Thursday, February 11, 2010

An Interview with Author Joe Stange, Belgian Beer Expert

What could be better than living in a city that's world famous for its delicious beer? How about living in the same apartment building as someone who is an expert on where best to procure said delicious beer?

One of the first things I learned about my neighbor, Joe Stange, is that he co-wrote a book called Around Brussels in 80 Beers. As a brand new arrival in town who was overwhelmed with unpacking and settling in, I hadn't yet had a chance to sample the local wares. When we met, Joe shook my hand, handed me two different beers he was testing at the time, and asked me to give them a try. Welcome to Brussels!

Joe moved to Belgium a few years back and promptly took his appreciation for a good brew to another level. Partnering up with local beer aficionado, Yvan de Baets, he set out on the wholly enviable task of finding the best places to drink the best pours (or bottles). I simply had to ask him a few questions about this amazing gig:

What made you decide to write this book?

At first, boredom. I had a freelance contract that ended, so I needed something to do. Meanwhile my wife and I had been filling up Moleskines with beer notes, visiting cafés and breweries. A few people suggested I write a book about beer before I took the idea seriously. Once I came around, I knew I wanted to write a book about the best places to drink the best beer in Brussels — mainly because nobody had done it yet. Local enthusiast Stephen D'Arcy had been updating a really excellent pamphlet, but it wasn't well known and not officially published.

Soon I connected with Tim Webb, author of the Good Beer Guide Belgium. He was looking to publish a Brussels guide essentially just plugged me into the project.

You wrote this book with a co-author, Yvan de Baets. How did you two meet up and begin working together?

It was all Tim's idea, and I think it turned out to be a really good one. Tim's initial plan was to have Yvan write the book. Yvan and I had met a couple of times at Cantillon, where he was working, and at the Bruxellensis festival that he organizes with Bernard Leboucq — who's also his partner at the Brasserie de la Senne. So right away you can see we're dealing with a busy guy. Part of my role was to organize the research and keep the project moving.

But I think the best thing about the match was our complementary perspectives. I'm the wide-eyed beer geek foreigner, while Yvan is the savvy connoisseur bruxellois brewer. It's a more complete and useful book because we were able to consider things though each other's eyes.

How long did it take you to explore all of the bars in your book?

Depends on how you look at it. I'd been going to several of them for two years, and Yvan obviously for much longer than that. But once we started on the book, it still took more than a year. Someone with determination, a strong liver, and nothing else to do could do it much faster, but we were thorough with it. There were about 40 other places that didn't make the cut. A brief flurry of new places opened just before deadline, making things interesting. And even after deadline we kept checking on places, opening hours, phone numbers and so on, to make sure it was as accurate as possible when it went to press.

Were you always a beer fan or did moving to Brussels influence your interest in brews?

I've loved beer for most of my life, including craft beer, but I wasn't always discriminating. I took pride in not being a beer snob. Then I moved here. What happened next could happen anywhere, though: I accidentally educated my palate by taking notes. Amazing what you can learn about what you like and don't like. The real reward is in putting down the pen and just enjoying your new favorites, over and over. I still believe in "to each their own," but my "own" is better now.

If someone only had time to visit one bar in Brussels, which one should it be?

Moeder Lambic in St-Gilles (especially now that it's non-smoking!). Incredible selection, friendly locals, knowledgeable staff, welcoming atmosphere... The new Moeder Lambic Fontainas (at Place Fontainas 8) is great too, with the best draft beer selection in Belgium. But the ambiance is more cool and chic, whereas I think most beer tourists prefer more warm and kitschy. So I vote for St-Gilles.

If you were stranded on an island and could only have one Belgian beer with you, which one would it be?

Easy. Saison Dupont. It's the one that works for me in any mood, any weather, with any food. Close second is Taras Boulba.

What about bars outside of Brussels? Any recommendations for other Belgian cities?

Bruges has an unusually high concentration of great beer cafés — the Brugs Beertje being top among them. I'd also recommend getting out of the cities into the country and villages... the Fourquet tavern at the Brasserie de Blaugies — a great farmhouse brewery — is near the French border and one of our favorite places. Terrific beer and meat grilled on an open flame in the middle of the tavern.

Why does Belgium have such good beer? Can you give us a little history lesson?

In short, it's because small craft breweries survive and do their thing. This despite various invasions, wars, and corporate takeovers. The beers from the small, artisanal places are not always great, but they're never boring. The strength of Belgian beer lies in its diversity. There is nothing about Belgian beer that's better than British or German or American beer, frankly, but there is an unusual combination of tradition and creativity here. And plain old stubbornness. Some villages still cling to their own beer styles, although giant companies like A-B InBev have swallowed many and made them less fun.

Also, growth of exports to countries like the U.S. and U.K. has allowed the smaller breweries to survive and occasionally thrive. Many Belgians know that Belgian beer is famous worldwide, but they might be pointing to a drab commercial pils when they say so. But its the small breweries and their stunning array of flavors that put Belgian beer on the map in the first place.

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Cancemini4 said...

What a great post! And how luck to have an expert in your very own building. Will definitely have to check out the book.

Zhu said...

I wonder if he could make me like beer... I hate the taste and the smell, always had. But people keep on telling I tried the "wrong" beer(s).

Joe said...

Zhu: I can try. What do you like? Are you wine drinker, for example?

Reality is that the flavors of styles of beer are so diverse that there usually is something for everyone. The trick is finding it.