Tim Webb on the state of beer in Belgium
The following is the transcript of the December 2002 on-line conference with Tim Webb following the releases of his Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland updated for 2002. It begins after the natural exchange of pleasantries upon entering the chat room, and ends when Tim had to leave. It has been cleaned up a bit, but reflects the actual content of the event with 100% accuracy.
John_White: What can we do about the Trappist silence of CAMRA (who are supposed to be a beer consumers' organisation), Protz, etc re the dodgy materials being used by Chimay to produce their beers?
Tim Webb: First off, Roger Protz is not CAMRA. He's a freelance journalist who happens to edit GBG. CAMRA is becoming so UK orientated that it is part of a bigger problem
John_White: He is the editor of the GBG and always sits on the stage at the CAMRA AGM
Tim Webb: To get CAMRA even thinking about Belgium would be a start
John_White: Yes, Ted Bruning talks about his holidays in France drinking Leffe. Ted is the editor of CAMRA's newspaper 'What's brewing'
Tim Webb: The WB crew does not have much understanding of the European brewing industries
Filip: ?
John_White: Iain Lowe is fairly knowledgeable, but he does not have a column no more, but I believe he represents CANMRA at EBCU meetings
Tim Webb: Ian is very knowledgeable. So is Michael Jackson. He has no column any more either!
JorisP: ?fu
John_White: Do you know why there is no MJ anymore?
Dick: (follow-up)
Tim Webb: Yes
John_White: PINT and OBP, but not CAMRA did at least publish your dumbing down article, but they did not really take the topic up - there are no 'Chimay Disgrace' headlines
Tim Webb: It is sad but true that a reader survey reported that readers were not interested in foreign beers
John_White: So why is there no MJ in WB anymore?
Tim Webb: Because CAMRA members did not want it - see previous answer.
SteveG: GA Filip
Filip: Tim, why the monks of chimey would lie about their recipe not changed in 1969 ????
Tim Webb: The monks of Chimay have not said anything, officially. Unfortunately the brewery is now completely out of the control of the monks. It is commercial. The owners are / were denying any changes to the recipe.
Filip: No monks involved anymore ? Are you 100% sure about this?
Tim Webb: The latest is that the recipe has not changed since the last edition of my book (1998)!
Filip: But how can you proof this ??
Tim Webb: The evidence of the lie was that hop extract did not exist commercially in 1969. The brewery has asked me to go round some time and promise to be 100% up-front
Filip: I found a website of a hop extract produces claiming they already produced hop extracts in 1961!!!!!
Tim Webb: The problem I find is that Chimay are just honest on the labels - maybe they will stop this honesty now.
Filip: I presume it must be possible Chimay already used hop extracts in 1969
Tim Webb: Highly unlikely. Even hop pellets were newish then.
SteveG: GA Joris
JorisP: Re; Ted Bruning : he first got rid of Dr. K. Thomas, then of MJ, now of female journalist can't remember name - epitomises the problem. CAMRA is staring at its own bellybottun and narrows its issues agreed tim?
Tim Webb: I get the impression that CAMRA is divided between little Englanders and people who get the bigger picture.
SteveG: GA J
Jeremy: What were the three most exciting discoveries you made during the research on Belgian cafes for the new Guide?
Tim Webb: 1. That you get charged the same to take a bike 5 km on a Belgian train as 200 km.
Tim Webb: 2. That the Ardennes was beginning to get many more serious beer cafes.
Tim Webb: 3. That you can get out of Luxembourg on a Sunday.
Jeremy: And do you think the Ardennes renaissance in brewing and in new cafes has a good foundation, or is it a flash in the pan?
Tim Webb: The most bizarre cafe was the 'try also' Velootje in Ghent.
Filip: Oh yes, 't velootje. A place not to miss in Gent - great bartender !!!!!!!!
John_White: Velootje Truly Magnificent
Tim Webb: The Ardennes thing will depend on how many locals pick it up in the winter.
Filip: But a bit expensive :(
Tim Webb: I hope that the Ardennes gets serious about beer because it will support the many small breweries that are starting there.
SteveG: Are we good with this question?
Jeremy: Yea, thanks Tim
SteveG: Follow ups?
SteveG: OK, got a question Joris?
Tim Webb: I harbour a secret desire for the lynchpin to be the Hotel Ecu de Bourgogne in Arlon. You must go there. It is truly the worst hotel in Europe.
