Brussels Beer Weekend 2011: A religious experience?

We are late for church. I admit, it’s not my usual warm-up to a beer festival, but this is Belgium, and there is beer to be blessed to mark the start of Brussels Beer Weekend 2011. I am with fellow members of the British Guild of Beer Writers, and we are about to have a religious experience involving beer.

It’s a pity to be late, but you can’t rush lunch in Belgium can you? Especially one involving that itself has divine inspiration in the form of Trappist beer Rochefort. Despite our tardiness, I manage to grab a good pew on the aisle. Ahead of me, in front of the altar, an oak cask stands, flanked by an eight-piece choir, dignitaries of the cloth and the malt, including presumably, a bishop, whose job today is to bless the beer at Gudula Cathedral, during the celebration of Saint Arnould: patron saint of brewers.

Somebody in a Delirium Tremens beer t-shirt leans into the aisle in front of me to take a photo as holy water is sprinkled on the cask. A photo opportunity I dare not miss. I don’t much care for this beer’s name, but I quite like that all my attempted shots are marred by camera shake.

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…And this was before I’d been to the festival

Looking around me, there are beer-sloganed t-shirts everywhere; not surprising as the service is primarily for the brewing industry. As well as the t-shirts, there are business suits adorned with sashes, and gents and ladies in medieval finery. I suspect these are members of the Guild of Brewers. They are all sporting rather splendid buttonholes fashioned from hops and barley.

The choir bursts into a hymn familiar from childhood. All things Bright and Beautiful. Can it be? Perhaps with different words in Belgium. “All things bright, unpasteurised, all trippels great and small…” They would sing in my ideal version of the service. But no, they sing it straight, after which, everyone troops out of the cathedral, to the accompaniment of Widor’s Tocatta. The congregation follows the procession down for the opening of the beer festival itself at La Grande Place.

That’s enough beer blessing; I want to know what it tastes like
We join the throng a few hours later. Brussels Grande Place or Grote Markt, is surrounded by magnificent, ornate Gothic buildings of various trade guilds; including the Brewers Guild. With all the ceremony, pipers, drummers, costumes, beer glasses the size of cement mixers, and the blessed barrel carried aloft, sedan chair like, it feels like we are interlopers at the Gormenghast Beer Festival.

Not only is the beer blessed today, but late summer sunshine blesses us with its presence, which is just as well, as the beer festival is outdoors. In the centre of La Grande Place, separated from the world only be some low, temporary metal fences, we crowd around the centrally-situated island of brewery bars.

Dearly beloved: we are sardined here together to celebrate beer
The festival area is jam-packed. All the brewing luminaries from the cathedral seem to be present, as well as locals and tourists. There’s no festival glass; instead you have a yellow token that you swap for a loan of the glass at whichever stand you are, and you hand over one or more pre-paid bottle tops to get your sample of beer. Given the Belgian beer tradition of mulitplicity of branded glasses, it makes sense, and works well, once you get the hang of it.

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Brussels or Gormenghast Beer Festival?

And if there were ever a festival for sampling rather than ordering pints, this is it. Although there are the pilsner types and the occasional ale of what we might call standard strength in the UK, the festival lived up to the perceived tradition that Belgian Beer Is Strong. But, as I learnt later in the weekend, this is not as long a tradition as we are led to believe.

I’d made a mental list of beers to try, but in the opening day crush, plans were abandoned to practicality. It was just easier to find a spot that allowed access to an interesting bar or two without having to mount an expedition, with a search party in readiness to retrieve lost souls. Still, this is the Brussels Beer Weekend, and there would be plenty of time to come back.

Our hosts for the weekend have chosen The Dominican as our hotel. Appropriately, the sound of monks greets me as I open the door to my room. It’s only pre-recorded voices programmed to play from the TV, but given the day’s proceedings, it wouldn’t have surprised me if there had been actual monks come to pour me a nightcap of a holy quadruple. Dona nobis pacem and goodnight.

Links
See more photos from the weekend on Maltjerry’s Flickr

Brussels Beer Weekend Festival participants
Excerpt from BBC’s adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books
The British Guild of Beer Writers
Our hosts: the Belgian Tourist Board’s Festival site, to whom, many thanks!