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Des de Moor
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Zythos Bierfestival 2012

, Brabanthal, Leuven, Vlaams-Brabant, België

The most important beer festival in one of the world’s greatest beer countries just got bigger still. After several years packing out a smallish hall in the obscure town of Sint-Niklaas, the Zythos Bierfestival (ZBF) almost doubled in size in 2012 in its new home for at least the next four years, the Brabanthal in the historic brewing and university city of Leuven. The welcome additional space and extended choice should help ensure ZBF remains one of the world’s top beer events, and a fine showcase for the diverse and increasingly dynamic Belgian brewing scene.

This way for good beer...

Unlike British beer festivals, ZBF allocates a small stand per brewery and this year the number of stands grew from 56 to 96. With a few sharers, 104 breweries and beer firms were represented, from tiny hobby outfits to multinationals, offering over 400 different craft and other specialist beers – with a waiting list of brewers who failed to secure a stand. Total attendance over the weekend of 28-29 April was up by 3,000 to 13,000, with plenty of room to grow still further over the coming years.

In contrast to Sint-Niklaas, a pleasant but ordinary small town with excellent transport links, Leuven has much to offer as a host city. 30km east of Brussels on the main road and rail routes east towards Liège and Köln, it was for many centuries an important brewing centre. Its most successful old-established brewery, Artois, has since bloated into global giant AB InBev and the city remains the international headquarters of the world’s biggest brewing group. But it’s long boasted an excellent independent brewpub, Domus, and in the past few years several small breweries have started up in the vicinity.

Besides its brewing links, Leuven is the provincial capital of Flemish Brabant and a fascinating and historic place in its own right, with some astonishing and important built heritage like the elaborate Gothic town hall and two peaceful mediaeval beguinages that enjoy World Heritage Site status. Significantly, it’s also home to the oldest and biggest university in the Low Countries, the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Catholic University of Leuven, otherwise known as KU Leuven). A massive student population supports Belgium’s biggest collection of student , occupying practically every ground floor of the long, narrow rectangle of the Oude Markt (Old Market Place) in the city centre. Needless to say, the university boasts a brewing faculty which has made a major contribution to the national industry.

The festival venue stands rather apart from all this. The Brabanthal is a giant box of an exhibition and convention centre next to a dual carriageway on the eastern edge of town. Regular attenders will have missed the convenience of the short stumble from Sint-Niklaas station to the Stadsfeestzaal almost opposite, but in mitigation a free shuttle bus operated every 15 minutes to and from Leuven station. I opted instead for a pleasant half-hour walk, plotting a route through the redeveloped former Philips factory site, the parkland and waterside of the Abdij van ‘t Park (Park Abbey) and along a track across fields. I confess to catching the bus back, though.

Zythos Bierfestival 2012

In common with the Stadsfeestzaal, the Brabanthal is a hanger-like space with a concrete floor and no natural light, but developed an adequate atmosphere when full of decorated brewery bars and crowds of eager drinkers, and the additional space was really welcome. Plentiful tables lined the walls around the bars, with much more standing and circulation room between them. Additionally the marginally more luxurious foyer offered more seating as well as hot and soft drinks in an extensive cafeteria, and spreading room for other stands, including a much expanded bottle shop stocked with unusual beers from small breweries. An outdoor food area enabled the enjoyment of that national staple, chips (fries) lathered with mayonnaise (or filled rolls and pitas or pizza slices) without the frying fumes detracting from the appreciation of beer aromas. There was also an extended outdoor smoking area – the festival has been smoke free for several years anyway and last year Belgian law caught up with it.

Armand Debelder presides at the 3 Fonteinen stand, Zythos Bierfestival 2012

One of the advantages of the brewery bars is that they are usually staffed by the breweries, giving drinkers the opportunity to meet the people behind the beers. Numerous brewers were in evidence at the festival – I spotted people from Brasserie de la Senne, Rulles, Alvinne and Tilquin. Lambic legend Armand Debelder was happily dispensing his own excellent beers at the 3 Fonteinen stand.

The whole spectrum of Belgian specialist brewing was represented. At one extreme, AB InBev put in an appearance for the first time I can remember, and quite right too given their local links. They were showcasing the Leffe abbey brands, including a new 5.5% beer, Nectar. At the other extreme were several new and often very small breweries, some run only as spare time hobbies. Danny, Dijkwaert, Donum Ignis, Gruut, Herberg, Hof ten Dormaal, Jessenhofke, Leite, Lupus, Maenhout, Nieuwhuys, Paenhuys, Pakhuis, Pirlot, Sint Canarus, Vlier, Wieze and Wilderen were among the less familiar names.

This profusion of newcomers, often showcasing distinctive and innovative beers, reflects the current healthy state of Belgian brewing. Given the reverence with which the country is regarded by beer connoisseurs internationally, and the uncritical view of most Belgian drinkers that their national beers are the best in the world, complacency is not unknown, but international awareness happily works both ways. 11million hl – more than half the country’s production – is now exported and Belgian brewers seem well attuned to changing tastes in the world market, which are increasingly feeding back into the home market too.

What is it about beer festivals and embarassing headgear? Pink elephants on parade at Zythos Bierfestival 2012.

The happy result is that the country’s numerous surviving unique traditional styles seem secure, as attested by the recent arrival of a new geuze blender, Tilquin, though brewers no longer feel hidebound by them at the expense of experimentation. Unusual hybrids based on abbey beers and wheat beers, wood aged extreme stouts and pale ales with generous dosings of US hops were all on offer alongside classic lambics, tripels, saisons and spéciales belges. And with a 15cl glass of any beer available for a standard €1.40 token, there were plenty of bargains to be had at the rarified end of the market.

'Thou shalt enjoy'. The 11th commandment being obeyed at Zythos Bierfestival 2012.

Alongside the Great American and Great British Beer Festivals, the Zythos Bierfestival is arguably one of the world’s top three events for serious beer lovers, reflected in the increasingly international attendance. A rainbow of English accents could be heard across the hall, and there were plenty of Scandinavians and Italians in evidence as well as Belgians and Dutch. The new venue and the attractions of the host city make it even more of a must-visit than ever, so make a note in your diary now for 27-28 April 2013.

Zythos Bierfestival 2012: festival glasses and ballot papers waiting to be filled.

Insider tip. Admission is free, but if you’re a member of an EBCU (European Beer Consumer Union) affiliated organisation, you can also claim two free tokens (jetons) at the Zythos stand by showing your membership card. If you’re a member of more than one EBCU organisation, you’ll get two tokens for each membership. I can’t help feeling a little greedy every year for claiming six tokens with a flash of my CAMRA, PINT and Zythos cards.

On a personal note, Leuven is also the place where I underwent a major beer epiphany, almost exactly 20 years before, when my then partner, who was on a six month placement at KU Leuven, introduced me to Hoegaarden at the Oase, one of those many student bars on the Oude Markt. A few weeks later we bought a copy of Michael Jackson’s The Great Beers of Belgium between us and I never looked back. I found the Oase again the other day, though it was too early in the day for it to be open, but I’m glad to report that the Domus brewpub, another of our favourite haunts back then, is still going strong, and brewing again after a challenging period.

See also Zythos Bierfestival 2010.

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