“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.