The Belgian  Connection

The Belgian Connection

ANDRÉ P. LEBLANC
Brew Master

Born in Canada, I discovered imported beer in 1982 when I was a student. Back then, the Canadian market was similar to today’s India with regard to the availability of beers. Commercial breweries were leading the market. In the early 1980s, imported beers started showing up on store shelves. This was the beginning of my discovery of beers through different aromas and flavours. As a young student, I was smitten by so many new tastes – Swiss beers, Irish, British, etc. And, beer became my passion.

In 1986, I started working for one of the first microbreweries in Canada, founded by two German brothers, who had migrated from West Germany to Moncton, New Brunswick in 1984. Dr. Hans Westner from Bavaria brewed as per Reinheitsgebot – the German Law of Purity of 1516, and commercialized beer in Canada. I worked with him for some years before my plan to travel bore fruit. I worked as a collaborator for two years, and since I knew I was going to Germany, I learned German.

After two years, I moved to Germany. I worked at several breweries, which I came to know about from a list of contacts given in Dr. Westner’s well-furnished address book. In Germany, the only available beers were those which were brewed as per the Reinheitsgebot – in Bavaria, North Germany, etc. So, I took my first steps in brewing through German beers.

A few years later I reached Belgium through the ‘back door’. It was a real revelation and a completely different world from Germany, my training base then. German beers based on the Purity Law are very traditionalist. You can only use four ingredients. You don’t use spices, you don’t use sugars, you don’t use anything to flavour the beer other than hops, malts, and yeast. But Belgians were doing all this.

My sister, visiting from Canada, wanted to travel Europe and so we came to Belgium in 1988. This is when I discovered what brewing really is – creativity and craftsmanship could go hand in hand and be at the service of the beer industry. In my first years in Belgium, I tasted a 45-year-old Gueuze (Brussels-based sour beer) which was incredible in taste. The champagne of beers-fruit beers, spiced beers and all kinds of beers.

Enriching experience with Belgian beers

Belgium is a country of surrealism, so seeing things differently is part of the population’s collective memory. This characteristic trait is a catalyst for creativity in everything, including the beer industry.

I filled my senses with all the wonderful flavour combinations of Belgian beers. I learned how to cook with beer as an ingredient, did food pairing and discovered the subtleties between various ingredients. In Belgium, you learn to appreciate the intrinsic qualities of beers through everyday living, not only through festivals and bar hopping.

As my taste avenues started opening, I worked for various small and middle-sized breweries, travelling between Belgium, Germany, UK, North America, Japan and many other parts of the world to promote and commercialise high-quality craft beers. I worked for more than a hundred breweries around the world (Belgian, German, British, Canadian, Czech, etc) as a consultant, learning the trade at the same time.

As a Belgian brew master, my job is to not only brew excellent beers but also make sure that the whole process – from raw material purchasing to the last sip of your beer – is a top-quality extremely enriching experience for all the involved. This includes the perfect pour and the proper service.

One of the things I treasure is my association with Michael Jackson, the British journalist and beer writer who started the craft beer revolution in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He wrote several books on beer, especially Belgian beers, and whisky. These books are considered as the encyclopaedia of beers by most beer connoisseurs even today. Michael is still a reference on beer worldwide. I worked with him on several projects. I learned a lot from him mostly on the tasting side.

Beer impact on ‘sensory memory hard drive’

For me, beer appreciation starts with an appropriate and clean glass. I taste beers with an open mind. Like everybody (consciously or subconsciously), I drink with all five senses. For instance, the actual service in the glass is very important. When you are served the beer, you already start criticizing it, positively or negatively. You should see people’s faces lighting up when they are served an appealing glass of fresh beer. If a beer is poorly served, on seeing it you will unconsciously wonder if you really made a good choice in ordering it. So, visual appeal is the first step in beer appreciation.

Secondly, the aroma invites you. We can remember the subtle aromas of spices used in our grandmother’s cooking or the smell of our first love’s perfume. You remember the smell, but not necessarily its origin. These olfactory memories influence your likes and dislikes in life. A beer should be inviting.

After the visual appeal comes the taste – sweet, bitter, salty, sour, acidic, citrusy, etc. which we may or may not like. The next important beer trait is aftertaste. It is what stays in the mouth and throat after you drink the beer. Is it pleasant?

Finally it’s your memory which reunites all these traits deep inside you, like your own sensory memory hard drive. It’s like when you like food, it stays, even though you don’t know why you like or dislike it. So, beer tasting for me is a complete experience. It’s all about these five important criteria.

