By Tony J. Forder
The Zythos Beerfestival continues to evolve, showcasing the best of Belgian’s breweries. This year’s fest (the 16th annual) seemed to be particularly well organized, although our Sunday visit versus our normal Saturday probably helped with ease of navigation. However some vendors said even the Saturday evening crowds were down a bit – a testimony probably to the dearth of beer events now flooding, well almost everywhere.
Zythos traditionally serves as the final act in ASN’s week-long tour of Belgium, which this year included a foray into Germany and a tiptoe into the Netherlands. This year’s challenge for our group of mostly veteran Zythos-goers was an early start out of Antwerp necessitated by impending road closures for a bike race; thanks to our driver Hans, we avoided the awkward situation of being stuck in Antwerp on festival day. Although the weather was not particularly conducive, Hans treated us to a tour of the historical sights of Brussels on the way to Leuven.
At the festival we joined the lines, eagerly awaiting the opening bell, like racehorses at the starting gate. The dilemma for a newbie was illustrated by one of our group, program in hand, still gazing open-mouthed at the booths 20 minutes in. “Where do I start?” he pleaded. Zythos actually has experts stationed around to help guide the uninitiated.
There were several new faces among the 100 breweries serving some 580 beers. Zythos divides vendors into two categories – breweries and beer firms, or what we would call contract brewers in the U.S., which numbered about 30 this year. In response to established brewers complaints about transparency, the beer firms are now required to list where their beer is brewed. Some of them use several different breweries for different beers. Host breweries such as Anders, De Fenniks, de Proef and de Gral are scattered throughout the program.
Belgium’s new wave comprises those that have breweries and those that don’t. Some of the former are Innova, Crystalsticke, Beerstorming, No Science Brasserie and Siphon; some of the latter are Enigma, Inglorious Beer Stars, Ministry of Belgian Beer, Pils n’ Love and Totem. English language names no doubt reflect some U.S. influence.
The procedure for our group is usually to establish a base at one of the tables that line one side of the building. From there individuals or groups make forays into the stands, come back and compare notes. “Did you try this…that?”
Barrel-aged is always popular and there was no shortage this day. Several juice bombs got good reviews although I did hear “I’m not going to drink New England IPAs in Belgium!” One of the juicier ones was a collab between two new beer firms, Craft Beers Hoppug and ‘t Duo – 9% Embrace the Haze Double NEIPA, brewed at De Fenniks. Also, Dum’s Gimme Juice, a session IPA brewed just for the fest. Another one-off was a Blond Coconut, Cocoa, Coffee Bean Quad (10.3%) from Inglorious Brew Stars. They also had regular and whisky infused versions.
Russian Imperial Stout was a favorite: SpaceLord Habanero Heaven 9% from 42-Four: Innova had Whitney, a Brut RISP, as well as cachaca and bourbon barrel-aged versions. Siphon featured Excuse Me While I Kiss Cassandra, an imperial espresso oyster stout (they also had a great honey lavender tripel, 1912). But my favorite continues to be Sans Pardon from our buddy Roland at De Dochtor van de Korenaar, whom we have visited twice in Baarle-Hertog, a Belgian enclave in the Netherlands, once at his house-shed brewery and two years ago at his new facility.
Other eye openers (or closers, depending on the strength) were a Brut Purple IPA from long running contract brewer Anders! or the hard to define 13% bitter/sweet Silent Killer from beer firm Stanneman or Totem’s Wisnia With A Cherry On Top Black Forest Cake Gose.
But enough of the ticker beers! Not all the new Belgian brewers use English names for their breweries or beers. For example ‘t Verzet (17 beers including 6 Oud Bruins) or Brasserie de la Senne (ok not so new) hawk tradition but with a twist. And there were plenty of established breweries on the floor. Het Anker (Gouden Carolus), Van Steenberge (Gulden Draak), De Ranke, Leroy (they served the most beers – 40). Lambics – Boon, as good as always; blenders old (De Cam) and new (Lambiek Fabriek). The Trappists were all there too, sharing a booth.
Zythos is open to all and makes no distinction between large or small. While many vendors appear to be brand new, or brewing very limited quantities – volumes listed at 100 hectos (80 barrels) or less – they range all the way up to AB-InBev (400,000,000 hectos); they poured Bosteels Deus and Karmeliet, Leffe and Oude Kriek and Gueuze. Among the offerings from Duvel Moortgat were Chateau D’YChouffe Rose, Triple Hop with Cashmere and Green Pearl, an imperial stout described as 8 Maand Calvados & Barry White Barrel Aged. They also had Little Jack on hand from their U.S. partner Firestone walker.
I try and visit friends – brewers we have visited over our 20+ year tour history. I usually start the proceedings with a Malheur Brut champagne beer. One year we visited Malheur before the festival began – although fun, it was not such a great idea we decided.
Hof ten Dormaal, a farmhouse brewery on our to do list, impressed with their Barbera, made with Italian grapes. Also a chocolate/raspberry brew. “We grow everything on the farm that goes into the beer – except raspberries and chocolate,” said the owner. He had a banner picturing him and his grandkids toasting with beer. Children with beer is not such a stigma in Belgium where the legal drinking age is 16. The patron from Blaugies, another farmhouse brewery from the south we visited several years ago had his grandson on hand helping out. One of their beers was the Vermontoise, a collaboration with Hill Farmstead.
As usual at beer festivals, the first hour seems to go very slowly and then somehow the clock continues to accelerate; as time winds down, the sight of our tour operator Greg Dennis reminds us that our departure is imminent – you really don’t want to miss the bus. It’s time to plot the last two or three beers and try to spend down your Zythos tokens. They cost 1.25 euro each for a 5-oz pour, 2 tokens for special (usually strong) brews. (Tip – 5 oz turns out to be a large pour for strong beers. It helps to have a tasting partner).
Someone told me our guide from last year, Karin, was at the St. Bernardus booth and had already donated two 750s of their new saison for the bus. I headed over to thank her…she pulled at a bottle of St. B 12 aged in Calvados barrels which she said she was not serving because they wouldn’t let her charge 3 tokens.
As I write this back in the U.S., thumbing through the 100-page program (the festival’s free bible available in English, French and Dutch), I realize we only scratched the surface. I guess that’s why we go back every year.
Zythos 2020 is set for April 25-26 – the countdown begins. For information on Ale Street News Tours and other beer news go to www.alestreetnews.com and sign up for our free e-letter. Stay tuned @alestreetnews.