Beer is very hip. Great quantities of small, local beers with their own character slide across the bar towards epicureans. “Consumers choose beer with a story.”
“There are so many beers today that the knowledge of the barkeeper has become very important.” On the sunny terrace of beer café ’t Waagstuk on the Stadswaag we meet beer connoisseur Hans Bombeke. Please don’t call him a zythologist or beer sommelier; he finds those fancy titles inappropriate. “For that you have to complete the corresponding studies” he says while smoking his pipe.
Bombeke is largely self-taught. He worked behind the tap of ’t Waagstuk until about ten years ago. Now he teaches the course ‘Beer Connoisseur’ at CVO Province of Antwerp, brews his own beer and functions as chairman of Antwerp’s Beer College. “With regard to the number of breweries, Antwerp lags behind other provinces” he says. “Flemish Brabant has a rich history of geuzes and West Flanders is the region of Flemish reds. The province of Antwerp does have several steeds, for example brewery Moortgat, Westmalle and Het Anker (which brews Gouden Carolus). Several smaller breweries have been added: De Dochter van de Korenaar, Dijckwaert, Vagebond, Brouwerij Den Hopperd (organic beer) and recently brewery Het Nest”.
Bombeke:“In addition to the many new beers attention is once again being paid to beers that were undeservedly ignored.”
It’s no coincidence that new beers sprout up. Beer is gaining popularity worldwide. The beers Bosbier, Korsakov, Gageleer, Kamil, ’t Lekske, IQ, Cabardouche, De Hopjutters, Seefbier and others were recently launched in Antwerp. “A real beer hype is raging” confirms Bombeke. “In addition to the many new beers attention is once again being paid to beers that were undeservedly ignored. Take, for example, Saison Dupont. Everyone knows that beer now, but 15 years ago they didn’t even though the brewery has existed for four generations.”
The beer trend ensures that niche beers with a very distinct flavour are able to capture a place on the beer menu, and that’s good news. Bombeke: “We see more and more ultra hoppy beers or heavy stouts. Until recently stout was as good as dead. Now it’s back and in different variants, with alcohol percentages from four to twelve percent.”
New beer brands dare to push the boundaries of their flavour. Gageleer, for example, spices its beer markedly with bog myrtle, which was very popular in the Middle Ages. “You either love it or you don’t” says Bombeke. “Today’s brewers dare to push the flavour balance.”
Bombeke:“We increasingly long for something ‘real’.”
Today’s beer drinkers prefer local specialty beers to a regular pint, not only for the flavour but also for their story. “The story has become very important” says Bombeke. “That’s because consumers are being beaten down by large-scale advertising created by sleek marketeers not only in the beer world but in every sector. As a result, we increasingly long for something ‘real’.”
The story is usually ‘local’.Consumers are more conscious about the environment and prefer to choose a product that is produced close to home in an honest manner rather than beer from a large factory or beer that has to be transported hundreds of kilometres over land. According to Bombeke, ‘local’ is a world story. Bombeke: “Local beers are sprouting up all over the world. Belgium is lagging a bit in that regard because traditionally we have had a huge variety of beers.” In his opinion that’s why they experiment even more abroad. “Take the Russian imperial stout or IPA” he says. “Those flavours have entered Belgium from abroad and are now being seized by Belgians.” An example: the new fruity Bootjesbier by the Antwerpse BrouwCompagnie (Seefbier).
Seefbier is a beer brand not a brewery. “A beer brand invents a recipe and has a brewery work out the details while a brewery composes the beer from A to Z” explains Bombeke. Several new beers are not brewed in house. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle. “Starting a beer brand is a good way to launch a new beer. If everything runs smoothly, they can establish their own brewery. That’s how Seefbier plans to go about it.”
Bombeke:“Italy, an explicit wine country, has 750 breweries!”
Antwerp only has two real breweries: De Koninck and Het Pakhuis. Het Pakhuis microbrewery on the Vlaamse Kaai has always stood in the shadow but it receives a lot of attention due to the beer trend. Its beers, like Den Bangelijke, recently became available in some supermarkets.
Belgium has about 170 breweries but that’s not all that much compared to other countries. “For 30 years the Netherlands only had 30 breweries. Now it has 200 breweries. Italy, an explicit wine country, has 750 breweries! The US has added thousands of breweries.” Bombeke adds that our beers are much more diverse and we will always retain a cultural-historical head start.
Foreign countries love Belgian beer. 55 percent of our beer is exported. Bombeke remains devoted to the Bolleke. And to be perfectly clear, you tap it twice. “No discussion!” he stresses. “Tapping it twice does not influence the flavour. Its sole purpose is to achieve a stronger head.”
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Belgian beers are world-famous, and Antwerp is an excellent place to improve your acquaintance with them. The De Koninck Antwerp City Brewery offers an ideal introduction to the world of beer. Het Pakhuis is another brewery where you can taste authentically brewed beer. In addition, there are plenty of typical ‘brown cafés’ which often have dozens and in some cases hundreds of Belgian beers on the menu. Examples include Bier Central, ’t Waagstuk, Paters Vaetje, de Kulminator and Gollem.