With a record 587 Belgian beers on offer, the Zythos Beer Festival is the largest showcase in the world for the made-in-Belgium brand. The Beer Idiots talked about the evolution of traditional Belgian brewing and the onslaught of the new with Yannick de Cocquéau, former Zythos Beer Festival coordinator (2012-2016) and a volunteer at the 2019 edition in Leuven, Belgium.
The anchor of tradition
Six generations of brewing and Het Anker stays inventive, mixing tradition and innovation to keep competitive says Hans Rubens, commercial director for one of Belgium’s oldest brewers, Het Anker in Mechelen. The Beer Idiots interviewed him at at Zythos Beer Festival 2019 in Leuven, the largest showcase in the world for the made-in-Belgium brand.
A pipeline to tradition
Belgium’s craft is its speciality beers says Xavier Vanneste, managing director of De Halve Maan in Brugge, Belgium. The family-owned brewery, one of the oldest in Belgium, is also learning from the competition at Zythos Beer Festival 2019 in Leuven, the largest showcase in the world for the made-in-Belgium brand.
Belgians doing fine, thank you very much
What’s happening to the Belgian tradition of beer making? New challengers from other countries, especially the US, are appealing to taste buds that demand new experiences. Meanwhile new local craft upstarts are challenging traditional brewers from within the country.
But Belgian beer is doing just fine, and is evolving to meet the challenges, says Yannick de Cocquéau, former Zythos Beer Festival coordinator from 2012-2016 and a volunteer at the 2019 edition (see video above).
Belgian consumers still like their traditional beers, and except for the US markets, where stiffer competition is leading to a declining share, the Belgian brand is still a desired marketing cachet.
A bastion of tradition
The Zythos festival is the bastion of Belgian beer tradition. It only features Belgian brews, and is run by Zythos, a confederation of beer clubs.
The 2019 edition, from 27-28 April, featured a record 587 Belgian beers from almost 106 Belgian brewers and ‘beer firms’. Of these 61 of these beers were introduced for the first time at the Zythos.
Zythos distinguishes between brewers, who own their own equipment, and beer firms, who don’t. Freddy Van Daele, current Zythos president, underscores the tension between the traditional and the rise in craft brewers. Zythos limits beer firms to 25% of the exhibitors.
“More than once we see beer companies continue to grow, eventually become a brewery and sometimes even become the better breweries in our country, so that beer companies earn their place in the beer landscape and at the festival,” he said at the official opening of this year’s Zythos.
“Established breweries are less happy with beer companies at the festival because existing breweries have made the festival great and have made it known. On the other hand, established breweries more than once brew beer for those beer companies.”
Van Daele noted that Belgium currently has about 500 breweries and beer firms. In 2012, there were 142 breweries and 54 beer firms. Now there are already 312 breweries and 232 beer firms. In addition Zythos estimates there are another 239 operational breweries that are not counted in the total yet. He attributes the increases mainly to the many micro-and hobby breweries that are springing up in almost every municipality.
Call them what you want at the Brabanthal convention centre in Leuven, Belgium: they are as varied as can be, from industrial-sized production to the very small scale. Many are older, often family-owned brewers who have forged the Belgian beer traditions into an internationally recognised brand.
From the kitchen
For example the best brewery award as voted by festival goers went to Brasserie de la Sambre, a micro-brewery launched in 2014 from a kitchen and garage in Jemeppe-sur-Sambre.
One of the founders and brewers is Jean-Christophe Larsimont, the vice-president of the Belgian Homebrewers Association, which won the legal right last year to host its own homebrewing festival and sell beers. The brewer says its philosophy is to be “local, familial and different”.
Success! Brasserie de la Sambre’s Rye 66 was ranked second in the IPA category at the festival.
In the spirit of craft beer, Larsimont shared the stand with Brasserie Atrium, which was only launched four months before by Belgian-Brazilian couple Valéry De Breucker and Paula Yunes. Based in Marche-en-Famenne, the stand attracted a contingent of Brazilians who camped out at a nearby table. They recommended the Onyx Amburana.
Lucky me. I had three tasting glasses of it before I left the festival, along with the rest Atrium and to offer. It is my type of stout. Thick and flavourful. It had a beautiful vanilla taste. The stout was rated fourth overall among the best beers available at the festival, another coup for the upstarts.
Atrium’s s Imperial Stout Onyx is brewed with 15 malts, oats, cocoa, orange peel and vanilla. The Onyx Amburana is a version aged in a barrel made of amburana, a Brazilian wood.
This wood is typically used for ageing cachaça, a sugar-cane based alcohol. The wood softens the beer and gives it aromas of grilled coconut, vanilla, and cinnamon, say the owners.
De Breucker is a former brewer at Brasserie Fantome and later Brasserie Du Clocher; Yunes is originally from São Paulo, Brazil and was a brewer with Brasserie Les Fleurs du Malt in Huy. She also designed Atrium’s beer labels.
Zythos – photos
Zythos is one of the favourite stops on an already full beer calendar. The atmosphere is friendly and inviting in the spacious venue. It is the Belgian beer clubs and their volunteers that make the festival possible.
Zythos is run by the country’s national beer consumers group, Zythos, which is made up of regional groups of beer clubs. It took over from the former Objectieve Bierproevers, known as OBP when they stopped in 2002.
Zythos made it their mandate to protect and promote Belgian beer culture, support for authentic and traditional Belgian beer styles, to protest against the sweetening and use of flavour-masking additions to beer, and defend the rights of beer consumers.
That’s a good cause! The Beer Idiots will be supporting Zythos at Beer Consumers Day on 14 September.
The festival originally took place in Sint-Niklaas but moved to Leuven in 2012 due to the growing crowds. Next year’s edition will be on 25-26 April. About 11,000 people visited the festival over the two days of the 2019 edition says Sara Van Daele, press contact for Zythos.
Zythos Beer Festival (beer list)
Zythos (only in Dutch).