Joe Stange, co-author of the recently updated Good Beer Guide Belgium, on the rise of interchangeable beer and Belgian beer heritage
Here we are, drinking, in our post-truth, post-fact, postmodern reality - fake news and fake brewers. Nothing is certain, except that the new style will be gone again next week. Authenticity is elusive - or is that illusive? Unreality seems to creep from our news feeds to corrupt the very beers we hold in our hands.
Where do these beers really come from, anyway? And does it matter?
It’s only beer, no need to overthink it - not when I’m happy to do that for you. Because all things being equal, I prefer beers rooted in their own somewhere. Sure, I enjoy flavour and a bit of alcohol. But I’m in this for the cultural experience - I want context.
Many beers these days seem to lack context altogether.
Beers without borders
Brewers around the world make ‘Belgian’ beers, while their Belgian counterparts make familiar IPAs with Americana. They get malt and hops from any other country, pick a neutral yeast from hundreds of strains, strip their water down to zero, then rebuild it from scratch to match any profile from any other place.
This is modular brewing—shop the catalogue and push the buttons. It has little or nothing to do with its neighbours or surroundings. And while not all of these imitations are credible, enough of them look and taste, well… interchangeable.
On top of this, marketeers in Aarschot or Copenhagen can pretend to brew while ordering their product via email from a reliable Belgian factory. The labels might or might not make this clear. That beer could come from anywhere; the savvy entrepreneurs are content for us to assume all sorts of things.
Interchangeable beer is postmodernity in liquid form. The sign has detached from the thing signified; things are uprooted from their origins. Sense of place is fleeting.
So, will the real Belgian beer please stand up?
What makes a beer ‘Belgian’?
Of course, any beer brewed in Belgium is Belgian. Geography, however, is not the point.
There are many distinctive brewing traditions. Recipe choices are infinite, but there are certain hallmarks of Belgian brewing. These are why - even as rest of the beer world tastes increasingly American - Belgian beer maintains its own strut.
There are tools in the box, from which a brewer can pick and choose. They include:
- Multi-step mash regimes that produce delicate body and resilient foam, especially when combined with certain continental malts and relatively high carbonation - presentation counts in Belgium.
- Expressive fermentation, via a distinctive yeast that provides house character. This is not about big or small - a tiny brewery might have 10 different yeasts for 10 different beers and, thus, have nothing to say.
- Bottle- or keg-conditioning - a smidge of yeast and time in the warm room to spark re-fermentation. This adds complexity, shelf life and characteristically Belgian panache.
- Balance and drinkability. Many Belgian brewers have an innate sense of this; even the strongest ales and sharpest gueuzes seem to find a balance that compels us to have another.
In 2016 UNESCO granted Belgium’s beer culture the status of ‘intangible cultural heritage’. What does that mean? It means that people who spend a lot of time pondering this sort of thing decided that Belgian beer culture is something we ought to protect.
Protect from what, though?
That’s easy: ourselves.
Globalisation never was a one-way street, nor even two-way. It’s an all-out crash derby where ideas move in any direction, and they collide. Their acceleration has accelerated.
This decision to favour what I call sincere beer is a choice among many, never an obligation. The idea is simply to reward honesty and local context—wherever you may find yourself.
It doesn’t mean shunning innovation. Combining old ways with new ones to make new things is inevitable, that’s how progress works. But there is nothing innovative about blithely copying another American IPA.
Brewers can choose to root their beers in place. And as bartenders you have more choices than ever.
There is a corollary to that: our choices make a difference. We vote in the usual way.
The Good Beer Guide Belgium is out now.
Read more about the global trend for hopped beers, and the hop varieties currently in vogue.