Friday 4 April 2008

Where is my Belgian beer from?

The revelation that I had been fooled by a beer calling itself Bière de Malmedy that was in fact not from the commune of Malmedy at all, got me thinking about the whole issue of appellation, that geographic identifier some products receive, like Champagne or Prosciutto di Parma. These legal protections are absolutely essential for traditional smaller-scale producers to maintain their high quality, not to mention their existence, in the face of competition from mass-produced products that seem almost inevitably to go down the cheaper/duller/lower-quality route.

In the business-sense, these are life-and-death issues for niche producers, who are more often than not the ones who lift food and drink from a bare necessity to a pleasure. Rightly and with pride, they fight to define, obtain and guard those place-name distinctions. But some European countries are better at protecting their small-scale and traditional producers than others.

This was brought to my attention by an email exchange I had with Carla Schuwer Berghuis of Brasserie de Bellevaux, who corrected an earlier post in which I stated there were two breweries in Malmedy when in fact there is only one. She wrote:
Dear Andrew,

On the web I found your comment on the Bellevaux Black, a dark and (yes indeed) a bitter beer brewed in Malmedy which you tasted a few days ago. You found it rather remarkable that there were two breweries in Malmedy. The truth is that there is only one brewery that brews in the “commune de Malmedy” with real water from the Ardennes. That brewery is ours: we started a year ago and developed four beers: the black, blonde, blanche and brune -- called “the four B’s from B(rasserie) de B(ellevaux)”.

Malmedy Blond and Brune are made at Brasserie Lefebvre in Quenast, a brewery that sells their beers under several labels. It’s merely a marketing technique. Malmedy Blonde and Brune are so-called “etikettenbieren”.

Feel welcome to visit us at our brewery, smell the hops and the malt, see the water spring from its source by doing the “Bellevaux Brune” trail. By the way: we pour our Black in a special glass: the glass you showed on the picture was meant for our brune and blonde.

Yours sincerely,
Carla Schuwer Berghuis
Brasserie de Bellevaux
4960 Malmedy

She was actually worried that she might have offended me and added a quick note to make sure I knew she was only trying to inform. But of course, who could be offended when someone writes simply to clarify a spot of confusion and explain their high-quality hand-work with pride?

We then got into a small discussion about the appellation issue, with Carla writing:

I even wonder whether it is legally permitted to use a geographical indication for a product that is made completely elsewhere. Compare it to the labels “Camembert” and “Champagne”, and you notice that the French better protect their “produits du terroir”.

And she again offered a tour of the Brasserie de Bellevaux and a tasting, which I will have to take her up on some day.

This exchange really did open up the whole appellation question for me. I don’t know if “Malmedy” is a legally protected appellation for beer or not -- I suspect not specifically -- but t does seem hugely unfair for someone to use a place name on a product when it is not made in that location. Using the name Malmedy does imply an Ardennes connection, to mountain water at least.

The French and Italians seem to put great energy into protecting their food appellations across the world, but where does Belgian beer stand? Outside the Trappist group of beers, which do guard their distinction jealously, the field seems a bit of a mess.

Many “abbey beers” have only a very loose connection to an abbey, if any. I notice some carry the official “abbey beer” logo while others do not, so I wonder if that really denotes any difference at all.

I remember the brewmasters at Cantillon telling me with a mixture of frustration and disdain towards their newer competitors that just about every beer imaginable was trying to call itself a “gueuze” or a “lambic” these days, with their ever-sweeter flavours increasingly wide of the traditional -- and excellent -- mark of perfect dryness attained by Cantillon’s old-fashioned methods. Again, it’s that small-producer’s pride that shines through, both in speech and in taste.

Carla from Brasserie de Bellevaux told me how tricky the beer business really is. Apparently one beer reviewer, when visiting a brewery for the first time, actually opens the lids and smells what’s inside. It happens that he finds the whole installation is merely for show -- just fake pipes and shining copper, where no beer has ever been made. A Potemkin brewery to gain a place name or a mom-and-pop reputation.

My romantic Belgian beer innocence is being removed layer by painful layer...


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