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