weigh in stronger at 8% or 9% ABV. Others are heftier still – Rochefort (10% ABV) and Westvleteren (12% ABV) are similar in flavour to barley wine.
The most famous of the monastery beers – and the most recognisable in Britain – is Chimay. Belgian division carves them into three types – Chimay red (7% ABV), Chimay white (8% ABV) and Chimay Blue (9% ABV), each with their own characteristics.
The two leading Pils brands – light and lager-like beers – are Stella Artois and Jupiler, which both come from the giant InBev group. In 2004, the Belgian-based Interbrew, owner of much of the British, Canadian, Dutch, French, Italian and Spanish brewing industries, merged with Brazil-domiciled AmBev – which dominated South America – to create InBev, the world’s biggest brewing conglomorate.
Stella Artois has a proud heritage – it can trace its origins to 1366 and a tavern in Leuven, a brewpub that started supplying the local university in 1537. Sebastien Artois graduated as a master brewer and bought the brewery in 1717. It’s a crying shame that through no fault of the beer, it now has a reputation in this country for low-priced, high-octane, fisticuffs-inducing madness.
Another regular visitor to these shores is Leffe Blonde, a golden, slightly amber beer. It has a powerful nose and a prolonged bitter flavour which drifts into smokey areas through notes of tobacco, prune and spices.
Duvel, too, is becoming extremely popular. For instance, The Vineyard in Newcastle stocks it as its sole beer – a recent Christmas order was for 200 cases. Duvel (which translates as “devil”) is blonde and beautifully light gold, topped by a deep white, compact and tenacious head. Aromas of hop and barley slide into round dryness in the mouth where the balanced bitterness hints at orange zest, pear and green apple.
Belgian pub culture is different, too, and we could take lessons from the Dulle Griet in Ghent, where Kwak beer is served in a round-bottomed glass that sits in a wooden stand with a handle (without the stand, the glass can’t be put down). Many a Kwak glass would depart inside a tourist’s jacket had Dulle Griet’s host not invented an ingenious method of theft prevention – whoever orders a Kwak is requested to take off one of their shoes. They are collected in a wire basket that is heaved to the ceiling by pulley. Only after the customer has paid the bill – and returned glass and stand – will they have their pawned shoe returned.
There’s a hazard to drinking Kwak, though. When glass and wooden contraption are brought to the lips, the beer surges up, rather like the effect of a yard of ale. The unwary, unsuspecting or careless drinker risks getting soaked.
Dulle Griet, incidentally, is also known by the Anglicised name Mad Meg, a figure in a 1562 painting by Pieter Breughel the Elder, who depicted a peasant woman leading a female army to pillage Hell. Or it could be for a sale of uncollected shoes.
When there are characters like Mad Meg around and names such as Boon Frank, Blanche de Bruges, Clarysse, Bush 7, Julius, Orval, Saint-Louis and Van Honsenbrouck, the notion that there are no interesting Belgians is far from the truth. They may not be legendary in Britain yet, but they’re not half making a name for themselves.