What Makes a Beer an [X]-ian Beer?

The Belgo bar in central London.

“If a beer has German malt, US hops and Belgian yeast, can it really be called a Belgian style beer?” That’s a good, if puzzling, question.

Michael Lally from Bushcraft Beer asked it on Twitter while putting together an episode of his podcast and we gave a 140-character answer: yes, because Belgian beer often uses foreign malt and hops, but the yeast is the source of its essential character.

Roman, a Belgian-born Londoner who brews ‘modern beers abstracted from classic Belgian styles’ at Solvay Society seems to broadly agree, as per this blog post:

The fruity and spicy notes that we have come to identify as ‘Belgian’ are the result of by-products generated by yeast during fermentation. Many Belgian beers — such as the tripel, wit and saison — have characteristic clove and white pepper aromas… Fruitiness in beer can be derived from hops, but it is also the result of esters… It’s quite clear therefore that we associate certain flavours and aromas with Belgian beers, many of which have been derived from the choice of yeast and fermentation profile.

But what about this: a Belgian brewer operating in Belgium uses US hops, British malt, and lager yeast shipped from a lab in Germany, to make a 4.5% ABV beer with no spicy or fruity notes; at the same time, a British brewer ships in Belgian malt, Belgian hops and a bucket of Westmalle yeast to make a 9% Trappist-style tripel in Barnsley. Which is more Belgian?

The other week when we considered a similar question — is Belgian a flavour? — someone (we can’t remember who — maybe Roman again?) suggested that Belgianness was as much about approach as ingredients. In other words, a Belgian will somehow make a beer taste Belgian under any circumstances.

This article from Joe Stange, co-author of the Good Beer Guide Belgium, on how Belgian brewers approach the global trend for in-your-face hoppy beer, provides evidence for and against:

[With] a few exceptions they are not cynical imitations of foreign craft beer. Instead, they adopt ideas about bolder hopping and fold it into the Belgian scheme: intricate mash regimes, high attenuation, relatively expressive yeast, and refermentation in the bottle… [But at the] Modeste [festival] in Antwerp… [the] winning beer was called Hip-Hop, and it claimed 100-plus IBUs using Columbus, Simcoe and Citra. It tasted more like 50 IBUs, with enough malt to carry it off… Come to think of it, it didn’t taste very Belgian. Maybe we should be afraid after all.

From Specific to General

This isn’t just about Belgian beer — you could ask the same kind of question about American, Czech, English or German beer. Or Yorkshire bitter.

At this point we started to think about a philosophical puzzle we only dimly understand — the Sorites paradox:

1,000,000 grains is a heap. If 1,000,000 grains is a heap then 999,999 grains is a heap. So 999,999 grains is a heap. If 999,999 grains is a heap then 999,998 grains is a heap. So 999,998 grains is a heap. If …… So 1 grain is a heap.

With apologies to any real philosophers who might be reading, we take the point of this thought exercise to be that you either (a) accept 1 grain of sand is a heap or (b) acknowledge that some things in life, like how many individual hairs you can have and still be considered bald, cannot be made precise, but that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless or non-existent. (See also: ‘craft beer’.)

There are many, many variables that contribute to a beer’s national or regional identity; if you flip each switch, one at a time, at which point does that identity cease to be?

Actually, hmm, this is worryingly close to being more generally, real-world political. That yeast answer we came up with first was much simpler.

8 thoughts on “What Makes a Beer an [X]-ian Beer?”

  1. Different brewing cultures have long stolen ideas from each other and appropriated them. Part of the problem that the books we read (or observations we make) are a snapshot of a moment in time, and then people think that is way things are *supposed* to be (see: beer styles). Beer is not *supposed* to be anything. It judges nothing, it has no norms or values of its own — not even cultural or national ones, thank goodness.

    A beer is Belgian if it is brewed in Belgium. That’s it.

    Having said that, here are my observations of this moment in time: Generally speaking, there is a hell of a lot more to Belgian beer than yeast. If a brewer sticks with his single-step mash, highly modified malt, and American hops, and plans to force-carbonate it in a keg, then adding “Belgian” yeast like it’s magic powder (probably manufactured in France or the US) is not going to make the beer any more “Belgian.” or “Belgian-style.”

    Meanwhile, if a Belgian brewer uses American hops and clean American-style ale yeast, but she uses Continental malts, does a multi-step mash, and bottle- or keg-conditions it with a bit of extra yeast and a warm room, serves it with some ceremony into a unique glass, well… That’s pretty Belgian, despite the yeast and hops.

    Too much is made of yeast. Brewing processes matter… and so does place.

  2. If the Sorites paradox is a bit much, try the classic Only Fools and Horses Version where Trigger explains how his road seeepers brush has lasted 20 years:

    Trigger: And that’s what I’ve done. Maintained it for 20 years. This old brooms had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time.

    Sid: How the hell can it be the same bloody broom then?

    Trigger: Theres the picture. What more proof do you need?

  3. You realise you could get round this whole problem by using a few more words? As Joe says, any beer brewed in Belgium is a Belgian beer – but Ticketybrew Dubbel (say) is a beer brewed in the Belgian style. The problem is that ‘Belgian-style’ (like the ‘-style’ suffix in general) has been overused, to the point where it doesn’t necessarily convey anything more than “I’d like you to think of Belgian beer while you’re drinking this”. But that, or something like it, is what you’re getting at. Then when the style is tweaked you just need to say “brewed using a modified version of traditional Belgian methods” – it’s more longwinded, but it saves you from having to answer impossible questions about whether something’s Truly Belgian.

  4. Do Belgians drinkers call Belgian beer Belgian? Do they smack their lips and say “yes, that’s the Belgian taste I was looking for in my beer today!”?

  5. Are you in danger of perhaps over-thinking this one? Mind you the homogenisation of distinct national beer styles into one global craft nexus (is that the right word? Hopefully you get my drift) is something that could be cause for concern.

    1. Not much concern, if you ask me. The British Craft Beer Revolution is now into it’s twelfth glorious year and in a massively studenty town I can still get cask bitter in pretty much any pub I go into. Similarly in Brussels, if you’re somewhere that doesn’t sell any traditional Belgian beers it’s almost certainly because they’ve only got Jupiler, not because they’ve only got US IPA.

      1. The “risk” is not so much replacement as hybridisation – so for instance Old Crafty Hen is now selling almost as much as Old Speckled Hen, Proper Job is now catching up on Tribute (which in itself was a bit revolutionary when it was created in 1999).

        It’s always happened, but people feel less ownership when the evolution appears to be driven by foreigners rather than eg pale ale replacing porter.

        I guess the other saving grace is that the Belgians aren’t always very good at the hoppy stuff – I’ve had some really clumsy efforts at IPA in Belgium. Export markets tend to only see the good stuff

        Wildly OT – if you want to know why pubs close, this negotiation-by-A-board gives an idea :
        https://twitter.com/Pubdefender1/status/865105238713356288

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *