Article By: Lew Bryson
American craft brewers may boast about their innovative ways: bourbon barrel-aged beers, wild ingredients, beers that tip the ABV scale well north of 15%. Belgian brewers have been doing wild stuff for years.
Not that "wild" is always the same as "good", just as has been shown with the American extreme beers. That's clearly the opinion of Massachusetts' own importer of Belgian beers, Dan Shelton of Shelton Brothers, in Belchertown.
"It's not that Belgian beer is all craft beer, or even that it's mostly good beer," Shelton said. "A lot of it is mass-produced and badly lacking in character. Belgian beer just looks and feels like the ultimate craft beer. It comes in odd bottles, often wine or champagne-style bottles with corks. It sometimes has spices and other odd ingredients that make people think of brewers as creative chefs, tossing things into the pot that raise eyebrows but somehow still work."
Craft beer or good beer, the question is whether Massachusetts retailers, both on- and off-premise, or Massachusetts drinkers, get Belgian beer, and whether they're selling and buying enough of these big-bottle, big-flavor, big-ticket beers. From my Philadelphia perspective, living in the biggest Belgian beer market in the country, where I have five local Belgian restaurants to choose from, Massachusetts is behind the curve. Is that a fair assessment?
Most of us who have been at this for over ten years clearly remember our first Belgian. I remember mine, in an old German place down the street from my college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, back in the early 198Os. It was a Duvel, in a squatty little brown bottle. The owner, Wilhelm Lauzus, a German Navy vet from World War II who kept a model of his last ship, a heavy cruiser, over the bar, handed me the bottle without comment. But as he handed it to me, he pointed ponderously at a little note on the label: "Pour slowly."
Yeah, yeah, okay, I was 22, I knew about pouring beer. I took the bottle and the glass back to my seat, and poured okay, not that slowly. Those of you who know Duvel are probably laughing right now. The beer famous for its huge, mousse-like head blossomed out over the rim of the half-pint bottle all over the table. "Hey!" I yelled, "I only poured a little!" Wilhelm slowly nodded his big head, with just the hint of a grin on his placid face. Seen it, the grin said, tried to warn you.
Six years later I was living in New England, drinking the early craft oh, excuse me, it was still "microbrewed" in those days, beers - Harpoon, Catamount, Nathan Hale, Charter Oak - and loving the fresh-poured stuff at Commonwealth and Northampton. But I rarely saw any Belgian stuff, except a few bottles of Orval and Chimay at the most selective beer stores. To tell the truth, I didn't really miss it when I could get beautiful taps of these new (relatively) local beers. Okay, Nathan Hale was actually brewed in another state, and Charter Oak just wasn't that good, but it was the excitement.
When my wife and I moved to Philadelphia in 1991, I missed the micros. But I quickly found the Belgians that Philly was beginning to embrace. That's when we started to get the incredible run of draft Belgian beers, sometimes stuff that wasn't even on draft in Belgium at more than one or two places. I just talked to Michael Jackson three days ago, and he still recalls an eleven-lambic dinner he hosted at Monk's Cafe in Philly five years ago as a beer highpoint in his life. "People in Belgium simply don't believe me when I tell them about it," he said.
The craft beer scene in Philly has revved up considerably, but I can't think of any of the breweries in the area that don't make at least one Belgian-style beer: tripels, dubbels, saisons, strong golden ales, Flanders Reds, and Oud Bruins, even some very good pseudo-lambic types. So what's the deal, Massachusetts? Just not interested in Belgians?
Well, not exactly. "I was just awarded the first American ambassadorship from Orval," said David Ciccolo, the Belgian-boosting owner of the Publick House in Brookline. He wasn't kidding, either; if his quotes sound a little disjointed, it's because he had literally just walked into the Publick House after flying home from the Zythos beer festival in Belgium. "We're not new on the Belgian wagon. We have 15O Belgians, but only quality Belgians. Not just every Belgian. It's hand-picked with love."
Ciccolo was being somewhat modest or maybe just jet-lagged and forgetful. He'd also just been knighted in the Belgian order of the Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs, the "Knighthood of the Brewer's Mashfork". It's an order that's infused with a beautifully Belgian combination of pomp and silliness, but it is also a serious recognition of service to Belgian beer. That's a fair evaluation, then, because just about everyone I contacted for this story told me that if I was looking for evidence of Belgian beer savvy in Massachusetts, I had to start with Ciccolo and the Publick House.
