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woensdag 28 januari 2015

Beer Festivals: Pinnacles of Beer Culture or Elitarian Geek Fests?

Warning. The below is a rant, disguised as a blog entry.

I blame my buddy Joan, who's running a blog in Spanish and in English just to prove the old Manuel-stereotype dead wrong, where he is currently running an article for The Session aka Beer Blogging Friday.

"I know nothi..."
Wrong Manuel.
Joan's topic is Festivals: Geek Gathering or Beer Dissemination? Says it all, I guess, so let's get this baby squealin' already.


Throughout this article, I'll be grossly generalising the entire and diverse Belgian population by referring to them as "most Belgians", by which I mean "most Belgians who've never had any non-Belgian beer besides Corona and Heineken and whose idea of an adventurous beer is something like Kasteel Hoppy". 
For the remainder of this article, please interpret the term most Belgians with the same sense of benevolent caricaturisation you'd reserve for "most men", "most women" and "most-if-not-all two-dimensional polygons except most rhombi. Rhombuses. Diamonds.".

-------------------------------------DONE DISCLAIMING----------------------------------------

Beer festivals in Belgium are an odd afair, and like so many beery things, Belgians are surprisingly ambivalent about them. 
On one hand, most Belgians think of their country as the navel of the world where beer's concerned. Any argument about beer can easily be won-slash-deadended by slamming your empty glass onto the table and belching "Belgium's got the best beer in the world!" into your opponent's face. Especially if he's not, himself, a Belgian.

On the other hand, most Belgians treat beer with callous indifference, as if it were a trivial commodity, like potatoes, rice, and electric power.

Until a turn of events makes it relevant.
Most Belgians' opinion about beer is an uneasy truce between "don't care 'cause I never paused to come up with one" and "I'm culturally compelled to patriotism here so yay Belgium and yay beer and oooh what a lovely navel I have" with a tendency to lean more toward the latter than any individual's personal experience would warrant.
Beer, it seems to me, is so ubiquitous in Belgium that it is taken very much for granted. For better and for worse.

...and all too often for worse and for worserer... 

Per extension, Belgian beer festivals must ipso facto also be far superior to any other country's feeble attempt at celebrating beer. Sounds plausible, right? Best beer in the world equals best beer festivals also.

The irony is that for most Belgians, the very concept of a beer festival is, at best, highly abstract.  

But mostly, we think of it like this.
I promise I'll get into this in another article sometime soon, but when all's said and done and all the boasting about traditions and monasteries and beer-filled navel-gazing are over, most Belgians have never attended a beer festival in their entire life, and have no idea what to expect if they would. We tend to visualise them as grandly eloquent excuses to quaff beer and get drunk, like a televised soccer match during a power outage. Which, I hasten to add, they seldom if never really are. Our power lines are still very much operative, thank you very much.

While we're generalising, Belgian beer festivals come in two types.


Don't be fooled into thinking I'm dissing either stereotype here. Whilst I may have my own personal preference where the spirit of things is concerned, you'll note that very often, the same brewers will attend festivals of both stereotype, which does not, in any way, diminish or increase my appreciation of their beers.
Some festivals are clearly in one camp or the other, most however are a bit of both. Generalisation, remember?

Also, realise that the few examples I provide below are by no means exclusive. A simple google search will list an entire calendar year's worth of beer events, and a quick perusal of the event's beer list will quickly reveal which stereotype applies best. Often, they'll be a bit of both. No way I've attended them all, not even by a long long shot. I just struck out and pinned a familiar name to the type.

-----------------------------------DONE DISCLAMING FOR NOW ---------------------------

The first type of beer festival is the Ambassador's Festival. 
It is an event which is fueled chiefly by promotional motivations. 
The agenda behind this type of event is rarely "just" the enjoyment of beer, or the highlighting of a certain style or trend in brewing, but tends to be the furthering of the organising parties' cause, which can be ideological ("Fier op ons bier" because yay Belgium's navel again) or financial ("Nono, it's pure coincidence that all the attending brewers belong to the same financial holding/gigabrewery" because yay money). 
You'll obviously find all of the gigabrewers here, even if they're no longer strictly Belgian. The price of commercial succes, it seems, is becoming a resident of Pan-Globia.
Also present will be most of the mid-size to large breweries, as well as a few of the smaller which are deemed to be essentially Belgian, like the Trappists and the lambic brewers and geuzestekers. 
I'm sure the attending brewers don't all subscribe to the organising parties' ideology, of whichever ilk it may be, but the absence of the truly independent brewers is conspicuous to say the least.
Examples would be the Belgian Beer Festival (first weekend of September, on the Great Market in Brussels) and the Bierpassie Weekend (last weekend of June, on the Groenplaats in Antwerp). 
Traditions and mainstream appeal seem to be central ideas, and the odds of encountering anything resembling "craft" beer here are virtually nil.

