As one first begins to taste and explore the history of Belgian beer, it is difficult to resist a sort of convenient romanticism. The Western mind still tends toward dichotomies, and to the naked eye, and satisfied palate, the Belgian beer tradition seems the ultimate antithesis of “Beer” as it exists in the global parlance. The complexity of flavor, the precious scarcity of product, a national brewing epoch stretching past the Middle Ages, all of this seems to stand in stark contrast to the fizzy yellow empire of adjunct-laden lagers that sprang-forth and became dominant during the hyper-capitalist frenzy of the 20th century; this era saw a bourgeoning behemoth swatting aside all Old World brewing practices in favor of those offered by the technological leaps of Industrialization. This binary pits the independent Belgian Brewers, who presumably continue to make and sell beer according to the necessities and concomitant techniques of a bygone age, against the constantly conglomerating multinational corporations whose beers have only evolved to maximize volume and profit margins.
Intoxicating though such juxtapositions certainly are (to say nothing of how much power has been wielded on account of such systems of knowledge), they deny the fluid nature of opposition. No brewing tradition or beer, like no person, has ever existed in some idealized vacuum, upon an altar untouched by the incessant social shuffle; and while there are plenty of differences between modern Belgian brewers and International Lager leviathans, neither has escaped the realities and demands of modernity.
Trappist brewing is a telling example. At first mesmerized by the spiritual promise of monastic brewing and the delicious ales produced, one soon discovers that not even Monk beer is otherworldly. The demands of the marketplace have visited some compelling realities upon many of the Trappists, and—while they continue to sell their beer for self-sufficiency and charity—they have had to make some changes in order to realize profitability. Among them: primarily using cheaper hop extracts (rather than whole flower hops), installing state-of-the-art brewing equipment (think computer automation) to insure consistency, almost exclusively relying upon secular workers for brewhouse labor (in most cases, the ever-dwindling number of Monks simply could not meet the production numbers of these breweries), shortening the periods of secondary fermentation and conditioning (to sell beer more quickly), and a few even employ mildly aggressive marketing campaigns. While the beers are still (mostly) world classics, sacrifices have surely been made, and the idea of monastic beer is clearly quite different from actuality; more than a few seasoned drinkers long for the old school iterations of Trappist ale over today’s offerings.
Brewing was once a necessitous activity of farm communities and monasteries , and the flavors and nature of those traditional ales and lagers were a result of tireless empiricism; ingredients could only be sourced from the local landscape, and techniques were developed to coerce the finest flavors from rustic techniques. Industrialization brought technological and scientific advances that certainly changed the nature of brewing, but the evolution of economics in a rapidly developing world also transformed what it meant to brew. Sanitation made water drinkable again, and beer—once the staple of thirst slaking (due to the dual antibacterial forces of boiling and alcohol)—now became a luxury item, one primarily produced for selling; it wasn’t long before beer was a commodity, and brewers became motivated as much by perceived public taste and profit margins as they had been by maximizing flavor potential within the confines of provincial life. Sanitation techniques, as well as the wider availability of steel for brewing, fermentation, and conditioning vessels (and eventually kegs), allowed brewers to produce ales—and increasingly lagers—of a higher consistency, bereft of the funkier, acidic flavors that had become old-fashioned.
Even today, many of the breweries that produce fine examples of classic Belgian beers are actually able to do so only because of the success of their more modern styles. Upon visiting some of these breweries, one notices that many have come to produce Pilsner Lagers in order to compete with the marketing behemoths that have so successfully influenced the palate of contemporary drinkers. In fact, it is rare to find successful breweries that do not have their own version of Pilsner, and rarer still to find out that their business is not primarily driven by such a style.
As Pilsner has become the world’s most popular beer style, many Belgian breweries have transformed their brewing apparatus’ in order to fulfill demand and survive. When I visited the Brouwerij Leroy in Boezinge, West Flanders I came face-to-face with this reality.
I settled into a tasting in the family Leroy’s front parlor, in a home that literally abuts the brewery. There I learned that the family’s brewery originally dated back to the second half of the 17th century, but that that brewery was destroyed in the modern mayhem of World War I. When the decision to rebuild the brewery in 1924 was made, a new direction was settled upon. Cutting edge equipment was installed and the brewery committed to brewing mostly bottom-fermenting beers, including a Pilsner and an Export Lager. This decision was made due to the explosion of Lager popularity in Belgium between the two World Wars, and proved a good one when competition became fierce in the second half of the 20th century.
