Food & Drink

How Belgian Brewers Are Stealing Beer Ideas From America

Published On 02/23/2017 Published On 02/23/2017
belgian beer stealing US ideas
Evan Lockhart/Thrillist

On a wall inside the Brussels Beer Project it reads, "Hello 21st century, goodbye Middle Ages." Here, co-founders Sebastien Morvan and Olivier de Brauwere are creating modern beers through crowdsourcing from public tastings and social media. With its exposed brick walls, pops of neon colors, and industrial-chic vibe, it's a far cry from Belgium's historic abbey breweries. Instead, it feels more like a taproom in Portland or Austin than a brewery in the Belgian capital.

That's exactly the vibe Morvan and de Brauwere were going for when they founded Brussels Beer Project back in 2013. "We started with a mission to bring a more craft attitude to a dormant beer scene," Morvan explains. "There are too many traditional breweries and there is not enough fresh blood in Belgium."

The duo met in Canada 10 years ago (de Brauwere is from Brussels, while Morvan is from France) while both attending Queen's University in Ontario. That's where they first encountered the impressive breadth of craft beers available throughout North America. Several years later, they decided to start a start a brewery in Brussels without any professional beer background. By now this might sound common by American standards, but it's practically unheard of in Belgium. "We came in with a completely different perspective on the beer world and tried to start small and think big," Morvan recalls.

Brussels Beer Project

Brussels Beer Project emphasizes experimentation and collaboration, either with the public or with other breweries like London-based Weird Beard Brew Co., a collab that yielded "Churchill's Delusion," a mild English ale that is flavored with tobacco. Surprising ingredients in other brews include chili, yuzu, and even recycled bread. This isn't your Belgian great-grandfather’s beer.

Belgium is perhaps the world's most renowned country for beer. The brewing tradition in the tiny country (about the size of Maryland) dates back to the 12th century. Beer making started to thrive in this Catholic country when monasteries began brewing beer to support themselves. And beer quickly became a popular alternative to the contaminated drinking water of the Middle Ages. That means Belgian beer is more commonly associated with robed monks guarding time-honored brewing methods, unlike in the United States where beer brewing is the realm of bearded bros with sleeves of hipster tattoos.

It's tough to define Belgian beer since there are so many different styles. They don't all fit neatly into a box. Of course all of the country's beers aren't brewed in monasteries, but there are a few characteristics Belgian beers have in common. "Belgian beers are really fermentation-driven and the yeast character is really expressive," explains Matt Chan, the experimental brewer at Belgium-loving Reuben's Brews in Seattle.

Reuben's, like breweries across the US -- from Allagash to Russian River, Logsdon Farmhouse, Avery, and, duh, New Belgian -- seems to be obsessed with Belgian beer. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find many breweries that haven't tried their hand at least at a dubbel. Blue Moon -- a take on Belgian ale -- has even taken to Belgian experimentation on a macro scale. Brewers love experimenting with Belgian beers -- which is funny, considering they're simply experimenting with age-old tradition. Now the coin is flipping.

Traditionally, Belgian brewers were also highly experimental. While Germans were famously restricted to brewing only with water, barley, and hops under the Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Law), Belgian brewers were getting crazy with wild yeast strains, herbs, spices, and even fruits.

Brussels Beer Project

But after experiencing great success, Belgian breweries starting using the same time-tested recipes. "Innovation decreased with success, as to shoulder the weight of tradition," says Morvan. "They weren't challenging the status quo." Taking a more orthodox and technical approach towards their product became the norm for Belgian brewers.

Meanwhile in America, creative hobbyists and homebrewers -- like Jack McAuliffe of California's New Albion Brewing Company -- breathed new life into the American beer scene in the 1970s by opening some of the nation's first microbreweries. Before that, most of the country’s major breweries had been established by German-American immigrants during the 19th century, and their rigid, tradition-driven methods dominated. But then homebrewers and new microbreweries began reviving forgotten styles, including Belgian favorites like dubbel, tripel, saison, witbier, and more. Soon, local brewers began getting even deeper, experimenting with Brettanomyces yeast, merging styles, and incorporating enough hops to give a monk bitter-beer face.

Boundary-pushing breweries in Belgium are now embracing the American way of thinking. Brussels Beer Project tries to maintain a homebrewing and hobbyist mentality, similar to what produced the American craft beer movement. And it's not alone: Hopscheppers, which makes American craft beer favorites (though both are British-born styles) like an IPA and a Russian imperial stout, was started by a group of six hobby brewers living outside of Antwerp.

The biggest ingredient that the Belgians have borrowed from American breweries is one of the most basic ingredients in beer: hops. American craft beer is most commonly associated with the intensely bitter flavors found in American-style IPAs. "America is known for new, aromatic hops," says Luc De Raedemaeker, co-author of The Belgian Beer Book, “and now Belgian brewers... are using those hops."

Duvel

Brussels Beer Project uses American hops as well as varietals from around the world to make some of its beers, while new Brussels nanobrewery L’Ermitage employs them in an IPA. Even well-established Belgian breweries like Haacht, Duvel, and Brasserie Dupont have released special brews with more hopped-up flavors.

Young Belgian brewers aren't just borrowing American trends when it comes to the beer-making process, they're also making changes in the branding arena. Most Belgian beer labels traditionally only contain the brand name, name of the beer, and legal information. In the US, by contrast, breweries like 21st Amendment and Half Acre have become synonymous with artist-driven labels. Portland, Oregon brewery Gigantic sells posters of its labels and enlists local artists to make them pop. Frederick, Maryland's Flying Dog features art by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman.   

"Until about 10 years ago, Belgian beer labels were very classical," explains De Raedemaeker. "But now, nice labels are becoming more and more important. They're often a copycat of American styles."

Against a sea of labels in bottle shops throughout Belgium, younger breweries stand out with their brightly colored labels showcasing stunning graphics, along with quirky names like "Lantern" and "Red My Lips." Morvan admits the branding approach at Brussels Beer Project was very deliberate and describes the labels as bold yet friendly. "Typography plays a role subconsciously," he says, "and we pay as much attention to our visual identity as to the beer inside."

Despite all this experimentation and embracing of American methods, Brussels Beer Project is still sticking with Belgian yeast strains like Brett. "There is a lot of work, savoir faire, technology, and science behind it," Morvan admits. "We still think it adds to the taste so we keep it." There's no denying that Belgian brewers have perfected yeast strains over the centuries. "We kept our knowledge, and then we made it even better," De Raedemaeker says. "And that's what makes Belgian beer so special."

With the American influence now creeping into the castles and cellars that dominate the Belgian brewing tradition, things are bound to get even more special as two of the most prolific brewing nations in the world -- one centuries old, one just getting started -- continue to intertwine. That collision of styles is something definitely worth toasting as new traditions are born.

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Meredith Bethune is an American writer trying to drink as much beer as possible while living in Belgium. Follow her on Twitter @MeredithBethune.

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