(Re)Considering Duvel

I am no apologist for the now-number two Belgian brewer, Duvel Moortgaat.  (Number one is, of course, Anheuser-Busch InBev, also the world’s largest brewing company.) The brewery has grown considerably over the past several years and is now publicly traded, which for some growing breweries has proved detrimental. Not all of this growth has been kind to the beers they oversee — my last experience with Liefmans was truly lamentable — but some of it has been overwhelmingly positive, as with the improvements in the Chouffe line and the purchase of De Koninck, which almost certainly saved the Antwerp brewery from eventual closure.

(I should mention that while one-quarter of Duvel Moortgat is indeed in play on the market, three-quarters of the company ownership still rests with the Moortgat family, who insist they have no interest in selling.)

What I am and remain, however, is a fan of the beer, Duvel. While I have experienced some issues with it over the past few years — its bottle-fermentation seemed notably less aggressive for a while, to cite one example — the last several bottles I have enjoyed have all been, well, thoroughly enjopyable.

Which is why I had to laugh at the following lines from this Wall Street Journal story:

At the Delirium, Brussels’s biggest and best-known beer bar, barmen say that on most nights, Duvel is among its 10 top selling beers. And pricing power is apparent. A glass costs €3.35, compared with €2 for a draft lager. “They’re very good at marketing, and tourists recognize it from all the signs they have up around Brussels,” says Thibault Cordonnier, a bartender at the Delirium. “Also, people like the name, Devil. We have another beer, called Lucifer, that sells very well.”

To be sure, the enthusiasm is not totally unanimous. “If somebody asks us for a recommendation, we’ll suggest something from a smaller, more artisanal brewer,” says Mr. Cordonnier. “The barmen here, who are all experts, don’t really drink Duvel anymore. We think it’s only slightly better than a Stella Artois.” Stella Artois is one of Anheuser’s top-selling beers in the world.

Forget the extraordinary cheek of comparing Duvel to Stella, of all things, a beer about which I made my feelings known over here. How about the hypocrisy of a bartender at a bar named for one of Duvel’s many imitators slagging a brand that is unquestionably superior to the bar’s namesake pretender? And I say this as an admirer of Delirium Tremens, which I have always maintained is better than its kitschy bottle and glass would have you expect.

(Then there’s the notion that the bartenders at the Delirium Cafe would recommend anything, which to my several experiences has certainly never been the case. On my last visit, I watched as three bartenders ignored a middle aged couple desperately trying to decipher the beer menu, even though the gentleman had all but pleaded for some direction. Less helpful or “expert” bartenders I have rarely witnessed.)

To me, this is just another case of a brewery being deemed “bad” simply because it had the audacity to grow. It’s one of the more troublesome paradoxes of craft beer today.

14 Replies to “(Re)Considering Duvel”

  1. Totally agree. It seems like nearly a weekly event these days, that I have to come to the defence of Creemore. Just because they have big distribution and a much larger marketing budget, doesn’t mean the beer isn’t good. I still love opening a magnum of Duvel from time to time; and it’s still a lovely treat. It looks like hipster-ism has even penetrated the Delirium. Small/unknown=cool big=bad, taste be damned.

  2. Stephen – Have you been to the Delerium Hoppy Loft? IMHO it makes the lower bars at Delerium a complete waste of time (e.g. smokey, surly, beer lists not up to date) while the upstairs was a delight! (e.g. smoke free, great service).

    1. I tried the last time I was in Brussels, Jeremy, but it wasn’t open that night. I’ve heard it’s much better than the others, but with such great bars elsewhere in the capital, I can only think, “Why bother?” It’s not as if I haven’t given that organization every opportunity to redeem themselves…

  3. Duvel has a 50% stake at the Czech brewery Bernard, in Humpolec. I visited it last year and spoke to Mr. Bernard himself (quite a bloke). Nowhere in the brewery (offices included) was there any sign of any of the barnds that Duvel owns and the impression I was left with was that Mr. Bernard and the Head Brewer are the ones running the show here and doing things pretty much the way they want. Only at the brewery’s shop they were selling Duvel (and maybe another one), but that was just about it. I’m not a fan of the beer itself, but I have quite some respect for the company that makes it.

  4. Ditto about the Delirium bar. Here’s a warning: Don’t go at midnight unless you’re in your 20s and beer doesn’t matter.

  5. You identify the fascinating phenomenon of proximity and appreciation. When a brewery is small, locals tend to be attracted to it for its localness; those more distant are less attracted because they’ve never heard of it. If a brewery grows to a certain size, the relationship often flips. The bartender in the article has a bias born of familiarity. In the US, Duvel remains one of the most respected Belgian beers. It does not seem like a titan to us, and we notice only what’s in the glass.

    Incidentally, what’s the story on Liefmanns? Ever since they were acquired by Moortgat, I’ve wondered what was happening on the ground. Any info?

  6. I drink Duvel regularly and have noticed no change in the beer in the past 10 or more years. Perhaps some bottles suffer more from mishandling when they are exported across the ocean.

    Industrial breweries, like the one mentioned in the post, traditionally buy breweries and cheapen their products. Moortgat has done no such thing with any of the breweries it bought. As far as Liefmans, I suspect the damage was done by Riva, their previous owners.

    I remain very happy with Moortgat and their products and both hope and expect to for a long time.

  7. To me Duvel is essentially as it always was. I have much less experience with Liefmans, so I cannot say.

    I always think of Pilsner Urquell as as proof a very large concern can make a great product. I am aware that some technical aspects of its production have changed over the years. But I’ve been drinking it since the 1970’s and think it’s still a great beer, especially in the can where all considerations of light penetration can be swept aside. It was great on draft in Prague when I had it there last year, but is a fine export too.

    Gary

  8. I’ve only been to Delirium once, and the downstairs was packed, noisy and almost impossible to get a seat. I guess it’s become a victim of it’s own success – there’s just so much on offer, and it’s so busy, that you take a punt on a beer that takes your fancy, and hope they have it.

    On the flipside, the Hoppy Loft was completely deserted apart from a barman and two very happy 60-something Americans, quietly working their way through the menu – and no doubt marvelling at the comprehensive table service they were receiving! The barman even took a photo of them behind the bar, pretending to pull beers…

    We actually ended up on the middle floor, a mix of both – very different – drinking experiences…

  9. For my taste, Duvel is justthe same as it ecer was, great. Stella, the same too, s**t. As for the bar you mentioned in Brussels, same bad experience except my was on a Saturday afternoon, when the outside wasnt crowded at all, yet the servers wouldnt see us…

  10. Some answers to Q’s about Leifmans.

    Liefmans Goudenband. 8%. Unchanged. Aged and blended. Avail in US. 750 ml and draft.

    Liefmans Oud Bruin: 5%. Also unchanged. Open fermentation, aged 6-8 months. Coming to US in keg only in Sept.

    Liefmans Fruitesse. 4.3%. Very fruity. Sweet. Aged on cherries for 18 months. It has been a huge hit, served on the rocks in Europe. Avail in US on draft, in 750 and 11.2 oz.

    Liefmans Cuvee Brut: 6%. Matured on cherries. Certainly drier and more complex than Fruitesse, but the tartness is still paired with sweetness. Avail in US on draft, in 750 and 11.2 oz.

    On the sweetness of Fruitesse: This beer, on the rocks, has been a huge hit in Europe with the cafe crowd and has arguably kept Liefmans in business while Duvel has been investing heavily to bring the entire brewery back to life and profitability.

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