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Monday, July 16, 2012

Can Americans Learn to Speak Flemish?

Ezra has a nice update on Oregon's latest brewery--Pfriem (see his backgrounder of the brewery here).  The brewer behind the project, Josh Pfriem (pn freem), is introducing a line of beers that includes an IPA and four Belgian-inflected beers.  It comes on the heels of the Crux opening, where Larry Sidor mentioned that his true love was Belgian ales.  The Commons, née Beetje, Solera, Upright, Breakside, Cascade Barrel House, Block 15, and Flat Tail all have strong Belgian connections, and some are in the direct lineage.  And that's just Oregon; add some of the stellar work being done at Russian River, Allagash, Destihl, the Bruery, New Belgium, Jolly Pumpkin and many more, and there is a definite trend toward Low Country brewing.

As an inveterate beer geek, I love it.  Belgians make wonderful, antiquated, oddball beers that are the washed rind cheeses of the beer world.  Their depth and complexity open up a world of flavor a standard pale-and-caramel-malt hop bomb can't approach.  Connoisseurs love them, but they remain inaccessible to casual fans.  A familiar story: Beckett is loved by the uber-bookish and Truffaut by the cinéaste, but the average fan prefers Larsson or Cameron.

Every form of expression--including food and beverage--runs a continuum from simple, broad, and accessible to complex, narrow, and difficult.  Rare is the person who appreciates either Époisses de Bourgogne or le bourgogne de Belgique on first sample.  If he ever gets there--a dicey proposition--it comes after some sampling and discussing.  Even in Belgium, the people who drink lambics, tart Flanders ales, or saisons are quite rare.  Collectively, the entire markets for these beers is smaller than the output of a brewery like Sierra Nevada.  And Belgian breweries have an advantage: these beer styles are old and traditional and therefore culturally familiar.  In the US, the same styles just seem bizarre and out of context.

How many beer geeks are there who love Belgian strong dark ales and saisons?  How many more can be manufactured?  We're running a real-world experiment to find out.  I hope the answer is "boatloads."  Fingers crossed.

6 comments:

Rob Fullmer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob Fullmer said...

Nothing pleases me more than when brewers brew the beers that they like.

Nothing displeases me more than when beer geeks believe that their esoteric tastes should be catered to

Mike said...

In answer to your question: yes.

You wrote: "Even in Belgium, the people who drink... are quite rare."

Well, first of all, consider that Belgium has a total population of around 11 million people. That is roughly the same number of people as live in NYC and some suburbs.

People in Belgium, as in many other European countries, drink locally. Secondly, brewers brew locally. So, a typical Flemish brewer would likely not brew a saison, while a Walloon brewer would not likely brew a Flemish red. By the same token, you won't find a Kölsch in Düsseldorg.

So, yes, the number of local people who drink a particular kind of beer can be quite small, but, since the brewer is only selling to local people and there may not be so many of them (villages in Belgium or German, for example, can be quite small), there really is not much significance in that statement.

Jeff Alworth said...

Mike, the facts don't support that. Even though they make very little beer, lambic breweries have to export it--and Brussels is the local area. When I was in Tourpes, Olivier Dedeycker told me the only Dupont you could find locally was their nice pilsner--locals didn't drink saisons.

Clearly, breweries sell some beer locally, but 70% of the beer purchased in Belgium is lager. It has so eroded local markets that almost all breweries have to export their beer. The market has turned away from these niche styles to the extent that they can't make a living selling to Belgians.

An interesting anecdote. Two or three times I struck up conversations with drinkers in cafes about local beers, and I never encountered someone who knew Rodenbach made Grand Cru. It is such a rarity and most is shipped out of country.

Mike said...

Jeff, it is replies like this that have lost virtually any respect I have had for you. Your arrogance in thinking you know more than anyone else about anything is clear. You mention "facts", then do not supply any. The anecdotal experiences of your five minutes in Beligum, unable to speak the local language is proof enough that you can't understand foreign cultures and traditions.

Why don't you stick with what you know - American beer and/or your home town.

Jeff Alworth said...

I have no control over whether you respect me or not, but here are a few of the facts mentioned in my comment:

- Even though they make very little beer, lambic breweries have to export it--and Brussels is the local area.

- When I was in Tourpes, Olivier Dedeycker told me the only Dupont you could find locally was their nice pilsner--locals didn't drink saisons.

- Clearly, breweries sell some beer locally, but 70% of the beer purchased in Belgium is lager.

- It has so eroded local markets that almost all breweries have to export their beer.

I do stick with what I know. And some of that knowledge comes from talking to brewers in Belgium.

I do regret I don't speak the languages of the countries I've visiting (Flemish, French, German, Czech, and Italian), but it's not in the cards for me to learn them before this book is complete. In any case, I don't think the damage to my understanding is as catastrophic as you suggest.

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