11 Belgian Beers Make Their Move for U.S. Market
“People have survived this lunch before and we will award Purple Hearts after the meal,” said David Van Riel, exhorting a press gathering to jump into the appointed task with gusto. “You’re going to love five of these beers and you’re going to hate five. . . . But you have to try the entire range first and then have your favorite.”
The difficulty at hand was to wade through 11, not 10, distinguished Belgian beers, a collection of frothy, aromatic, amber and gold liquids. Individually, a few of these brews could readily add inches to the waistline and glaze the eyes. Collectively, they made for an especially long lunch, but a unique sensory experience in European brewing.
Savoring Scents and Flavors
“You’re having 11 beers and that’s hard work. I appreciate your efforts,” said Van Riel as he encouraged the participants to savor the scents, colors and flavors.
The purpose of the event was to formally introduce the centuries-old regional breweries of northern Belgium’s Flanders region to Los Angeles. Most of these companies are small, family-owned outfits, which are united under one banner out of financial necessity to promote their products in the United States. The trade group operates under the banner of the Belgian Traditional Brewers Marketing Board.
Their collective promotion also seemed vital in order to educate Americans about Belgian beers, which have been lost in the shuffle of the big-name German, Dutch and English brews. Although Belgium does not have a brand as recognizable as the internationally popular Heineken, it does have a brewing tradition dating back 3,000 years.
Today, the country, which is slightly larger than Maryland, has more than 120 breweries making 300 different brands. As a comparison, the United States has only 50 breweries.
“Belgium is not a wine country. The weather is too cold to grow the raisins,” Van Riel said. Perhaps as a result, the nation has the third-highest per capita consumption of beer in the world.
While planning for the American market the Belgians decided to introduce unique styles that may appeal to the wine connoisseur and other fussy gourmands rather than futilely challenge popular American lagers. Emphasizing quality and style was also important considering that most of the beers sell for between $1.50 and $4 a bottle.
“These are not the beers Joe Six-Pack is likely to buy,” Van Riel said. “In fact, he’ll never buy any of them. . . . They’re too tasty for those who just grab a cold can of beer.”
At this point, the founder-director of the marketing board explained to a number of reporters and others just what made these drinks special. Van Riel’s presentation was as laden with yarns of European folklore as his beers were ripe with hops. Luckily for those in attendance, the products were served throughout a six-course meal, which was further fortified with generous amounts of dinner rolls.
The key to enjoying one of these expensive, high-alcohol brews is to pour it into a wide-mouth goblet or medium-size brandy snifter. There are a number of reasons for this ritual; in particular, to allow the heavy foam to develop and release the carbonation.
“We use a goblet because it can fit any nose possible in Belgium,” said Van Riel, himself a Belgian. “And pour it straight. Don’t tilt the glass. Build up the foam.”
After the exhortations on pouring, Van Riel explained that the beers can be segmented into three groups: those best served as aperitifs, as food companions or as after-dinner drinks.
The first group includes De Koninck, Palm Ale and Wittekop. The heartier collection that could withstand the full flavors of highly seasoned entrees are Duvel, Affligem, Augustijn and Scaldi’s. Those best savored after a meal or as a late-evening beverage are Mort Subite kriek, Rodenbach, Kwak and Golden Carolus.
Difficult to Find Fault
Despite earlier warnings, it was difficult to find anything to dislike about this selection. Actually, there was a good deal to like. For instance, Scaldi’s with its especially thick foam registers 12.5% alcohol content, or 25-proof, yet is smooth and rich.
The Mort Subite kriek is a surprising cherry beer that’s aged 18 months before release. This beer is bottled in what looks like a champagne split and is corked in a similar fashion. The kriek style began accidentally when a brewer stored fresh cherries in a barrel of beer for several months. The result was well-preserved fruit and a fresh-tasting beer. Van Riel points out that the words mort subite mean “sudden death” in Flemish, but added that it was just a name and not an effect.
Emphasizing the link between food and Belgian beer, the meal ended with Golden Carolus served with a fruit-topped cheesecake. The beer was well-received and was complimented for its caramel taste and velvety softness.
“Cake and beer? Who would of thought of it, but it’s great,” said Victor J. D’Virgilio, president of Victor Sales, the Los Angeles firm that will import the Belgian beers. “These beers are unreal.”
Malibu Suds--David Van Riel and his Belgian cohorts wisely elected to market beers with unusual styles and flavors in order to avoid competing with the easy-to-drink lagers supported by multimillion-dollar advertising muscle of the U.S. beer giants. Von A. Gentile feels differently and will take up the lance of Don Quixote and fight it out with the windmills.
Gentile will soon be introducing a new pilsner-type beer to the Los Angeles market. Normally, such a venture would not have a chance, but this beer has sand, surf, sea and a chic address on its side. Gentile’s new beer: Malibrew.
“I was intrigued by a 1984 article in The Times about small breweries and thought I’d look into starting one. However, I found out quickly that brewing beer is very expensive, particularly in Malibu where there’s no real commercial source of water, and a sewerage problem,” Gentile said.
Well then, how does one go about selling a beer called Malibrew without making it at its seaside namesake?
“I met this fellow who had a small Wisconsin brewery. They’ve fallen on hard times and were willing to do a private label for us,” he said.
So, the beer that may make Malibu even more famous will come from Eau Claire, Wis.
Malibrew has a unique label featuring a blond woman windsurfing on a dangerously large wave. The scene is being taken in by a sea gull.
“Whether this beer will continue to sell . . . I don’t know. Kids, the surfers, say it’s a hot idea,” Gentile said.
The Malibu Beer Co. currently has a number of area restaurants interested in the soon-to-be-released beer. However, the debut is being delayed pending resolution of the transportation problems inherent in bringing Malibrew from Wisconsin.
Charting Thirst--Despite the onslaught of new beers from around the corner and the world, the consumption of brews in the United States declined slightly last year, according to the Wine and Spirits Marketing Bulletin published by U.S. News & World Report.
The decline in beer sales was a negligible .3%, from 132.2 million barrels in 1983 to 131.9 million barrels last year. The report speculates that the drop can be attributed to the impressive success of wine coolers, which went from nowhere to register sales of 30 million gallons in 1984.
In fact, the wine-cooler proliferation was responsible for record consumption of wine. Last year, U.S. wine sales hit 541 million gallons, a 4% gain over 1983.