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Feature

Breandan likes the smaak of Belgian beer

Added: Friday, January 29th 2016

Breandan Kearney

Westmalle Tripel was Breandán Kearney’s downfall...and his upfall. On a visit to Belgium, he downed six bottles of the 9.5% ale brewed by Trappist monks in their monastery near Antwerp and woke to the mother-and-father of all hangovers the next morning.

“But as the headache receded I found I wanted to know more about Belgian beer and how so many wonderful fruity aromas and flavours could be packed into Westmalle Tripel,” he says.

Breandán came late to beer writing but quickly established himself with a fresh voice through the blog Belgian Smaak – smaak is the Dutch for taste – he writes with his partner Elisa Depypere, who is an expert on chocolate.

He moved to Ghent in Belgium in 2013 and has thrown himself full time into writing. As well as Belgian Smaak, he contributes to Belgian Food and Drink and Ferment magazines as well as Beoir back in his native Ireland. He has also found time to study and become an accredited British beer sommelier.

In December his work was celebrated by the British Guild of Beer Writers, which named him Young Beer Writer of the Year and added the crown of overall Beer Writer of the Year.

Breandán was born in Warrenpoint in Ireland. It’s near Newry, on the north side of the border but close to the republic. His early lack of interest in beer is a measure of the ubiquity of Guinness in the whole of Ireland: if stout doesn’t ring your bell, there wasn’t much else to drink when Breandán was growing up – though the beer scene there is now changing fast.

“I studied commercial law in Dublin and worked as a solicitor in Belfast,” he says, “but I had an urge to see the world. In 2009, I got on a plane to Accra in Ghana and from there travelled widely, doing voluntary work.”

In Peru he helped with the reconstruction of the city of Pisco, which had been badly damaged by an earthquake. He met Elisa Depypere there, who was also doing voluntary work. When they returned home they kept up a peripatetic relationship, spending weekends in Belfast and Ghent until Breandán made life easier and cheaper by moving to Belgium in 2013.

“In Belfast, I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer and went to work for the Bushmills whiskey distillery where I ran conducted tours,” he says. “I also developed an interest in the science of fermentation, which helped inform my knowledge and understanding of brewing.”

Breandan Kearney

In Belgium, after his rude initiation at the hands of the monks of Westmalle, he went on a rapid learning curve. He tasted a range of Belgian beers, made copious notes and travelled the country visiting breweries. He learned Flemish and signed up for a beer knowledge course that included styles and tastings and a brewing course that covered ingredients and fermentation.

He launched Belgian Smaak with Elisa, who was also honing her knowledge by becoming an accredited chocolatier. They have rapidly established a reputation as experts on beer and chocolate and they are bringing a fresh approach to the subjects by attracting a young and appreciative audience.

“Beer is a sociable thing,” Breandán says. “While Americans and the British tend to quaff, in Belgium it’s all about flavour and presentation.” He is able to emphasise this aspect of beer drinking with the use of photos on his blog that show Belgian beers in the wide variety of attractive, imaginative and idiosyncratic glassware used by bars and brewers.

He believes the key aspect of Belgian beer is the way which brewers balance malt and hop aroma and flavours, in contrast to the modern American and British tendency to produce “hop forward” beers using pungent American varieties.

But he doesn’t avoid controversy in Belgium. “Some people say contract brewing is destroying ‘the soul of beer’ but I don’t agree. Is the beer good – that’s what matters.” Contract brewing is the widespread system in Belgium of commercial brewers producing “label beers” for retailers and distributors who themselves don’t brew.

Breandàn is also critical of the 22 Belgian family brewers. “Their quality is great but they’re slow to change. If they were more open to new ideas, their beers would be fantastic.”

New ideas and passion for beer and chocolate, underscored by deep knowledge of the subjects, are what drives Breandàn, Elisa and Belgian Smaak. On 5 February the partners were planning a party to celebrate two years since their blog first appeared. The beer will flow but this time Westmalle Tripel will be treated with the respect it deserves.

*Thanks to Visit Flanders