Going boozing with the parents

the abbey garden at the beer festival

So I went back to Middelburg this weekend for Mother’s Day, not because the first Abdijbierfestival was going to be held on Friday and Saturday. Nu-uh. But since I was in town anyway it wou;d’ve been a shame if I didn’t go. Luckily my parents enjoy their tipples too and because as they’re fond of the stronger Belgian beers and as the name hints at, the focus was on abbey brewed beers, this was right up their street.

cloister halls at the beer festival

The Middelburg abbey hasn’t been used as such since the Eighty Years War and currently is used by the Zeeland Province government; the festival was held within the cloister walls around the herb garden. It was a great setting for a trappist/abbey beer orientated festival and all the great Belgian names were represented: La Trappe, Maredsous, Affligem, Rochefort, Westmalle, Achel, Chimay, Orval, etc. What’s more, the local beer enthusiasts club had gotten a lot of much more obscure beers in bottle, including Westvleteren 8 and 12. There were also several tables with hobby brewers and small, regional brewers. And because this is Zeeland, one of those was Emelisse, not to mention Brouwerij Kees, started by an ex-Emelisse brewer and which for me had the best beers of the beerfest. Evidence for which can be found in my Twitter timeline

It was a fun little festival, but it was noticable this was the first time it was organised. At times the hallways were slightly too narrow, especially around the more popular stands. What was lacking were seating/standing areas away from bbeythe stands themselves, apart from the cloister garden, which would’ve been too small too if more people had discovered it. Also lacking: food stands. There was the abbey’s own catering, but that was located before the main festival itself, at the entrance which didn’t invite to go get something, having to run the gauntlet of people entering and exiting. Finally, a very novel complaint for a festival: the glasses were too big, almost normal beer glasses size, which is great value for money but does mean you get pissed a lot quicker than at say a Borefts.

All in all a fun way to spent an afternoon, but not quite something you could spent a whole day at. Mum and dad liked it as well, but there was no need to buy more coins. Hopefully it will be held again next year, with more participants and hopefully outside in the abbey square, weather permitting.

Female brewers in early modern Holland

Gravure of female beer brewer

Here’s an interesting history paper by Marjolein van Dekken about female beer brewers in Holland during the fifteenth-seventeenth centuries:

As an important part of daily nourishment, women had always produced beer at home and for their own household. However, in Holland from the beginning of the thirteenth century beer production for the general market commenced. In the developing cities more and more labour was divided among specialised craftsmen. Professional breweries were established and the beer industry became a serious trade. In several cities of Holland like Haarlem, Delft and Gouda, the brewing industry played a major economic role during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even after the industry’s decline from the second half of the seventeenth century, breweries remained important for the local economy in those cities.

The full article is available as a Word document. It’s part of a project that looks at women’s work in the early modern period:

Foreign travellers who visited the Dutch Republic in the early modern period were impressed by the remarkable prominence of Dutch women in public places. Dutch women were reportedly independent and capable entrepreneurs, conducting business either in their own name, or that of their absent spouses. To what extent these frequently repeated observations reflect historical reality is still not clear. There is evidence that the economic success of the Dutch Republic is reflected in the position of women on the labour market. Two opposite hypotheses can be formulated. According to some historians female labour market participation in the Dutch Republic was lower than in neighboring countries. The economic prosperity and the high standard of living enabled the practical realization of the ideal of domesticity. Many women could afford not to work, and withdrew from the labour market as early as in the seventeenth century. According to the second, opposite hypothesis female labour market participation in the Dutch Republic was higher than elsewhere. Dutch gender norms were not very strict, women performed paid work on a large scale, and thus contributed to the increase of income and the standard of living and to the economic success of the Dutch Republic.

Carnivale brettanomyces

Frank Boon talks about lambic at In de Wildeman

Some of the best pubs in Amsterdam joined forces this weekend to celebrate wild yeasts, the kind that gives a beer like lambic its particular flavour and characteristics. As part of that, In de Wildeman had Frank Boon give a presentation on the history of the lambic and related beers like gueuze and kriek. Which is fitting, because it was his brewery that was instrumental in saving these beers from extinction.

