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Zythos Beer Fest In Belgium
By Tom Ciccateri

While some parts of the U.S. are beginning to see some good Belgian beer festivals, low winter transatlantic airfares offer a perfect excuse to visit one of the most impressive events for Belgian beers: the Zythos Bierfestival. Formerly called the 24 Hours of Beer, the festival is now staged at the Stadsfeestzaal in Sint-Niklaas, Belgium. With ample affordable hotels just a 20-minute train ride away in Antwerp, there is little to slow down the motivated beer traveler, even when weighted down by a half-dozen 750-ml champagne-style bottles filled with rarely seen brews.

The festival, held in March, had a bit of something for everyone. First, the beers themselves: 50 decorated brewery stands offering draughts, bottles or both. The breweries ranged from the internationally recognized like Cantillon to newcomers now getting exposure outside of their hometowns, such as Stekerij De Cam. Likewise, the beers ranged from the familiar to the obscure to the outrageous.

The first few hours of the 12 available on Saturday can be occupied discovering the gueuze or saison that each brewery is so fiercely proud of and that vary in their unique spicy flavors and aromas. Similarly, beers of the wit, blonde and biere de garde styles offered the familiar wheat and pale malt flavors but often were accompanied by hints of citrus, acid or sour. The Watou Witbier offered a crisp wheaty flavor that hinted of lemon and made it the perfect breakfast beer for starting each day’s 12-hour session. The draught 6% Duysters Blond stood out for its crisp character, which began with hop bitterness. Some beers were even daring to show their hops!

"The beers range from the familiar to the obscure to the outrageous."

The “traditional” styles of dubbel, tripel and fruit lambic were plentiful among the nearly 200 beers featured. The Easter beers (paasbier) allowed some breweries to push the flavor and alcohol envelope. Others, like Brasserie d’Ecaussinnes, used the Christmas (noël) theme to assault our taste buds with their Ultra Cookie, which featured flavors like cinnamon and molasses. Can you say gingerbread cookie? Some booths featured beers that could only be categorized as “speciaalbier,” such as Fantome Magic Ghost, De Ranke XX Bitter and Van den Bossche Buffalo.

Evolution was evident in the breweries present. Many had begun as beer blenders, buying product from established gueuze makers and using their own mix of art and science to combine the aged and young spontaneously fermented brews that would then be aged and bottled. While small breweries disappear in eastern Germany and succumb to alleged market pressures to pasteurize and filter in the Czech Republic, Belgium seems to be experiencing a brewing renaissance. Small artisan farmhouse breweries are finding growing demand for their traditional products, and they are beginning to experiment with “new” styles such as stout and pilsner.

Belgian craft brewers are fortunate to have such a venue as the Zythos Bierfestival. Profits are generated by raffle, merchandise and beer sales and are shared with the breweries. The festival hall seemed a reasonable size and only got cramped and smoky toward the last third of each day. Although the organizers provided food booths, restrooms, lots of long tables and an alleged nonsmoking area, drinking water was not available.

Many English “beer nuts” have discovered this festival, and the word is spreading like wild yeast. A certain Tomme (Arthur) and Tom (Nickel) from the U.S. Hop Coast were even spotted during the informal but massive international beer swapping by beer travelers with strong backs and stronger luggage. Watch for news of the March 2006 event at the ZBF Web site at zythos.be, where the organizers do a great job of accommodating English speakers. By then, maybe the euro won’t cost us $1.33 for our 15-cl taste sample.

Zythos Bierfestival
Sint-Niklaas, Belgium

Tom Ciccateri, along with his original liver, has survived four attempts and was recently named 2005 Beerdrinker of the Year.


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