JorisP: I'd like to hear your idea about this: what can a relatively small group of enthousisasts do to equalise advertisement power of interbrew, and keep the louwaeges of this world independent?
Tim Webb: Go for them in the brands. Keep targetting Stella Artois as being an ordinary product (which it is)
JorisP: Targetting where - we cannot advertise like them
Tim Webb: Their worldwide domination theory is built on Stella, Leffe & Belle Vue.
Dick: ?FU
Tim Webb: All of these are dreary products, it is just that the world has not sorted this yet. It is the bit in the book about the Emperor's new clothes
JorisP: The world wants to be deceived.
Bill: Well, a lot of people have mediocre tastes. It's not just advertising.
Tim Webb: The crowd does want to be deceived but mainly because they think everyone else is and don't want to be different.
JorisP: Where advertise our view?
Tim Webb: I agree about the triumph of mediocrity.
Pete_&_Melanie: ?fu
Tim Webb: The think that got rid of Schlitz was the knowledge on the street that it was naff.
SteveG: GA Dick
Dick: If we succeed at luring away Stella drinkers to BBs, will the dermand spoil more BBS? Can the craft brewers handle it?
Tim Webb: What are BBs?
Dick: Belgian Beers. (good ones)
Tim Webb: You can produce an excellent beer by mass production means. The thing that gives mass production a bad name is that it is associated with all other sorts of cost cutting.
Dick: Any good BBs prepared to step up to the challenge if demand soars?
Tim Webb: Moortgat are capable of much bigger production efficiently. Ditto Palm if they changed their policy on recipe qualities.
Dick: Thanks, Tim.
SteveG: Pete/Mel, GA (and welcome new-comers!)
Pete_&_Melanie: at least in the US, I think there is/needs to be 'gateway' beers to bridge the taste gap between Bud and good BBs. We started by drinking the really sweet lambics, etc, and moved up from there.
Tim Webb: I agree sort of. But I think your own microbrewers are lighting a torch for the world generally.
Pete_&_Melanie: true. it's getting easier for Joe American to get a good beer without trying hard. Yep, set
Tim Webb: Someone asked me last week if I thought an American micro should or could make a lambic. I said yes to could and yes, if ... to should. I would be all in favour provided they did it in casks and had proper storage. A Duvel just entered the room.
Filip: ?fu
SteveG: GA Filip
Filip: Tim, Do you really think America is capable of making a true lambic. 80 diff. microorganisms involved !!
Tim Webb: Yes. The secret of the micro-organisms is in the science, not the Senne.
Dick: nicely put
Tim Webb: I do not believe that an American brewer would equal Girardin or 3 Fonteinen for 50 years but they could probably match Mort Subite or Belle Vune by next Christmas.
SteveG: I need to move along, Chuck, Bill, Warren are next, GA Chuck
Chuck_C.: are you concerned about Westvleteren Abt 12's decline in abv from 11.5° in '93 to 10.2° now?
Tim Webb: I do not know the reason for the Westvleteren change. I keep an open mind. They have capacity problems.
SteveG: GA Warren
Warren_Becker: What (& why) new beer or brewery has made the greatest impact on your impression of the current Belgian/Dutch brewing environment?
Tim Webb: Difficult one. I think the creation of the brewery at Drie Fonteinen was significant, as was the new blender at De Cam. With a lot of the new micros it will depend on how they do and whether they keep up quality. In the Netherlands, my favourite project is the Utrecht house brewery - backed now by Heineken - which has improved brewing quality higely.
Filip: ?fu
SteveG: More Warren?
Tim Webb: Note: Higely = half highly, half hugely.
Warren_Becker: No
SteveG: Cool question, GA Filip
Filip: Tim, what is your opinion about this new microbreweries in belgium using alot of spices now ?? Atre you pro or contra ?
Tim Webb: Oooooh. Chose my words carefully time. I prefer my beers unspiced. However, I now realise that many of my favourites have always been spiced, so ... I think some of the new experimental spiced beers are silly, as are some of the beers with new fruits, vegetables etc: I was going to suggest that this Christmas someone produced a beer with sprouts in (to go with the nutmeg).
JorisP: ?fu
SteveG: OK, last FU for this one, GA Joris
JorisP: IMO, question is ; spices for enhancing : OK... spices for disguise: bad practice
Tim Webb: In some beers in some circumstances. But not for hiding foul tastes from bad brewing.
