One of the reasons you go to a country is to understand the beer from the inside. It's not enough to find bottles on a shelf in Oregon to understand a country. So much of what makes it to the United States goes through a filter of nostalgia and expectation. To sit in a cafe and discover how hard it is to find the kinds of beers Americans think of as Belgian--good luck finding a saison anywhere--while be assaulted by Jupiler and Leffe signs is a revelation. Our tidy belief in regional brewing is shattered, too, by visiting a village and failing to find the beer brewed there. And then talking to breweries is fascinating, too, because you hear what it's like to inhabit a market not on skewed by industrial titans (every country has that) but ones that disguise their beers in the homespun fabric of the humble monastery. This is uniquely Belgian.
Indeed, everywhere you go, you'll find dubbels and tripels and sints and saints, and brewery brands with dates like "anno 1023." Belgian consumers believe themselves very educated about beer, but as one brewer told me, "ask ten Belgians where Leffe is brewed, and nine will say in an abbey." The Trappists have done an amazing job of bringing attention to Belgian beers, but their success has skewed the market so that authenticity is often seen through the crack in a monastery cloister, not the slow development of style and process in actual commercial breweries. Huge industrial breweries make arrangements to associate a bland product with a non-brewing abbey in some cases; in others, the mere existence of a historical abbey is enough to justify the name on a label and a date that has nothing to do with brewing operations.
I heard this complaint again and again in the breweries I visited. I mean to do a post on Rodenbach soon, and it's a great example of the contrast. This is a brewery that has been making beer in the same way for decades and which has a tradition of cask-aging red ales that goes back nearly two hundred years. It is one of the most impressive breweries in the world, and certainly one of the most traditional, and yet it is easily dismissed for a lack of "abdij" provenance. Meanwhile, Grimbergen enjoys the halo of sanctity.
In the United States, this isn't such a big problem because it's easy enough to shift products around. If you happen to have a brewery that makes a traditional ale--particularly if, like Rodenbach, Cantillon, or Boon, the brewery has been designed only to make a certain kind of beer--you're not in a position to chase fads.
Unlike the British market, where breweries are now feeling excited about a rejuvenated market, in Belgium they are gloomy. Traditional breweries depend on foreign markets like the United States to meet capacity, and they're not sure how to increase sales locally. Some, like Dupont and St. Feuillien (which I visited yesterday) are thriving and growing. But others are finding it much harder. I'll follow up with a post about what strategies these traditional breweries have adopted, and what their prospect for success is, later on. But since I'll be visiting two Trappist monasteries tomorrow (Orval and Rochefort), it's worth mentioning how they've managed to monastacize the Belgian specialty beer market.
Probably we have Stan Hieronymus to blame.