May 22, 2013

“Our role as importers is to really be curators”

This story appeared in the May edition of the Gazette van Detroit. I've been writing a monthly column there, Saison D'etre, since late 2012.

When it comes to Belgian Beer’s influence on America, few annual dates tell us as much as the release of the Vanberg & DeWulf portfolio. The boutique importer is not the largest beer importer, but it is the one that takes the most pride in its connection to traditional Belgian brewing and practices.

And one look at this year’s 70-page portfolio (available at reveals one thing: Belgian beer isn’t just in Belgium anymore.

“Our whole premise is that brewing talent has gone worldwide,” says Vanberg’s Don Feinberg. “The world that we live in now – which seems so fertile and creative – Belgian beer is a huge part of that.”

The portfolio features beers from Iceland, Italy, France and the UK, referred to as “honorary Belgian Beers,” from breweries that exemplify the central Belgian virtues of “flavor, complexity and balance.”

Feinberg says that they do not look for beers that are “brewed for export,” but rather for those that are aimed at a domestic Belgian aesthetic.

Take the dry-hopped Saison Dupont. At first glance, the words “dry hopped” might indicate that the new offering was deliberately aimed at the hop-centric US market, but the beer has been brewed for Belgian consumption alone for the last five years.

“We want to import the Belgian experience,” Feinberg says, though those virtues can come from anywhere.

Then there’s the Gandavum, the house beer of the Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, the most famous pub of Ghent. Gandavum is the Roman name for Ghent, where Feinberg and his wife live part of the year. Feinberg calls the dry-hopped beer “a little bit of a misdirection” for Vanberg, in part because it is made by De Proef Brouwerij, an ultramodern scientific brewery whose focus on experimentation is at odds with the Vanberg emphasis on traditions. Still, the beer’s association with the Ghent beer house and its dry, herbal flavor made it a fit within the Vanberg portfolio.

Then there are the new beers by Amiata, an Italian brewery in Tuscany.

“The Italians’ basic approach is that they are unbound by style,” Feinberg says, in part because there is no long tradition of brewing beer, and so there are almost no indigenous biases. The new Amiata offerings include the Marruca honey ale and the Comunale, a British influenced session ale.

“Five years ago, we never would have brought in beer from the UK,” Feinberg says, but the new globalization of Belgian traditions in beer has changed the landscape.

And now Lowestoft, England’s Green Jack Brewery is a part of the portfolio, bringing in beers that Feinberg calls “Belgian structure with British flavor.”

rippa_labelLead by the Rippa, an 8.5% “English Trippel,” the Green Jack offerings verge on sessionable by U.S. standards, ranging from 4.6% to 5.5%. Feinberg said they only feel comfortable importing these small, sparkling ales with live yeast thanks to the KeyKeg, a disposable one-way keg that allows for referementation and a “virgin fill, virgin pour” experience thanks to its innovative design that prevents elements like a bar using 50% nitrogen gas (compared with 100% carbon dioxide, which is the way most Belgian beers are designed to be forced) or unpredictable space in a traditional keg from corrupting the way the beer is supposed to taste.

“We only import beers that taste here like they do there,” Feinberg says.

So, just as the “there” is expanding geographically with the influence of Belgium’s brewing history, technology is now allowing the US market to get a broader taste of that influence and its effects on brewing cultures everywhere.

As Feinberg puts it, “the Belgians have always been great exporters.”

1 comment:

  1. Saison Dupont is one of my all-time favorite beers - so glad to see this spotlight on Vanberg and DeWulf!