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Belgium's beery weekend

Sign of the times
Proclaimed on the main square: the truth in English, French and Flemish.
Beer-lovers from Japan, the United States and Britain were among the enthusiasts I encountered on Brussels' Grand' Place in mid-month for the annual festival organised by the Confederation of Belgian Brewers. It was good to see such a tasting event being mounted by a brewers' trade body; in many countries, such organisations restrict themselves to lobbying over legislation and taxes. Better still, this showpiece for Belgian beer is held on the main square of the capital city. Imagine London's Trafalgar Square or The Mall, in Washington, D.C., lined with tents offering speciality beers.

Every visitor to Brussels goes to the Grand' Place, with its gilded and gabled buildings from the late 1600s and early 1700s, and many locals walk through the square. So visible were the beer tents that they attracted passing trade in a way that no other beer festival does. The festival ran from Friday through Sunday. On Saturday, the Town Hall was busy with weddings, and my favorite cameo was the moment when a bride in white popped over for a post-nuptial pint.

Only 30-odd breweries were represented, and few beers that were new to the connoisseur but, even in great beer nations like Belgium, most people are unaware of the selection. Many a Belgian had his eyes opened during this Weekend of Beer. My eyebrows were raised by a sign promising that a couple of beers a day would keep the doctor away.

I could not imagine that being posted in London or D.C., either, despite plenty of recent evidence that it is true.

For information on next year's Weekend of Beer:

Beer and cheese, please
Among the newer beers at the festival in Brussels was Passendale. One guest asked me why a brewery would name a beer after a tragic battlefield. More pleasant
Flowers and beer
A marriage gets off to a good start...a few beers with (newly found) friends.
connotations are intended. It is meant to accompany the Belgian cheese of the same name. This strong ale (6.0 per cent alcohol by volume), golden to pale amber, has a leafy (nettles?) hop aroma; a surprisingly light body, drying on the tongue; and a spritzy acidity in the finish. Perhaps I am being suggestible, but it does seem to have a slightly apple-like fruitiness and tartness. The latter could derive from the grist: wheat is used, in addition to crystal (a very small proportion of that, I would guess), pale ale and Pilsner malts. The hops are all Saaz (hence that "fresh" note?), but there are no herbs or spices. The beer has an unusual regime of fermentation. It begins with a lager yeast (for a fuller attenuation) but at an ale temperature (for those apple esters) It is then bottle-conditioned with a top yeast. Passendale is from the brewers of Duvel.

A Studebaker, too...
Imagine, under one roof, six breweries from different periods. While in Belgium, I re-visited the astonishing museum at the Martens' brewery. Its half-dozen brewhouses range from one with a square, open, kettle, 200 years old (made by the famous German manufacturer Steinecker) to a tiny pilot plant bolted to the wall. All have been reassembled, some from the original plans. The museum has a complete maltings, three steam engines, an original Von Linde ammonia compressor (for refrigeration), and every imaginable item of equipment (again, representing their evolution through the ages) up to filling, bottling and labelling machines, a 1940s Studebaker truck and a crane designed to lower casks into the cellars of cafés.

The collection had grown considerably since my last visit, and now occupies about 5,000 square feet on three or four levels. How did it start? In the 1970s, Jean Martens was faced with the need to replace a worn-out mash-tun. He could not bear to discard it. The rest is history, in more senses than one. I was shown round by Jean, now aged 81, but as nimble as one might expect a man to be when he drinks a couple of beers a day. The Martens brewery dates from 1758 and, occupies much of the village of Bocholt, in the Belgian province of Limburg and right on the Dutch border. I have always greatly enjoyed the brewery's strong ales, the amber Quattro and golden Sezoens, but it is more widely known for one of Belgium's hoppiest Pilseners.

For more about the museum go to:

Pilsener tasting
Martens Pils performed well in a blindfold tasting at the brewery, for the Belgian magazine Beer Passion. I did not guess that it came from the home team, but I
More beer, please
Gorgeous glasses, beautiful buildings: A Grand Place for a drink.
enjoyed its noble hop aroma; firm, rounded, body; and length. It was a tasting of Pilseners available in Belgium. I have long enjoyed Martens' neighbour Pax Pils, and again appreciated its almost stony, austere, dryness. I also liked the robustly, herbal hop flavour of Prosit Pils, though some of my fellow panellists found it just too medicinal.

I also greatly appreciated the flowery, clean, "spring-water" style of Akila Pils, from the Louwaege brewery. It reminded me of the famous Cristal Alken at its best. Cristal Alken was in the tasting, and had the good bitterness I have always enjoyed, but seemed harsher and huskier than I remember. From the same company, Maes Pils still had a touch of its typically "white wine" character, veering toward fruitiness, but not quite the elegance I recall.

Some of my fellow tasters especially liked Bavik Pils, in which I found a very good hop flavour, quite lemony in the lingering finish. I enjoyed the fresh, minty, hop aroma and firm, smooth, maltiness of Golden Kenia, but it fell away somewhat in the finish. Haacht Pils had a leafy, fruity, hop aroma; a light but firm body; but a slightly harsh dryness in the finish. SAS Pils left a lovely Brussels lace, and had a malty aroma and start, but again disappointed in the finish. Bockor Pils also had good lace, and was light, crisp and quenching. Romy Pils had the aroma of fresh green herbs and an enjoyable late dryness.

There will be a fuller report in a future edition of Beer Passion.

Published: SEPT 21, 2000
In: Beer Hunter Online

Brew Travel - Brewery Review - Beer Event Reviews

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