Why Belgium is the perfect playground for a beginner beer geek

If you’ve decided that you’re going to get into beer, the chances are you will go through a Belgian phase. You may, in fact, never come out of it.

Look at these obsessives, for example, who go to Belgium multiple times every year and find endless fascination in the country’s beer.

We’ve identified five factors that we think make Belgian beers to appealing to ‘beginner’ beer geeks – people at stages three to five – beyond the obvious fact that Belgium is home to many of the world’s greatest beers.

1. Variety

When you first encounter Belgian beer, there’s an impression of boundless choice. Even the most basic bars have lengthy beer lists, usually with enough options to offer something different throughout a weekend city break. The beers on offer range from brain-dissolvingly sour to syrup sweet, and often come with tantalising, almost romantic descriptions.

2. Familiarity

Most Belgian bars will offer a set of reliable classics – the Westmalles, Chimays, Duvel, and so on. So, while there is a lot of choice, it’s not like drinking in a modern UK taproom where the beers change constantly, week by week, like fugitives trying to evade detection. In Belgium, it’s easy to identify favourites and go back to them as often as you like, as you get to understand your own preferences.

3. Consistency

Most Belgian beers are served from the bottle, and most of these breweries have been bottling for a very long time, so when you drink Westmalle Tripel it will taste more or less the same wherever you drink it, unlike with draught beer (and especially cask) where so much depends on the venue. Caveats apply: we have noticed consistency issues with Abt 12, for example, which put us off drinking it for a while.

4. Ritual

On the ground in Belgium, at least, there are the matching glasses, the perfect pours and the general reverence for the product that seems to apply even in non-beer-geek places. Every glass of beer is the most important in the world at the moment it’s served. And if you like reading, there’s plenty to read, from the history of the distinctive yeast to the tales of individual breweries.

5. Quirkiness

Pink elephants! Trolls! Peculiar glassware! It was made for the Instagram age. It’s just fun.

* * *

Are there downsides?

Well, perhaps the generally higher strength of Belgian beer might be offputting to the average British person.

It certainly took us quite a while to adjust to a sensible Belgian drinking pace.

And actually, the alcohol burn can seem overwhelming at first, like the whisky wall we wrote about in last month’s newsletter. We remember considering Chimay White undrinkable the first time we tried it because all we could taste was ethanol. Of course we love it now.

For some, the Belgian scene might also seem a little conservative. There are new breweries and styles emerging – certainly enough to quench our curiosity whenever we visit – but we guess it is difficult for new players to enter the market.

On the whole, though, Belgian beer strikes just the right balance between novelty and solidity. It’s vast but knowable. Often complex but rarely ridiculous. Very weird but absolutely everyday.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 23 June 2018: Lager, Gas, Glass

Here’s everything around beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from Belgium to Oregon via Moscow. (And with special thanks this week to our Patreon subscribers for suggestions.)

Some news: there is a shortage of CO2 (carbon dioxide) which is affecting not only the food industry but also pubs which rely on it to add sparkle to certain beers and soft drinks. It’s been brought about by a combination of factors, not least of which is the World Cup which causes a Europe-wide surge in demand for lager, especially in Moscow. But…

The [British Beer and Pub Association] has issued some guidance to its members reminding them that CO2 used in drinks, including for dispensing beer at the pumps, must be food grade gas…. “We’d be concerned this is not the time to go looking for a white van man who says they can supply you with CO2,” [Brigid Simmons] said.

(On the whole, people did not take well to the Campaign for Real Ale’s attempt to score a cheeky goal off the back of this by pointing out that cask ale produces its own CO2.)


Graffiti: lager, lager, lager.

Alec Latham has been reflecting on the recent resurgence of lager in the UK, updating on a similar post from last year:

The acid test is when the traditional ale oases that dominate Britain’s rural areas and smaller towns give way to this proper matured beer style – hopefully reflected in pubs where corporate Lager still holds a 70% hold…. Last year in that local catchment, I found evidence of just four breweries (not including a giant – Wells & Young’s). This year, the tally has shot up to thirteen. These counties are by no means brewing epicentres, so this augmentation could be applied nationally – probably with a margin in its favour.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 23 June 2018: Lager, Gas, Glass”

Session #135: Sepia-Toned Pubs

The Session, when bloggers around the world get together to write on the same subject, is a fragile thing, only ever one dropped ball away from disappearing altogether. This month’s was looking dicey until Al at Fuggled stepped in heroically to save the day, proposing for Session #135 the topic ‘Sepia Tones’. Here’s our contribution.

Over the past few years we’ve spent a lot of our time thinking in monochrome, thumbing through decaying papers, and staring into the eyes of long-dead brewers and pubgoers. But something about Al’s particular choice of words made us think not of archives but of a particular category of pub that we’ve sometimes struggled to describe.

The Blue Bell, York.

We’ve sometimes used the shortcut ‘proper pub’ but calling them sepia toned is rather more poetic, and also implies less of a judgement against other less ‘proper’ pubs.

The Marble Arch, Manchester.

These are places dominated by shades of brown, from the dark wood of the bar to walls either stained with nicotine or painted to look that way. The prints on the walls are yellowed, the paintings dark and varnished to death, the photographs jaundiced.

Swan With Two Necks, Bristol.

The beer probably sits somewhere on that stretch of the colour spectrum, too — perhaps Courage Best, Bass, Tetley, or some other brand from a long-gone brewery frozen in the flash-bang of nostalgia, fading away with mishandling and neglect.

Two pints of Courage Best.

They have them on the Continent, too, where the clue is in the name: brown cafes, or brown bars.

A Belgian Brown Cafe.

Here’s one test: take a photo in a sepia-toned pub and compare it to one  of the same place from a hundred years ago — can you see much difference?