A Louisville Restaurant Forum reader asked: “Not a big fan of Belgian beers, Roger. But when a bartender recommended Stella Artois, I tried it found it to be a decent beer. Are my beer-snob credentials at risk?”
Here is an expanded answer.
You’re not at risk yet, but preventative education always is merited.
Just as a pound of ground chuck from Kroger somewhat vaguely hints at the many possibilities inherent in the concept of beef, so Stella Artois at least makes us aware of a country, Belgium, with so much more to offer in terms of the glories of beer.
By way of illustration, my favorite beer cafe in Brugge, ‘t Brugs Beertje, does not offer Belgium’s biggest selling beers -- Stella Artois, Jupiler, or Maes Pils -- because they’re pilsners, and as such, representative of a style that originated in the Czech lands and Germany. Quite simply, when it comes to Belgium's considerable native brewing heritage, pilsners aren’t a factor worthy of consideration.
Stella Artois is a gentle, soft, inexpensively brewed mass-market pilsner variant, and it is seen everywhere in Belgium, primarily because it is brewed and marketed by a monolithic corporation that has done every bit as much to bastardize that country’s brewing culture as Anheuser-Busch has in this one.
Admittedly, such largely flavorless lagers account for something like 70% of domestic sales in Belgium, where there are hundreds of traditionally conceived and craft brewed alternatives. In America, of course, the market share of industrial lager is even higher.
So, is Stella Artois a "bad" beer?
No, it probably isn’t, at least if we’re confined to discussing the beer itself and not the contemporary factors that have contributed to its lofty sales position. It's a mild, golden lager complete with alcohol, and competently rendered for the genre.
Is Stella Artois remotely indicative of the diverse Belgian brewing heritage?
No, emphatically, and yet that's how it is marketed within Belgium and around the world, with the sad result that many tourists come away with an extremely misshapen impression of what Belgian beer is all about, to return home to America and locally uninformed bartenders who recommend it on the basis of Belgian beer’s great reputation.
Conversely, there’s Duvel, an ale that truly reflects an important aspect of Belgium’s brewers: Their adaptability.
Duvel is made with pilsner malt and imported hops, and looks rather like a pilsner at first glance, but there’s more than meets the eye. It is top-fermented at a higher gravity, resulting in a clean, crisp and unique classic that isn't that far removed from what pilsner drinkers are accustomed to drinking, but adds Belgian ale-making flair to the finished product.
From the easy jumping-off point of Duvel, Belgian brewing expertise extends in all directions, and the further from Stella Artois one travels, the more absorbing and delightful it gets in terms of flavor profiles, textures, methods … and sheer enjoyment.
By the way, I’ve been told that draft Stella Artois has become available in the state of Indiana.
Don’t look for it at Rich O’s.