A short recap. Lambics are beers traditionally brewed in the Senne valley near Brussels, using various wild yeasts of the brettanomyces families (as well as others). It’s a sour beer, not very hoppy and cloudy. Gueuze is a mixture of young (one year old) and old (two-three years) lambics that undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle, slightly sweeter than proper lambiek. Faro is lambic with added sugar, while kriek is lambic with sour cherries added, anything from 350 grammes a litre and upwards. Lambics were originally brewed as a regional beer, as a tax dodge even to escape French taxation on spirits, one of those styles of beer that seemed old fashioned in the twentieth century but which has become hip again as more and more craft brewers are looking to traditional beers like this for inspiration.

What I did this weekend

a boot full of Westvleteren beer

So this weekend was spent in the beautiful old town of Gent, with a couple of friends, as we went to pick up a supply of what’s supposedly the best beer in the world: Westvleteren 12. The results you can see above.

For those who are not beer geeks, Westvleteren is a socalled Trappist beer: beer brewed by Trappist monks within the monastry itself to pay for the upkeep of the monastry, with any remaining profit going to charitable works. What makes Westvleteren unique amongst the eight existing Trappist breweries is that it’s only sold at the abbey itself and brewed in limited quantities. To get it, you first need to make an appointment a couple of weeks in advance, then show up by car to pick up your two crates of 24 bottles. You can’t choose the beer they’re selling and you have to wait at least two months before you can buy them again.

All of which has imparted a certain mystique to the beer, as most beer geeks, especially those outside Europe, will have had little to no chance to drink it. Personally I quite like both the 12 and the 8 as I sampled them this weekend, sitting in the restaurant across the monastry, but I’m not sure how much its reputation reflects its own intrinsic qualities and how much it has to do with its rarity.

But getting it was a good excuse for a trip to a beautiful city and spent a couple of days boozing in its bars with friends who appreciate good beer. Not to mention that it also gave me the opportunity to visit an old friend for the first time and admire his beautiful, well kept house and perfect family…

How capitalism makes shitty beer worse

How capitalism can make even already shitty beer much, much worse:

One Friday night in January, Rinfret, who is now 52, stopped on the way home from work at his local liquor store in Monroe, N.J., and purchased a 12-pack of Beck’s. When he got home, he opened a bottle. “I was like, what the hell?” he recalls. “It tasted light. It tasted weak. Just, you know, night and day. Bubbly, real fizzy. To me, it wasn’t German beer. It tasted like a Budweiser with flavoring.”

He examined the label. It said the beer was no longer brewed in Bremen. He looked more closely at the fine print: “Product of the USA.” This was profoundly unsettling for a guy who had been a Beck’s drinker for more than half his life. He was also miffed to have paid the full import price for the 12-pack.


There was another reason for Brito to be reticent. He’s been running AB InBev’s business in the U.S. like a private equity investor. He has increased revenue and profit, but he has done so almost entirely by raising prices and cutting the cost of making the product. This has done wonders for AB InBev’s balance sheet. “If you look at what AB InBev has done since it took over Anheuser-Busch, it has made it enormously more profitable,” says Trevor Stirling, a beer industry analyst at Bernstein Research (AB), who detects more than a little xenophobia in the criticism of the company. “Is that un-American? Is it unconstitutional to increase the profitability of a business?”


What will Brito buy after this? There’s not much left. There is Pepsi, of course. Analysts speculate that it will acquire SABMiller (SAB), the world’s second-largest brewer. (AB InBev isn’t saying.) That would be something, adding beers like Coors Light and Foster’s to AB InBev’s lineup. It might be bittersweet for him. After one last carnival of cost-cutting, he’d have no more easy ways to juice his company’s stock. There would be nothing left for Brito to do but sell beer.

This is what real late stage, financier and stock market driven capitalism looks like. A company like AB InBev doesn’t exist to sell beer, not even to sell shitty beer, it exists as a tool for financial speculation. The real money lies in buying other companies, orchestrating mergers, conquering new markets through joint ventures and wholesale takeovers of local companies, splitting off unwanted parts and selling them to other companies doing the same, squeezing costs and increasing margins all to provide the seed sum for the next round of speculation.

It doesn’t really matter whether or not sales in the long term, or even the medium to short term sales of beer collapse for AB InBev as long as the margins are higher now, because the real money isn’t made there anyway. All the real money is on the financial speculative side, rather than the physical beer selling side. Get your money, let some other sucker worry about the future.

That’s also why the “let them drink craft beer” response to this sort of article (some examples seen here) misses the point entirely. This isn’t about shitty beer getting worse, it’s how high capitalism destroys everything in its quest for high profits now.