As Belgian breweries began to conglomerate, and then absorb and close many local producers, regional breweries—like Leroy—were in trouble. Larger companies began buying up smaller producers not for the beers they made, but for the pubs they controlled. By ceasing the production of local beers—and often closing the breweries altogether—larger enterprises began to corner the market.
Many regional, family-owned breweries were forced to close under the weight of such dominance, or seek out other markets. Brouwerij Leroy had a number of lagers—and even a few ale specialties—to offer, but increasingly fewer customers interested in such provincial curios. Enter Paul Priem.
Mr. Priem was the man who helped the family insure its survival; he led the charge in securing export markets for beers once solely consumed within miles of the brewery. Leroy did not attempt to undercut the competition of the much larger, and more business-savvy, beer giants by lowering production costs and increasing volume. They continued to make beers of substance and flavor, and merely looked around to see if any others were still looking for lagers and ales of character. Beginning in the late 1960s, Mr. Priem worked tirelessly—often seven days a week—in visiting pubs and distributors in Northern France and beyond, all the while inadvertently helping to set the stage for today’s renewed global interest in craft beer.
Brouwerij Leroy survived by targeting small segments of many markets rather than relying on a larger share of fewer domestic markets. At that time, most people were following the herd, drinking what was dominant and produced to maintain dominance. But all the while, smaller regional—and often family owned—breweries were working hard to tender an alternative; and this alternative offered, and still offers, respite from big business beer. These ales and lagers still work within the framework of contemporary capitalism and modern brewing, but do so in such a way that those few seeking flavor opportunities do not go thirsty.
Fittingly, in 1978, Brouwerij Leroy rewarded Mr. Priem by producing very small batches of a classic Flemish style; the beer they chose was based on the Flanders Oud Bruin—or Old Brown Ale—and they named it after their loyal salesman: Paulus.
Oud Bruin is a blended style, and one that—like all styles available today—comes not from a single era, but from a steady evolution spurred on by interactions with innovation. Once upon a time, before advances in kilning technology allowed for paler malts and paler beers, all ales and lagers were darkish brown in pallor.
Beer would have also been stored in, transported by, and served from wooden barrels, as steel was not yet an accessible material. Over time, wood—with its porous nature and nooks and crannies—encourages the growth of micro flora that impart a wine-like acidity and funkiness to the brew. As publicans served this vinous ale from wooden casks, the beer would steadily develop a more sour character over time, often becoming nearly undrinkable towards the bottom of the barrel. Enterprising pub owners demonstrated their business acumen by pouring fresher beer into the emptying cask in order to not sacrifice the profit potential of the older brew. This ale amalgam perfectly demonstrates how business and pleasure have long been blended in the story of beer, even in beer styles we often look upon as diametrically opposed to the profit driven swill known as Macrolager.
These publicans had also managed to produce delicious ales through this process, and guests enjoyed the new mélange so much that brewers began to preemptively barrel age and then blend their ales. And as modern tastes tended toward even cleaner flavors, and as many breweries installed state of the art stainless steel equipment, the style evolved again. These brewers would let their darkish ale mature in stainless steel vessels before blending, rather than in wood, and what followed was beer with a more subdued sour finish and richer, toasty malt notes. The Flemish Oud Bruin arrived, bearing flavor remnants from the days of rusticity, but certainly a product of capitalist advancement.
This style is still relatively rare in Belgium, not to mention costly to produce (sitting on beer that could be sold and consumed young) and I was never offered a glimpse of Paulus when I visited Brouweij Leroy. Later, while perusing Michael Jackson’s inimitable tribute to Belgian brewing, his Great Beers of Belgium, I learned of its existence and little more. My interest was peaked, and I contacted the Leroy family to inquire as to its availability. They were surprised by my interest and discovery, and told me that, while it is a beer they typically produced in small quantities for special occasions, they would be willing to send some of their Oud Bruin my way.
I am delighted to report that Paulus is now available exclusively on draught in the United States at ChurchKey in Washington, DC. And it is flat out wonderful, beginning with toffee, raisin and raspberry notes, then suggesting hazelnut and cocoa, before finishing with an enchanting interplay of sweet and sour.
Often times it can seem devastating to watch as one’s idealism crumbles, as one discovers that what was presumed pure is in fact closely intertwined with that which had been deemed destructive. But Paulus shows us contemporary craft drinkers that business isn’t always so bad, and that advancements in brewing technology can be utilized for the better. In fact, the beer itself wouldn’t even exist, had a young and determined salesman not been propelled beyond the borders of Belgium to find bastions of artisanal ale drinkers waiting with bated thirst.