The Belgian brewing tradition has been going strong since at least the days of the French Revolution, when many monasteries decamped from their homeland and relocated to Belgium. Beer has seemingly always been a tremendous source of labor — and pride — uniting Wallonians and Flemish alike. Unsurprisingly then, the Belgians’ view of the rest of the world’s brews has been dim. When I was in college taking a course in Antwerp in the summer of 1994, one of our Belgian hosts busted out with this piece of diplomacy: “American beer is like making love in a canoe — it’s [effing] close to water!”
I’m not sure if the woman who said that is aware of what has happened on the American beer scene in the last 20 years, but you, dear readers, probably are: As the palates of Americans grew increasingly sophisticated and the so-called “foodie revolution” of the early 1990s began to take shape, a new enthusiasm for quality beer developed. According to the Brewers Association — an industry group representing 3,180 craft breweries in the U.S. — the number of microbreweries, defined as facilities that brew fewer than 15,000 barrels per year and sell at least 75 percent of their beer offsite, increased more than tenfold from 1994 to 2015, from 192 to 2,397.
I have been back and forth between the U.S. and Belgium for most of my life — first visiting family and now for work — and I’ve watched with interest to see whether Belgian beer snobs would acknowledge the good beers we now have in America. Selfishly, I wanted them to — one gets sick of “unsophisticated American” jokes after a while — but I never expected to find that the new thing in Belgian beer today is… America.
This is especially surprising given the Belgian beer brewers’ insistence on tradition. Two of Belgium’s most beloved and internationally celebrated beers, Orval, which has been around since 1931, and Chimay, in production since 1862, typify the Trappist (brewed by monks) style that originally put Belgian beer on the map. Both are made with sophisticated, proprietary, long-cultured yeasts, and thus display a subtle balance in flavor between sweet maltiness and hoppy bitterness. Trappist beers taste much different than most American beers, which are generally hop explosions — full of bright, bitter bite.
But tonight, at just about any bar in Brussels, you are likely to see at least one label from Brasserie de la Senne, a microbrewery in business since 2002 that began full-scale operations in the Sint-Jans-Molenbeek region of Brussels in 2010. What makes these guys unique is the American-style of creativity they bring to their beers. While Orval brews exactly one beer — Orval — and Chimay only brews four, Brasserie de la Senne has produced more than a dozen, including five beers in its regular rotation: Brusselier, a strong IPA; Jambe de Bois, a tripel (a standard Belgian blonde style, also strong); Stouterik, an Irish-style ale; Taras Boulba, an “extra hoppy ale”; and their flagship, Zinnebir, a light and refreshing golden ale they call the “Brussels’ People Ale.” They also brew a number of seasonal specialty ales including a Christmas beer made in a similar style to one produced by Anchor Brewing in San Francisco.
Right now, it’s as if everyone in Belgium has discovered the pleasures of a Sierra Nevada. Leffe, an abbey brewer whose origins date back to 1152 but has since been subsumed into the Anheuser-Bush InBev conglomerate, has just released a label called Leffe Royale Cascade IPA; it touts 100 percent hops from the Cascade Valley in the United States — the place where hops in many American pale ales and IPAs grow.
At the Brussels Beer Project on the western end of the center city known as the Petit Ring, the motto is “Leave the Abbey, Join the Playground.” Founded in 2013, the brewery already has its beers served in 150 bars and shops around the city. The motto alone announces a change in philosophy from traditionalism to experimentation. BBP makes more than 20 different kinds of beer, eight of which were on draft during a recent visit, including an imperial stout and two IPAs, one of which, the “Tu Mi Turbi,” is brewed with two American hop varieties, Warrior and Chinook. BBP has gotten a good deal of publicity — including some love from Jamie Oliver who had the founders on one of his cooking shows — for their beer Baby Lone, a “bread bitter” brewed using recycled bread; its fresh-faced likability would be familiar to any American beer drinker.
As BBP proves, it’s not just the beers that have changed. When my wife and I went to our local beer bar, Le Barboteur, in the Scharbeek commune of Brussels, we noticed a change in the way beers were being sold. In old school Belgian beer bars, drinkers are presented with a telephone book-sized beer menu filled with lists and lists of beers including pictures of labels, notes about flavors, and information about alcohol content by volume. At Le Barboteur, however, the owners and bartenders act more like curators, selecting a hundred or so beers from both Belgium and across the globe and compiling them on a menu that is but a lone sheet of paper (front and back, but still) and even includes a few bottles from the famous Rogue Brewery in Newport, Oregon. For the first time ever, when I told a Belgian person that we have good beers in the United States, too, the response was, “I know!”
One evening at Le Barabtour, we tried a beer called Tempête du Desert from The Sainte Crucienne Brewery in Alsace, France, described on the label as a “California Pale Ale.” And indeed, it tastes an awful lot like a bunch of beers I already know and love that are made in America.