In a culinary landscape that has now become completely drenched in craft beer, you’ll find some fairly strong opinions on the viability of “beer festivals.”
There was a time when I loved beer festivals. Each one I attended as a 21 or 22-year-old in the late 2000s promised a veritable smorgasbord of new options and an exponential expansion of my beer-related knowledge. Quite simply, there was a lot for me to learn, and there were a ton of novice beer geeks right in that same boat alongside me.
Today, though, the “beer geek” segment as a whole has matured somewhat. Sure, there will always be new drinkers just getting into better beer for the first time, but craft beer is now supported by a large, passionate group of regulars, many of whom have now been in this camp for a decade or more. The average beer drinker is much more experienced, and “growing out” of beer festivals has become something that often feels like a rite of passage.
Why? Well, the reasons are numerous. As drinkers experience more of the craft beer market, the number of new brewers and styles available via local distribution understandably decreases. Hardcore beer geeks also become more likely to be on the hunt for rarities, many of which are never represented at smaller festivals. And finally, the desire to consume great amounts of beer at a single festival tends to decrease as well—as does the desire to be in a crowd of strangers drinking great amounts of beer. Drunks, unsurprisingly, can mar any festival.
But what about a “beer festival” where the beer is simply a component of a more important whole? That’s what Nuit Belge represents—a newer style of festival that is increasingly attractive for the more seasoned craft beer enthusiast.
Nuit Belge: “Belgian Night”
Nuit Belge is a new beer festival that was born in Nashville in 2015, and is currently in its second year. It’s centered around Belgian beer styles in particular, and in the pairing of those styles with fine cuisine. At the inaugural Nuit Belge, local restaurants from around Nashville served paired selections to a sold-out crowd of 500 in a synthesis of Belgian tradition and restaurant craftsmanship.
“The point of the event is really to show how elevated food can work with beer—and really, Belgian beers, much like wine, are a natural complement to food in a way that you might not find in a bitter, hop-forward IPA,” said event founder Matthew Leff. “And of course, ‘Belgian beer’ is a very wide category that can include everything from abbey ales to saisons to sour styles.”
After the resounding success of its first year in 2015, Nuit Belge is greatly expanding in 2016 and going on the road. It’s now become a series of four festivals, one per month. The first was in Paste’s hometown of Atlanta in January. The rest are upcoming—New Orleans on Feb. 26, Nashville on March 12 and Charleston on April 16.
I was lucky enough to attend that Atlanta iteration of the festival on a cold winter evening several weeks back. The Atlanta populace, terrified by forecasts of snow and the very real possibility of having to establish a shanty-town on the interstate, generated only a partial attendance, but that was all for the better in terms of the experience for everyone else who had a ticket. It was, in short, one of the best beer festivals I’ve ever attended—just look at the menu, and you’ll understand why.
Just read some of those items. Serrano-braised rabbit empanadas served with a fruity, vinous, tart oud bruin. Arancini filled with smoked brisket, washed down with geuze. White chocolate cranberry ice cream, topped with a splash of St. Bernardus Abt. 12, one of the best quads in the world. These were some serious pairings. Best thing I ate all night? Wafer thin slices of country ham, shaved off a whole pig leg, accompanied by a tart raspberry sour from Atlanta’s own Three Taverns. Telling is the fact that when I asked Leff about his favorite pairings, he responded with entirely different choices.
My god, the ham.
“I’ll say that some of the pairings we’ve had in Atlanta tonight surpass even the ones we had in Nashville last year,” he said. “The highlight for me was from Ba Bellies, that Sichuan peppercorn pork belly. They’re not even open yet, and I can’t wait to eat there when they are.”
The founder’s comments suggest one of the most important elements about Nuit Belge—that ultimately, this festival is just as much about the food. Maybe even more about the food than the beer, although the beer selections are also excellent. Still, I’ve had St. Bernardus before. I’ve never had a waffle with chicken liver mousse before.
“What I love about this event is that the food almost becomes the primary focal point,” Leff said. “You go to a beer festival, and drinking is often the priority. My wife doesn’t really love beer festivals, but she loves Nuit Belge. In Nashville, there were people who bought tickets only to eat and didn’t even drink at all.”
I don’t think I’d ever go that far, but I can at least understand the rationale. The Atlanta iteration of the festival was an ideal balancing act between the dual attractions of beer and cuisine, and it drew an eclectic mix of local beer geeks, industry folks and brewers. It was also fairly distinct from the previous festival, in the sense that the local restaurants specifically represented the terroir of the Atlanta area—something Leff said showed “a wider scope of what’s possible.”
And it only looks to improve from here. It’s little secret that the New Orleans festival on Feb. 26 can probably be expected to feature the most acclaimed food and restaurants of the lot, and it may also feature the most eclectic lineup of rare beers. When interviewing Leff, he dropped huge names: Cantillon, Jester King, Crooked Stave and even Westvleteren. If this guy is pouring Westvleteren 12 at a beer and food-pairing festival, he’d better be ready for hordes of ravenous beer geeks to kick down the doors and trample everyone in their way to get it. I sincerely hope they’re ready for that, if this is the case.
Tickets for the three upcoming Nuit Belge events in New Orleans, Nashville and Charleston are available from the official website. If you have the means and an appreciation for the intersection between craft beer and fine dining, I certainly recommend checking it out.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. You can follow him on Twitter.