"We sell more Allagash White than anyone in the country," Ciccolo rambled when asked what did well at the Publick House. "Our Belgian drafts rotate. We sell buckets of De Ranke XX, Moinette disappears when it goes on tap. We sell more Duvel than anyone in Massachusetts. We sell a ton of Vuuve and 'tSmisje Tripel. When the staff gets behind something, it walks out the door. The usual stuff, like Chimay, sells well because it's recognized."
Selling "a ton of Vuuve and 'tSmisje Tripel," and referring to Chimay as "the usual stuff", may be the best evidence that, at least at the Publick House, Massachusetts beer drinkers are getting it. "There's nothing they're not getting," protested Ciccolo. "Everyone who comes through the door gets educated. The staff learns about the beers, and that's why I take them to Belgium." He had taken four Publick House employees along to Zythos.
Nick Blakey encourages tasting and education at Bauer's Wines, in Boston. "Much of the beer industry still has to catch up with the wine business on sampling," he said. "Bar owners and bar servers need to taste this stuff, and then they'll see what all the fuss is about. If a bar owner just goes to the Publick House on a Monday or Tuesday night, they'll see how much this stuff sells. On a Monday night! It's up to us, the retailers and bartenders, to educate the people. I don't think enough people are saying "Try this". Too many people do the easy thing, just point them to what they bought last time."
Larry Bennett, who handles both the Brewery Ommegang beers and the Belgian-made beers of Belgium's Moortgat brewery, would love to work with retailers on making sales together. "Our beers are always extremely well-received," he said, without false modesty, "but the question is how to get those citizens to walk into their local [store] and ask for our beer, the surest way to get a retailer to carry them. If I knew the perfect answer to that question, I'd be living on an island in the South Seas, being fanned by voluptuous South Seas maidens."
People will most likely get their first experience with Belgian beers at a bar, and that's what makes Bennett shiver. "Staff training is especially important because the worst thing a bartender or server can do is plunk down a $6 to $1O bottle of Belgian beer and a generic glass, and walk away," he said. "Use the right glassware and explain why. Pour it, give a little summation on drinking and aroma characteristics, hold it up to light and look it over before setting it down. It is just like serving a good glass of wine, as opposed to plonk. Know what you are talking about before you are asked questions. Winging it doesn't work for good food or wine, why should it for beer?"
It works off-premise as well. Have the glassware - everyone loves paraphenalia when they're buying something expensive. Pick up the bottle, hold it, display it, and talk about it. You're asking someone to pay five times as much per bottle as they're probably accustomed to paying for beer; you have to explain why it's worth it.
How do you do that, and do it smart - the sampling, good answers, and hand-selling? Get the beers in and train staff while beers sit on the shelves? Train before you get them in? Chicken or egg, right? You've got to get up to speed as quickly as possible, but without being too shallow; real Belgian beer lovers can spot a thin veneer of "training" from across the store. "Getting retailers up to speed is an interesting question," said Bennett. "We work with ours on training, pouring, glassware, styles, and Belgian background. Generally they're receptive, but like any retailer in the big city they're besieged with other folks who also want their attention. As a college town I suspect they also have a lot of staff turnover that doesn't help. The traditional taking of retailers to Belgium hasn't been used much in Boston, David [Ciccolo] perhaps excepted."
Taking staff to Belgium is expensive, but as anyone who sells wine or whisky can tell you, there are few selling techniques stronger than telling a customer, "Well, when I was at Chateau XYZ" and being able to add personal detail to a product's story. And the thing that separates Belgian beers from the rest of the import beer category, from almost the entire beer category, is a pricepoint that can make a trip to Belgium worth it at the register.
But Shelton doesn't think you can really get smart on Belgian beer that fast. "Getting up to speed quickly is not really possible, if you're doing it right," he said. "Any beer lover tasting his first Belgian beer is going to be surprised and usually impressed by the range of flavors there. I was thrilled myself by some mainstream Belgian beers - Duvel, Affligem, Corsendonk - when I first discovered them. (There were also some that I thought were crappy right from the beginning.) But I didn't stop there. I went to Belgium to hunt for beer, and not just the mainstream ones. Eventually, the mainstream beers come to seem rather pallid, to say the least."
