Belgian beers

Related tags Good beer guide Cask ale Beer

Following the launch of the latest Good Beer Guide to Belgium & Holland, it's a good time to offer some of Belgium's renowned exports. Phil...

Following the launch of the latest Good Beer Guide to Belgium & Holland, it's a good time to offer some of Belgium's renowned exports. Phil Mellows reports.

How do you keep ale lovers happy without messing about with soft pegs and spiles and what-have-you? You could try lining up a few famous Belgians - Belgian beers that is.

They come in bottles and have all the caché of cask, witness the recently launched fourth edition of the Good Beer Guide to Belgium & Holland.

This is the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) on holiday. Author Tim Webb, who actually lives in Cambridge, is as passionate about Belgian beers as CAMRA is about cask conditioned ales. And he proves it in this edition by giving a good old CAMRA-style bashing to one of the most famous of all Belgian ales, Chimay.

Ironically, it seems the problems have arisen through satisfying the growing demand for these beers around the world.

Take a walk along any supermarket aisle these days and you are likely to see them - meaning that your customers are discovering them and drinking them at home.

This is not to suggest that all you need to do is shove some bottles on a shelf. For the price you will expect your customers to pay, probably £3 to £4 a bottle, you will need to deliver the continental service style that goes along with it.

The success of Interbrew's spiced wheat beer Hoegaarden, the only specialist brand that has achieved a decent on-trade distribution on draught, shows what might be possible.

It's cloudy, doesn't taste much like beer and costs at least £3 a pint but it sells because it's different and because it looks great in its own chunky branded glass with a luxurious deep head.

Drinkers feel they are getting more for their money and this applies to every specialist Belgian beer.

Category management gurus will tell you that you shouldn't waste display space by putting glasses on the back-bar. But with Belgian beers you have an excuse. The glasses advertise the range you have on offer.

There are operational challenges, of course. You have to make sure you always have the right glasses available, the glasses need to be kept in good condition, perhaps renovated regularly using a special powder, and ideally you should invest in brush-style individual glass washers at the bar. The glass should be cold and wet as the beer hits it.

Needless to say, this requires trained staff and you will help catch the interest and build the confidence of your customers if barstaff can also describe and tell stories about the beers. Tim Webb's guide, which talks about the brands as well as listing bars, is a very useful aid here.

If this sounds daunting, start small with three or four beers representing different styles - a blond, a brown, a wheat beer and a fruit lambic, perhaps, and grow from there.

The Good Beer Guide to Belgium & Holland by Tim Webb is published by CAMRA Books at £11.99


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If you are serious about introducing Belgian beers into your pubs, a trip to see how it works in Belgium might be a good idea. But to find out how it can work in this country you need only travel to Drury Lane in London's Covent Garden and a bar called Lowlander.

Lowlander was opened a year ago by Aubrey Johnson and John Riddelle who used to be at Hogshead and is designed along classical beer café lines with long bench seating and a bar that bristles with tall shining beer taps.

More important than all that, though, are the staff. They all receive training from a "beer sommelier" and are taken on educational tours of Belgium's many breweries.

"We need fantastic staff here," said Lowlander manager Mark Davidson. "They are not just order-takers. They are sales people. And having a conversation with the customer about what they are drinking enhances the experience."

Staff are encouraged to talk up the beers, to advise customers what to choose and to tell the stories behind the 30 bottled brews and 13 beers on draught.

Their education is passed on to the customers. Groups can book tasting sessions, hosted by beer sommelier Mark Stroobrand and based around a five-course menu washed down by 10 beers.

Lowlander also operates a try-before-you-buy policy for draught beers, using small tasting glasses.As well as Belgian beers, Lowlander specialises in brands from obscure Dutch brewers, as yet a largely unexplored category.

Best-selling regulars are joined by guest beers from microbrewers and the menu has sections on trappist and abbey beers, blonde beer and dark beers, wheat beers and fruit beers.

They are up against Grolsch, Heineken Export, Stella Artois and Oranjeboom and while Stella is usually the best seller, some weeks Leffe Blonde can outstrip it. This is thanks, in part, to meal deals in which you can buy the Abbey ale as part of a two or three course meal or simply served with that Belgian delicacy, mussels and chips.

Mark admits that serving such a wide range can be "an operational nightmare" when you have 30 different branded glasses behind the bar, plus Lowlander own-brand glasses for the guest beers. Draught beers are also served in two pint jugs.

Glasses are renovated every two months which helps the beer keep its head.

Prices for the draught Belgians are around the £2 mark for a half, a premium visitors expect to pay for the whole beer café experience. The condition for that is, however, an extremely high level of service, from the presentation of the beer in the glass to the relationships staff can build with individual customers.

As Mark puts it, "the details are standards for us."

Lowlander's top five beers...

  • Leffe Blonde
  • Hoegaarden
  • De Koninck
  • Affligem
  • Wiekse Witte.

Related articles:

CAMRA guide catches Chimay on the hop (11 November 2002)

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