LONGREAD: Belgophilia
 
A version of this article first appeared in the autumn 2017 issue of CAMRA's BEER magazine.

Martin (left) and Des in Bock Bière Café, Manchester, February 2017

The waiter at a bar in Manchester carelessly places a bottle of Saison Dupont in front of retired lorry driver Des Fisher. When the waiter has gone, Des sighs and shakes his head, muttering in a warm Lancastrian accent: ‘See, this annoys me. In Belgium, they always turn the glass and the label to face the customer. And there's none of this pouring half the beer into the glass! And it’s always the right glass, too.’ To Des these details matter because he is one of a hard core of British beer lovers which has made Belgium its second home, travelling there at every opportunity and forming a community around a shared obsession.

An appreciation for Belgian beer is an important but sometimes forgotten step in the development of Britain’s current vibrant and varied beer culture. It began back in the 1970s when, before people talked about ‘craft beer’, there was ‘world beer’, and Michael Jackson. It was largely under his guidance in the form of the 1977 World Guide to Beer and numerous other works that British drinkers were first made aware of Trappist beers, sour lambic beers, and other curiosities that seemed so strange to palates brought up on bitter and mild. Belgian beer has been a special guest star at CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival since the late 1970s and through the 1980s specialist shops and distributors popped up. Bottles of Belgian beer began to appear in the kind of pubs frequented by enthusiasts and then, in the 1990s, dedicated Belgian bars arrived including, perhaps surprisingly, in the small market town of Leek in Staffordshire. 

It was there that Martin, a softly spoken civil servant from Stoke-on-Trent who is as obsessed with cycling and good coffee as beer, and known online as @6townsmart, first had his head turned. ‘Den Engel opened my eyes in around 2000-2001,’ he says. ‘Westmalle Dubbel was the first thing I remember really exciting me. I tried everything on the menu with one of Tim Webb's early guide books for Belgium and Holland [for guidance]. I went virtually every weekend, sometimes on the odd weeknight.’ But he also mentions another key development: ‘What prompted me to actually go to Belgium was Eurostar -- it was so quick and easy.’

Jeremy, better known online as Jezza or under the handle @BonsVoeux1, lives in London and works in the charity sector. For him, the opening of the Channel Tunnel was also a key turning point, tempting he and his wife to make their first trip in January 1998. ‘We had always been interested in beer but not Belgian beer,’ he recalls, but Bruges won them over. ‘Well, it was this cold, empty, beautiful place, with (this being Belgium) the Christmas decorations still up. It was just wonderful. And then we found Brugs Beertje which is the best bar in the world.’ So entranced were they that they went back to Belgium for the next 13 Januarys in a row and he estimates that the trip from which he had just returned before our meeting was their 109th – an astonishing average of six trips a year.

At around the same time as Jeremy was discovering Bruges, Des was being bitten by the bug closer to home, up in the North West of England. ‘It started for me at beer festivals in around 1999, probably at a CAMRA festival,’ he recalls. ‘I tasted Belgian beer and thought, “Oh, yes, I could get used to this!”’ So enamoured is Des of Belgian beer almost two decades on that most people know him simply as @DeDolleDes – an online identity chosen in honour of his favourite brewery, ‘The Mad Brewers’ of Diksmuide. After taking his interest as far as possible at home he and his late wife started travelling to Belgium regularly, at first staying in hotels which they found expensive and exhausting. Nowadays, sadly widowed, he explores in his very own motorhome – a piece of Belgium that is forever Greater Manchester. ‘I go where I like,’ he says. With an avuncular manner and a knack for remembering people he gives out samples of English beer, making friends along the way. He receives gifts in return that often end up in his private cellar of more than a thousand bottles. ‘I like to share them with other people,’ he says. ‘Take a few along to tastings or festivals.’ Dina, a fellow enthusiast based in Edinburgh, confirms this: ‘He may not remember where he saw you last, or even your name, but he will remember exactly what kind of beer you discussed. He'll find the perfect bottle of it – the best year, best condition – and he'll make sure your glass is filled with it.’