However, it's likely this lot here will show up at some point.

The other type is the Zythophile's Festival.
It is an event which, even if only superficially, focuses on enjoyment and exploration, on discovery and, of course, on tickers (*). 

*) Homo ratebeerensis, whose sustenance is the number of Untappd badges he gets to unlock during a beer festival.

Whether they're a modest attempt to highlight smaller and lesser-known Belgian breweries, or beergeeky celebrations of contested borders of Beervania, these events tend to focus on beer itself, rather than beer as an extension of national or economic identity.
Fairly large and not-too-far-off-center examples would be the Zythos Beer Festival (last weekend of April, in the Brabanthal in Leuven), Modeste Bier Festival (first weekend of October, at the De Koninck brewery in Antwerp), and the myriad of small-to-large festivals dotting the country throughout the year. These events tend to maybe not so much focus on the underbelly of beer culture, as reserve a seat for it (*). 

*) I know. The underbelly doesn't need a seat.
Suspenders, though...

Smaller and more independent breweries attend them, with a higher likelihood of at least some of the attendees being involved in the craft scene. You'll often find quite a few of the mid-scale breweries here, rubbing shoulders with the tinier, more unknown upstarts. 

Remarkable is how lambic brewers are invited to all beer parties, and tend to be present on most of them, if not always all of them (we should be so lucky).

Expect a significant increase in the frequency by which you'll spot stuff like this on beer-stained t-shirts.
Coming back to Joan's initial topic, neither stereotype seems to focus specifically on a target audience. Beer geeks are welcome, but never exclusively so. Casual beer drinkers abound, and sometimes festivals convert them into zythophiles. However, seldom will you find an event where the express goal seems to be the furthering of one's appreciation of the diversity of beer, and the grandioseness of its Art.
Sure, there are plenty of zythophile clubs around the country, who do their utmost to Bring Beer to the People, but in spite of several decades' worth of effort, this is still very much a grassroots movement. Admitting you're a member of a beer club, even one with an ambitious name like "The Objective Beer Tasters" is sure to be met with knowing winks and nudges.

"Tasting eh?", he asked him knowingly.
Admitting to attenting a beer festival will have you do more explaining than if people found out you're a member of he town's only swingers' club: most Belgians simply cannot get past the image of the fräulein-infested beer garden. 

Conversely, while the true beergeek (Home zythophilus) wants nothing more than to convert people from Stella Slurping Sloths to Craft Craving Cronies, most Belgians have only a cursory interest in more off-centered beers. "Extreme", they'll call your average West Coast IPA. "Fake", they'll designated any lambic not acutually comme from the Zenne Valley. "Not beer", they'll call that barrel-aged imperial stout so coveted by H. zythophilus. Most Belgians, I'm sad to say, prize tradition and balance over all and any other qaualit a beer might have, and hence, most Belgian festivals will focus on those qualities, instead of the celebration of beery diversity. 
Oh and they have to get you sloshed and slightly below civil real fast too.
That someone could have an interest in beer besides its obvious alcohol content and the inebriation resulting from it, seems hard to comprehend, and harder sometimes to explain. Especially when, true to form, you'll find most Belgians all too readily compliant with the stereotypes they have themselves created.

Even the few Belgian festivals I have attended made me realise that a large percentage of the attending crowd only turned up because it was a way to get sloshed. I've seen a crowd turn into a frenzied throng whilst queuing for a particular beer at a particular festival, only because it was the strongest in attendance, and hence the quickest way to masculine intoxication.

It was the Double Black, of course.
Ain't it always?
Another fraction of attendees seem only intent on discovering sameness. They'll queue up to any brewer's booth and ask for "something that tastes like Grimbergen Bruin." Or they'll just out and ask "Have you not got any blonde then?". Any old beer will do, as long as it is something safely within their comfort zone. Unchallenging and unupsetting.

A horribly inaccurate sketch, but it gets the message across.
With these stereotypes forming a large part of the audience, it should come as no great surprise that many Belgian Beer Festivals cater to the sensible tastes of most Belgians, and truly adventurous beer festivals are hard to come by. 

