In the barrel room at Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels, Belgium, these words are painted on a barrel head that’s been tacked to a column: “Le temps ne respecte pas ce qui se fait sans lui.” Time does not respect that which is done without it.
The beer at Cantillon, the world-class lambic brewery, is aged for a minimum of one year with the colony of bacteria that lives in its upper floors. You can see white splotches on the underside of the roof shingles, in the beams that crisscross the barrel room, and most importantly, on the ceiling above a shallow copper pool. That’s where fresh batches of wort lie in wait for the microbes to drift down and get to work.
The Cantillon brewers know that other so-called traditional breweries in Belgium are cutting corners and producing “lambic” in a matter of months, not years. But they believe that there is no shortcut to the flavor and texture that’s produced as the mixed culture grows and evolves over time.
Now consider that strategy versus the breakneck pace of the modern American craft beer scene. Kveik yeast that kicks out a hazy IPA in a week (see pg. 34). Kettle sours that grow tangy in three days, not three years. Adjuncts driving sales and retailers constantly asking for what’s new. One-offs. New variations. Special releases. Every. Single. Week.
That’s the strange scenario that Belgian beer finds itself competing against today. It’s even stranger to think that Belgium’s storied tradition is part of what first helped cultivate the American craft beer revival. As the American scene evolved, the face of Belgian beer in America changed. And of course, beer in Belgium is changing, too.
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In its long history, Belgium has cultivated a brewing tradition rivaled by few countries in the world. Its lambics and Flanders red ales, even at mass-production levels, are some of the highest-rated beers in the world. Its abbey beers, concentrated in its six famous Trappist monasteries, are possibly the most hallowed.
As American interest in craft beer was gaining steam in the early 2000s, it was those traditional European crafts that were stoking the fire. The import aisle of our local liquor stores was filled with dubbels and tripels from Belgium. Several current brewery owners anecdotally trace their business plans back to their first sip of a Westmalle Tripel, Rodenbach Grand Cru, or a De Koninck on a trip to Antwerp.
It wouldn’t be long before casual beer drinkers would be finding Chimay, Duvel, and Delirium with more regularity on the trendy bottle menus at gastropubs (back when that wasn’t an ironic word). They could find a twelver of the Belgian-style Blue Moon everywhere Coors was sold. And the real beer nerds traveled deep in the heart of Flanders to find the city beers that never make it here.
When Minnesota breweries incorporated post-Surly Bill, Belgium was an obvious lineage to draw from. Two of the earliest major breweries, Surly and Lift Bridge, launched with a Belgian-style flagship (Cynic and Farm Girl, respectively.) Boom Island Brewing launched in 2012 with an overtly Belgian focus.
“Belgian breweries stick to the classics,” says Kevin Welch of Boom Island, “They are resistant to change, which is good and bad.” His tap list has since retained its dubbel, tripel, and even grown a quad. His kriek is the finest lambic-inspired beer in Minnesota. But now his tap list features the standards from nitro stout to NEIPA—he’s not as resistant to change.
For all its loveliness, traditional Belgian beers tend to skew on the malty and sweet side of the spectrum. They are supremely well-balanced, offering just a slightly bitter edge from noble hops, accentuated by an unmistakable yeast character that’s full of floral and fruity esters. In short: the diametric opposite of the most popular styles of craft beer in America today.
A shift might have begun as early as 2008, when the global financial crisis saw the euro tank against the U.S. dollar, causing smaller Belgian firms to reassess their strategy when they weren’t getting as good of a rate on exports to the U.S. Shortly thereafter, thousands of new U.S. breweries incorporated, which changed our drinking habits.
“A big part in the shift, of craft drinkers consuming fewer imports, is where people are drinking,” says Lanny Hoff, formerly of Artisanal Imports, a firm that was responsible for bringing those nice Belgian beers to Minnesota. He notes that as beer drinkers were drawn into taprooms, which by law can’t serve imports, they were conditioned to drinking in a more domestically-oriented space.
With domestic breweries growing, and a general clamoring for all-things-local, retail shelf space came at a premium. That aisle in the liquor store that once held farmhouse beers from Wallonia was given over to scores of the latest Minnesota IPAs. And those local breweries that were brewing Belgian styles mostly stopped. It’s not as easy to find a Belgian-style pale ale in a local brewery anymore, though they might reserve a tripel or quad for a special annual release.
But here’s the interesting paradox: even with thousands of new breweries gobbling up headlines and shelf space, the percentage of imports consumed in America has actually increased—from around 9% of the market in 2000 to around 18% today. It seems that the huge declines in macro beer sales have not only opened up avenues for craft brewers, but foreign brewers as well.
Much of the import activity has been the stratospheric growth of Mexican beer. But Belgium has been one of the biggest climbers as well—in the last decade, they’ve leapfrogged Canada and Ireland to become the third-most imported beer country with almost 68 million gallons sent over in 2019 (and that’s up nearly 12% over 2018).
But which Belgians?
“I think that Duvel-Moortgat did the smartest move by acquiring Boulevard and Firestone-Walker,” says Anthony Van Hecke, former export director for La Trappe, arguing that it allowed Duvel “to utilize the route to market effectively through their U.S. acquisitions and nowadays you can enjoy the craft beers from Boulevard and Firestone Walker in Europe as well.”
Those obscure abbey-style beers still don’t command the kind of shelf space they once did. Instead, it’s been the larger Belgian companies that have been able to make waves in this brave new brewing world. Duvel is the prime example, and their inroads into every corner of America coincided with instituting a bitter “tripel hop” to their lineup in 2007. Many Belgian breweries are experimenting with their takes on the modern hop-forward ale.
Just down the street from Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels is Nanobrasserie de l’Ermitage—a craft brewery whose tap list marries the saison and farmhouse sensibilities of a traditional Belgian brewer with new-school ingredients like Southern Hemisphere hops and small-batch malts. While they recognize the current tastes for bitter citrus over malty sweetness, their beers remain well-balanced and properly attenuated.
Belgium has always had an experimental streak in their breweries, as opposed to, say, the rigid purity of the traditional German approach. They’re taking cues from American brewers now, just like they’ve taken cues from Bavarian and English and Dutch brewers over their long evolution. And these current traditional breweries don’t seem to be going anywhere, save for the impending threat of climate change, which has imperiled the lambic brewing process with a shorter window every season.
Perhaps Belgium is better positioned to meet the demands of brewing in the 21st century. They’re steeped in tradition, yet open to new possibilities. And the monks in the Trappist monasteries won’t be changing a thing—so those traditional beers are still waiting for the next generation of American brewers to discover them anew. Perhaps by then, the pendulum of taste will have swung back from its bitter apex.
Paige Latham Didora contributed reporting to this story.