The NY Times recently ran a worthwhile if imperfect review about some Belgian and Belgian-style “blondes” they recently tasted.

I say “blondes” because of the inherent taxonomical issue the reviewers faced when comparing beers as different to each other as Brugse Zot and XX Bitter. You’ll likely be intrigued, or appalled, to learn that a US-brewed Belgian-style blonde took home the top ranking. Alas, Duvel couldn’t even crack the top ten.

As the article discusses, categorization of their product is a challenge that Belgian brewers have faced as they have exported their beer far and wide, particularly in the US market.

In a country with as rich and diverse a brewing tradition as Belgium, categories can vary from region to region, even from village to village. But most beer lovers in Belgium, when they happen on a beer they’ve never tasted before, can normally rely on the educated insight of the bartender, shop owner or their nearby drinking partner. It seems, in Belgium, that the waiter at the corner brasserie can describe to you the difference between two locally brewed beers, let alone broad categories of beer.

They’ll often give you a similar description to what you might hear at a Hollywood pitch meeting: “You know Lucifer, right? Well it’s kind of a somewhat hoppy version of that with the finish you’d find from a Gulden Draak.”

However, in North America, and a lesser extent the UK, chances are these comparisons aren’t as easy to come by without similar access to, and familiarity with, such rich diversity.  You’re left to trust the answer of your bartender or shopkeeper, or to buy one and just hope for the best.

When selling your beer in a less-established market, you must be able to answer this simple question: What is it? What does it taste like? How does it compare to “Well-known Brand X”? You wouldn’t go to a Honda dealership if you wanted to buy a Ferrari, would you? But if you just landed from Mars, the difference between those brands may have escaped you.

Successful brewers, importers and distributors are happy to educate about how their beer should be categorized and compared. It makes the beer a lot more accessible in a new market.

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