A head for quality

Being the brewmaster of Stella Artois across the globe is daunting, but Paul Van de Walle has that zest for perfection. Nigel Huddleston meets him
27 August, 2008
Page 28 
Spend some time with Paul Van de Walle and you'll never look at beer - and specifically lager - in quite the same light again.

"It's the most complex drink in the world," he says, "much more challenging to make than wine.

"Some might say it's just a yellow liquid, but to make a good beer you have to align more than 2,000 natural components, and you are working with liquids, gases and solids.

" It's still a clear solution that looks great. Why would you not want to taste such a liquid?"

Van de Walle is brewmaster for Stella Artois and offshoot brands Artois Bock and Peeterman Artois - a job that's based in the Belgium town of Leuven from which Stella originates, but one that takes him to the four corners of the globe.

Stella has long since stopped being just another beer from Belgium and is now sold in 80 countries - and brewed in 21 of them either by InBev-owned plants or under licence.

The job of the brewmaster has changed from chucking hops into a brewing vessel to overseeing quality control in each of those breweries - with a dollop of brand ambassador work thrown in for good measure.

In 2006, he spent 100 days away from home, and - apart from a week's vacation - the last three months of 2007 are a blur of departure lounges and hotel rooms, as Van de Walle pursues his goal of achieving consistency for Stella in all the markets in which it has a presence.

Taking control

"My job is to ensure the production in those 21 breweries is always of the highest quality," he says. "We have a system to control everything at the same level, whether it's brewed in Belgium, Bulgaria, Russia or the UK - or at Foster's in Australia, Lion Nathan in New Zealand or Quilmes in Argentina.

"We started brewing in South Africa and Chile this year," he adds. "When we go in there's an appraisal process of the brewery and we start a trial which can last from three to six months. The brewery has to prove its performance in five trials."

The job doesn't end there. Each month, samples from every Stella brewery around the world are sent to base at Leuven for examination by the lab and sensory analysis by a tasting panel plucked from the company staff.

These can be recruited from any department - the only qualification being a keen nose and palate. The reward is a half-hour break from your normal job each week to go and taste the beer.

"If you couldn't taste the difference between a coffee in one café and another in a different café, then you wouldn't be sensitive enough to participate even in the training programme."

If a sample doesn't come up to scratch Van de Walle will be off on a troubleshooting mission to that brewery - and in extreme cases a batch could be withdrawn or prevented from reaching the market.

"We have 35 different descriptors, which are rated on a scale from zero to nine, and we build a taste profile on a graph which we compare to the standard. We can see things the normal consumer would not even notice."

What they are supposed to appreciate is that a glass of what is one of the world's top 20 beer brands taste s the same anywhere in the world . And Stella its also trying to ensure it looks pretty much the same.

The Draught Master programme is a competition running in 30 countries - with a world final featuring the winners - designed to encourage bar staff to achieve the perfect serve. This includes ensuring at least a 1cm head and serving in the brands' trademark chalice glass to trap the aromas and flavours inside.

Understanding the process

Van de Walle shoehorns judging these contests in around his core quality control work.

"The glass is designed so that the beer will stay cold for longer compared to a normal glass. In fact, after 10 minutes it will be 23 per cent colder," he says with brewmasterly precision.

Van de Walle describes the perfect nine-step pouring ritual as "the finishing touch on a

high-end brewing concept", but it's the brewing itself that seems to be where the fascination really lies for him.

Van de Walle talks about beer as a food product, based on the fact that it's made from all-natural ingredients. "My father was a farmer and I wanted to stay in food," he says by way of explanation of why he wanted to be a brewer, which he did from an early age.

He adds: "The brewing process is the most interesting of all in food production, both from the point of view of the end product and the technological aspects. To brew you need to understand biology, microbiology and biochemistry. You have to be good with science to be a good brewmaster."

Take hops, for example. If you thought hops were just hops, then think again.

"The hops for Stella Artois are mostly Saaz hops from the Czech Republic and they're known as the most noble hops in the world. It is the only beer which has so many Saaz hops in it. If we were to stop using Saaz a lot of hop growers in the Czech Republic would have huge problems.

"The bitterness from the hops is very complex . Hops generally contain alpha acids which are more harsh and astringent, and beta acids which have a softer bitterness. Saaz is the only hop that has more beta than alpha in the ratio."

Malted barley is bought locally according to global specifications and the water is treated to match the source in Leuven. Each brewery also cultures the original yeast from Leuven which has been used since 1926.

Though he admits a great respect for the Trappist brewer Westmalle, brewing pilsner-style lager is for Van de Walle the highest art in brewing. It's the product that keeps him in a big corporation rather than having a crack at doing it himself as many with his level of experience might want to do.

"I have thought about it," he says, "but I realise there isn't really a lot of interest in doing it. There are a lot of small brewers making

top-fermented speciality beers, but nothing has the complexity of the pils process. To produce top-quality pils requires a lot of investment and it just isn't possible.

"You find a lot of good amateur winemakers making great wine in their garage - but you will not find any amateur brewers making great pils."

Think about that the next time you order a pint of lager.----=== Artois family of beers facts ===  
  • The origins of Artois can be traced to the Den Horen Tavern that brewed beer from 1366. Sebastien Artois was a brewer there who bought it out in 1717
  • Stella Artois was first brewed specially for Christmas , the name a Latin reference to the Christmas star
  • Artois Bock and Peeterman Artois have recently been resurrected: Peeterman was first brewed in 1794 and Bock in 1892
  • Stella Artois is brewed in 21 countries and marketed in more than 80
----  === Van de Walle CV ===2005-2007 Brewmaster for Artois family of beers

1998-2005 Head of technological development for Stella Artois

1990-1998 Head brewer at Leuven

1983-1990 Deputy brewmaster at Leuven

1977-1981 University of Ghent: degree in brewing science

1981-1983 Joins Artois Brewery in Leuven as a lab assistant

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