When the real geeks are already laying out plans for the utmost daring pairings of hotch-potched food with insanely experimental brews, both for the X-mas night dinner and that on New Year’s Eve, the more demure amongst us end their season
once the half-December weekend is upon us. That might sound rather well-determined, both in time and in place, but then the thing is quite clear-cut: that weekend, we all make the pilgrimage to the “Heuvelland”hall in Essen, a small Flemish community, reaching into the Netherlands.
‘Cause, as many’s the international beerlover knows – whereas this place is the rest of the year about as interesting to us, as a showroom for industrial soupkitchens would be, that particular weekend the people from O.B.E.R. transform this unassuming sportshall into the Holy Ground of Christmas Ales. Belgian Christmas ale, that is, seen the fact that those already account for 126 items, this year, and that’s plenty of work for the always too restricted team of volunteers.
O.B.E.R. is a shortening for Objectieve Bierproevers van de Essense Regio: the Beerconsumers’ branch of Zythos in that remote part of the Antwerpener province. Their indefatigable chairman Gerard Peeters took the idea with him to organise a yearly happening, bringing together every Christmas-, fin d’Année-, or festive Belgian beer he could collect, and offering those to the public at large.
Public, however, that left the initiative for more than five years as little more than dormant, but gradually, a change initiated – because the “public” changed itself too. Instead of the usual members & family, strengthened by some visitors, affiliated to other Zythos branches, a steady trickle of visitors from much further away began to be visible. Mind you, because of its location, Essen had always attracted fair number of attendees from over the nearby Dutch border. But now we were talking about more exotic places of origin: the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Italy, the United States, and even Australia, New Zealand and the Russian Federation… Witness these days is a map at the tokens’ stand, were multicoloured pins decorate a World map, each time a new pin, when a representant of another nation makes his entry.
As the people from OBER witnessed this growing amount of visiting travellers, they had to strengthen forces, and when today, you wander into the vast Heuvelland-hall, and see it filled to the brim with happy beertasters, it is hard to imagine that not much more than five years ago, the festival was being held in the backroom of the local parochial sport’s club, and that that was ample enough to fit all in. Equally interesting is their remark that since the foreigners kept coming in from all over the world, filling the two local B&B’s, and plundering the chips-stalls, the local people started to become aware that something was going on, and they have now timidly started to show their faces as well.
Organising such an event is not all pleasure. The number of breweries in Belgium (about 130), might not seem exaggeratedly huge, and even so, not all of them make a Christmas special; still, there’s the fact that you ought to know about them, you ought to persuade them to provide enough of the brew to be able to put them on the menu, not to mention start brewing early enough, in order that bottling or kegging is done well in time for the same people to venture out and collect them. Not all those brewers are to be found in the nearby flatlands, some are reached via iced-up forestroads in remote parts of Wallonia (soon another country, if you are to believe their TV?). And if all that is arranged for, you have to build up stands, for serving your esteemed customers…
The organisers are a busy lot: not only organise collecting, displaying, and building up, but sale, serving of both beer and food, or drivers’ drinks, all is theirs. No urge for the brewer to travel to this particular place, stay overnight, and having to adjust to the local prices and demands. All is done for them. Don’t you think for a moment that this makes that fickle lot a sight grateful! Oh, no – brewers grumble, refuse to brew, refuse to sell if their demands are not met (and we’re talking way of representation in the festival booklet, here!). And when finally, all is ready, it turns out that some brewers can’t deliver. True, a last minute infection is a disaster, even more for the brewer than for the festivalorganizers, who had planned to collect, not to mention to go ahead with printing the booklet.
How does the festival work? Well, you queue and collect a glass (refundable), as well as tokens and (or) a booklet (11 tokens for €15,-), you study either booklet or public list, and go to the counter to order your Stille Nacht Reserva, your draught Equinox, your steaming hot Glühkriek, or whatever strikes your holiday-inclined fancy. When run out of tokens (after all, you wanted to eat some croque, or maybe stew with X-mas ale), you join the queue again, and offer yourself – and your numerous friends, talking all kinds of exotic languages around the table you’ve settled at – a new series of tokens. Until, presumably, you run out of X-mas ales to try (improbable, but enfin,…) or the bleary-eyed organizers drive you out of the hall at dusterpoint. If that’s Sunday 1.00 AM, you can always return some 10 hours later to continue…
Amongst the visitors this year, I remarked some of your countrymen, as Kuaska and his friend Schigi of sommelier-fame, several chairpeople of other Zythos-branches, the absolute recordholder at Ratebeer.com (Jens Ungstrup from Denmark), beerwriter Tim Webb from the UK, Amsterdam’s Ron Pattison, webmaster behind the best European on-line-beerguide, bigshots from EBCU and MGBJ, but also real beerpersonalia as Gumer Santos, head brewer at Rochefort. Excusez du peu!
Under all this attention, yours truly kept mainly quiet, trying to describe 17 new entries to the personal records of beerhunting trophies. Which brings me to the last issue, a bit remarkable in itself. OK, I did not sample the classical greats this year, as there are Stille Nacht, Rochefort 8 on magnum, or Bush Prestige – after all, they’re old acquaintances. But the beer that marked me most was something called Triest X-mas 2007… which happens to be a homebrew, only available at the festival.
Remarkable, as I said. When do we meet – mid-december 2008?