The following is a piece of fiction, inspired by a thought that occurred to me earlier in the year: what if the monasteries of England were never dissolved, and our brewing history remained as strongly associated with monks and abbeys as it is in Belgium? What might change if England remained Catholic, and if Belgium became its greatest brewing rival? What might the 2015 European Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference in Brussels be like, if history was different?
From the other side of the glass, it was a dark view.
Among the journalists and bloggers in the conference centre, there was conversation, warm greetings, a sense of community: a bustling, thriving discussion of Belgian brewing. It’s what we came for. But as I approached the Chairman, eager to put to him some stickier questions than he’d faced in the far-too-polite press conference itself, the dark side of the famous Anglo-Belgian brewing rivalry showed its face. I witnessed first hand the segregation, the suspicion and the prejudice.
“Excusez-moi, monsieur – sorry – please, sir, you must step this way.” A polite voice in my ear and surprisingly firm grip on my arm turned me away from the relieved-looking Chairman. “You will be far more comfortable, we are sure, with your countrymen and colleagues in the viewing gallery.”
I glanced up at the dim-lit room behind smoky glass on the balcony above.
“Will there be any opportunities to-”
“Please.” An implacable smile, an extended hand gesturing to the top of the stairs. Inside the ‘viewing gallery’ I found fellow bloggers from the British contingent, looking as peeved as me. Unwelcome guests, tidied away to a place out of sight. “Typical bloody Belgians, eh?” one asked aloud, to no one in particular. “What have we done to deserve this?”
The answer was obvious, but uncomfortable. We had done the same thing to them on several occasions. This was the first time the European Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference had been held outside of the UK, and naturally our longstanding brewing rivals were first in line to welcome the EBBC organisers with open arms. Whilst colleagues from across Europe and the world were given full access, we were treated with cool suspicion, even overt contempt. Had we really been so frosty towards the visiting Belgian bloggers at the previous EBBCs?
Until now we had only seen the representatives of the Belgian Family Brewers (BFB) – dusty and opaque corporate bodies with their roots in the ancient Trappist monastic breweries – in the pages of the business press, but from the viewing gallery of the Hotel Orval’s conference centre, the people below seem no different to our own British Abbey Brewers Association (BABA). Their habit-inspired suits were tailored with longer, wider cuffs, the collars broader and looser, the branding more intricate, but they were largely the same white middle-aged men talking about ‘beer as it should be’.
The BABA’s Council may choose to wear, over their robe-like uniforms, the stylised stoles appropriated from the faith from which their fortunes historically stem, but the appearance was largely the same. They even seemed to share their Belgian counterpart’s fondness for sprinkling their speech with Latin to make themselves sound reverent and important. Links to the past. Eyes on the future. The similarities were stark, and quite surprising, to those of us from the UK. These men who spent fortunes on outperforming each other were actually quite alike.
In the UK, only the handful of independent brewers outside of the jurisdiction of the BABA’s ‘Designated Monastic Brewing Regions’ display any form of transparency or open dialogue with the press and blogging community. Still, gaps in the overlap of DeMBRegs have encouraged unlikely artisanal brewing scenes in areas of post-industrial decline such as Grimsby and Rhyl. Not so in Belgium. Here, the established Belgian brewery conglomerates (some four companies owning over 3000 brands between them) make up over 99% of the domestic market, with the scant remaining few hectolitres produced by private individuals and sold on the black market, much of it to private British collectors. Belgian beer covers the counters and shelves of bars across France, Italy, Spain and beyond, yet, like British beer, unable to break the German market, which has grown ever more stagnant and inward-looking. Still, its hold in North Africa, Asia, and South America makes for eye-watering volume figures, with the soaring demand met by ‘Supervised Trappist Breweries’, plants built abroad to meet domestic needs. Growth seems to continue apace, driven by the sheer choice of brands Belgian brewers are able to offer.
British brewing seems more rigid, its markets unchanged over hundreds of years, output spread along historical trade channels, to the remnants of the Holy Empire in the South East Asia and New English States, throughout the Baltics and Nordic Federation, and as far south as South Africa and Australia. Britain’s world-famous Aged Pale Ales (APAs) astonish palates on every continent, but despite unparalleled scientific achievement, lack the magic and mystery conjured by the Belgians.
It’s easy to be cynical about Belgian beer’s appeal, when they hide so much and yet continue to trade on a monastic heritage all but sterilised by corporate governance, but the opportunity to discover more about their brewing industry was irresistible, especially for British bloggers used to a similarly homogeneous beer scene. We came to learn, not to spy, but the chance to dish out some of the prejudice served to Belgian visitors to the UK must have been too tempting.
The hubbub below that we were now excluded from had begun following the BFB’s press conference, which was used to announce its latest campaign promoting the superiority of Belgian beer. It was all very run-of-the-mill stuff, a good way to burn through 20 million francs, but didn’t really add much beyond a slick new font and sharper photography. The message remained derivative of previous campaigns, this time using the form of words ‘Belgian Beer – The Pinnacle of Brewing Excellence’ with a series of images depicting giant glasses of Sixtus and Orval towering over the Alps, Andes, Kilimanjaro and so on. The Q&A session was a joke; nothing but fluff questions from pocketed journalists about how they can keep up with the growing demand and how they live up to such constantly high expectations. The answers were right out of the scriptbook, as expected. Raised hands from non-vetted journalists, mostly the people I now stood with in the viewing gallery, were ignored.
It wasn’t as though we were trying to catch anyone out. We had questions because the amount of detailed information about the Belgian brewing scene in our home country is near non-existent – a smattering of specialist forum threads, piecemeal and highly dubious encyclopedia pages. Social media provides images and opinions, but so few facts. I’ve attended a number of tastings of Belgian beers (held in relative secrecy of course, in private groups) and been impressed with a number of beers, but, like with so many ‘classic’ British monastery styles, wondered if something has been lost in the battle for global brewing supremacy? The nationalistic fervour imbued in each of our brewing cultures, celebrated by many as a link to our past and powerful indicator of our place in the world, seems increasingly narrow-minded, even totalitarian, in a nation like ours where the cuisine of the world arrives on our doorstep.
Belgian beer bloggers interacted with us cautiously, as if unsure whether they will be tainted by association. Some, however, approached us enthusiastically in private, like us, eager to learn. We were pleased to have our suspicions confirmed on one issue though: the key battleground is in the New English States, where the gradual institution of federal democracy (with His Catholic Majesty the Prince of New England remaining as constitutional monarch) has seen the emergence of real diversity in the beer marketplace. The much-discussed grassroots movement of homebrewers starting, incredibly, their own brewing companies separate of BABA control, has undoubtedly set in motion a excitable reaction in the BFB, and confusion in the BABA.
Complacently assuming that brand loyalty and history would ensure superiority, no provisions for industry regulation such as the DeMBRegs were written into the Colonial Charter. The States could potentially be a clean slate, or rather, a blank canvas upon which a wholly different brewing industry could be set out. The BFB is naturally hoping to capitalise on this (the new ad campaign notably contained a version with Rochefort looming over the Rocky Mountains). Belgian bloggers may be able to access more privileged information on this issue. For now, we can only speculate on how the battle will play out, but as the last remaining free market to conquer, it’s be expected that both the BABA and BFB will be spending considerable resources. The real unknown element here is the the growing number of so-called Independent Craft Brewers in the States, whose beers are are reported to be quite unlike those from either Britain or Belgium. If they produce beers that capture the public’s imagination, the BABA and BFB might that money alone won’t buy them victory. Here’s hoping there’s a Conference in the States one day so we can try and find out for ourselves.