North Americans tend to think they've pretty much invented everything. Take the beer festival. Okay, even if we didn't actually invent it, at least we've perfected it. Like the Great American Beer Festival, held annually in Denver (this year from October 7th to the 9th), which attracts more than 17,000 thirsty palates. Or how about the tens of thousands of beer aficionados who descend upon Portland each year in July for the Oregon Brewers Festival. These represent the epitome of beer fests.
What we tend to forget, though, is that they've been doing this beer fest thing for quite a while across the pond. And mostly, they've been doing it better… and for longer.
Take, for example, the 22-year-old Great British Beer Festival, the mammoth cask ale celebration held this past August in London. Then there's the Fira de la Cerveza de Barcelona, which lasts 17 days in July and is more a huge beer garden and tapas bar than a normal brew fest. But the granddaddy is the 24 Hours of Beer in Antwerp, Belgium, punctuating life in this beer capital on October 16th and 17th.
The first thing to understand about the 24 Hours fest is that they (the hours) don't happen in strict succession. In other words, the fest isn't 24 hours of straight drinking. The duration is divided up over two days, running from 2 pm to 2 am on Saturday, and 10 am to 10 pm on Sunday. One assumes that the later start on Saturday enables attendees to recover from the previous night, while the earlier finish on Sunday gets them to work on time on Monday. By all reports, and some personal experience, the system works.
The next important piece of information is the literal translation of the event. It's not "24 Hours of Beer" but rather "24 Hours of Belgian Specialty Beer." That's "Specialty" as in "unusual" or "spiced" or "fruit-flavored" or, most often, "strong." Of the 146 beers listed in the program, the overwhelming majority have an alcohol percentage of more than six percent, with about half coming in at seven percent or better. If that doesn't intimidate you, well, it should.
The third (and perhaps most important) factoid about the 24 Hours is self-evident: it's in Belgium. To anyone who honestly appreciates the glories that the brewing world has to offer, this is no small detail. Belgian beers are rightly recognized as having the widest diversity of style and most eccentric character of those of any nation. There are spontaneously fermented wheat beers (called lambics), which speak to brewing's earliest days; big and potent Trappist ales, gifts from the most benevolent of monks; golden ales that seem as benign as pilsners, though are almost as powerful as Rhine riesling; beers seasoned with everything from coriander to licorice to ginger; brown and red ales aged in wood, like fine amontillado Sherries; brews fermented with whole fruit. All of these beer styles, and many more, belong to Belgium. A day's worth of time spent in the company of such brews is truly a most remarkable 24 hours.
Don't get depressed. If you can't make it to Antwerp for the 24 Hours this year, there's a steadily increasing supply of Belgian beauties now available on store shelves stateside. Seek them, try them, enjoy them. You'll be a better person for it.
A Few Belgian Classics
With the passing of every week, more Belgian beers arrive as imports, not just in North America but all around the globe. The world, it would appear, has discovered that the land known as "The Beercountry" is entirely worthy of its name.
While my advice would be to try anything with "Belgium" on its label, including domestically brewed Belgian-style ales such as the Ommegang and Hennepin ales from Cooperstown, New York, the following list provides a good starting point for novice Belgian beer explorers.
Duvel a delightfully dry, lightly fruity (pear), golden ale with a dangerous drinkability (considering its 8.5 percent alcohol!)
Westmalle Tripel a potent (9 percent alcohol) and slightly sweet, golden Trappist ale blessed with inspired complexity and finesse
Affligem Dubbel a decadent dark ale with a sweetly textural character and fruity, chocolaty body; a fabulous dessert beer
Orval the intriguing "black sheep" of the Belgian Trappist ales; slightly bitter, slightly sour, hugely complex and completely captivating
Cantillon Gueuze perhaps the definitive lambic and a beer brewed only for true aficionados; sharp, sour, refreshing, rewarding
Stille Nacht a Christmas offering from Dolle Brouwers ("Mad Brewers"); a strong (8% alcohol), sweet, contemplative ale worth celebrating
La Chouffe a "chouffe" is a gnome, while La Chouffe is a wonderful, aromatic, coriander-spiced ale from Belgium's southeast
Scaldis a strong (12% alcohol), captivating ale known as Bush (in North America, its name is changed to appease a certain large domestic brewer)