In a high-ceilinged wood-panelled room, tall windows overlooking the frenetic human chessboard of Grand Place, a man talks: ‘Belgium is a small country that likes to conquer with beer and food.’ There is then talk about Pils being on the decline in the country and craft beer sales starting to grow; the backslapping continues with news of the success of beer exports. This then starts me off thinking and recalling several other strands of thought from people I had tapped into over the past couple of years: is Belgian beer sitting on a time bomb? The following couple of days judging at the Brussels Beer Challenge while talking beer and drinking beer and being beer reminded me that there might be something in the future of Belgian beer that needs to be addressed in the near future (or it might even be addressed now, as those in the Belgian brewing industry in that room were well aware of the issue).
For those for whom beer is an infrequent source of either refreshment or liquid pleasure, I would guess that for them Belgian beer rests on a nest of laurels laid there by the likes of Leffe, Chimay, Stella and Kwak (nice glass, that would look good on the sideboard mum, perhaps next to the faux wineskin gran brought back from Spain in the 1970s) plus whatever sweet gueuze you can get in those tiny shops that dot the centre of Brussels (this is Belgian beer in the same way visitors to Munich during Oktoberfest probably see Paulaner as representative of Bavarian beer). Outside the city, beyond the trails of tourists checkmating their bodies around the Grand Place, more enterprising brewers are throwing in hops, inculcating yeast strains, aging and withering their beers, turning them inside out and op, applying a variety of grains and spices and then selling their wares to America and other parts of Europe rather than to the local café, where the regulars like their Jupiler. I think I first was aware of this trend when visiting one small brewer in 2006 and learning that the majority of his beers went to the US.
There are some great Belgian breweries, both craft and longer established, but I sometimes feel that the country is eclipsed by what is happening elsewhere and that some of its more established brewers are happy to sit back, look at their fob watches and think ‘we are Belgian’ in a German or Czech manner, but after my sojourn in Brussels I’m starting to have these thoughts: might Belgian beer find itself in a bit of a pickle if overseas’ markets collapse?