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The US beats Belgium in beer. Is it really that simple?

So far, the reports of the Brussels Beer Challenge, held over the weekend in Leuven, have concentrated on one detail and one detail only: the US beat Belgium at its own game.

Yes, it’s true that the US entered 177 beers, and walked away with 13 gold medals, 17 silver and 18 bronze, together with five special mentions outside of the medals. Belgium with 200 beers from 79 breweries came in second place with 11 gold, 12 silver and nine bronze, as well as 11 honourable mentions. In third place, quite some way behind at that, comes Italy with five gold, four silver and three bronze, and one special mention from a total entry of 110 beers.

But that way of looking at the competition is quite simply the wrong way. The Brussels Beer Challenge is not a competition between countries, it is – as the very name suggests – a competition between beers.

“We don’t want to determine the world’s best beer country,” says organizer Luc De Raedemaeker. “The first goal is to award quality beers. And the second is to give guidelines to customers; they can be sure that beer awarded at our competition is always a high quality beer.”

The entries– 725 submitted this year compared to 592 last year – are divided into eight main styles: Pale Ale, Dark Ale, Red Ale, Lager, Stout/Porter, Wheat, Flavoured Beer and Speciality Beer. Within those main headings, they’re divided further into 50 categories, among them Altbier, English IPA, Imperial IPA, Saison, Belgian Style Tripel, Strong Dark Ale and Oud Bruin & Rood.

Why did the US appear to come out on top? Undoubtedly it’s because they brew some very good beers. But it’s also because they try their hand at every beer style out there, and invent new styles that other countries are slowly copying.

“All beer styles known to man are brewed in the US. And they have 3000 breweries compared to 160 in Belgium,” says Luc.

It’s well known that US breweries make Belgian-style triples and Belgian-style wit-beer, in some cases doing a very job. Belgian brewers, on the other hand, stick to what they’re good at; brewing a range of traditional styles that for such a small country is already quite remarkable.

So it’s possible for an American brewery to do well in a traditional Belgian category – for instance the Boston Brewing Company won silver in the Saison category – but it’s unlikely that a Belgian brewery would win in a category like American IPA or American Stout: Barring a handful of exceptions Belgian breweries don’t make those beers.

The main point is that beers are competing against beers, not country against country. Only the top three countries entered more than 50 beers. It stands to reason that countries like France (48 entries), Germany (35), the Netherlands (37) and the UK (26) are not going to the trouble of entering for national pride, since they have no hope of sweeping the board.

So what is it that makes the mainstream media turn this into a re-run of the World Cup? It could simply be that beer is rather too complex a subject to capture in a short newspaper report. Try explaining the distinction between a strong blonde/golden ale and a light bitter blond/golden ale, or navigating a way through the eight subcategories of lager – and now do it in 250-300 words. Far simpler to reduce the whole event to a binary: winners and losers.

At any rate there’s no sense in Belgians being downhearted just because some American beers won more medals. Every winner last weekend is a worthy winner. The two overall winners – best Belgian beer Liefmans Goudenband and best beer in competition Triple C by Thwaites of Lancashire – are both world-class beers, and there are at least a dozen others in the rankings. (Although De Raedemaeker points out there are beers not awarded which are world-class too).

Why not try this? Instead of looking at the results as a list of winners and losers, why not treat it as a bucket list? Next time we’re going to the beer store, why not bring this list along, see what we can find and bring it home to enjoy? Isn’t that what beer is all about?

Belgian Beer and Food - 3 November 2014
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