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 :

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