Blog: Brussels Beer Challenge

Antwerp and beer: that’s literally a golden combination. With different events related to the amber nectar, we are not exaggerating when we speak of a ‘beer year’. For example, there was the 16th edition of the Beer Passion Weekend, the ever enjoyable Bollekesfeesten, the Modest Beer Festival that welcomed about 5000 visitors, the first edition of Brouwplus (which is entirely aimed at hobby brewers) and the opening of the De Koninck Experience Centre. But that is not all. Culinary blogger Coolinary reported from an international beer competition: the Brussels Beer Challenge. 


Professional beer competition

Belgium is, without a doubt, an unsurpassed beer country. No other country has such a rich beer culture and beer tradition. It is surprising that the first edition of the Brussels Beer Challenge only took place in 2012. Due to Antwerp’s rich beer brewing history and the presence of several breweries (De Koninck, Het Pakhuis and Wapper), Antwerp was chosen to host the fourth edition of this professional beer competition with international prestige. 
To give an impression of the global character of this beer competition, we gladly present a few supporting statistics. This year 1100 beers were submitted from about 500 brewers from 30 different countries. Large beer countries like Belgium, the United States, Brazil and the Netherlands were pressed hard by surprising countries like Cambodia, South Korea, Japan and Colombia. The beers were broken down into eight main categories (Pale Ale, Flavoured beer, Speciality beer, etc.) and 50 subcategories (abbey beers, chocolate beers, lambic, etc.). Then during two morning sessions they were presented to an international panel of 75 jury members from 27 different countries.

Tasting from early in the morning

During the second session on Saturday morning I was invited to sit at the VIP table to keep track of the goings on at the Brussels Beer Challenge. The clock on the cathedral indicated that it was barely 9 am when I arrived in Hotel Elzenveld, but the jury was already bustling about. Observing, smelling, tasting and taking notes was the order of the day. The glasses were skilfully held up to the light, occasionally a nose dove into a glass, and the beer danced carefully in their mouths. Unlike wine tasting contests, there were no spit buckets on the tables. No wonder the waiters brought cartloads of water around in addition to beers.

Women have more taste buds

Between two rounds I briefly spoke with Sofie Vanrafelghem (author, columnist, founder of Women and Beer), who was delighted with the number of female jury members (about 20%). “Naturally that percentage could be higher, but the organisation did its best to draw up a balanced, varied jury. Did you know that women have on average 30% more taste buds than men?”  That’s ideal for tasting beer. According to Vanrafelghem, tasting beer is of a different order than tasting wine. “In my view it is more complex. For example, hops are more difficult to recognise than a variety of grapes”. Belgians take beer for granted. We order a ‘Bolleke’ or a pint without thinking; we don’t consider the great skill that is required to make it.

Fries and beer

A bit later I bumped into Jay Brooks (American journalist and writer specialised in beer) who was in high spirits. He told me that he arrived in Antwerp a few days earlier so that he could sample life in the city. “If there is one passion that comes close to beer than it’s Belgian fries. Fantastic! I have been a habitué at Frituur N°1 and Max over the last few days,” said Jay laughing. When asked if he can name an Antwerp beer, he recalls an anecdote in which he and Johan Van Dijck (Seef beer) almost went out drinking with Prince Filip (now King Filip) in San Francisco. “Too bad about the protocol, it seemed like the prince really wanted to come with us. Drinking something with the future king of the ‘land of beer’ would have been a great story”. 
I was served a few beers within a period of about three hours and I must state clearly that we Belgians are not very experimental. Cucumber, basil, pumpkin, coffee, smoked… it all passed in review. Just go ahead and try being a jury member.

More experiment requested in Belgium

Dennis from the Netherlands agrees with me when it comes to experimentation. “A rich beer culture, that’s all very well, but there are too few brewers with balls in Belgium. Change doesn’t have to be crazy. I prefer honest beers; those without sugars or spices added. But Belgium doesn’t experiment enough”. To round things off with a positive note, he praised Brouwerij De Koninck. “Their Wild Jo is exactly how it should be. A lovely, new beer with a good marketing plan to boot”.

Beer connoisseur Hans Bombeke

Before returning home I asked Hans Bombeke, chairman of Antwerp BierCollege and a jury member, what he thought of the competition. “I used to be sceptical about such competitions”, he said, “but it was an honour to find that this competition was organised perfectly. Jury members were randomly assigned a table and tasted per category in order to avoid favouritism... That is very important; jury members must switch off their own preferences and only look at technique and craftsmanship.” I asked if he had a favourite beer. “It depends on the moment. I just tasted a coffee stout that was probably ripened in oak barrels. A small glass of that after a meal with a cigar… that’s all you need!”

Belgian and Antwerp beer scores

Before announcing the results of the Brussels Beer Challenge, the jury followed in the wake of the organising team. They were given a tour of Brouwerij De Koninck and lunch before commencing the award ceremony. A few trends were noted. Belgium remains the boss in its own country. All gold medals in traditional Belgian-style beers (Gueuze, fruit lambic, saison, triple, etc.) were awarded to Belgian breweries. With more than 1000 participating beers, many of them from outside Belgium, it seems that the international beer world has embraced the Brussels Beer Challenge.
But one question remains: did Antwerp beers fare well? We can proudly state that they did more than adequately. Seef beer won a gold medal in the category ‘Pale & Amber Ale, Bitter Blond / Golden Ale’ and Wild Jo received a bronze medal in the category ‘Pale & Amber Ale, Saison’. It was a lovely conclusion to a tasty weekend. We’ll drink to that! // November 2015

Bart Van der Perre


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