Belgian Beer in Belgium

Although I'm back in the US and need to attend to things local (Holiday Ale Fest, anyone), I still have a fair amount of content I didn't get to address on the road. I'll be mentioning it over the course of the next few days or weeks. Other people's travel stories are never that interesting, but I'll do my best to make them relevant.

First up, the terrain of beer styles as they actually appear in Belgium. My sense was that Belgium would be like Britain and the US: a binary market of macro lagers on the one hand and a rich tapestry of different "good" beer styles on the other. I was half right. The beer market is both structurally different, and also distributionally different.

Macro lagers (Jupiler, Stella, etc) control 70% of the market, as expected. On the "good" side, though, there's serious homogenization, too. Go to any cafe in Belgium, and you'll find that the "good" beer side is also dominated by the same familiar names--Leffe, Grimbergen, Duvel, Orval, one of the krieks*, etc. Some of these are macros with middling character, some indies with great character. But you'll be hard-pressed to find more than two or three smaller breweries available. It's more like a three-tier system, where there's the macro lagers, the large ale producers, and everyone else.

A big part of this dynamic is that Belgian breweries largely bottle their "good" beer--particularly the strong, robust ales we think of when we think of "Belgian beer." Cafes will always have lager on tap, and they may have a handle or two for ales. But mostly, if you order a specialty beer, you'll get a bottle, not a pour. This is intentional; Belgian brewers design their beers to go through a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Many don't even keg their beer. Typically, a beer will spend a week in primary, then some longer period in conditioning (often a long period of lagering) and then spend time in a "warm room" after bottling to finish out the secondary fermentation. When you're served a beer in Belgium, the waiter will bring the appropriate glass (breweries often have a different glass for all their beers), decant it for you, and leave about a half inch of beer in the bottle with the lees. He will turn the bottle toward you so you can see the label. Very elegant.

All of this is the inverse of British brewing, where the good stuff is designed to be served on cask. In Britain, this means you're always finding beer from local breweries (though you may find national brands, too). In Belgium, you have to seek the beers out, either at specialty cafes or bottle shops. The former are much less numerous than they are in the US, the latter much more, at least in medium-sized cities. In local towns, markets are harder to find. In bottle shops, you do find the local stuff, though. So if you go to Belgium, make sure you visit them, not just the cafes. It's where you'll find the beer you're looking for. Go to cafes, too, but content yourself with a bottle of Du Bocq Gauloise Brune or Rochefort--something interesting, but probably not obscure.

One of the most disappointing developments in Belgium is the debasement of kriek. While there are a few extant examples of real lambic-based kriek, by far the more common concoction is a sticky substance that reeks of cough-syrup-cherry flavor. In fact, it seems like the word "kriek" has gone through a transformation so that this is the meaning of the term. At this time of the year, you can also get it warmed up (gluhkriek), which only volatilizes those horrible aromas. Serve someone a very dry, complex 100% spontaneously-fermented kriek and they'd probably sue you for poisoning. A shame.