Take an unbranded glass and taste a blond, an amber, a bruin or a rood. I’d like to know if you can guess the beer and the brewery every single time. This gets even harder if the test comprises some lesser known or hard to find beers. But today I’m not here to discuss quality. I’d rather see this as one of the side-effects of a lively and rich beer culture.
Some brewers have just started up and will take years to create their perfect beer; some will never really manage it. There are visionaries who put new beer styles on the map or add a Belgian touch to foreign beer types. There are also creative brewers who veer off the well-trodden paths and develop ‘bastard’ styles.
These don’t always work out but are often interesting. Then there are the gourmets who strive for a happy marriage between chocolate and beer or develop a herbal beer with an eye towards gastronomy.
Microbreweries are in a world all of their own. There’s plenty of freedom, especially for the very smallest ones, who don’t need to obey the strict laws of economics. “I don’t want to grow, brewing is my hobby, I want to follow my own path,” is what the microbrewers say.
They can stay small, unless and until the consumer has a different opinion, embraces the beer and the brewer feels obliged to come out of the shadows and enter the well-known growth spiral of investment, investment and... investment.
This is how the small players can grow big. Just take a look at Brasserie d’Achouffe, they started 30 years ago in a cattle barn and are now a player on the international stage.
The brewing virus strikes mercilessly. It is just like cooking. Chefs who have been called to the stove from a young age, always busily wielding their pots and pans, helping out left and right, doing a few bits on the side, then get trained professionally and make it thanks to their talent and drive. In the same way, ambitions vary in the beer world.
Some are aiming for the premier league and achieve this status by conquering the export market. Look at the success of some geuzestekers – mixers of lambiek beers -, modest as it may be by some standards.
“American beer freaks consider me a rock star these days,” says Armand De Belder of 3 Fonteinen on television. He can see the humour in it: how to become the latest trend through talent, passion and years of tenacity.
Would he have imagined it in his wildest dreams? Just to remind ourselves: 30 years ago the trade of geuzesteker had almost vanished from the face of the Belgian earth.
Armand and a number of kindred spirits decided to continue the profession. These days, production of oude geuze can barely keep up with demand. Around 10 established Belgian geuzestekers keep the tradition alive while German, Japanese and American fans have all left their imprint.
Fashion also plays a part. Hops have made a comeback and sweet is not trending any more. Tomorrow, sour will be in. These fashions create a culture of copies, from a strong blond beer to IPA. Marketing efforts are translated into snazzy packaging or a retro look.
In some cases beer assumes the elegance of wine, marketed in a bottle fit for a table in one of the the better restaurants.
You may even find a few words of explanation on the beer menu. If you’re in luck you will find out who poured his or her heart and soul into that bottle.
Or you discover a brewer who is not very well known at home but a star abroad, or perhaps not, and you can start your own quest for the perfect beer for you. Cheers!