The Brussels new wave beer scene continues apace. First cam the beer bars. Then came the breweries. And now it is the turn of the beer festivals. After the Swaff festival in July, this weekend it is the turn of the BXLBeerFest, be the largest beer festival dedicated to small, independent (craft, even) breweries organised in Brussels.
Over bottles of Orval at A la Mort Subite, Kevin Desmet – a.k.a. the Belgian Beer Geek – told me about the background to the festival, Brussels beer compromises, and why they think you should go to BXLBeerFest.
BXLBeerFest - born over a beer
BXLBeerFest takes place in Brussels on 26-27 August, at Tour et Taxis. The festival is organised by blogger Kevin Desmet, Jean Hummler of Moeder Lambic, Vincent Callut, reporter and beer branding consultant, and Olivier Desmet of Brussels restaurant Nüetnigenough. All four are well-known faces in the Brussels beer scene.
As Kevin tells it, BXLBeerFest is responding to a glaring gap in the Brussels beer calendar, and the idea came to them over a beer. “It started when we met each other at the opening of Brewdog two years ago. The main thing we said was every big city or capital city has some kind of craft beer festival. We said Brussels doesn’t have anything.”
There is the Belgian Beer Weekend, organised by the Belgian brewing industry, which takes place the weekdn after BXLBeerFest. “It’s big, it’s loud, and a lot of people come, but we don’t think it represents the beer scene in Belgium,” says Kevin. I agree.
The four of them banded together to try something different, focusing on local and international small and independent breweries. So how did they who they wanted there, and did they get everyone on their shortlist? “The first thing we did was we said, ‘take a piece of paper and write down all the breweries that we wanted to invite’.” As you’d expect given their respective backgrounds, they had similar tastes: “We wrote down together four lists, and all of the Belgian ones were about the same. Everybody comes, except one.”
All Brussels breweries present and accounted for
As a Brussels beer festival, the breweries based in the city have an important place on the roster. Festivals like Swaff and BXLBeerFest are just another way to give them a push towards a more diverse crowd – Kevin and his partners are looking not just towards the “beer geek” crowd, but also normal customers.
It is never quite as simple as all that in Brussels, though. Including all of the Brussels breweries means including Brussels Beer Project – who contract out their core beer range to Brouwerij Anders in Flanders, leaving their experimental and small batch beers to be brewed in their set-up in central Brussels.
For some in the Brussels beer scene, it’s a controversial business model that elicits strong feelings about provenance and hitching your beers to the city’s brand. They will be at BXLBeerFest. “Brussels Beer Project is in Brussels, they have their own brewery in Brussels. We couldn’t do and not having them,” says Kevin. But, with a caveat: “They will be serving only beers they brew themselves. So you won’t see Delta, etc. It was a compromise between the four of us.”
The Canadians are coming. And the Italians. And the Americans
Aside from the focus on small and independent craft beer, what are they hoping will set their festival apart from what is an increasingly cluttered festival calendar in Brussels? The venue, for one. Tour et Taxis, the sprawling site of a former customs and freight rail complex along the canal, “has some grandeur and gives an extra little bit to the festival” according to Kevin.
In addition to the local breweries is a range of international breweries whose beers are rare enough in Brussels. Kevin gives a particular mention to mention to two Canadian breweries, Microbrasserie Pit Caribou and Microbrasserie Tête d'Allumette, as well as Ca' del Brado of Bologna, who focus on semi-spontaneous fermentation and barrel-aged beers.
And then there is Bokkereyder. This Lambic and saison blendery was founded in 2013 and might as well not exist in Belgium for the virtual absence of their beers in bottle shops or bars. It does, however, have a cult following among spontaneous fermentation fanatics in the US and elsewhere in Europe. The festival should be the first opportunity for a wider Belgian public to get a taste of their beers and see what the fuss is about.
Finally, there is – or was, as it is sold out now – the BXLBeerFest Limited Festival Beer Packs. These boxes are only available to festival attendees, and comprises 6 limited edition 75cl beers, of which only one has been brewed before. The beers come from Brasserie Du Brabant, Brouwerij 't Verzet, Brouwerij Alvinne, De Dochter van de Korenaar, Brasserie Thiriez, and Cantillon.
Even if that is a solid selection of breweries with big reputations, the group’s original ambitions were higher: “The initial idea was 12 bottles, coming from the States, from Italy, mixed with Belgian bottles. Then we saw we didn’t have any more time, so we said let’s keep it to the Belgians!” says Kevin. “The only beer that has been brewed before is the one from Cantillon, it’s a bottle that was made for a restaurant in Brussels, and it’s a Lambic that’s made with Reine-des-prés,” or meadowsweet.
This year’s festival hasn’t even started, but are thoughts already turning to a sequel in 2018? That depends, says Kevin: “I’ll do it again, but it’s a (logistical) nightmare! If we have a good festival, with enough people, then we will do it again next year.”
BXLBeerFest - room for one more?
Right now, there’s a lot happening in the Brussels beer scene – new bars, new breweries, and new festivals. It’s too early to tell which of this new wave are serious and sustainable, and which are flash-in-the-pan affairs out to cash in the new beer hype in Belgium. The people involved, and the breweries present this weekend, suggests that BXLBeerFest should fall into the former group.
It’s certainly a good time to be a beer drinker in Brussels, and who’s to say there isn’t room for one more festival of good, independent, local beer. As Kevin himself says, as we finished off our Orvals, it’s about time.
- Registration is open throughout the week, and costs €9. You will be able to register on the day too, but prices will be higher – €15.
- The festival will operate on a token system. A token costs €2, for a minimum 15ml serving. A token gets you a beer, and some beers will cost two tokens (and possibly three – think US breweries).
- The beer list for the festival is available on Untappd, and is being updated regularly
- There will be a food truck court set up outside the venue, and there will be an onsite restaurant run by chef Dirk Myny of the Brussels restaurant Les Brigittines
Find out more: http://www.bxlbeerfest.com/