It’s the mid-afternoon and I am not at Girardin (today’s plan) following an extended public transportation misadventure—but the debacle did place me just around the corner from one of Brussels’ newest breweries: Brasserie L’Ermitage.
For the most part, Belgians seem to be the only people with an immunity to American hops. They’re not interested in replicating the model of an American craft brewery, and I’d guess this is the hardest place around to find a hazy IPA. (There’s certainly some replication among Belgian breweries, but no country is more resistant to imitation than Belgium. A brewery obviously brewing a particular style of beer will avoid admitting it. To a Belgian, their own beers are sui generis—born immaculately. It’s going to be awhile before the bulk start taking their cues from Americans.) L’Ermitage is different. A collective of art students and homebrewers (thanks for the backgrounder, Eoghan!), they make a taplist that wouldn’t be out of place in any city in America:
But here in Belgium I’m not sure which direction inspiration flows. Let’s take a standout beer as one example. Cuvée Norcini is an Italian collaboration that I suppose could be called “American” in one sense—but illustrates how the folds in the brewing industry are doubling back one one another. A rustic saison using Romanella, an Italian wheat, aged in Bordeaux Pinot barrels from Château Margaux with Brettanyomyces. It’s a delightful 4.8%, which is the thing that makes it most unusual. That means the Brett is quite restrained and the Pinot has a chance to express itself. The wine adds some jammy depth, and there’s just a bit of funkiness to add character.
I don’t know anything about Romanella wheat, but the malts are interesting: cracker and bread crust. Last night I spent a lot of time with Yvan de Baets at Brasserie de la Senne, and we discussed what makes a beer “rustic.” The yeast, obviously, but I also think there needs to be a character of unrefined grain. Farmers would have kept the best grain for bread; the wheat would have been unmalted, leaving behind plenty of flavor. Romanella has it.
Americans have been making saisons for a couple decades, and credible mixed-fermentation beers for half that. It’s long enough that a certain sense of ownership has crept in. What started in the breweries of Pajottenland and Flanders has become a regular feature of American brewing. Age, wood (even “foeders”), blending, and mixed-fermentation have all been absorbed into the American bloodstream. Americans even have their own way of making these beers distinct from the Belgian inspiration. Over time, certain styles retained their Belgian provenance (dubbels, witbier) while wild ales came increasingly to be seen as homegrown.
This is the way of things. At what point did Dubliners quit thinking of their local beer as “London porter?” Belgians themselves are great borrowers, particular from the British. Although they’ll never admit it, Bavarians got helles from Bohemian pilsners—which the Bohemians learned how to make from the Bavarians. It’s an endless game of evolution.
Americans also borrowed from the British, but hoppy ales are so removed and the techniques and ingredients so different that it’s hard to call it theft. But saisons and wild ales? When a Belgian brewery makes a beer that tastes like Allagash, which took its inspiration directly from Belgium, how do we disentangle influence. Yesterday I tried a fantastic collaboration between Senne and De Garde—a similar situation.
I don’t have any answers, but L’Ermitage stands as a stark example of how fundamentalism is increasingly going to fail us. I love being confronted with these questions here.
Okay, so what about the beers that are just flatly, blatantly American? They’re good! A new session IPA is fully American, teetering toward top-heavy balance from the American hops and very thin malt base. We’re not in Manchester, anymore—Belgians are no better with 4.5% (or 4,5%, as it’s expressed here) than Americans. And yet this is a very nice beer, if a bit more spicy and noble on the palate. A mosaic-hopped Farmhouse IPA, made with a saison yeast but otherwise totally American, is actually more interesting than the white peach saison. They have an American facility with hops, and clearly find some inspiration from the US.
Incidentally, this is a cool place and should be high on your list to visit. Situating it [checks Google] 160 meters from Cantillon was not a dumb move, and I suspect people will soon be visiting in droves. To get to the taproom, you enter a very European, brick-walled passageway that might be hundreds of years old and feels vaguely monastic. The art-school background served them well in design. They used reclaimed materials—wood from packing pallets, primarily—to create a cool Bohemian vibe. The walls nod to Beaux Arts and primitivism—and just fun, random stuff. The brewery is to the left upon entry, and though they call it a nano, it’s actually an 8-hectoliter kit. It feels very hip and modern, and I was of course the oldest person in the room by decades. (Late update: a couple my age just wandered in.)
The entire beer world is in flux, and with each new brewery—especially those in traditional, beer-brewing countries, things become simultaneously clearer and more confusing.