We may be a nation of Eurosceptics politically, but British drinkers are embracing Belgian and German wheat beers and other continental specialties with enthusiasm. Sales of Belgian products such as Hoegaarden, a wheat beer, and Leffe, an abbey pale ale, have soared in the past year at six times the rate of traditional bestsellers including Stella Artois and John Smith bitter.
Cheap European flights and the increasing sophistication of the British palate are behind the rise, experts say. The research analysts AC Nielsen have found that sales of speciality products such as wheat beers rose by 30 per cent last year, and real ales fell by 0.2 per cent. Guinness, other stouts and lagers rose by 5 per cent. The supermarket chain Tesco introduced Hoegaarden to its stores as a trial only in 2003, but sales took off. Sales of Leffe Blonde in Tesco rose by 66 per cent last year, and Hoegaarden increased by 48 per cent. The supermarket has now introduced an own-brand wheat beer to its "Finest" range.
Experts say low-cost flights and cheap weekend breaks to Germany and Belgium have fuelled the explosion in the popularity of wheat beers. Gourmet drinkers are also increasingly ordering speciality beers to drink with meals instead of wine.
Ian Targett, beer buyer at Tesco, said: "There is no doubt that the palate of the average British beer drinker is becoming more discerning. Where once many lager drinkers were not so selective, they now favour brews that are more flavoursome and, dare I say it, sophisticated. Sales now prove that at last, the British drinker is approaching beer with the sophistication normally associated with the wine world."
Mr Targett said Hoegaarden has a "subtle hint of coriander and orange" and is comparable to a dry white wine. Leffe is an abbey beer and is brewed according to strict regulations and the original recipe set down by the monks who created it. It has "hints of quince, gooseberry and bitter cherry together with cloves and nutmeg", Mr Targett said.
But enthusiasts of traditional, English beer said Tesco should be doing more to support home-grown and local ales rather than foreign imports. Iain Loe, research and campaigns manager at the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) said: "Leffe may have a picture of an abbey on the label and people think Hoegaarden is made in a little monastery brewery, but they are both owned by InBev, the world's biggest brewing company. Since it was taken over by InBev, I don't think Hoegaarden is as tasty as it once was. If people really want to taste good Belgian beer, they should try something like Orval or Rochefort, which are brewed at Trappist monasteries by monks." Mr Loe added: "Real ales in Britain are hugely popular. One of the problems is that the big supermarkets don't stock all the different ales. It's fine to stock Belgian wheat beers, but places such as Tesco should also source their beer locally, so stores in Kent sell Kentish beers and stores in the North buy from the Yorkshire breweries. After all, beer is largely water, and it's being shipped all over Europe when it could be sourced locally."
More than half of all beer drunk in the UK is consumed at home. Britons downed 1.5 billion gallons last year, making us the second-heaviest consumers in Europe, after Germany.
A taste of Belgium
A traditional wheat beer, brewed with 30 per cent wheat instead of barley, which gives it the pale colour. Hoegaarden was founded in the 1960s by a Belgian, Pierre Celis, who wanted to revive the lost art of wheat-beer brewing. He has sold the company.
* LEFFE BLONDE
Originally made by 12th-century Norbertine monks at the Abbey Notre Dame de Leffe on the banks of the river Meuse in southern Belgium. With an alcoholic content of 6.6 per cent, it should be served cold at 5C and has a sunny golden colour. Owned by InBev.
Made to an ancient recipe at one of only six monastery breweries legally allowed to call their products Trappist beers (others are Achel, Chimay, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren). Orval has a distinctive, creamy head.Reuse content