Although there are few Belgian celebrities, the country's beers more than make their mark in the famous-name stakes. Richard Fox visits Brussels and decides that British pubs would also benefit from introducing their own beer lists and beer-friendly menus.
Name three famous Belgians. It's an old bar-room bet but next time you're faced with this seemingly impossible challenge, you need to look no further than the glass-fronted fridge in front of you. Famous Belgians are filling our pubs at an unprecedented rate as our appetite for the challenging and exotic becomes voracious. It may be true that the likes of Chimay, Rochefort and Orval don't trip off the tongue like Dickens, Lennon and Beckham, but they have certainly contributed at least as much to the social and cultural fabric of their country as the English trio. And it is precisely this latter point we should bear in mind if we want to gain inspiration from the Belgian model, because we too possess this craftsman-based heritage by the barrel load. Clearly we're talking beer here.
On the particular mid-winter evening that I find myself sitting in Brussels' Grande Plâce, there's certainly plenty to warm the soul. Not least the Hans Christian Andersonstyle architecture: I'm almost expecting Hansel and Gretel to amble around the corner at any moment. I'm quickly shaken out of my romantic reverie however, by the presence of my reprobate mates, Mike and Steve, reminding me we have a major job of catering to undertake the following day for the "Brewers of Europe" and maybe we should embark on some serious beer tasting in preparation. And that is precisely what we did: we actually tasted beer. We inhaled aromas; we sipped; we swilled; we studied tasting notes, ate food and exchanged studied observations of our experiences in a mood of near celebration.
And what's even more surprising - especially if you knew Mike and Steve - we didn't even get pissed. When you take into account that the average strength of the beer we sampled was around the 7% mark, that's nothing short of a miracle. As the beer, food and conversation flowed we reflected on an improbable phenomenon similar to the "French paradox". It's been noted that the French, particularly in the southern region of Gascony, consume industrial quantities of saturated fat in the form of foie gras, cheese and so forth, and yet it has one of the lowest incidents of heart disease in the western world. How so? In Belgium, beer is everywhere.
In the history of the buildings, the festivals and street parades, in the restaurants and bars. And yet no one is stumbling around gaga. Not even us Brits. It's all down to respect. Not just for the toe-curling strength of the beverage, but for the craftsmanship and care that goes into its creation. At the end of the day it's a timehonoured recipe. To consume it any other way would be like waltzing into Gordon Ramsay's restaurant on Royal Hospital Road, ordering dinner, and then stuffing it in a bap and chomping away on the bus home.
The thing is we, too, possess a brewing heritage on a par with the Belgians: it just got a little lost amongst the generic massmanufactured products that proliferate. But if we are looking for any kind of inspiration from the Belgian model, there are a number of things we can take on board - and adapt to our own operations - in order to give that added air of unpretentious sophistication, and try to offer a quality versus quantity alternative. Firstly, beer menus are as ubiquitous in Belgian bars as wine lists are in British restaurants. While the majority of UK bars don't have the range to warrant the introduction of such a concept (40 different beers is not uncommon in Belgian bars), most have a range to justify a comprehensive list at the very least.
Micro brewers are now beginning to enjoy a boom time. These reweries are our equivalent of the Belgian farmhouse brewer, and offer a truly artisan product. Even heavily-tied houses have the opportunity to offer local guest ales that can be purchased in small barrels and rotated on a regular basis. Such a beer range also adds a sense of real provenance and regionalism to an area of business that can all too often look bland and devoid of personality. A home-cooked-style food offering of beerfriendly food is always present, and forms the sobering backbone of the Belgian beer bar ideal. I shall be going into the concept of beer and food in detail later on in this issue of PubChef, so we don't need to say much more here, other than that by embracing beer and food as being inter-related, you will enhance both your beer, and food trade.
Indeed, a hearty bowl of plump, succulent mussels and some crispy frites, are nearly as popular in Belgian bars as the beer itself. This is a fabulous dish where flavour defies the low cost of the dish. Just make sure you get the freshest mussels: clean and de-beard them diligently, and don't cook them any longer then it takes for them to open. So, start taking a look at the amber nectar with a more discerning eye, start shouting about its heritage and qualities - and why not offer your punters a little free taste of any new draught brews you decide to offer? It's amazing how effective the power of suggestion can be.