Jeremy also has a substantial collection that started out on a shelf in a cupboard in his south London flat, then spread to fill the entire space, then the fireplace next to it, and now has a room to itself, decorated with Belgian breweriana. A precise, intellectual type, he has a programme of buying beer in bulk and maturing it systematically. ‘I’ve had some great results already with ageing lambic,’ he says, growing animated at the thought. ‘I’ve got bottles of De Dolle Stille Nacht going back to 1989 – just a few of those – and I’m now into buying huge quantities at a time to help with the project.’

These three are only a small part of a substantial number of British Belgophiles who got to know each other online in the pre-Twitter days of social media, as Jeremy recalls: ‘A lot of this started with the Burgundian Babble Belt which was a classic old-school messageboard that started in about 2000 and had its heyday around 2006. Lots of people who are into Belgian beer used to hang out there, including Tim Webb from time to time.’ The messageboard, according to the Good Beer Guide Belgium, is ‘cliquey but never outfoxed’. Steve Hannigan, AKA @birkonian, recalled in an email how things developed from there:

Gradually, our internet interactions became real friendships as we arranged to meet up at Beer Festivals in Belgium. You can still find a group of us from Britain, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark and U.S.A. huddled together.

When we asked Jeremy if he often ran into other British beer geeks on his travels in Belgium, he laughed: ‘Oh, I’d be surprised not to meet people I know in Belgium. It happens more often than not. There are maybe 20 or 30 people I know who go regularly, five or six times a year, often around the same festivals and holidays so, yeah.’ He reeled off a long list of their names, often paired in couples, as in the case of Simon and Jackie, who goes by the name ‘Lambic Queen’ online.

Steve Hannigan believes there is a three question test to identify a hardcore Belgian-beer geek:

One, does Daisy Claeys, the legendary (recently retired) owner of t'Brugs Beertje bar in Bruges know your first name? Two, have you ever been on one of Podge's organised beer trips to Belgium? Three, have you been acknowledged in the Good Beer Guide Belgium by the author, Tim Webb?

(‘Podge’, AKA Chris Pollard, is famous among enthusiasts thanks to guidebooks and guided tours on which he collaborates with Siobhan McGinn.)

Jeremy is proud of his contributions to various editions of Tim Webb’s book over the years: ‘He would send me a list of leads and I’d go around checking out cafes for him, reporting back.’ We asked Tim Webb about this gang of disciples – what does he think drives them? ‘These are people of immense good taste who in my experience are also attracted to the food, the museums of obscure subjects, the extraordinary range of small family-run hotels and the sheer bloody oddity of small-town Belgium’, he told us in an email. Like Jeremy he cites the importance of the Brugs Beertje bar, declaring it ground zero of the Anglo-Belgian love affair, among other things:

The [Good Beer Guide Belgium was invented [there] at about 03.00 on a Thursday or Friday morning… during the same conversation that created CAMRA's first publishing company and ordained the British Guild of Beer Writers. Not a bad night's work. I reckon it was October 1987.

But this 30 year period of back-and-forth may be about to change drastically. There was a note of anxiety in several of the conversations we had in early 2016, between the result of the EU Referendum and the formal declaration of the UK’s intention to leave the EU under Article 50. Martin, not a man who revels in confrontation, described an incident during a recent by-election:

I live in Stoke and this morning a UKIP canvasser knocked on my door: 'Will you be voting for our candidate?' I said, 'Well, I spend five weeks a year in Belgium and the Low Countries so… No.'

But he remains philosophical. After all, as he observes, ‘The English beer scene is so good now.’ He certainly has no plans to move to Belgium permanently. Jeremy and his wife are similarly minded: ‘Bruges is a little retreat for us – an escape. We drink and eat stupid amounts, and then we’re glad to be home by the end. If we lived there it wouldn’t be as much fun, not least because we’d have to navigate Belgian bureaucracy.’ He does confess, however, to a compulsive habit of looking at houses on the Belgian property website Immoweb, indulging a daydream.