What do non-cyclists think of when they think about Belgium? A small country with two languages? The football resurgence? Plastic Bertrand? Chocolates? The EU institutions? Right now the country is in the news for the wrong reasons thanks to some murderous losers, hopefully an aberration.
As the Dwars Door Vlaanderen shows the racing goes on. Indeed for the cyclist Belgium rhymes with the one day classics and cobbled climbs where the often bleak landscapes are the field for sporting contests. No other country in the world celebrates cycling as much, it is a genuine national sport here. Another area where Belgium is world class is brewing, whether thanks to AB InBev – the giant company with its HQ in Leuven that claims to brew a quarter of the world’s beer – or all myriad of microbreweries and monasteries that produce such a variety of beer. One newcomer to the market is Kwaremont, a brand that’s directly exploiting cycling’s heritage and demographics.
Tasting notes: it’s got fizz and the moment you pop the top the beer tries to escape like a Topsport Vlaanderen rider at KM0 in the Ronde. It pours into the glass with almost as much froth as a Velon press release and reveals an amber tone that’s almost as orange as the CCC jersey but there’s a slight murkiness in the glass, as if a touch of mud from a cobbled lane has dropped in there.
On the nose there’s a cereal note, it smells like a bowl of cornflakes sprinkled with sugar tastes. The first taste is a touch underwhelming, watery and sweet, again with that breakfast bowl aroma. But a sip or two more seems to reveal more fruit and satisfaction and if it’s light then it’s quite drinkable and would go well with food, perhaps some Flandrien cheese. The longer it is left in the glass the more notes of malt appear. The 6.6% alcohol ensures a longer finish than a headwind sprint into Oudenaarde.
Marketing Triumph: overall it’s very drinkable and fun thanks to the cycling association. In a country with over a thousand beers there are probably better beers but given this diversity it’s a matter of taste, anyone claiming to know The Best Belgian Beer is either a liar or bossily imposing their taste on others. Even if you tried to taste them all by the time you’d done it you’d find different beers suit different moments.
The branding is surely the reason why you’re drinking it. It’s called Kwaremont, sharing the name of the cobbled climb, the Oude Kwaremont, that features in many Flemish races. The climb is notable for its length, some 2.2km and not as steep as others but it is often decisive. Only it’s a marketing ruse because ride up the climb and you might see the stables next to the road but there’s no sign of a brewery. That’s because it’s brewed in Bavikhove, next to Harelbeke, and about 25km from the Oude Kwaremont.
It’s here that Kwaremont makes perfect promotional sense. Beer is a crowded market anywhere in the world and perhaps no more so than in Belgium where 1,150 different beers are brewed, all in small a country of 11 million people. So how do you make a new product stand out? Cycling is very popular in Belgium and the races attract excellent audiences on television. But it’s still accessible for sponsors, this is not football or Formula 1. So poach an iconic name for your beer that’s not trademarked – like Kwaremont – and off you go.
Kwaremont beer was launched in 2010 and had a cycling link in its branding but it was gentle, see Dutch wikipedia for the image of the older branding. In the last two years this has been ratcheted up with the direct link to racing rather than the landscape. The beer revels in cycling’s mythology and exploits cultural symbols. The alcohol content on the front is displayed in a warning triangle, like the roadsign that states the gradient ahead and the label says it’s gebrouwen vor kopmannen, “brewed for leaders”. In a land with over a thousand beers appealing to the cycling demographic is an obvious way to get noticed.
Good or bad? When Zdeněk Štybar won a stage in Tirreno-Adriatico the other day he made the ritual champagne-style celebration. But he didn’t take a sip, such was his focus on upcoming races. Not that everyone in the peloton is so spartan or perhaps it’s just that Štybar prefers a plzeňské, a pils instead? There is still a section of the bunch that likes a beer after a race, all of course in moderation, at least during the season. For example it’s said that Alexis Gougeard likes a bière and there’s little wrong with it given it’s got some energy and is a source of silicon. Then again so is a banana. IAM Cycling even have a sponsor with Velosophe beer, a brand of craft beer from Switzerland that’s got added minerals and vitamins for recovery. Proost, santé, cheers!