Bringing Abbey beers to India

Now I am in India to produce and commercialize St. Martin Abbey beers (and other proprietary brands) with my Indian partners – Velho Microbrew Pvt. Ltd. The association started just before Germany’s BrauBeviale 2015 edition when we decided that we could work together to introduce St. Martin Abbey beers in India.

In Belgium, there are Trappist beers still made in the monastery under the monks’ supervision. There are 12 or 13 breweries around the world that satisfy the criteria of an authentic Trappist beer, and there is a worldwide association that controls the observance of the Trappist criteria. Abbey beers are top quality Trappist beers that were once made in abbeys by monks but are today made by commercial breweries. Today, abbeys don’t exist. The monks representing these abbeys have shared their recipes with commercial breweries either to perpetuate traditions or to finance charitable organisations.

The St Martin Abbey beer tradition goes back almost 1000 years and some of the recipes even date back to 1096 AD. We at Velho Microbrew are proud to have the exclusive rights to produce and commercialise the St. Martin beer brand in India. These beers have been recognized by their peers worldwide as ‘best of the class’ on several occasions. However importing these beers into India is a nightmare due to constraining import laws, complicated excise laws – different in every state – and other governmental barriers. So, we decided that it was best to produce in the country and minimize the risks involved in the control and taxation regime.

For now, the venues where you can find St Martin beers in India are Hoot Café and Brewery in Bangalore and The Classroom in Gurgaon. Our proposed launches in other locations have been delayed because of the implementation of the Supreme Court ban highway liquor sale.

We are developing a pan-India network so that Indians from all over the country will be able to get the same high-quality beers wherever they may be. My take on the Indian market is that the country is still mostly a strong beer market, and the craft brewing industry is widening the spectrum of beer varieties. You have Hefeweizen’s, Belgian Whites, Stouts, Porters, Pilsners, and many other flavours. But the quality is not always there. One reason for the absence of the desired quality is due the non-availability of all the required ingredients. So, delivering high-quality products is a little tricky.

Good beers are much easier to produce on great equipment. For me, 7 Degrees in Gurgaon makes the best beer in India. They have Caspary equipment. District 6 Pub Brewery and Kitchen from Bangalore makes great beers as well on the Kaspar Schulz equipment.

We are coming up with new concepts to educate people about good beer. In India, people are not yet sensitive to appreciate beer with the eyes. Most microbreweries’ reviews are first about the ambience, then the food and then, if at all, there is a by-the-way mention of beers. But it is changing slowly. Indians are very sensitive to novelties, good things and quality. You just have to show them. For example, the spices we use in St.Martin beers are very complementary to many of the Indian dishes. We can teach you about that. Food pairing comes from the Belgian beer culture.

In November 2016, the Belgian beer culture was recognized by UNESCO and added to the cultural world heritage list. Everybody I know in Belgium knows somebody who makes beer or works in the beer industry. Beer is part of the everyday Belgium life. There are beers for all palates – low alcohol for children, rich in fibres and proteins for pregnant women, full of vitamins for the elderly, low or sugar-free for diabetics, etc. Belgians developed beers (and are still at it) for everybody, even people who don’t like beer. I aim to bring all that recognition to the Indian market. I believe the market is very receptive. It’s a challenge, and we will have to adapt to certain things. We cannot force the taste and liking as taste and colours are personal decisions. But you need to taste and then decide.

Belgian beers can be more full bodied, have more alcohol, titillate your taste buds in so many ways. In India, beer cannot have alcohol exceeding 8%. We call a low-alcohol beer a lager. In Belgium, there are beers that have 13% alcohol. Wheat beers like Belgian White are very pleasant as an appetizer. Strong beers such as Abbey Triples are more suited as after-dinner drinks. There are beers that go with chocolate, with meat, fish, and cheese. We use beer as an ingredient in the kitchen. All that is a part of our culture and now it is spreading throughout the world.

Belgians have more joie-de-vivre, they enjoy life, and they are called ‘bon vivant’ in French. And I am trying to get that spirit of beer appreciation to India. Cheers!

One of the things he treasures above all else is his association with Michael Jackson, the British journalist and beer writer who started the craft beer revolution in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He wrote several books on beer and whisky, and especially on Belgian beers. These books are considered as the ‘Encyclopedia of Beers’ by most beer connoisseurs even today.

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