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Beer: Belgium’s upstart innovators

By Daniel Fromson,

Carlo Grootaert wanted to tell me a story, so shortly after 11 a.m., we drove to a cemetery near the coastal Belgian town of De Panne, where, not far from a giant crucifix, he knelt among the tombstones and uncapped a beer. “These fishermen were herring fishermen, and during winter days the women made beer,” he said. “We decided to remake a beer in the same style.”

He handed me a glass. The Pannepot, which Grootaert and his colleagues at tiny De Struise Brouwers created in 2004 after several years of less ambitious brewing, was about as typical as a graveside beer tasting. The syrupy liquid was 10 percent alcohol and combined the dried-fruit flavors of a quadrupel, a traditional Belgian abbey ale, with the roasted-coffee notes common in American stouts. I began to understand why the beer geeks who frequent the influential beer site RateBeer.com rank 13 Struise beers among the 50 best in Belgium — more than for any other brewery, and an astounding number in light of Belgium’s status as the foreign country that U.S. beer lovers seem to admire the most.

Along with the less prominent but perhaps equally innovative Picobrouwerij Alvinne, Struise has become famous among American beer fanatics for unusual brews that fuse Belgian conventions with influences from abroad. “We stick to tradition, but we give a crazy twist to it,” Grootaert, 46, told me. As Alvinne’s Glenn Castelein, 38, put it, “We could do just regular beers and try to sell it in the neighborhood, but that’s kind of dull. So we thought, ‘Okay, let’s take a risk.’”

That might mean brewing an India pale ale with both American and Belgian hops, transforming a thick American-style imperial stout into something fruitier

and drier by incorporating Belgian candi sugar and Belgian yeast, or putting a European spin on the U.S. barrel-aging trend by maturing beers in wine or Scotch casks. In a country where beers are often brewed by monks, Struise markets a series of barrel-aged stouts called Black Damnation, with labels that feature skulls.

Those eye-catching graphics aside, Belgium has lagged behind its neighbors in its acceptance of U.S. beer trends; elsewhere, American-influenced brewers such as Denmark’s Mikkeller and Scotland’s BrewDog have thrived. They also tend to collaborate with one another, and it is into this subculture of creativity and transparency that the Belgian innovators have emerged.

But these sorts of brewers, who often sustain themselves through exports to the United States, are distinctly un-Belgian. “Not letting people know exactly what you’re doing is the Belgian way,” says beer importer Wendy Littlefield, whose company, Vanberg & Dewulf, was one of the first to bring Belgian beers to America. “And also the tendency in Belgium is to be respectful of tradition.”

Littlefield worries that these “extreme” brewers, who represent only a small fraction of the Belgian beer market, are overshadowing the traditionalists — or worse. Struise and Alvinne, she says, “really, arguably, are hurting the very culture that they claim to be arising out of.”

One thing is clear: They aren’t alone. Larger, less experimental Belgian breweries are dabbling in bitterer, more American-seeming beers (often labeled “Belgian IPAs”), and other young Belgian upstarts such as De Leite and de la Senne are innovating in their own ways. So during a trip to Europe this year, I spent two days in Belgium’s province of West Flanders to visit Alvinne and Struise and see what the future of Belgian brewing might look like.

In a musty farmhouse in the small city of Kortrijk, Alvinne’s Castelein, a special-education teacher, gave me a tour, accompanied by Davy Spiessens, the brewery’s only full-time employee, who oversees most of the actual brewing. (A third man, Marc de Keukeleire, is in charge of maintaining the yeast.) Above a ground floor filled with brewing tanks, a small bar adjoined the “shop.” Shelves were packed with not only Alvinne and Struise bottles — the breweries collaborate regularly and organize beer festivals together — but also beers from American breweries, such as Hoppin’ Frog and Lost Abbey.

One Alvinne highlight, Freaky, was light and floral. “It’s inspired by our trips to England,” Castelein said: an English bitter made especially aromatic by American and Belgian hops, with a fruitiness from Belgian yeast. Another standout, the undeniably extreme Cuvee d’Erpigny — a 15 percent alcohol barleywine aged in white wine barrels — was Alvinne’s take on a beer from Norrebro, the celebrated Danish brewery. But the Cuvee Freddy, a riff on a sour Flemish old brown, seemed more typically Belgian, and it was particularly good.

Quality, however, is only part of the reason for Alvinne’s popularity, as Castelein is willing to admit: “We are a bit in the slipstream of Struise.” Struise, in contrast, doesn’t seem to be modest about anything. “We don’t have to go around and sell our beers,” Grootaert said. “People beg.”

That success was easy to spot at Struise’s headquarters, a former schoolhouse in the hamlet of Oostvleteren whose staff consists of Grootaert and the head brewer, Urbain Coutteau, plus two part-timers, Philippe Driessens and Peter Braem. The theme from “Footloose” played as Grootaert showed me rows of boxes containing bottles ordered through the brewery’s online “webshop.”

Struise’s reputation is almost entirely a consequence of the Internet. “In the early days, it was impossible for us to sell beer in Belgium,” Grootaert said. But after a RateBeer.com user in Denmark contacted Grootaert and tried his beer, Pannepot began circulating within the Danish beer-geek community, and its Web-savvy fans broadcast their approval to the rest of the world. Sales took off, and by 2008, when RateBeer analyzed more than 1.4 million user reviews to identify the world’s best brewers, Struise emerged as No. 1.

In keeping with this modern success story, my favorite Struise beer, the rich and complex Black Damnation Mocha Bomb, is unlike anything else Belgium has ever seen: a blend of three imperial stouts, one aged with Colombian coffee, one aged in Four Roses bourbon barrels and one aged in Jack Daniel’s barrels. Still, as Grootaert put it, “I think a beer has to carry some history behind it to be respected.” He showed me a bottle of Struise’s St. Amatus 12, a quadrupel that is similar to a sought-after monk-brewed beer, Westvleteren 12. The label resembled a stained-glass window: three saints, with the face of God above them.

The story behind the label? “It was a Canadian journalist that called Struise Brouwers a bunch of ‘self-promoting narcissistic bastards.’ So we said, ‘Okay, next time we make a label we’re going to put our faces on it.’ ”

The middle saint is Grootaert, flanked by Driessens and Braem. Coutteau, the head brewer, is God. A beer might need some history to be respected, but respected brewers apparently can be whoever they want.

Fromson is an associate editor at the Atlantic.

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