Reuben Gray, Author of The Tale Of The Ale, Recaps His EBBC15 Experiences in Brussels
Sums up the 2015 Conference in one word: epic!
The 5th European Beer Bloggers conference took place in Belgium in August. This year, it was re-branded as the European Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference but otherwise, the format was the same for the most part.
For such a small country, Belgium likes to do things big. Big beers and a massive welcome were in store for beer writers. We knew we were in for a good time when we looked at the agenda but we were still blown away.
I was personally there for the full programme and it went something like this. It all kicked off on the Thursday afternoon for the pre-conference event. Normally, this is a simple pub crawl led by a local blogger but this year, the Belgian Family Brewers’ association treated us to a whirlwind tour covering more than 200 kilometres. Each stop had a theme, essentially an ingredient in beer. We started in the hop fields of the Palm brewery to discuss hops and were treated to the more hop forward beers and some lunch. We then went to Lindeman’s to explore fruit. We then moved on to the Dupont brewery to discover more. This was an exploration of other ingredients like spices and herbs. Finally, we were whisked off to Dubuisson to find out about oak. After a tour of their barrel ageing cellars, we had dinner and beer before heading back to Brussels.
The conference kicked off the next morning from 11:30 where the registration and expo was complimented by a buffet lunch.
The conference then kicked off with an opening from the Alderman of Tourism for the city of Brussels as well as Xavier Vaneste from De Halve Maan and then the Deputy GM of the Belgian Tourist Office.
We then had a little bit of a history lesson on brewing in Belgium before exploring what sort of content we could write that wasn’t just another beer review.
The Belgian Family Brewers then had a press conference to explain where they are going and how their branding would look before we went downstairs for the marmite part of the conference.
Live Beer Blogging! You either love it or hate it but everyone at least tolerates this beernado of an event. 11 breweries had 5 minutes each to move around each table and talk about their beer. In reality, it’s closer to 4 minutes because it takes a minute for each switch to take place. It’s always agonising because you often want to spend more time with each beer and find out more. Some people blog during the event and either publish the post at the end, or publish and continually update on the fly. I prefer twitter for this event as the micro-blogging platform is perfectly suited to the limited nature of the event.
Afterwards, we went for dinner in the stunning Belga Queen. There was another beer reception where we had a little more time to talk to some brewers and sample beer and then we were treated to a sumptuous dinner but more importantly, the tables had brewery reps on them so we could continue to discuss beer. My own table had the St. Fueillien brewery represented and conveniently, their beer table was right behind us so we could reach behind and get their beers while hearing all about them and the brewery. The most interesting thing I learned was that the brewery was named for St. Fueillien who was an Irish monk. I was sitting beside Dominique Friart herself and it was a riveting conversation. Dominique is a 4th generation brewmaster/owner at the brewery. She had even been to Ireland recently to research St. Fueillien.
After dinner, we went to the Hoppy Loft, part of the world renowned Delirium village. There were many beers to be had and lots of great conversations until 11pm. Some people chose to head somewhere else but I personally decided to be sensible and go to bed.
The next morning, we heard from WordPress about their awesome blogging platform/CMS and specifically of the latest improvements in 4.3 which have made formatting articles much quicker with shortcuts. No longer do you need to use the pesky mouse while writing an article. There are a number of other improvements but this was the most impressive.
The next session was quite simply; explosive! The title was beer marketing and we heard from a number of people on the subject. It was Jean Hummler who set off the fireworks when it was his turn to speak. He immediately went on the attack of what he called Fake Breweries such as Mikkeller. I think his point was somewhat lost after that statement but it was a valid one. What he was saying was that we shouldn’t only write positive, friendly articles out of fear of no longer being on friendly terms with a brewery. We need to tell the truth and let people know what’s going on. His example of Mikkeller was that if we are writing about a gypsy brewery, we need to let people know that this was a beer designed by someone but it’s not a real brewery. It may have been completely contract brewed or else the brewer rented time on a brewery but produced it himself. Whatever the truth of the matter, we need to tell it so that our readers are left in no doubt about exactly where that beer came from. His point was valid if a little confrontational. I believe many were completely engaged in this session though and it was one of the highlights of the conference.
We then had lunch consisting of typical Belgian cuisine and a beer pairing suggestion for each dish. The most talked about dish was the desert. It was a rich; multi layered, chocolate mousse in what I can only describe as a flower vase. Finishing it was impossible for most but we did our best. It would not be the last time a vase full of mousse would appear that day.
The after lunch session was on the State of Beer in Europe. I hosted the session with my EBCU colleague, Bo Jensen and Brewers of Europe senior advisor, Simon Spillane. After the introductions of both organisations, we talked about issues facing consumers and brewers. We started with taxation of beer in different countries and moved on to consumer information on labels. We had a brief foray in to health and the perception of beer=bad for you that is often portrayed by the media and what beer writers can do to counteract that unwarranted negative perception.
Next up were 8 bloggers to give 5 minute reports on themselves and/or their country. It was an enlightening session that I would hope to see returning next year. Unlike Live Beer Blogging, 5 minutes seemed to work perfectly here. I don’t think anyone thought it was too brief a time for the presentation.
We then sampled some Petrus sour beers and were encouraged to make our own blend. I think everyone found this a lot of fun.
We then had a break where we could either rest or have some beers that certain bloggers had brought from their own country. Beer from as far away as Brazil or as infamous as Pliny the Elder were on the menu. All too soon, it was time for dinner with The Thirsty Brewer himself, Vaclav Berka from Pilsner Urquell. As much as we all love Belgian beers, after so many high strength beers, we were all looking forward to quaffing pints of unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell from the Tankovna. We got to do so this year from personalised mugs because they had someone to etch our names on Pilsner Urquell glasses. It was just the perfect end to a great conference.
Except for most of us, it wasn’t the end! There was an optional pub crawl around Brussels which I didn’t do because I just wanted to relax for the rest of the evening. The next morning, most of us were leaving on one of the three post-conference excursions that were generously and meticulously put together by Visit Flanders. The three tours consisted of a one day tour around Lambic country or two overnight excursions to either Leuven /Antwerp or West Flanders.
Personally, I did the West Flanders tour where we visited the hop museum in Poperigne, a hop farm and brewery called De Plukker and then on to the iconic Westvleteren before moving on to Struise and then the world famous Rodenbach brewery. We then headed to Bruges for the night and spent the next morning In Bruges where we had a historical walking tour, visited the Bruges beer musem which is one of the only places you can try Rodenbach Foederbier. We then headed to one of the most interesting breweries I have ever been to: De Leite. We were treated to all of their available beers and each beer had a wonderful story attached to it. Luc Vermeersch is a master story teller and a lovely person.
That was it for me, we headed back to Brussels and it was straight to bed as I had an early train and flight home the next morning. I’ll be back in Brussels next month for the European Beer Consumers’ Union meeting and reception where we celebrate 25 years of EBCU. A number of MEPs and other dignitaries will be in attendance.
The one word to describe the 5th European conference must be Epic! I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. I would like to offer a big thanks to all of the breweries, sponsors and Visit Flanders for making us all feel so welcome and in such a massive way.