rant: hit with the ugly brick

The monks at the Sint-Sixtus abbey have been well know for brewing up some top-notch beers. Look at any beer ranking site and Westvleteren 12 is sure to be close to the top. It is also one of the facts that every Belgian likes to spout at Americans who start talking about beer. That statement is then usually followed by something like, “much better than your Bud, eh?” Of course that proud Belgian has probably never tasted Westvleteren (or Budweiser) and if it’s not available at the corner store for next to nothing, he/she will never taste it. Of course there are people here who do care about good beer so I don’t let me paint too grim of a picture.

Back to the cheap and wide availability of beer. About a year ago it was announced that the monks had struck a deal with Belgian low-cost-leading grocery store chain Colruyt to sell a limited release gift pack of Westvleteren beer. This was to bring in some much needed funds to renovate the deteriorating buildings of the abbey. Seeing that Colruyt is a client of the product design firm where I work, my boss decided that I, being the beer guy and all, should throw together a quick concept for the gift box. A few hours later we sent our vision of how it could be done to Colruyt. Eventually they got back to us saying that they really liked the concept but said that the packaging had already been settled upon long ago. Oh well, it was worth the try.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago: As I was reading through my daily feeds I came across a post on Danny’s site saying that a date had been set for the Westvleteren/Colruyt release. I clicked on through to read the details when all of a sudden my beer-loving mind was smashed against a cliche covered brick. Photos of the gift packaging had been released. It wasn’t a pretty sight. (and I’m not the only one who thinks so)

Someone must have thought “hmm beer, monks, and rebuilding. I’ve got it! Lets create the most uninspiring drivel we can think of and make this special fundraiser with one worlds most sought after beers into nothing more than a cliche. Brilliant!*” WTF! There was no thought put into this box. In this case, I know the beer will sell itself, but now it just seems like a silly marketing stunt rather than a worthwhile fundraiser for the abbey. Ok, sure, the idea behind the box is a brick and by buying “bricks” you are helping to rebuild the abbey. Really? That’s the best you could come up with? And the over-used ye olde font and gothic arches? Oh right, they are monks and monks are religious and religion is old. Have you seen the plans for the new buildings? They are modern and sober and there are no effing gothic arches!

In my not so humble opinion they really should have put some more thought into it and designed a package which links to what they are doing, sans cliché. I am not saying that my design (below) is the end all be all of monk-made-beer packaging, but it’s certainly no brick with gothic arches.

(if you want to see the PDF presentation we put together for Colruyt then click here)

Obviously I am biased, but sometimes I look at the state of Belgian Beer labels and graphics and just get pissed off at the level of creativity and care. I guess brewers here just take the nonchalant path and say that it is the beer in the bottle that counts and not the look of the label. True, in an ideal world that’s right, but here on planet Earth we can’t taste the beer through the packaging while we are at the store. The label is all we have to go by. If you see a beer with a beautiful label next to one with a crappy photo and some comic sans text, then you know which beer will be selling fastest (in this case I know the Westies will have no problem selling, but that doesn’t excuse the other 500 belgian beers with sh**ty labels). I also think it gives an impression of how the brewery works. If they care enough to put some time, effort and thought into a nice label then they probably don’t cut corners on the beer behind the label either. Of all countries, Belgium has the most exceptions to this rule. So many good beers get overlooked because their packaging looks like a 10 year old designed it.

Keep up the good work you wonderful Belgian beer label designers*

*read with a shot of sarcasm

Beer in the gutter

gutter_geuzeAlright, I may as well start my ranting: Belgium is a fantastic place for beer. Beer tourists come in the thousands every year to discover the darkest corners of this country. After touring Belgium for a few days and visiting many watering holes that they find in Mr Webb’s book, they leave with this image of a deep rooted beer culture in Belgium, where every local is proud of their small local brewery and serves wonderfully inventive beers with each meal. Celebrations with these beery folk must be something really special!

Well, no. Beer has an very bad reputation with Belgians. They will tell you that Belgium produces the best beer in the world and has many breweries… as they sip on their Juplier, Maes, or Stella. And forget about serving beer with food, “don’t ruin the meal by serving beer! Are you crazy?” Instead a cheap bottle of wine comes out. To most people here, beer is nothing more than a “pintje,” a mass produced lager that is best suited to be served cold, and drunk quickly for fear that you may actually taste it. All those other beers that have color and aroma… those are what their forefathers had to put up with, but now they can afford to import wine, so who needs beer!

Have no fear, the many beer organizations and festivals will come to the rescue! There have been quite a few events in the recent past that have been praised for their helping hand when it comes to getting Belgium’s lesser known breweries into the public eye. Events like the “Internationale Streekbierenfestival” . According to their website they are a small group of beer lovers who wanted to start up an event to promote smaller breweries (both national and international). Huzzah! Lets celebrate! Break open the bottles of bee…. bubbly? Looking through all the press photos and reports on their own site and other blogs it is hard to find a beer. Lots of wine and champagne though. I mean afterall.. they are celebrating the award of the Golden Glass at the Regional Beer Festival so naturally bubbly is in order! The categories for the awards at this event are classic (excuse the literal translations): Best Thirst-quencher, Best Sweet Holder, Best Cautious Sipping Beer, and Best Pronounced Sipping Beer. Huh? The winners were beers like Cuvee de Trolls and Timmermans Kriek. Hmmm, I can go to any supermarket in Belgium and pick those up, and the Timmermans is one of the poorest examples of a lambic possible.  And where is the “International” part by the way? I guess, breweries that are owned by bigger international giants?

Lets look at what else is going on. Ah, here we go. A government sponsored group “Tafelen in Vlaanderen” has their Vlaanderen Lekker Land campaign. The theme for 2009 is “Leven in de Brouwerij” (life in the brewery). They kicked off their campaign recently with a press event. In attendance was a handful of government ministers, brewers, cooks and others. Lets see what was served. Timmermans again!?, this time Timmermans Strawberry. ..And Mystic? They also served Tongerlo, Kaizer Karel and Duvel (Mystic, Tongerlo and Kaizer Karel are all from Haacht who brings us wonderful treats like the grocery store brand 365 pils for Delhaize supermarkets, and who also likes to market many of their beers under 3 or 4 different names). This is what happens when people are actually trying to make a point about how good Belgiums small breweries are? Does this actually help or hurt small breweries?

Now, there are holes in my arguments, but this is a rant.. just let me get it out. Belgium produces a hell of a lot of quality beers, but if it wasn’t for export there would be fewer breweries left here. Belgians are more concerned about being chic and refined than actually embracing something traditionally Belgian… something that has been brewed down the street by skilled and passionate artisans. Artisans who will be going bankrupt soon. Beer has a real strong history here, and it is sad to see it poured into the gutter in favor of boxed wine and Cava. I know there are a lot of passionate beery folk around the country, but we are completely outnumbered, unheard, and laughed at for our silly remarks. I enjoy good wine too and can really appreciate a fine margaux, but come on people, give your real beer a chance!

Please support your small local brewery.