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.