The Belgians are coming. The country that gave you the saxophone, René Magritte and Hercule Poirot is preparing to unleash its most exciting export: beer. Beer is central to life in Belgium and drinkers in the bustling café-bars of Brussels have more than 700 brands of beer to chose from. This month, British consumers will have the opportunity to become acquainted with a number of these fascinating brews: the second Belgian Beer Week is launched on 17 July.
The event involves promotions in pubs and bars throughout London. Publicans are organising competitions and events with a Belgian theme, including Hercule Poirot lookalike contests and beer and chocolate tastings.
Many different types of bar will be taking part, including Belgian theme pubs, fashionable bars such as the Westbourne and the Cow in Westbourne Park, and quiet locals. Last year 43 bars took part in the event and this year the figure has already passed 80.
The event is being organised by Belgian brewing giant Interbrew, which makes Stella Artois, but participating bars are free to stock non-Interbrew products, in order to show the diversity which Belgian brewers have to offer. The UK Organisers, Emerson's (0171-323 9290), have arranged sponsorship from Eurostar.
So, what is so special about Belgian beer? First, there is the tremendous diversity - more than 700 brews. There are fruit beers, wheat beers, red beers, lagers and British-style ales. Beer in Belgium is treated with the respect normally reserved for wine, with each district producing its own distinctive style. The style most widely available in the UK is wheat (or white) beer. The brand leader in this sector is Hoegaarden (an Interbrew brand), currently on draught in 1,000 pubs throughout the country. Wheat beers are made from a blend of wheat and malted barley, and they undergo a standard brewing process in stainless steel tanks. Their unique feature is that they also undergo a second fermentation in bottle or barrel and are served unfiltered. This results in a pale, blonde beer with a hazy appearance and a dry, wheaty finish. The brewers also add coriander and Curaáao orange peel which gives the beer a refreshing zesty finish.
Abbey beers are common in Belgium and are now beginning to appear in the UK. The best known of these is Leffe blonde, which originates from the abbey of Notre Dame de Leffe, in Dinant, 50 miles south of Brussels. This is a light, fruity beer with hints of cloves and nuts. Leffe also makes a beer known as a triple, which is dark gold, with an oaky, vinous character.
There is a strong connection between the church and brewing, and probably the best known of Belgian beers are the Trappist beers, produced at the abbeys of Orval, Chimay, Rochefort, Westvleteren and Westmalle. These are dark, strong ales which may be dry or sweet. All undergo a second fermentation in the bottle, and boast alarmingly high alcohol levels. Chimay enjoys the greatest distribution, and this is sold in distinctive heavy bottles sealed with a cork and wire. Chimay comes in three different styles, the gold label, also known as the white, is the lightest and driest. This becomes drier with age and is good as an aperitif, or with fish dishes. The Belgians often drink it as an accompaniment to trout. Chimay red is dark and fruity with a hint of spice and Chimay Blue is a massive beer (9% abv), with rich chocolatey tones and strong wood character. These two are really food beers and complement the rich stews served in the region, although the blue is also a good match with cheese, notably blue cheeses such as Rocquefort
The most fascinating brews in Belgium are undoubtedly the lambics. These are produced as a result of spontaneous fermentation, using natural yeasts found only in the valley of the River Zenne, just south of Brussels. The brewers use a blend of unmalted wheat and malted barley, plus a large addition of hops during the mashing. The resulting wort is left to cool in huge, shallow open tanks and it is here that they come into contact with the natural yeasts that give them their defining character. The beer is then brewed in wooden barrels, giving the brewery the look of a winery. This is a highly oxidative method of brewing and the beer is bone dry, with the slightly nutty acidity found in fino sherries.
Lambics are undoubtedly wine drinkers' beers, their acidity is very pronounced and they usually display strong wood and yeast characteristics. Like wines they are made to complement food, and although a dry lambic works excellently as an aperitif it is also a good match for fish dishes and white meats. Its character is also powerful enough to withstand strong, rich sauces.
Some lambic producers, such as Mort Subite and Belle Vue, produce a beer known as Gueuze. This is a lambic which undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle. The result is a sparkling beer, with slightly less overt acidity and a more obvious fruitiness.
Other appealing forms of lambic are the fruit beers, Kriek and Framboise. Purists are often horrified at the prospect of beers with fruit, but these are surprisingly successful and demand to be taken seriously. Kriek is a lambic that has had bitter cherries added to the barrel. The cherries macerate for roughly six weeks and they give the lambic a darker colour and an attractive bitter taste. These are complex beers with hints of almond as well as cherry.
Framboise, I have found, tends not to work quite so well. Framboise tends to be slightly sweeter and more commercial, with less complexity and depth. Many lambic producers, including Lindemans and Cantillon, make other fruit beers using peaches and blackcurrants, and one brewer uses Muscat grapes. These are generally easy drinking and can be quite attractive. However, for the purist, Gueuze and Kriek are far and away the most interesting forms of lambic.
Belgian brewers are also very involved in the production of premium lagers, and the best known of these, Stella Artois, is a staple of every bar in Belgium - though this is not directly part of the promotion. Whitbread (which makes it under licence) claims that one in every four pints sold in the UK last year was Stella Artois, representing £350-£400m in on-trade sales.
Touring the breweries of Belgium is a fascinating experience, comparable to touring the vineyards of France. There are beers for every occasion, ranging from the light, quaffable wheat beers to the dark and forbidding beers of the trappists. Belgian Beer Week gives consumers in London the opportunity to experience some of these fascinating brews. Any interested parties can obtain further information about the Belgian Beer Week, plus stockists of beers mentioned, by ringing 0171-323 9290. n