Monday, March 5, 2012

Popularity of Belgian Fest Mirrors Overall Growth in Craft Beer Market

Note: A version of this article originally appeared 3/2/12 on

WESTLAND – Somewhat overshadowed by the (justifiable) hype surrounding a certain other recent beer festival in Grand Rapids, Ashley's Belgian Beer Festival ended February 19, and its growth, particularly in a “blue collar” area of Metro Detroit, is yet another strong indicator of increasing interest in the art of good beer, whether locally produced or imported from across the pond.

In just its second year, the festival grew out of a 2010 trip that brothers Roy More and Jeff More, co-owners of Ashley’s, took to Belgium, where they visited a number of the Low Country’s many small and often family-owned breweries. They came away impressed with, in Roy’s words, “the level of game” Belgian brewers bring to their craft, arising from centuries of beer-based traditions and culture.

“Most Americans only know the mass-market Belgian beers like Stella Artois,” said Roy. “What we found in Belgium was a passion similar to what we see in Michigan craft brewers, and we wanted to bring these relatively unknown beers to the U.S. market.”

Roy and Jeff were also impressed, but in a negative sense, with the pressures facing Belgium’s small, traditional brewers from the same sort of international conglomerate brewers that also dominate the American brewing scene. Thus was born the Ashley’s Belgian Beer Festival, to not only help these small brewers grow their export market, but to introduce more Americans to beers they might otherwise never find, beers that are the result of a unique brewing traditional unlike any found in other countries.

For the 2012 edition of the festival, Ashley’s expanded the event from five to 11 days and made good use of its Belgian connections to introduce to the U.S. Brouwerij Van Eecke’s Poperings Hommel Bier Dark (sort of a Belgian “black IPA”), debut three other Belgian ales in the Midwest region, and bring a dozen others to the state of Michigan for the first time. Ashley’s festival planners created a Belgian-inspired food menu, presented two ticketed Belgian beer dinners, put on three educational seminars with experts from around the U.S. and Belgium, commissioned the creation of four different Belgian beer-infused Valentine’s Day chocolates, hosted Belgian pub games, and offered more than 180 Belgian beers on tap and in bottles, making it one of the largest – if not the largest – festivals of its kind anywhere on earth.

“The U.S. population is moving away from mass-produced ‘pilsner’ beers and toward higher alcohol, more flavorful ales,” said festival presenter Steve Villani, president of the Boston-based Global Beer Network, an importer specializing in Belgian ales. “Belgian beers represent the highest end of the quality spectrum and are enjoying a surge in popularity as more folks find out about them.” Villani pointed to a doubling of Belgian beer sales in the Midwest in just the past three years as evidence.

And word is getting out not only about Belgian beers but about Ashley’s annual celebration of them, with attendance way up from the inaugural year. Festgoer Anthony Penner of Westland snapped a photo of the beers he was enjoying and texted it to his brother-in-law in Pennsylvania, who then drove all the way over from Pittsburgh the next day to join in the fun.

“I had to rub it in a little,” said Penner. “Where else can you find even five Belgian beers on tap, never mind more than 40?”

Not even in Belgium itself, according to Penner’s fellow festgoer Michael Scott. “What an incredible experience,” he said. “I’ve been to Belgium twice and never had so many good Belgian ales!”

Festgoers were encouraged to experiment during events like Sour Day and Trappist Day, with those respective beer styles being discounted and also served in pre-selected flights. For those who really like a challenge, various achievement ribbons were awarded for every “level” attained, including “Dubbel,” “Tripel,” “Quad,” “Sourmaster,” “Fruitfreak,” and others. Ashley’s presented John Voymas of Detroit with a gift basket of bottled Belgian ales for working his way through all the beers required to earn 19 different ribbons.

It was also possible to take home packages of selected beers, including four packs of featured brewery Van Eecke’s Kapittel Abbey beers, a great option for enjoying some of the higher gravity brews without the need for a designated driver.

Planning has already begun to make next year’s festival an even bigger and better experience.

“Guests from as far away as Minneapolis, Boston, Cincinnati, and Chicago had a great time at this year’s festival,” said Roy. “That just makes us want to deliver an even better experience next year, and we’re already hard at work making sure that we will!”

Travel blogger and photographer Erik Smith has more photos and accounts on his blog: Trappist beer dinner | Poperings Hommel Bier Dark release | Brouwerij Van Eecke beer dinner

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