For three days in November, the legendary Maison des Brasseurs in Brussels, the ancient headquarters of the Brewers’ Guild, became the hoppy and malty epicenter of the world’s most passionate brewers, when it hosted the first-ever edition of the Brussels Beer Challenge. This new international contest involved more than 500 different beers from 16 countries around the world.
Europe, with its strong brewing tradition, was well represented with participants from Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Estonia, France, Greece, Italy, Monaco, Portugal, Holland, the Czech Republic and the UK. But the Old Continent clinked glasses with their counterparts from the U.S and Canada, as well as Brazil and Japan. This was a rare opportunity to get a close-up look (and taste!) of products from the global beer market, and to become more familiar with each one’s unique characteristics. There were surprises in store and no lack of learning opportunities even for a professional taster like myself, who was delighted to be a part of the jury, along with a carefully curated selection of other industry experts.
Unlike wine, whose classification system is simple and well codified by now, beer’s possible “categories” are constantly evolving. Which is why at the event in Brussels, the product was presented in 8 main typologies, with each of the eight then divided into 50 smaller sub-categories. It was a veritable and infinite universe of rich and varied flavors: from Great Britain’s classic, and highly fermented Pale Ale, to the world’s most popular variant, Lager, which undergoes very little fermentation. On one end of the spectrum are the more refreshing wheat beers, while on the other, the more substantial stout bears, which are made with a high percentage of roasted barely, and have a slightly bitter taste.
When it came time to compete, one Nation took away the lion’s share of the prizes: the United States walked away with 13 gold medals, 11 silver, 13 bronze and 6 honorable mentions. America was also home to the world’s most “honored” brewery, the Boston Beer Company, as well as the recipient of most awards in the categories of Imperial IPA (for beers that are higher in alcohol content and hops), English IPA, Kolsh (highly fermented, golden in color, and more fruity than bitter), American IPA, and Smoked Beer.
The second most “honored” country was the event’s host, Belgium, with 11 gold medals in categories including Blonde/Golden, Lambic & Gueze (spontaneous fermentation), Abbey/Trappist, Oud Rood (high fermentation and with “lactic” acidity), and Fruit Beer. Germany was in third place with 3 gold medals and widespread recognition in the categories of Weizen and Helles (low fermentation, medium-bodied, with malty notes and slight hints of yeast). Italy, Denmark and the U.K. took home two gold medals apiece. And Holland, France, Greece and the Czech Republic all brought home one gold medal.
Now that the winners have been honored and celebrated, let’s raise a glass to the debut edition of this contest – which, by all accounts, was considered a success both by industry insiders and amateur aficionados: see you at next year’s edition, that will take place in the southern region of Wallonia, yet again Belgium.