Belgium celebrates its love of of beer with a festival every year in the heart of Brussels. From a ceremony at the local cathedral, through the inauguration of new Knights of the Brewers' Mash, to nearly 400 beers, it is an event to which beer lovers from around the world travel. Steve Rogerson provides a personal account of his first visit to the festival.
Belgian Beer Weekend 2013: A Personal Experience
The Belgian Beer Weekend in early September 2013 had nearly 400 beers on offer. Steve Rogerson travelled over to find which was best.
Nearly opening time: the beer stalls in Grand Place
Photo by Steve Rogerson
Everyone knows that the Belgians do beer. But how well do they do beer festivals? One pleasant weekend in September 2013 I headed for Brussels to find out. My destination was the Belgian Beer Weekend, a festival of all things beer (provided it’s brewed in Belgium) held in Grand Place, the main square in the heart of Brussels. I should point out that this was not quite my first experience of beer festivals in this country, having twice attended the very small but extremely enjoyable Oostende Beer Festival, but the Brussels event is on a completely different scale, yet amazingly still managed to retain a pleasant, sociable atmosphere.
Pomp and Ceremony
But before the beer festival could even begin, the pomp and ceremony had to be dealt with, and the Belgians also do this well. Beer and religion have always been strongly linked in Belgium with some beers still made by monks (Trappist beers) and others made under licence from monasteries (Abbey beers), so it should come as no surprise that the flagship event for the Belgian beer industry would be opened in a religious fashion.
Blessing the beer in the Saint Michael & Gudula Cathedral
Photo by Steve Rogerson
A barrel of beer was carried at the head of a procession from Grand Place to the Saint Michael & Gudula Cathedral where it was blessed before being carried back to the square. Can we drink the beer now? Sadly, no, as another ceremony had to take place in Brussels Town Hall, which overlooks Grand Place.
Here this year’s worthies were inaugurated into the Knighthood of the Brewers’ Mash, the direct descendant of the secular Guild of Brewers. As well as the new ordinary members, three knights were enthroned – Bernard Beryckere, president of food and drinks society Fevia, Flemish TV chef Jeroen Meus, and wine consultant Eric Boschman.
The beer festival itself is split between two sites, the main one in Grand Place and the smaller Beer Street, a few minutes’ walk away. The breweries are represented by their own stalls and there is a token system to ensure you always (or nearly always) get to drink from the correct glass. You pay a deposit, get a yellow token, which you hand in each time you buy a beer and this is returned to you when you hand back the glass to the correct brewery stall. At the end of the festival, you hand your token in to get your deposit back. You also need tokens to buy the beer, sadly fairly common at beer festivals these days, meaning you have to queue for the tokens and then for the beer.
The beer wasn’t cheap, with a small 25 or 33cl glass costing €2 or €3 depending on the brewery. Don’t forget though, Belgian beer is strong with rarely anything below 5% abv and most in the 7 to 9% range and some into double figures.
One problem with the organisation was a lack of anything within the beer festival area itself, apart of course from beer. This meant to eat or go to the loo involved leaving the beer festival. True, there was a variety of food on offer in the nearby restaurants and takeaways and portable toilets had been set up. But, and it is a big but, at times they shut the gates to the festival if it became too crowded. This meant if you’d chosen that moment for a leak, you could be locked out for half an hour or more. OK, you could maybe talk to your friends over the fence, but not really the same. A simple fix would be to extend the boundaries of the festival and have the portable loos inside.
In Grand Place, there were 36 beer stalls, with each devoted to one or two breweries, making a total of 51 breweries and more than 350 different beers. On Beer Street, there was a 50m bar with a selection of one-off Belgian beers on draught.
Steve Rogerson samples the beers
Photo by a random person at the festival
As to which was the best, I only managed to try 39 of the beers, so that limited my judgement. I also avoided beers I was familiar with, otherwise I am sure, for example, St Bernardus would be high on my list. The Steffe Hendrick Quadruple was a gorgeous dark musky beer, and I intend to have a lot more of this. De Ryck had a celebration ale to mark its 125th anniversary, and that was well worth drinking. But top for me was the Goliath Triple, a beautifully well-balanced blonde ale.