A letter from Belgium: The end of the season approaching

With the Essen Christmasbeer Festival (increasingly popular internationally – including with Italian beerlovers) still a month away, it might seem a bit premature to make an overview of the last halfyear season. But then again, the ever mounting number of festivities and beer-related events makes it difficult to write from too long a distance.

I’ve long lost count of how much I’ve attended, the last few months. Some things – as Birra dell’Anno – get fixed months in advance, whereas some festivals over here, are decided on split-second decision, rushing to the station to buy traintickets. Generally speaking, I’ve been at two kinds of events. On one hand, the classical beerfestivals – in Belgium usually organised by a local branch of the Zythos consumers’ organisation. On the other hand, membership of the Mondial Group of Beer Judges has brought me at the tasting tables of an increasing number of beercompetitions.

And there, I discern my first question to all interested. Every beerenthusiast knows about GBBF and its overseas counterpart, GABF; the Great American & British Beerfestivals. Apart from their incredible variety of beers on offer, they both have a very important trump: they are twinned with a beercompetition.

GBBF follows immediately upon the Champion Beer of Britain election, the results being disclosed at the start of the festival, to the cheering of the present. Similarly, the GABF runs alongside the Brewers’ Association competition, the results being reserved for the last day of the festival. Whereas the public of beerenthusiasts – and other punters – are especially interested in the discovery of new flavours, the honoured beers get of course special attention from the curious.Now that makes the festival interesting to the trade – brewers and middlemen alike. Because, let’s face it, most festivals are but of very little interest to most people in the trade – in as far as they might even regard the festivals as disloyal competition!

But if a brewers’ beer scores a medal, and a pubowner sees the celebrated brews liked by the visitors, they might be very tempted to give it an extra push, and they will happily be seen on the stand, next to the winners. Or, both European competitions I attended to in autumn – the European Beer Star at the Doemens Institute in Gräfelfing near München, as the Birra Dell’Anno in Milano, seriously lack something in that respect.

The results of the first will have their announcing at the annual Bier-Beviale in Nürnberg – a typical trade fair – whilst around the same time, a press conference will be held in Roma for the celebrated from the Italian beer scene. Far away from the public, supposed to try those beers. That is where the problem lies, for let’s not be coy: how long does the public remember the blablabla at the press conference?

Madness – a scant week before the Birra dell’Anno judging, a very nice festival (I’m told) was held at Cuneo. Why not link them together, and give both consumers and trade that extra incentive to come together, and search for excellence in the medal winners? And give judges, public and tradespeople extra time to mix, too!

But of course, I was going to speak about Belgian festivals. At a glance, which stuck out? The Beerbrothers’ festival in Mechelen, at first: just before the summerholidays, with an excellent array of summer beers, as well as some homebrews, an ever increasing feature on Belgian festivals, it would seem. I’m still trying to figure out how they do the excise exercise… But, who am I to complain? They had plenty to keep me going, even when the array might have been slightly less spectacular than last year.

Summer itself was pretty devoid of festivals – at least for me. I rather went out on expedition, just over the border, to explore the newer pubbreweries in the lovely province of Zeeland from the Netherlands. I certainly wasn’t going to return to the horrible Bier Passion Festival in my home town, Antwerpen. Especially not since its newest feature was a VIP corner, reserved for nabobs absolutely wanting to show their utter bloodymindedness, by trying to find the best combination of beers and… cigarsmoking.

But once September on, nothing could withheld me any longer. I slipped the Grand Place showcase, estimating I’d seen it all there, but next weekend, the Michael Jackson Low Countries Ratebeermeeting heralded the new season. For the third year in a row, our little brotherhood arranged an unbelievable display of rare beers – again including REAL Zoigl from the furthermost corner of Bavaria – and to top it all, host Dirk Van Dyck of Kulminator fame added a few of his trophies to be tested!

The very next day saw most of the same people reassembled in the Halles at St. Gilles, SE Brussels, for the – also – third edition of the Bruxellensis beerweekend. Every year this thing gets better – and for my Italian readers, we’re working hard to get Italian craftbrewers to join the international league to present their wares for the very first time in Belgium. Work for Unionbirrai, no?

My good friend Yvan, the Gentil Organisateur, will excuse me if I give a little point of criticism, but, really, could us gentlemen have some real toilets next year, please? The thing used so far, cannot be tolerated by any instance any longer. Certainly not by me; I want to wash my hands after going, capice?

The very next weekend, there was an absolute first: the brand new BAB-bierproevers from Brugge held their very first beerweekend. Usually, a first is in a little backstreet youthcentre, in the cafeteria, but not so here. They ordered nothing but the world-famous guildhall (UNESCO World Heritage, that is!) in Brugge, where they chartered half of the building, and livened it up no end with a fine array of Belgian brewers, plus one British, who actually proved to be of Italian origin. He makes some truly great beers, in his new homeland, Essex. But what really distinguished this new festival, was the culinary edge. Not only could people satisfy their hunger with some true haute cuisine snacks, continuously great toques were demonstrating their culinary art – with beer, of course – live for the interested, who were even able to sample once the dishes ready!

Not to be outdone, we found ourselves in Geel, where one of the longest standing Belgian beerfestivals was held, at the large Cultural Centre in town. Organized by Zythos branch “Onder ‘t Schuim” , I must have overlooked this festival for some 15 years, which made it very urgent to redeem myself. Another festival that impresses by a quasi-interminable beerlist, featuring also aged beers, which tend to become rare on festivalgrounds, lately. Some very new beers, too, and even very new breweries to the fore, which didn’t ruin anything for me.

Then Milano beckoned, and hardly a couple of weekends later, just enough to regain breath, München did the same. I have to work, off and on, so until November I did not attend any festivals. Not that there weren’t any, the festivalcalendar hardly takes a week off, between the summer and winterholidays. Thus, at last, I returned for the third year in a row to the Hasselt beerweekend, run by the Limburgse Biervrienden. They probably hold the record in offering new, never seen and untried beers. I am not exactly a newbie on Belgian beers, but these jokers managed, once again, to include 26 never-tried beers, in a list of 140+. Still, if this year they managed to surprise themselves, it was not by a beer like Alpaide, from the brand-new microbrewery in… Hoegaarden, but by a case of 15 year old Westvleteren they managed to get hold of. In exactly two hours and seconds, it was sold out. Some crazes don’t die off easily.

Now, you might be excused to think that I lost the thread of my own story, somewhere. Nono, I know I had a second question for you in store. This is simply: what festival are YOU attending, next year, here in Belgium? Don’t tell me you don’t have the time. You’ve got a year to choose from, any kind of festival to pick. So, get your yearplanner in front of you, tell your beloved about the Belgian chocolates , the best in the world (or just about the beers, if you are from the strong gender – female, that is), about the shops,… Come on, we want to meet you!

Joris Pattyn