Video: Co-founder Jan Machiel van Bragt takes us on a walk around Essen’s Christmas beer festival. The festival in Belgium features about 220 beers and has bragging rights to the largest of its kind in the world.
Not that Essen, but this Essen, in Belgium, the last stop on the train before you reach the Dutch border. It’s a town of 17,000 plus people with a big festival. In fact, it is the biggest Christmas beer festival in the world says its co-founder Jan Machiel van Bragt, vice-president of Objectieve Bierproevers Essense Regio (Objective Beer tasters Essen Region).
The local beer club was founded in 1993 and the festival started the next year, making this its 25 anniversary. This year featured over 200 different bottled beers, and 22 on tap, all calling themselves Christmas or winter beers. Two taps featured hot served Gluhkriek, a trend started by Liefmans.
Some 2,300 people showed up last year, with the same number over the 14-15 December this year. Tickets to the festival were sold out within 20 minutes of going on sale in August, so there is no shortage of drinkers who like their Christmas kick-off strong. Some of the beers weigh in at 30%, with many in the range of 8-12%. However, a growing trend among brewers are the lower alcohol beers. Mikkeller’s Drinkin’ in the snow is 0.3%, for example.
Needless to say, the Beer Idiots and everyone else in the hall at the Heuvelhal, Essen, which sits 35 km north of Antwerp, were in a happy holiday mood. We were there on Sunday, and the hall filled up within the first hour.
My favourites among the many choices were the Samhain Russian Imperial Oatmeal Stout (CyDraLe), Stille Nacht Reserva 2015 (De Dolle), Bink Grand Cru (Kerkom) and Santas Secret (To Øl). My overall winners are the Black Pudding 2019 (Vleesmeester) and Murder 2019 Winter Edition Researva 12 year old (Crow Mountain). Those were all shared but I wish I could have tasted more, but by that time the head was awash in beer.
The O.B.E.R. club has about 200 members and was founded to promote Belgium beer culture, the smaller, independent brewers in particular, says van Bragt. The members aim to ensure that the small breweries do not disappear, and to stimulate the diversity in beer styles and tastes of traditional and artisan beers.
“In the early years, we mainly complained about the ongoing flattening and the monopolisation in the beer world. Artisanal breweries were bought by large brewing groups and closed, beer brands disappeared or ‘adjusted’ so that their characteristic taste was lost in an increasingly similar tasting beer pool,” the club says on its website. “Since the turn of the century, however, there has again been attention and room for real flavors and honest products and numerous new breweries and beers have been proposed. Our goal remains, as always, to promote good beers and to provide consumers with honest information about breweries, beers, ingredients, etc.”
The consumer vote for the top ten beers of the festival, voted on by those who attended over the two days ended up with the 2019 top ten list of Christmas/winter beers.
1. Schuppenboer Winter 2019 The Nest, Oud-Turnhout
2. Black Pudding Vleesmeester Brewery, Edegem
3. Silent Night De Dolle Brouwers, Esen
4. Samhain CyDraLe, Zandvliet
5. Silent Night Reserva 2015 De Dolle Brouwers, Esen
6. Gouden Carolus Christmas Het Anker, Mechelen
7. Saint Bernard Christmas Ale Saint Bernard, Watou
8. Zilverkerst HillDevils, Wouwse Plantage, NL
9. Let the stars begin to fall White Pony, Padua, It
10. My Honningkage is Bigger Than Yours Bourbon Ed. To Øl, Copenhagen, DK
Photos (below): Christmas Beer Festival 2019 in Essen, Belgium. The photos were taken 15 December 2019.