JorisP: exactly
SteveG: Thanks Tim, GA Jean
Jean_H: do you think more women would drink real ale if it were served up in fancy glasses like Belgian beer?
Tim Webb: I am taking a second opinion on this. Considered opinion from her indoors is only some of the more ladylike ones!
Jean_H: so real ale IS uncool and untrendy?
Tim Webb: I think drinking for flavour is uncool and untrendy nowadays. In the last 10 years there has been a real move towards big companies making cheap alcohol and selling it expensively to the mosty gullible buyers - i.e. yoof.
Jean_H: so what can be done to improve the 'image' of decent beer?
Tim Webb: I think we need to accept the image of beer as a downmarket product in the same way that French vin de table is downmarket. Then we can start proting top rate beers for what they are. My only big problem with that - and it's a biggie - is that I really believe beer prices must go up. To cover the cost of hand-made craftsmanship and to give people the clear message that this is something special.
Jean_H: micros can't afford that
Tim Webb: My understanding is that in the US micros always charge more than big brands. A lot more sometimes.
SteveG: Thanks Jean, I need to offer FUs
Jean_H: ok
SteveG: FUs?
SteveG: PeteMel, Dick, Podge are next...
Tim Webb: A Het Kapittel Prior just entered the room. Things may now go downhill.
SteveG: GA Pete/Mel
Pete_&_Melanie: What 2-3 breweries would you recommend visiting during a week-long Belgium visit?
Tim Webb: I do not do many brewery visits but ...the prettiest I have seen - fantastic cafe - is Kerkom. Cantillon has to be done to put it on the CV.
Pete_&_Melanie: cv?
Jeremy: Resume
Tim Webb: Then either try to get round Dupont on spec or Vapeur on a regular trip. There are many others. Dolle Brouwers.
Pete_&_Melanie: Or should we just spend more time in cafes?
Tim Webb: Yes, that too!
Pete_&_Melanie: Okay, thanks.
SteveG: GA Dick
Dick: Thanks, Steve. ?And now for something completely different. Tim, do you store/age any beers? Do you have any advice on selection, technique, duration, etc.? Feel free to ramble... thanks.
Tim Webb: I only do this accidentally. Though I have about 60 bottles of Drie Fonteinen Millennium Gueuze getting ready for 2007.
Dick: 2007? forgive my ignorance
Tim Webb: A simple rule - if it is not 100% grain it will go bad - if it has chemicals in it it goes bad. Higher gravity beers keep better that the high water ones. Is Kapittel Prior not an excellent beer. Sorry, 2007 is when the Gueuze will be drinkable at its best
SteveG: All set on this one?
Dick: OK. Thanks. next?
Dick: yup.
SteveG: GA Podge
podge: Hi! Tim, We have lost Louwaege & Oud Beersel recently.......are there many more in the pipeline?
Tim Webb: The Dutch lost Maximiliaans and Leckere in a single day last week...
podge: Yes but in Belgium??
Tim Webb: However the good news is that they are rumoured to be losing the Heineken keg factory too. I think the future for small breweries is largely a matter of the business sense of the owners. louwaege went quids in for the money. There was no big brewery oppression there. Too many small breweries think small. The big market for their beers is abroad and they need to make the contacts with exporters that make better long term sense. I expect to see half a dozen small breweries go under in Belgium this year and for half a dozen to start up.
podge: Any new belgian brewers ready to enter the scene?
Tim Webb: I always know of two or three and now is no exception.
Tim Webb: The answer to the next question is no.
JorisP: Mortals'
podge: Fair play....Thanks
Tim Webb: There are two Wallonian wholesalers and .. damn that Joris bloke ... mortals.
podge: Cheers
SteveG: GA Bill
Bill: Can you tell me what your 3 favorite cafes in Belgium are, and why?
Tim Webb: 1. No. 2. Because it's too difficult. However... The Kroegske in Emelgem (West Flanders) is brilliant.
Filip: ?fu
Bill: Yes!!
Tim Webb: The Moulin de Kevret in Coutisse is probably a great. The Brugs Beertje, despite all the wonderful thing said about it is still truly wonderful. The Waagstuk in Antwerp keeps getting better. The Gans in Huise is magnificent.
