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JUNE/JULY 2005 | REGIONAL | INTERNATIONAL

Belgian Beer Parties : 36 Hours!
By Rich Link

This past March I spent two weeks trekking around Belgium, mainly West Flanders. My wife, Teresa, and I, along with AleSmith Brewing Company brewer Tod Fitzsimmons and wife Kari, tasted well over 200 different Belgian beers, with our total beer count (including duplicates) exceeding 350. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

One of the highlights of our trip, and the main reason for vacationing in March, was the Zythos Bierfestival (ZBF) in Sint-Niklaas on March 5–6. This is the beer fest that effectively replaced the old 24 Hours Beer Festival in Antwerp. The format is essentially the same: two days, 12 hours each day, 24 hours total. Some of Belgium’s top breweries were dispensing their best beers, including some beers brewed especially for the fest.

We stayed in nearby Gent and took a short train ride to Sint-Niklaas. We arrived about 45 minutes before the doors opened, only to find a couple of fellow Americans waiting to be the first into the fest. By the time the doors opened (a couple of minutes late, making this a 23-hour-and-58-minute festival), we had been joined by Belgians, Brits and others from around the globe. In the world of beer, this was the happenin’ place.

Glasses and tokens in hand, we rushed inside to secure a seat. We were thrilled to find that there was a nonsmoking section at the far end of the hall, and we quickly set up shop. Being professionals, we had a plan. Each of us would get a different beer, and we would share with each other. We were careful not to duplicate our efforts in order to taste as many different beers as possible.

The choices were many. Fortunately, the ZBF guide listed all of the breweries, beers and styles of beers at the fest. It was organized by booth number, alphabetically by brewery name, and finally by style of beer, making it very easy to peruse the list and determine which beer we would sample next.

I was fortunate to start my day with a beer from a brand-new brewery that turned out to be a great one. Zinnebir, from Brouwerij Sint-Pieters in Sint-Pieters Leeuw, was an amber ale with ample hop flavor and lingering bitterness — something a bit out of the ordinary in Belgium. I loved the beer and will seek it out whenever possible.

Other great beers tasted that day included De Cam Oude Geuze, Drie Fonteinen Oude Geuze, Bios Vlaamse Bourgogne and Dupont’s Avec les Bons Voeux. On that day we tasted 53 different beers. Most were exceptional, rating at least 7 on the 10-point scale. There were also many “average” beers in the 5–6 range. Fortunately, there were only a couple of beers that rated in the 2–4 range. We suspect the rigors of travel took a toll on those beers.

We ran into many people we knew, including Belgian brewers we had met on previous trips, Belgian pub owners, “Babblers” from babblebelt.com, and a large group from my hometown of San Diego. As the day grew old, we met more and more people, and everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. Why not? This is one of the best beer festivals in the world!

I had only one regret, which is more a complaint than anything. Remember that nonsmoking section we found? Well, it didn’t take long for the smokers to find it. They were actually leaning against “No Smoking” signs while they smoked. The smoke eventually got so bad that we had to flee several hours before closing. On the whole, however, this is the one beer festival that any Belgian beer enthusiast should attend. The event usually is held in early March. For more information, check out zbf.be.

OK, so the ZBF was 24 hours. What about the other 12 hours referenced in this article’s title? That would be the 12 Hour Belgian Beer Party held at Pizza Port Carlsbad. This event has become one of the best parties in the country. This year it took place on March 19, less than 40 hours after we arrived home from Belgium. Were we up for it? Of course. Remember, we’re professionals!

We were a little foggy, but we arrived promptly at 11:00 a.m., ready to attack the amazing collection of beers. The list contained not only Belgian beers but Belgian-style beers from breweries in the United States and Canada. Again, we had a plan: taste beers we hadn’t had before. There were few of those, however. And, as it turned out, we had had about 80 percent of the Belgian beers during our two weeks in Belgium. Fortunately, the beers we had not had in Belgium were great ones. San Diego’s breweries had brought out some amazing efforts as well. Belgium’s best included several offerings from Cantillon, three beers from De Dolle, four from Fantome, and Dupont’s Avec les Bons Voeux — one of the best beers ever brewed, in my opinion.

American brewers have been doing their best to brew beers with Belgian flair. Some have had great success and are producing beers that would be readily accepted in any Belgian pub. Three of the most recognizable names are Pizza Port Solana Beach, Calif.; Russian River Brewing Company, Santa Rosa, Calif.; and New Belgium Brewing of Fort Collins, Colo. Pizza Port served Mo Betta Bretta, a beer fermented 100% with Brettanomyces. Russian River offered up Damnation, Sanctification and Desperation. New Belgium brought Abbey Ale, Blue Paddle, Saison and La Folie.

The La Folie was on draught and was one of the highlights of the fest. This beer is brewed in the style of the great Belgian classic Rodenbach Grand Cru. I had not had this beer on draught before, and I was extremely happy that it was readily available just a few short feet away.

If you find it hard to justify a trip to Belgium, try to come to San Diego in March. The 12 Hour Belgian Beer Party will fulfill your needs for great Belgian beer. Hats off once again to organizers Tomme Arthur, Jeff Bagby and Tom Nickel.

Rich Link is an associate editor of the Celebrator Beer News. He lives in Santee, Calif., and has been brewing beer at home since 1980. He can be reached via e-mail at linkbrew2@cs.com.

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