Luc De Raedemaeker is a respected and renowned Belgian beer sommelier. He also teaches, organises beer contests, including the internationally acclaimed Brussels Beer Challenge and is a Knight of the Brewers’ Mash Staff. There is no-one more qualified than Luc to comment on the ranking of Belgian beer on the global map.
He kicks off by discussing the mergers of the main players in the world of pils: AB Inbev and Sab Miller. “Pils beer is becoming more and more international,” he feels. “Jupiler, Stella Artois, Maes pils… all of these are vying for a spot on the premium pils podium, both at home and abroad.
These beers have a less typically Belgian character compared to our specialty beers. Nevertheless, from a brewing technology point of view, pils is the hardest beer to produce.
It is low in alcohol as well as crystal clear. As a pils brewer you have to be on top of your game as any mistakes you make show up straight away. It is essential to keep the taps and barrels in tip-top condition and to pour the beer correctly.”
Nevertheless, the main players have put Belgian beer firmly on the world map. Abbey beers such as Leffe, Grimbergen and Affligem were the first to open their doors to the specialty beers.
The 1990s saw the resurgence of gueuze in Belgium; a new batch of microbreweries sprang up and furthermore, classic breweries, such as Het Anker, rose from the ashes.
Thanks to the internet and social media, small market players such as the Cantillon lambic brewery, or the Struise Brouwers, gained access to the world and even grew into internet sensations.
Marketing is leaving its mark. “A real brewer will let you have a taste, first of all, often without any further explanation,” Luc says with a smile.
“A brewer feels that his or her beer will sell itself and does not need promoting. If marketing takes the upper hand, the beer turns into a brand-selling exercise. By the way, this is an international trend that I also see with craft brewers”.
Beer With a Soul
What are Luc’s views on Belgian beer culture? “Above all, there is the expertise of our own brewers, rooted in tradition,” Luc responds. “All of them are highly skilled when it comes to specific beer styles.”
In the international craft brewers’ scene you tend to come across the same beer styles, time and time again: IPA (India Pale Ale), Belgian style triple, stout…, all of them variations on a tried and trusted theme.
In a hip and trendy bar, you are given the choice of dozens of beers on tap accompanied by a hamburger, all in line with the concept.
“Nothing wrong with that, good luck to them, but I do miss the quirky element,” Luc comments.
These venues are vastly different from the majority of cafés in Belgium.
Pop into Den Engel on the Grote Markt in Antwerp (the main market square) or into Bahnhove, a former Antwerp commuter station in the municipality of Hove, now turned into a café.
You won’t fail to absorb the local atmosphere. The beer menu may be limited but you are guaranteed to find several classic beers at prices that beer lovers from abroad can only dream of. “This is ‘soul’. And you can also find this ‘soul’ in our breweries.”
Luc continues. “Just think of Het Anker, or Liefmans, or De Brabandere with its classic brewing hall full of ‘foeders’, of De Halve Maan or even the Zennebrouwers in their former industrial bakery … too many to list but all of them are brewing great beers.
And even in a dowdy canteen of a football club way down the league, with a bit of luck you can order a Westmalle Tripel and, if you are even luckier, it may come in the proper glass.
You could say that over here, beer is a social lubricant and snobbery does not come into it. At the bar, a builder is chin-wagging with a lawyer.
Mastering the Trade
The beer sommelier does not have a favourable view of opportunists who jump onto the export bandwagon and often taint the image of Belgian beer by bringing low quality products onto the market.
“As a brewer, you have to be in charge of the production process and not sell beer with questionable origins,” he argues.
“If you are not a brewer yourself, then work with a brewer who has earned his brewing credentials.”
It takes plenty of time to develop and perfect a new beer. This is diametrically opposed to the current ‘rat race’ where breweries are in search of the very latest beer, flavour and styles.
Having weathered the IPA wave, we are now flooded by sour ale that is marketed as the new bitter.
Luc’s opinion: “Personally, I am not a great believer as the sour taste of the beer puts many people off.”
Nevertheless, the fourth edition of the Brussels Beer Challenge serves as a confirmation that the Belgians have mastered their own ancient and traditional beer styles – saison, Vlaams roodbruin (Flemish red-brown), lambic, oude gueuze, kriek…
Saison Dupont Biologique (Brasserie Dupont) was crowned the Best Belgian Beer but nevertheless, a classic beer such as the ‘spéciale belge’ Palm amber beer also received recognition.