Monday, 4 November 2013

The Wicker Man as beer

Saturday night, the dark dark night, somewhere in the countryside outside Malmedy, pointillist beads of light flickering in the surrounding hills and fields, while here at the start of a lane that leads down to Brasserie de Bellevaux, fiery torches are held aloft, handed out to initially bemused but then delighted beer writers, who have just spent two days in Liege judging beer at the Brussels Beer Challenge (the competition, now in its second year, aims to be held in a different place every year — I’ll be writing a bit more about it later in the week).

Down the lane we go, The Wicker Man being mentioned time and time again (as well as Madonna when some wax drips on my hand), with a local brass band ahead of us leading the way, invoking a wonderful if Laurel & Hardyesque sense of carnival. It’s joyous, surreal, giggle inducing and above all fun, which is what is forgotten sometimes about beer. Hey beer is fun.

Into the farm yard we herd, where Bellevaux has grown since being set up by former chemist Wil Schuwer in 2004, torches still jerking up and down, while a bonfire crackles, glistening haunches of wild boar slowly turning on a spit. I’ve had some great beer moments and this is yet another memorable one.

Across the yard in the brewery, the copper clad vessels reflect the light, adding more lustre to the evening, while glasses of the brewery’s bracing Blonde and its bone-dry Black are handed around. Wil’s wife Carla Berghuis greets us, emotion in her voice as she tells the brewery’s story, its mantra of localism and good beer stirring and joyful at once amid the smell of wood smoke and the good natured mood of the judges.

In the brewery, Wil discusses beer and brewing, especially Bellevaux Black, which appears in 1001 Beers. ‘When I thought of it,’ he says, ‘I thought of a British beer, but this being Belgium we added some foam. I now like to think of it as a porter.’ It is a beautiful beer, a sleek dark chestnut colour with an autumnal aroma of berries, a smoothness on the palate punctuated spikes of roast and dryness before finishing with an appetising dryness. I found it a comfortable and considerate companion to the wild boar and uplifting when it met the cranberry sauce I dolloped onto my plate.

The brewery also makes Tom’s Pale Ale, a Brune and a Triple that at 9% was a perilously addictive beer — dried pineapple, voluptuous sweetness followed by an ascetic dryness. What’s not to like? And while we ate a woman with an accordion wandered amongst the diners, adding to the sense of the occasion (this was not U Fleku with the man in the Corsican bandit’s hand scowling as he waits for change). Good beer, good food but more than that a great, hearty, homely, friendly, joyous sense of occasion. If you’re in the Ardennes look these guys up — I can’t promise the fire parade and the band though.

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