True, there are a few will-hidden treasures to be found for true beer geeks. 2015 will see the return of the Alvinne Craft Beer Festival (held in Bierhalle Deconinck in Vichte on the first weekend of March), which really does seem to attempt to bring craft beer to the people. Almost unheard-of in Belgium, they'll be hosting quite a few non-Belgian breweries and even (gasp! scandal!) a couple of Dutch breweries (*).

*) really, the Belgian's prejudices which the Dutch still have to overcome when it comes to beer almost render our entire beer culture moot.

The annual Weekend der Spontane Gisting is perhaps not "craft" in our current sense understanding of it, but it's certainly so far left-of-center as to be sufficiently beer-geeky whilst being utterly disseminal at the same time.

Every Saturday afternoon, de Struise Brouwers open the doors to their brewery at the old school house, welcoming visitors from near and far, and the beers they have on tap are enough to qualify ever Saturday as Struise Festival Day. 

And just today, Tilquin announced a British beer festival. A gueuzerie, setting up a festival featuring only UK beers! How much cooler and, well, zythophilerer can you be?

While these events cater more to the beer geek than the casual drinker, I've yet to find someone who is not instantly won over by the genuine sense of conviviality which seems to run deep in the craft beer scene. True, Beer Geeks can go on for hours and hours on the ittybittygritty details of just about anything beer-related, but at heart, the Beer Geek wants nothing more than share his love for beer.  

Craft brewing (and not to be underestimated: homebrewing) is ever so slowly taking ground in Belgium, in no small part thanks to the ever increasing ranks of beergeeks lurking in the grassroots. Festivals and events become ever so slightly more beergeeky, but it's a snail-paced process. Our own national ambivalence, manifested in things like "Fier op ons Bier" whilst advertising Kasteel Rouge, seems to hold us back from embracing the adventurous art of brewing, while our traditions, so often praised and hailed when we consider the Belgian classics, actually seem to be a hindrance to us when we consider beers of different lineage and inspiration. Keeping in mind that, for most Belgians, the only decent foreign beer is Guinness Dry Stout or Martin's Pale Ale, and their thirst for whacky brews is suffiently quenched by Duvel Tripel Hop, this should come as no great surprise. Truth of the matter is this: Belgium is not used to looking elsewhere for its beer, and our festival culture seems to emphasise this to a great extent.

Beer map of the world.
Our festivals (exceptions notwithstanding) reflect our ambivalence: Belgian beer festivals tend to be about reacquainting us with the already familiar, instead of challenging us to explore the unknown.
Looking across the border, I see ambitious events great and small, which all center around the celebraton of beer. 

Every year, Borefts (NL) sees Europe's best brewers flock to the site of De Molen, to share their beers with an audience which is ready to have their beery preconceptions challenged, I blabbed about Borefts (here and here) but really, it is in a league all its own.
Zeebra (NL), now preparing for its third iteration, is the joint effort of a small group of die hard beer geeks, who realise that beer is worthless unless it is enjoyed in good company. Each year they go to great lengths to collect some of the world's rarest and most (in)famous beers, just so that anyone with an interest in beer but a limited beer budget can sample them, and make up his own mind. 
Brodies Bunny Basher (UK) is an annual Easter festival, during which the brewer puts a veritable shitload of often innovative beers on offer.
Then there's GBBF (UK), Copenhagen Beer Celebration (DK) and so many more, and I cannot help but tap my foot impatiently for the entire Belgian beer scene to snap out of it, and start celebrating beer properly.

Where Beer Culture (and per extension Beer Festival Culture) is concerned, Belgium is sadly lagging behind the rest of the world, resting on the laurels piled upon its balding head while the world spins widdershins whilst we ponder our beer-sloshed navel. When it comes to beer, most Belgians are disjointedly proud of the immense amount of sameness they produce, and the very idea of a festival celebrating the diversity, and, yes, the audicity of beer, is alienating to many.

But, ending on a postive note, things are changing. Slowly, but then again, you can't hurry beer.
Most Belgians are wary of the concept of a Beer Geek, but are ultimately and easily won over by the boundless love for beer H. zythophilus radiates.

If one thing connects most Belgians,it may well be our love for beer. 

Too bad we so often seek it in our navel.
Your thoughts, Constant Reader, are very much appreciated.

Until then,



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