Now, that's coming from a guy who imports some decidedly non-mainstream beers, but it makes you think about Ciccolo's "Not just every Belgian" qualification. You want to look at what's selling, of course, and you also have to think about what your customer's thinking when they come in the door and ask you, "Do you have any Belgian beers?"
Jeff, one of the bartenders at the Dirty Truth in Northampton, hears that question often. "When they just ask for Belgian, they're usually thinking of a tripel, a strong blonde ale," he said. "Or a lot of people drink the witbiers. People will ask if we have Chimay, and when we ask which one they want, they're not sure, they didn't know there were three of them."
Sometimes, in these days of "best of" lists from magazines and websites, it's worse than ignorance, it's that little bit of knowledge that's a dangerous thing. "People come in here asking for the beer that turns my spine to rubber: Westvleteren," said Blakey. "That's all they want. It's like buying a Rolls Royce Phantom for your first car! Start with a Toyota!
"But I do think Belgian beers have more of an appeal across the board than any other," he continued. "I served Houblon Chouffe to a guy who only drinks light beer, and at first he said, 'I don't like this much,' but then he's finishing the bottle."
The idea that buying Belgians will get folks used to paying more for beer is one of the main things that you should consider when you're thinking about adding or expanding a Belgian section to your shelves. "One thing I want to point out," said Shelton, "is that the reason for [stocking] Belgian beer is that it builds the market for imports - people naturally are more confident about imported beer that's 8% or whatever, with a shelf-life of 2 or 3 years. They're willing to spend more money on high-alcohol stuff, and since imports are inherently more expensive, we've needed that Belgian wedge to get people to think about spending more."
It's working, overall, he says. "Belgian beer has done [that] for imported beer more generally: introduced the idea that some beer, by virtue of its uniqueness and rarity, as well as the extra time and skill required to make it, should naturally cost a lot more money than that merely ordinary beer. It's an idea borrowed from the world of wine, of course. It's also the latest favor that imported beer has done for American craft beer. Successful brewers here are making all sorts of exotic beer now, and charging whatever they want for it."
Carrying a good selection of Belgians is like carrying a good selection of extreme beers, or a good selection of single malts, or a good selection of New Zealand wines. Word will get around, and you'll start to see new customers in your store, people who know what they want, are looking for someone else who knows it, and who are willing to pay for it.
But Shelton points out that there's a significant difference between a good selection and a big selection. "I wouldn't encourage beer shops to increase the number of Belgian beers on display," he said. "On the contrary, they should cut the number of Belgians, winnow down to the very best. That means learning about the breweries that make the beers, and of course tasting, always tasting. People are willing to pay more to have the proprietor separate the wheat from the chaff. People will gravitate to the beer sellers that show taste and style, because they want to have taste and style too."
Blakey was one of the people who thought it would help if a Belgian restaurant opened in Massachusetts. "Oh, hell, yes. And give it a name like Bruxelles," he said. "Boston would benefit greatly from a Belgian restaurant or another bar like the Publick House. Importers and wholesalers are definitely trying to expand the market. I love Belgian culture and food, it's great. There's a lot more cross-cultural appeal."
Dan Shelton didn't think it would make much difference; but then, Shelton didn't really think Massachusetts was behind the curve, either. "It looks to me like Massachusetts is ahead of the curve in fact," he said. "People here seem to like good beer, wherever it comes from, and Belgium, like any other place, has some good beer and some bad. Certainly Belgium hasn't cornered the market on good and interesting beer. I thought that people in most places around the country were thinking the same way, but I guess some are still fixated at that early Belgian stage. If Massachusetts avoided that, somehow, I can only speculate about why."
That's why he's Dan Shelton, and that's why Nick Blakey's response when asked what Belgian beers he thought were under-rated and deserved to sell better was, "To tell the truth, anything Dan Shelton brings in."
So ahead of the curve, behind it, or right in the power band? All depends on how you look at it. One things for sure: Belgian beer does provide that price wedge, a justification for the fair prices that fine beer is finally beginning to command. For that reason alone, you need to think about your Belgian selection.