Last month, Hackney’s Oval Space was the setting for the UK’s first Belgian beer festival. Ales Tales ran between the 21st and 22nd July, assembling 20 Belgian breweries in one place to bring a taste of the country’s prosperous beer culture to East London.
Over 60 beers were on offer across the two days from a line-up of breweries that included both globally renowned and relatively unknown names, giving Londoners the opportunity to experience a range of traditional and modern styles. Belgium has a rich beer history that can be traced back to the 12th century. Today, it's often associated with Trappist styles brewed in monasteries, abbey beers and small scale, family-run operations. There are approximately 180 breweries in the country and Belgian beer was designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2016.
Oval Space has been used previously for the London Craft Beer Festival, but it's more suited to a smaller scale event like this, offering ample space for communal tables and easy access to the outdoor area (with its fantastic view of the picturesque Bethnal Green gasholders). Decorated with Belgian themed tricoloured bunting and minimalist stalls cobbled together from wooden pallets, the atmosphere at Ales Tales was breezy and relaxed. Most stalls were serving four beers with the size of the pour dedicated by tokens – one token cost £1.50 and would get you a 10cl tasting. This was perfect for those audacious drinkers who wanted to sample one of everything, especially those higher ABV beers.
Cheery representatives from every brewery were posed to describe the beer and give a history of the brewery and style; they were also quick to make a recommendation and send drinkers to another stall. We made a beeline to Brasserie de la Senne, where the Taras Boulba, a noble hop session beer, started us off. After working through their four options – which also included Zinnebir, a Belgian pale ale, Brusselier, a zwet IPA and Bruxellensis, a brett beer – we perused the descriptions helpfully provided in our festival guide to formulate a plan of attack.
The Pamplemousse fruit beer from Bertinchamps was intensely sweet and sharp, proving very drinkable on a humid evening. Hof Ten Dormaal’s kriek was outstanding, giving off hints of wood and tart cherries with vague flavours of almond.The Ardenne Stout, an imperial stout from Brasserie de Bastogne, was a robust beer with ample hits of chocolate and roasted malts with asmoky finish.
The best blond we sampled was attributed to Monsieur Rock, beer currently being brewed in the UK at Meantime Brewing Company under the supervision of Jean-Marie Rock, formerly an Orval Brewery brewmaster. It was crisp and dazzling with a smooth body that made it pleasantly sessionable (even at 6.6%).
To complement the flowing beers was a selection of Belgian treats, including cheese, croquettes and boulettes (meatballs). On the outside terrace, chefs were serving up more substantial fare with chips in cones, just like you’d find in a Belgium friterie. The staff were polite and helpful - even when card machines struggled to take payments, they remained in high spirits and were apologetic.
Ales Tales drew in the crowds in spite of its £9 entrance fee, demonstrating that there's an appetite for yet another beer festival in the capital. This taste of Belgium was warmly received and the size and set-up of the festival made it feel intimate and manageable, a nice contrast to the capital's larger scale annual craft beer festivals.
Oh- and those keen on making the most of their time at the festival could splash out on the Complete Belgian Experience, a £40 ticket that included unlimited beer and a Belgian snack. This might be the way to go if you're a Belgian beer afficiendo.
I was invited to Ales Tales as a guest, but purchased my own drinks.