“I wish they had as much respect for beer in Belgium as they do here in America.” Said Gumer Santos in pleasantly accented English. As Head Brewer for Belgium’s Rochefort Trappist Brewery, Santos addressed us as part of a four-expert panel on Belgian beer.
The fact that a Belgian brewer had flown across the ocean to join us, and the fact that there was an actual panel discussion at all, separated the Beer Advocate Belgian Beer Festival from every other beer fest I’ve worked or attended. Normally, this type of event can be counted on to do three things: give regional brewers a chance to demo their products, (ideally) make a profit for the host, and get frat boys trashed. The BA fest offered a refreshing dose of actual beer education that backed up the mantra of Beer Advocate founders Jason and Todd Alstrom: Respect Beer.
The event hall is very good for beer festivals: a cavernous, circular room originally built to house a giant wraparound mural of the Battle of Gettysburg. Smart limitation of ticket sales allowed a still considerable throng easy access to seating, rest rooms, and the brewers’ tables. At no time did the brewers seem crushed under the sampler glass-waving press of humanity evident at many beer festivals. They had time to talk about their beers.
And what a lineup of beers! Belgians like Rochefort and Rodenbach were joined by some of the finest American interpretations of Belgian styles. Veritas 001 from California’s Lost Abbey was particularly impressive, leaving me rueful that it’s impossible to find in the beer mecca that is Rochester, New York.
But what impressed the most was the panel discussion. Santos was joined by Brewery Ommegang brewmaster Randy Thiel, Lost Abbey honcho Tomme Arthur. Dan Shelton of Shelton Brothers Distributing and Merchant du Vin’s Joe Lipa also sat on the panel. Some people would question my desire to sit there and let people drone on about making and selling beer with 25 breweries offering samples in the next room, but it was an enlightening, encouraging discussion, reaffirming that some of the top people responsible for the production an d sale of great beer shared my thoughts and ideas. Plus, some attractive volunteer chick kept bringing samples of Cantillon to my seat.
I walked away impressed by the brewers’ commitment, not just to mimic a generic archetypal Belgian style, but to research the traditions and unique qualities of Belgium’s beers, incorporating their discoveries into their own brewing. Equally impressive (and a bit unexpected) was the passion the specialty distributors showed toward Belgian beer. It’s not just a numbers game; these guys are disciples, and that’s encouraging.
Belgium might be a dwindling market for its own specialty beer, and neighboring companies might be too myopically immersed in their own beer cultures to care, but the USA is the great savior, and vehicle of advancement, for these wonderful beer styles. Thanks to events like the BA Belgian Beer Festival, I can be confident that Americans’ knowledge and selection of Belgian beers can only grow.