Antwerp’s Groenplaats was teeming with beer lovers last weekend. For the sixteenth time, beer sommelier Ben Vinken created the ultimate Beer Passion Weekend. As many as 50 breweries contributed to the great atmosphere, and there were more than 170 speciality beers to quench the thirst.
Ben immediately debunks this idea. ‘Women have more taste buds than men and therefore have a significantly better sense of taste. Every year you see more women turning up at our festival, so we do everything we can to make things as pleasant as possible for them.’ Sure enough, even the glasses look suspiciously like wine glasses.
What strikes me immediately is the diversity of the crowd. ‘The public is getting younger,’ Ben tells me. ‘Speciality beers are getting more attention through social media.’ That beer is hip is also proved by the numerous beer pictures that take up my Instagram feed. ‘As demand increases, more and more small brewers are developing new speciality beers. Big breweries are even appointing brand ambassadors to get suitable beers on the menu at starred restaurants. It’s a fantastic turn of events. And at least you no longer get laughed at when you order a beer in a restaurant.’
This year there are an impressive 34 new beers on the Beer Passion Weekend tasting list. This constant injection of new beers also attracts many foreigners to the festival. Kristof and Radoslaw from Poland have made the trip specially from Amsterdam. No Heineken for them: they prefer ‘craft brewers’. Ben explains: ‘This is a term adopted from the States. Craft brewers are small, independent brewers who create beers using traditional methods. The Americans use the term to distinguish between these and tasteless industrial beers. In the US, the oldest brewery is barely 30 years old, whereas over here it’s 300. Craft and industrial brewers have become more fused together over time in Belgium.’
So should we be afraid of the States? ‘Not at all,’ says Ben. ‘Hops are back in. This hype is called IPA in America, but we’ve known it for years as saison. The US is rediscovering the beer styles that we have maintained all these years, but that have declined in popularity somewhat.’ So we can leave the Americans to do the marketing, while the craft belongs to us.
I’m keen to try out some beer styles. I’m already familiar with brown and blond. Dark red too, but green – that’s a bit unusual – I think I’ll give the cactus beer a miss. A Château D’Ychouffe, on the other hand, tastes delicious. Its fresh acidity is like a breath of fresh air on this hot day. The beer is based on grape must from the Sauterne region. Along similar lines there is also Monks, a dark beer, but the nicest of all is from Dubuisson, a brewery from Mons. I go along to try a Surfine, but am won over by the Bush Ambrée and the Pêche Melbush. Flavours of caramel, nuts and dried fruit. A really substantial beer. The peach variant is based on the same amber beer with the addition of peach flavour. The aroma leaps out of the glass at you, but fortunately doesn’t stick in the mouth. The man behind the wooden bar is very persuasive.
‘That’s the whole idea,’ Ben tells me. ‘The breweries send their best people here to offer expert and passionate explanations to these beer lovers. That’s not something you find everywhere. This is quite simply the Rolls-Royce of beer festivals,’ he laughs.
Another notable stall is that of SB Schock O Late, which serves chocolates based on beer. ‘This is completely different from liqueur chocolates,’ chocolatier Sean Bael from Ghent tells me. ‘The beer is completely boiled away, otherwise the chocolate cracks due to fermentation. It started out as a graduation project. Today I make chocolates to order for De Heeren van Liedekercke, the world’s best beer restaurant. ‘I try one which is based on Chouffe Houblon. I have no idea how the beer in question tastes, but the chocolate leaves me craving a second one.
Would you like to be there next year? Then circle the last weekend of June in your diary for the 17th
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‘City honey comes from bees that sip nectar from the many flowers to be found all over Antwerp. Each district has its unique pattern of vegetation, so each honey tastes different.’ Clad in a beekeeper’s suit, I follow every impassioned word that Rik Janssens utters, as beads of sweat form on my forehead. It’s not just the heat of the sweltering summer day that is getting to me – there’s also my uneasiness as one of the thousands of bees creeps inquisitively up my leg. ‘Just stand still,’ says Rik. Just?
Do you keep feeling that urge to travel, to discover new things and get a taste of what the world has to offer? If that's the case, Antwerp is perfect for you. Enjoy a glass of beer at one of the many terraces; let yourself be tempted by our distinctive Belgian gastronomy, or explore the tapestry of cultures that is our city.