I read the Sheffield Beer Report while on Eurostar en route for a few days with a ‘Podge’s Tour’ in LambicLand (Belgium). It generated considerable discussion with both colleagues on the tour and also a number of local Brewers. The initial Belgian reaction was ‘Sheffield?’ However, they were impressed by both the numbers and our enthusiasm.
Despite their well-deserved international beer reputation, the Belgium top-seller is Jupiler, a 5.2% Pils brewed by international giant, Anheuser-Busch InBev (this lists maize as one of the main ingredients). This illustrates the variety of the Belgian beer scene: some unique, and excellent, practice, but also a high level of mediocrity.
For example, we visited the internationally known, biannual lambic beer festival known as ‘The Night of the Great Thirst International Geuze and Kriek Festival of the Pajottenland’ at Itterbeek. This consisted of a marquee, about a dozen Brewers and 40 or so beers, mostly only available in bottles. There was no programme or tasting notes, prices were not low and abvs were only available by asking to look at the bottle label. All the Brewers were local with the single exception of Allagash from Maine (USA). The event needed more organisation and information. By contrast, the vast majority of CAMRA Beer Festivals have a larger beer choice and are a model of customer-friendly information and assistance. We were not impressed.
This lack of information was also apparent in many bars. A chalkboard and/or printed menu often listed the beers available, in bottle and on tap, but the detail is lacking: style? Brewery? abv? One notable exception was the Molenhof Café in Oostvleteren which serves a selection of draught De Struise Brouwerij beers from the brewery across the road. Their chalkboard included both ABV and beer style. Sadly, this level of information seems to be the exception, not the rule. Many Sheffield pubs, by contrast, display such detail and often more.
We also visited the Brabanthal venue just outside Leuven for a visit to the Belgium equivalence of the GBBF, the Zythos Beer Festival with 88 brewers offering over 500 beers. This was a total contrast to the previous evening: lots of staff, a programme available in English, detailed information and even a free beer token for CAMRA members. In short, an excellent event. The provision of free bread at each stand was welcomed, an innovation which UK festivals could take on.
Belgium has a large a number of fine long-established Brewers and blenders (many of which we visited, for example: Rodenbach, Oud Beersels) with excellent beers, including some world classics which simply could not be brewed elsewhere (think Lambic and Geuze). They also have a growing number of recently established innovative enterprises: for example, Urthel. Their impressive range now includes, ‘Bassets,’ a 24.4% abv freeze-distilled beer which was matured in oak barrels.
The Sheffield Region also has its World classics, but focusses on a different style and market. The vast majority of beers from the Sheffield region are cask-conditioned and sold relatively locally whereas the bottled outputs from Belgium hit the export market, many breweries exporting over 50% of their production.
The Sheffield region needs to up its game regarding exports – the potential is there, as Thornbridge have shown. The Sheffield Beer Report suggests that a local canning/bottling plant is an essential. Anyone care to invest?
It’s also worth noting that at Itterbeek, we had a long beer-related conversation with the Flanders Region Minister of Culture. He expressed more interest in the Sheffield beer scene than seems to emanate from Sheffield Town Hall. The presence of such a high-ranking politician at a beer festival indicates the level of local political support for beer tourism. It would be positive to see similar political representation at both the forthcoming SCBF42 and SIBA BeerX 2017.
In short, an excellent few days away – two contrasting beer scenes:
- LambicLand with a focus on exporting quality
- Sheffield, the unknown hub of beer tourism in the UK (and possibly, the world)
Each area has lessons to learn from the other. However, Sheffield is in the best place – an innovative, established, but growing beer scene contrasting with a, perhaps, complacent Belgian offering.
Steel City is beer city.
Brown, Pete (2016) Sheffield Beer Report University of Sheffield https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/about/city/news/beer-report-sheffield-real-ale-capital-1.569464
Podge’s Tours: http://www.podgebeer.co.uk/ Tour 81 Belgian Beer from the Wood