For de Baets, the co-owner of the tiny Brussels-based Brasserie de la Senne, and Cilurzo, now brewing at Russian River in northern California, a good, bitter profile is an important part of a complex beer. But, for de Baets, the loss of hoppy Belgian beer was a “catastrophe” and a loss of culture. And though he blames big mainstream brewers for “domesticating” beer drinkers’ palates, he’s equally dismissive of Belgian beers that are too strong, too spicy, too sweet and under-hopped.
“We want to fight against the standardization of Belgian beer,” says de Baets. “We hate it when it’s strong, sweet, spicy, fruity. For me, that’s not a Belgian beer―it’s some marketing stuff. This has no real background in the history of Belgian beer; it’s something very recent.”
“When I talk to an old brewer, he complains that the bitterness level has been lowered since the 60s. If you talk to de Ranke [another small, new brewery] and other breweries, they’ll tell you they started brewing because everybody else stopped using hops. At some point, we couldn’t find bitterness in beer anymore.”
He traces a taste for bitterness to nothing less than the origins of humanity, and our evolutionary separation from other animals. He notes that “in nature you have animal-like tastes for sweetness and fattiness, because in nature when an animal faces sweetness or fattiness, they know it contains energy they need to survive, and they also know that what they have in front of them is safe.” Animals also avoid bitter and sour flavors, which could signal poison compounds in plants.
However, de Baets continues, human culture has allowed us to learn to appreciate bitterness and sourness, and even find them a source of health and pleasure. Hence, one important division between humans and other animals is a culturally-acquired ability to enjoy complex bitter and sour flavors.
But he fears that the industrial food and beverage empire tempts us through our baser tendencies. “The agro-food business treats us like animals. They know how powerful instincts are, they know by adding sugar and fat, it will work. And it worked. And in 60 years, they succeeded in destroying the human culture of taste.”