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The place to beer: Leuven pulls out all the stops with tours and festival

22:39 15/04/2015

Leuven can rightly consider itself a beer city, if only by virtue of being the home of the world’s largest brewer, AB InBev. But, beginning on the last weekend of April, the city aims to transform itself into a beer capital or, to use the official slogan, “the place to beer”. 

A month of beer-related activities in and around Leuven, just 30 minutes east of Brussels, will be bracketed by two major beer festivals. “The brewing tradition is alive here in Flemish Brabant unlike anywhere else in the world,” states provincial deputy Monique Swinnen. “From geuze to witbier, from pils to Special Belge – where else than in Flemish Brabant can you find such a diversity of beers and breweries?”

The month of events kicks off on 24 April with the Leuven Beer Weekend, which includes the Zythos Beer Festival. The weekend starts with Beer Talks in the STUK arts centre. Beer sommelier Luc De Raedemaeker, the man behind the Brussels Beer Challenge, presents talks by three beer experts: Ghent University professor Denis De Keukeleire, a world authority on hops; brewer Yvan De Baets of Brasserie de la Senne, one of Brussels’ two local breweries; and Lorenzo Da Bove, a craft brewer from Italy, one of the world’s most vibrant and innovative new beer markets. 

The talks are in English, and entry is €20, but that’s offset by some beer and snack pairings prepared by Koen Tossyn of Leuven restaurant Luzine, formerly the home base of TV chef Jeroen Meus.

The Beer Weekend also includes brewery visits. You can, for instance, join a two-hour visit at AB InBev that includes a beer-pouring course on Saturday and Sunday. The guided tours are offered both in Dutch and English and cost €8.50.

The other breweries offering visits are smaller and more artisanal, and each has its own character. They include Domus in the city centre, Hof Ten Dormaal in Tildonk, De Vlier in Holsbeek and De Kroon in Neerijse.

Other features of the Beer Weekend include special beer menus at nine of the city’s top restaurants, an exhibition of small and medium-sized breweries in Flemish Brabant as well as pub tours. Also on the menu: bike visits to Hof Ten Dormaal and De Kroon breweries and City Beer Golf, which combines a round of city golf with beer tasting.

Leuven Beer Weekend: 24-26 April, across Leuven, check website for full programme

Zythos: Belgium’s biggest beer fest

Zythos Beer Festival is in many ways the highlight of the year for Belgian beer lovers, if only for its sheer scope. Though beer festivals regularly take place across the region, each with its own local colour and specialist attractions, Zythos is one of a kind.

With about 100 stands for breweries and beer firms (companies that sell beer brewed for them) and more than 500 beers to try, this Leuven festival has it all.

It goes on for two days in the vast, cavernous dankness of the Brabanthal. This year, the glasses have changed from 15cl to 10cl, which allows you to sample more beers than before, according to Zythos chair Steven Crabbé.

Zythos is the Greek name for an ancient, beer-like Egyptian beverage, as well as a variety of hop. It’s also the name of the Belgian beer consumers’ association, which has been organising the festival every year since 2004. The festival originally took place in Sint-Niklaas but moved to Leuven in 2012 in order to cater to the growing crowds.

“Every year, the Zythos Beer Festival attracts more than 15,000 visitors to Leuven from all over the world, thanks to the selection of more than 500 Belgian beers on offer,” explains says Crabbé. “The personal contact with the brewer is also very important. I’m convinced we can go on growing in many different ways, not only in visitor numbers but also in quality. We still have a lot of work to do on the whole beer experience, for example.” 

A selection of 500 beers (the full list can be found on the festival’s website) is enough to make the heads of even the most experienced beer taster spin, so we asked some old hands for tips on how to get the best out of Zythos.

Joe Stange, author of Good Beer Guide Belgium: “Ask other festival-goers what they’ve had that’s great today. If their eyes light up when they tell you, go find it. Start with the lighter, less bitter stuff and go up from there. Something lighter might be the best beer at the festival, but you’ll never know it if you taste it after a barrel-aged double whatsit. Then it will taste like water.”

Paul Walsh, publisher of Belgian Beer & Food magazine: “Go early before the crowds arrive and leave early; it can get messy. Don’t be afraid to ask basic questions; most beer brewers aren’t snobby. Avoid the lure of the fast food trucks outside; go and eat in Leuven after.”

Sofie Vanrafelghem, beer sommelier and author of Bier: Vrouwen weten waarom (Beer: Women Know Why): “Zythos is a great beer festival because you can meet a lot of the brewers. So definitely ask a lot of questions, even the stupid ones. First, go exploring without looking at any list. Discovering a country without knowing where to go and where the hotspots are is so much more fun, and it’s the same with beer. If you feel lost, go to the little tent in the centre. The beer advisers can answer any beer questions but also recommend beers to your taste.”  

Kevin Desmet, Belgian Beer Geek blogger: “Prepare a list before you go. Check the beer menu online and mark the beers you want to taste. Take some bottles of water with you and drink enough water between beers. Make good use of public transport. ZBF must be one of the best accommodated festivals when it comes to public transport. Have fun and enjoy, but don’t overanalyse the beers.” 

Louis Zachert of German beer blog Hopophilia: “Try to avoid the ‘big names’ – we all know who they are. Be open to new flavours. Let yourself be surprised by brews you haven’t tried before.”

Zythos: 25-26 April at Brabanthal, Brabanthal 1, Leuven; free entrance

Innovation Beer Festival

Leuven Beer Month closes with what may turn out to be the most interesting event of all: the two-day Leuven Innovation Beer Festival, organised by brewer André Janssens of Hof Ten Dormaal in Tildonk. The remarkable thing about this festival is not only its content, but the fact that it’s happening at all.

In January, Hof Ten Dormaal was hit by a serious fire that destroyed buildings, equipment and a large part of the brewery’s product. Barely three months later, when most normal people would still be hiding under the bed covers, Janssens is rebuilding his brewery – with the help of many in the beer world who rallied to the cause. And he’s taking on side projects like this.

“The 75 beers that will be presented by 16 international brewers are characterised by their craftsmanship but, more than anything, by the innovative manner in which they were brewed,” Janssens says. “That innovation might be in the ingredients, the techniques used, the production process, the energy used, the packaging or even the origin of the recipe.”

The festival was deliberately kept small-scale, he explains, and takes place in the unique setting of De Hoorn brewery – where Stella Artois was originally brewed. Local food producers will be on hand to provide eats to go with the drinks.

“And for those who want to learn something in the process,” says Janssens, “we plan a series of interesting lectures on innovation in the world of beer”.

24-25 May, De Hoorn brewery, Sluisstraat 79, Leuven; €20

Photo courtesy Visit Leuven

Written by Alan Hope