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First edition of Leuven Beer Weekends kicks off this month
What do you do when your town is home to not just one but two of Belgium’s top beer festivals? You add another and make April a veritable celebration of all things brewing.
That’s what Leuven did, and this month sees the very first edition of Leuven Beer Weekends. Starting on 14 April, beer-focused events will take place over three consecutive weekends.
The capital of Flemish Brabant has been home to the Zythos Beer Festival for several years now, and the Innovation Beer Festival is in its fourth year. So the city’s event-planning agency Leuvenement saw an opportunity to add the pairing event Food & Hops, and Leuven Beer Weekends was born.
Food & Hops, on 21 and 22 April, is the new kid on the block, and it’s likely to appeal to a whole new audience who psychologically link beer with bar snacks – specifically cheese. Flanders’ two top cheese masters – Elsen of Leuven and Van Tricht of Antwerp – will each bring cheeses and beers that pair with them perfectly.
But that’s just the beginning: Organisers contacted five of Leuven’s best chefs to create a meal using cheese and to bring along a beer that pairs with the meal. Included on the menu, for instance, is a dish by Bart Springael and Jos Crabbé of Trente with red beet, red berries, red onions and goat cheese curd from the local farm Karditsel.
Choose your cheese
Lieven Demeestere of Arenberg, meanwhile, is bringing a savoury panna cotta with tomato sorbet, cucumber, basil oil, espelette pepper, Himalayan black salt and Italian burrata cheese. “Burrata is a fresh-tasting cheese,” says Demeestere, “and this is a lovely spring dish with lots of colour.”
Demeestere is still trying to decide between two Belgian beers that he thinks both complement the dish very well: Chouffe Soleil or Saint Tropez. “Both these beers – as the names suggest – pair very well with summery dishes!”
And there’s more: Food & Hops includes workshops: Dr Beer, who teaches you how to taste; Reinout and Willem-Jan Elsen, who teach you how to pair beer with cheese; and Bierolade’s Werner Callebaut, who teaches you how to pair beer with Belgium’s other claim to fame – chocolate.
All of these workshops will be offered in English as well as Dutch, and all the workshops providers are top experts in their field. Dr Beer, aka Jeroen Peeters, “uses black glasses so as not to influence your expectations of the beer,” explains Kris Peeters of Leuvenement. “He spends an hour explaining what you’re tasting and helping you make choices. I’ve followed this workshop myself, so I knew we had to offer it.”
Food & Hops is being held in the Comenius building, home to International House Leuven, which helps newcomers settle in the city. The event is being made as accessible as possible, with no advanced ticket sales. Visitors pay €8 for every meal or cheese platter. Beer is sold separately. The workshops are €20 each and can be reserved in advance, which is advisable.
Old tradition, new methods
But Leuven Beer Weekends kicks off with the Leuven Innovation Beer Festival. Now in its fourth year, it has become an incredibly popular event on the calendar of craft beer lovers around Europe.
Launched by the Hof Ten Dormaal brewery, not far from Leuven, the festival has invited 16 international craft breweries to event hall De Hoorn – not coincidentally the former brewery where Stella Artois was born. Each will bring multiple beers, so visitors have more than 80 brews to choose from.
An entry fee will buy you a tasting glass and eight tokens. Each tasting offers up 10cl of beer. And this isn’t ordinary, traditional beer.
As the festival name suggests, these are some of the most innovative brewers in the world today, creating beer in wholly new ways with an array of ingredients that seem doggedly un-beerlike and with names like My Black Hole, Two Hundred Fathoms and Used Motor Oil.
Think beer aged in Chardonnay, ales with guava and ginger and hints of coffee and chocolate. “It’s a really great way to discover new beers that are not normally found in Belgium,” says Peeters. “Last year, I met an American brewer who used mushrooms and herbs he picked himself in the forest.”
The one that started it all
Finally Leuven Beer Weekends wraps up with the grand-daddy of all Belgian beer festivals: Zythos. Originally launched in Sint-Niklaas, East Flanders, 15 years ago, it outgrew its venue and moved lock, stock and barrel to Leuven.
Zythos is a real celebration of Belgian beer. There are 88 brewers offering more than 500 beers – all Belgian. Again, you buy a packet of 10cl tastings, and food is available to nibble on between beers.
If you’re new to beer tasting, Peeters suggests you take thing slowly. “It’s not really about drinking, it’s about tasting,” he says. “Tastings has one big advantage: You can try a beer without having to invest in a whole beer.”
Zythos and the Innovation Beer Festival bring thousands of beer lovers from around the world to Leuven every year. They fly in from the US, they are bussed in from Denmark, they travel in groups large and small to sample what Belgium – and the world – have to offer in both traditional and new beer brewing.
Peeters: “You definitely hear more English at these festivals than Dutch because of how many visitors there are. Belgium is the best-known country in the world when it comes to brewing beer, so we need to set a good example.”
Photo by Tim Buelens/Jan Op De Kamp