The jewel in the Belgian crown

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The perfectionist brewers of Belgium are hoping to make an impact in the bars and pubs of the United KingdomAccording to the Internet, that flawless...

The perfectionist brewers of Belgium are hoping to make an impact in the bars and pubs of the United Kingdom

According to the Internet, that flawless fountain of all knowledge, there are a total of 242 famous Belgians.

Closer inspection reveals, however, that only six of these 242 so-called household names are famous: "The muscles from Brussels" Jean Claude Van Damme, Tintin, Poirot, Eddie Merckx (five times winner of the Tour de France), Audrey Hepburn (trust me, she's Belgian), and last but not least, the Manekin pis.

The fact that this abridged version of the Belgian Who's Who contains two fictional characters and a small statue suggests that autograph hunting is not set to become Belgium's national pastime.

Instead, it is Belgian produce, rather than its personalities, that enjoys international notoriety. Luxurious chocolates, deluxe cheeses and... er... waffles and brussel sprouts are among this lowland country's most recognised exports.

However, the real jewel in the Belgian crown is its dazzling array of specialist beers and lagers. Belgium boasts the largest range of distinctly different beers and labels in the world and has a brewing history that dates back to the 11th century.

Despite this heritage, only the major, more mainstream brands have successfully made the trip across the channel to British shores.

By far the most successful export in terms of share of the UK market is the ubiquitous Stella Artois, which is predominantly brewed on these shores. As the leading lager brand, a staggering 18 pints of Stella Artois are drunk every second in this country and according to owners Interbrew, if it were to be withdrawn from sale, the lager category would be instantly transformed into one of decline.

However, it is the success of the white beer Hoegaarden that has ploughed the furrow for the more specialist Belgian beers. The cloudy white beer was relatively unknown to the British drinker until it was taken over by Interbrew in 1997. Production was stepped up to 855,000 hectolitres a year, and thanks to increased distribution and an intensive marketing drive, bottles of Hoegaarden accompanied by its distinctive glass started to appear in pubs and bars up and down the country.

At first the British drinker was wary of its hazy, pale colour, but soon the unique packaging and flavour overcame the problems associated with premium pricing and became synonymous with the qualities of Belgian beer.

In addition to the Hoegaarden breakthrough, the profile of Belgian beers has been enhanced by the success of the Belgo restaurant chain. Earlier this month, owner Luke Johnson opened the fifth Bierodrome gastro-pub in central London and plans to open more than 25 nationally. Visitors to the Bierodrome in Islington, London, can choose from over 150 different types of Belgian beer.

Paul Gilchrist, Bierodrome operations manager said: "Over the last few years people have become bored with drinking the same old manufactured, mass-produced lagers.

"Consumers are on the look-out for a more quality product. Belgian beer is brewed over a longer period of time, with no additives, more taste and more flavour, and in turn attracts a more discerning drinker."

However, for those seeking the genuine Belgian beer experience, jump on the Eurostar and look no further than the annual Belgium Beer Weekend held in the Grand-Place in Brussels every September.

The festival acts as a magnificent showcase for the national drink and is hosted by the Knighthood of the Brewers' Mashstaff, a confraternity dressed in red robes and funny looking hats, who conduct the festival with a pomp and ceremony that is unfortunately absent at the Great British Beer Festival every August!

After it is blessed at mass in the honour of Saint Arnold - the patron saint of the brewers - a barrel of beer is paraded through the streets of Brussels accompanied by a flourish of trumpets and brought to the gothic room of the Town Hall. The Knighthood, still resplendent in robes and hats, then induct new members by knighting them with a mashing rake at a grandiose ceremony.

The beer stands for this year's show were then declared opened by Eddy Merckx, yes the Eddy Merckx, the mayor and the alderman of the City of Brussels.

The ostentatious backdrop of the Grand-Place in Brussels acts as the perfect setting for sampling the eclectic selection. Seven pilsner lagers, eight amber beers, 12 trappist beers, 26 abbey beers, seven guezes (brewed with wild yeast), 25 fruit beers (including cherry, banana, strawberry, peach, apricot to name but a few), 13 strong pale ales, eight wheat beers, three old brown beers and 18 regional specialities are drunk from a dazzling array of weird and wonderful glasses, accompanied by brass bands and sporadic outbursts of singing.

The festival is a fabulous opportunity to sample both the recognised brands of the north and the more specialist beers found in southern Belgium, Any Belgian worth his sprouts will confirm that, while the beers from the Flemish-speaking Flanders region in the north have, up until now, had the lion's share of the limelight, it is the French-speaking and relatively unknown southern region of Wallonia that provides some of Belgium's most interesting smaller family brewers.

The Walloon breweries have been exporting small amounts to the UK for the last 10 years and have enjoyed a growing reputation among beer connoisseurs, helped by the endorsement of beer guru Michael Jackson.

Jacques Bury, head of the Walloon Trade Office in Birmingham, said: "Walloon brewers hope to introduce a new outlook of life and drinking. They are so proud of what they do and take it very seriously. The same way the French perfect their wine, the Belgians perfect their beer."

The first Walloon brewery was set up in 1074 and today beer production is around 14million hectolitres per year, with about one third going for export, but little of it coming to the UK.

The main obstacles faced by Walloon brewers are price and distribution.

The Silly brewery, which is named after its location in the village of Silly, brews predominantly top fermentation beers, including La Divine and Silly Saison. It has found it hard to meet the volume requirements of both supermarkets and leading distributors. The brewery is instead looking to target independent pubs, bars and speciality outlets.

With a small team of 15 workers and an annual production of only 11,000 hectolitres of beer, breweries such as Silly have to concentrate on quality rather than quantity.

This restrictive practice, combined with a considerably higher ABV (6.5 to 12 per cent) and a painstaking attention to detail, places the beer firmly in the premium price category.

However, Bury insists that expense shouldn't dissuade publicans thinking of offering Belgian beers. "It's not expensive really, licensees mustn't be afraid to experiment. People assume its over-priced, but a Belgian beer retails at a lot less than a glass of wine at about £1.50 to £2.50", he said.

"You don't drink a beer because it is cheap, you drink a beer because it tastes nice, and these are beers to savour and relish. I would expect publicans serving Walloon beers to serve it with love, in a proper glass and with the right amount of froth!"

How to pour Belgian beer

  • Pour the bottle into a dry glass held at an angle
  • Gradually straighten the glass
  • Leave about a quarter of the beer in the bottle
  • Place the glass on a drip mat.

Serve the beer holding the glass by the stem to avoid influencing the temperature.

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