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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Monday, 7 September 2009

You've lost that Leuven feeling

Just got back from my first trip to Belgium for about three or four years, and my first time at the Brussels beer festival. Trying to sell a piece to the papers about the event itself so I may have to keep my powder dry on that for now, but one or two other observations cropped up on the side.

The first is my former love, Stella Artois. For new readers to this blog, Stella was my intro to the beer world - I worked on it in a marketing capacity ten years ago, when it was a hoppy, characterful pilsner lager with great advertising, a premium brand image, and only a small number of people referring to it as 'wifebeater'. It's responsible for my entire beer career. But times have changed, and about a year ago I was really laying into Stella about the compromises it's made.

Back in the day, people used to insist that "proper Belgian Stella" was far superior to the UK version, brewed under licence by what was then Whitbread. UK Stella is still brewed in the UK, but both it and Belgian Stella are both owned by what is now AB-Inbev, the world's largest brewing conglomerate. It breaks my heart that UK Stella has deteriorated so much, it's joined the very short list of beers that I can't actually drink. I'd have wine if it was the only beer available in a bar. So what about Belgian Stella?

Here's what I wrote about it in Three Sheets to the Wind, on my first ever trip to Belgium in 2004, tasted in a cafe in Leuven, where it's brewed:
I feel a little nervous, like meeting up with a former lover I haven't seen for some time. The beer arrives in a curvaceous, tulip-shaped goblet. It has the most beautiful golden colour, served with a full inch of foamy head. It looks perfect. There's a light aroma suggestive of summer fields, and the taste is perfectly balanced - satisfyingly malty and wonderfully bitter.

In 2009, Stella looks pale and watery, with very little head, which disappears instantly. There's no discernible aroma whatsoever. It tastes thin. It tastes of corn syrup, with a nasty metallic alcohol tint. There is no discernible hop bitterness or character. It tastes like a beer that has been lagered for a mere day, rather than the four weeks it once was, or even the week that's now standard among mass-market, industrially produced lagers. Most distressingly - for what used to be a premium brand - it tastes cheap. In other words, it's no different now from UK Stella.

I don't think it ever was different from UK Stella. In both countries, it used to be good, and has now been stripped, hollowed out.

What I find baffling about this is that AB-Inbev also brew Jupiler. I tried a glass of that and it had a thick, foamy head, a nice hop grassiness and a lovely smooth, creamy mouthfeel. In the UK, where you see Stella on the bar you're likely to also see Becks Vier, because Ab-Inbev brew that too. There aren't many occasions when I'd choose Becks Vier over other beers, but if you drink it side by side with Stella, this 4% lager has more beer character than Stella at 5%. Like all global brewers, AB-Inbev knows perfectly well how to brew great-tasting lagers. It simply chooses not to where Stella is concerned.

I don't think I've ever seen such a wholesale degradation of a perfectly nice beer.

4 comments:

Woolpack Dave said...

Could it be that you've become more discerning? The number of times I've heard over the years that so and so beer is not the same as it used to be. I wonder how much is down to the comparisons available in the market. I think beer is getting better, generally.

After all it was difficult to get hold of American style IPA in the UK at one time. Now people are brewing it in the UK.

You have in the very same book you mention, said that perception of beer has many influences. A beer can taste great in Spain when on a great holiday but tastes crap back home.

So, how much is your perception and how much is real?

I'm not saying the beer is not crap compared to what it was, it's just an added dimension. And of course, just my thoughts.

Pete said...

Hi Dave,

I am very conscious of that, and given that you're actually quoting from my book you are, obviously, right.

This is why I tasted the likes of Jupiler and Maas. I'm liking premium strength lager less and less these days, but on the same day, Stella is now significantly nastier than either its UK or Belgian peers, whereas it used to be streets ahead of many of them.

I am aware of the danger of sounding like an old fart on this topic - but when a beer used to put people off because it was too bitter, for it to now have no bitterness whatsoever is just astonishing.

PivnĂ­ Filosof said...

A myth has been busted.

I'm not surprised about your findings, though.

2004 was the year that the Belgian Interbrew (owner of Stella) merged with the Brazilian AmBev. From then on the Brazilian business model took over: Make beer the cheapest possible way, if quality has to be sacrificed, so be it as long as the regular drinker won't notice it (too much).

Happened everywhere. Here in the Czech Rep. it was Staropramen.

PS: You should make it here to renovate your faith in lagers...

Sid Boggle said...

Stella and Becks are 'brands' and right now, Jupiler isn't. If it ever gets on anybody's radar as an exploitable marque, then expect it to go the way of all other Euro-lager labels owned by the global brewing machine. Sad...