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Belgian consumers shunning traditional beer styles.

AP--Barrels of Brussels' beloved "gueuze" used to roll into the Roy d'Espagne offering tart, acidic beer in heavy glasses to burghers enjoying a magnificent view of the city's historic Grand' Place. But no more.

For lack of sales, the gueuze has been consigned to bottles, and the baroque tavern now does a far brisker business in Kriek Extra--a sweet, cherry-flavored brew which is a distant relative, at best.

"Youth wants sweetness," said Alexandre Herinckx, the Roy d'Espagne's co-owner.

And there is little he can do about if he wants to stay in business. The rise of sweet and decline of bitter is an international trend lamented by connoisseurs across Europe but embraced by major brewers more attuned to turnover than tradition.

A younger generation raised on soft drinks and breezers and the increasing market impact of women with a sweeter tooth are driving the change, analysts say.

The normally bitter pilsener continues to outsell the specialty brands, but sweeter beers are claiming an ever-growing share of the market--almost a tenth at this point--and there are charges that the "pils" brands are getting sweeter too.

It's all a little difficult to quantify--but lovers of bitter are definitely not pleased.

"There has been dumbing down in the taste of beers," said British expert Iain Loe of the European Beer Consumers Union.

At the Roy d'Espagne, gueuze is something of a niche product now. "It is limited to an older clientele," said Herinckx of the drink, whose roots go back to the Middle Ages when it was a favorite of Flemish peasants depicted in Breughel paintings.

Across the Grand' Place, the brewers guild is housed in a classical mansion hugging City Hall, its 17th century origins highlighting the fact that Belgium's vast beer industry is a thing of historic import.

"You can brew the best beer in the world but you have to be able to sell it," said Jan De Brabanter of the guild. "As a brewer you have to adapt."

Two-thirds of beer consumed in Belgium remains the classic, bitter pils, with the country's famed specialty brews making up the rest. It is in that category that the sweet beers are making rapid inroads.

"Over the past four years we have seen sales of sweeter beers shoot up and it comes at the cost of gueuze and bitter beers," said Eric Vandeperre, chairman of the Zythos beer consumer organization.

Adding more sweet specialty brews to the mix is one thing, but recent allegations that the taste of "pils" has gone soft as well has really caused a stir.

The bitter tang of the pilsener is what makes it such a great thirst quencher in summer and a great partner to many Belgian meals. Changing that to many would be sacrilegious, comparable to changing the Coca-Cola formula in the United States.

Yet allegations are flying since the daily "Het Nieuwsblad" came up with the headline "our pils is getting too sweet" early this month. Jan Rumes, vice-chairman of the Belgian beer consumer society Zythos--the Greek word for beer--is adamant. "Systematically, pils is getting sweeter and less bitter," he said. "Its strong character of yesteryear is gone."

After a long career in beer, Herinckx at the Roy d'Espagne agrees. "Over the past ten years we have seen it become a lot milder and sweeter," he said.

Herinckx used to work at Interbrew and its successor company InBev--the world's largest brewer by volume--still has its official seat on the top floors of the Roy d'Espagne. Downstairs, he sells its Stella Artois pils in five volumes, from small glasses of 25 cl, to king size of 75 cl and even by the meter. He stressed his assessment was only an "impression."

InBev insists its Stella is still the same as ever--up to a point. Spokeswoman Lian Verhoeven said the company sticks to the beer's "core character" but admitted that because of brewing and cooling improvements, the brew had indeed undergone "a shift in bitterness" in recent decades.

Diminished in the mainstream market, the acidic and tart specialty brands are slowly moving into the luxury category, from its blue-collar cafes to white-collar trendy bars. One day, the so-called "champagne of the Bruxellois" might fetch champagne prices, too.

The authentic gueuze will be for connoisseurs, a luxury product with a small market," said parliamentarian Sven Gatz.

Either way, most observers believe Belgium will maintain its stunning array of high-quality beers. "No one has any interest in making the taste of beer uniform," said De Brabanter of the beer brewers.
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Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Geographic Code:4EUBL
Date:Oct 4, 2004
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