John_White: fu
JorisP: ?fu
Bill: Is there any cafe you found out about after printing the last edition you'd like to mention.
Tim Webb: Yes and no.
SteveG: All set for FUs?
Filip: What are the criteria for being a good Belgian beerpub?
Tim Webb: I don't know. I don't think it can be a formula. The quality of the beer is important. So is the range of beers, which does not have to be massive, but should be thoughtful. Then the atmosphere has to say something. It does not have to be this style or that, but it needs to be very good at being something. And for example if it does food the food should also be thoughtful. Last but also important it should be welcoming to strangers, particularly beer lovers. The Heeren van Liederkerke might be the best pub in Belgium. So might the Stop in Suxy, for completely different reasions.
John_White: But you hint in the guide that DeHeeren van Liedekercke, in Denderleeuw, would have got the best caff vote in your guide if there had been such a category?
Tim Webb: Yes this is true.
SteveG: Joris, GA with your FU
JorisP: Re: Waagstuk!! Hans is out - fear for the future; Jo on his own, Dutchmen in!
Bill: That's a shame!
Tim Webb: I learn something new. Downwards slope possible.
Jean_H: Dutchmen??
JorisP: One at least
Tim Webb: Waagstuk means Risky Business.
SteveG: Joris, this sounds like you have a heads up on some big news. Can we save it for the board? We can elaborate more there
JorisP: OK
SteveG: thanks
SteveG: GA Jan
jan: Hi tim. I read your essay on belgian beer and curious why you think now it happens?
Tim Webb: The dumbing down? I think that a big mistake has been made positioning Belgian beer in the world market.
jan: yes. what is happening in the beer industry now that it causes this?
Tim Webb: There has been an attempt to make it cheaper to compete on price with other producers. Is this what the top end of the wine and whiskey markets do? I don't think so. So the dumbing down is partly to attract new customers more easily and partly for price.
jan: i don't know/ i think chimay and westmalle still cost the same. no?
Tim Webb: The problem is that lower quality will frighten away the real fans. Chimay anmd Westmalle would probably have to cost a lot more if they were produced to top standards. (I should explain that I think Westmalle is currently produced to higher standards than Chimay.)
Filip: ?fu
Filip: Tim, do you think the use of extracts (hops -malts) are an inferior ingredient ?????
Tim Webb: Yes. No discussion, just yes.
jan: but the price has not gone down so why are they making it cheaper products?
Tim Webb: It is the problem for mass production - the bottom line is what counts. Production becomes as cheap as you can, prices are pushed as high as you can, because you can.
jan: but why now? what has changed from five years ago?
Tim Webb: I believe the mosateries should be going back to the old ways of concentrating on the best possible product then charging a full price for it. I don't think the changes are now or five years ago. It has been slow and over quite a long period.
jan: yes. i think that would make all of us happy!
Tim Webb: There was Liefmans brewery 'clean-up'. And gentle simplification of recipes in a lot of places. With Chimay I am on record as saying I did not try a single bottle between 1996 and 2000 because I was concentrating on other beers. I would not be surprised if the slow introduction of hop extract was during all the 1990s. The point is that there comes a moment when recognizing it is unavoidable.
jan: how do you see the future the next few years?
Tim Webb: Through a glass darkly.
jan: dark beer, i hope!
Tim Webb: Seriously...
SteveG: 5 more minutes, I need to move on Jan...
jan: ok. i am finished.
Tim Webb: Some Belgian brewers are getting their financial, management or brewing act together very well.
SteveG: This can be just yes or no if that is easier...The dumbing down thing, do you see any indication that this spills over into the pub world?
Tim Webb: Only for the last 30 years!
SteveG: Ouch! OK, GA Dick
Dick: Thanks. Speaking (earlier) of atmosphere in cafes, Tim, do you smoke? Either way, doesn?t ambient smoke degrade the BB enjoyment? What can a non-smoker do?
Tim Webb: I only smoke when I have reached a state of mind whereby I should be removed from the room anyway. Usually I am in a bar not smoking and I agree it is a pain. That said I don't mind ambient pipe tobacco or even cigar smoke.
Dick: ha!
SteveG: So I am officially saying thanks Tim... You were excellent...as were all those who partook in questions...
Dick: Many thanks to Tim and Steve!
Tim Webb: Thank you. The pleasure was mine.



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