If you drink a Tripel Karmeliet, Tilberg, or Urthel, thank Lanny Hoff.
Hoff’s Minneapolis company, Artisanal Imports, is the exclusive importer of those and nine other Belgian beers for the entire United States. The guy knows his Kwak. And, because of his contributions to the craft during his 15-year career, in September the Belgian brewers guild inducted Hoff into the Knighthood of the Brewers Mash Staff.
The affable Sir Lanny’s beer career started at a homebrew shop in Fridley, worked its way through years at a St. Paul liquor distributor, and culminated with his founding of Artisanal. Now, Hoff travels the country promoting and selling Belgian beer, and his work has culminated with a knighthood. It’s an exclusive club.
“They’ve got kind of a guild, called the Chevalier du Fourquet des Brasseurs,” he said. “I’m an honorary knight, which means that I’m not a Belgian brewer. There’s basically two levels: There are Belgian brewers and people who are Belgian and in the beer world, and there are people like me, and my fellow American knights, who are honored for being a part of it.
“There was a total of seven or eight (knighted) Americans this year, which was the most they’ve ever had. I think the number in total in America is still less than 30, maybe even less than 25. It’s relatively exclusive. I’m the one beer knight in Minnesota.”
Maybe, but Hoff’s trade has a lot of competition. What he described as a historically good import market has suffered from the sheer quantity of breweries in Minnesota’s recent craft beer explosion. Beer buyers have a lot to choose from anyway, and with Belgian beers, there are around 800.
Belgium is a country the size of Maryland whose geography has created a hodgepodge of culture. The winemaking of France crosses with the brewing history of Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands, and, using all kinds of ingredients, Belgians create wide-ranging beers that often defy definition. No one can describe Belgian beer in a nutshell and that, Hoff says, is what makes it great.
“The concept of style never really took hold in Belgium like it did elsewhere,” he said. “When you go to Germany or Britain you have really codified styles. There are exceptions of course in both places, but in general, a German brewery is going to make a very similar lineup of beers as the guy down the street. And there are a lot of reasons for that. But that never happened in Belgium. What happened in Belgium was this kind of free-for-all where you combine the culinary aspect of wine with brewing and access to all these ingredients that are coming through. What you get is this perfect storm of creativity.
“So people are making beer that’s uniquely their own beer. A good example of that is one of our breweries, Bosteels, makes three different beers that we sell (Kwak, Tripel Karmeliet, and Deus). They’re not at all alike. There’s no house character whatsoever. They could not be more different. They believe that each beer should stand on its own. It’s a very different approach.”
Different and unable to codify, perhaps, but Belgian brewing is very serious business. Hence the knighthood, which Hoff said took place in Brussels’ 17th-century main square. The brewers get together at their guild house for a beer, then promenade to a cathedral, where the knighting is blessed.
“Everyone who walks into the cathedral gets a little sprig of hops into their lapel,” he said.
“Then there’s the whole service, the singing, the benediction, then we walk back down to the town square into the town hall, which is where they did the knighting ceremony.
“If you know what a mash fork is … it’s an old-school tool that’s used to stir mash in the mash tun, which keeps things moving around. It’s a very distinctive fork; it looks like a pitchfork with the tines enclosed, so it’s kind of a grid on a handle. And there’s this elderly woman who’s one of the grand dames of Belgian brewing … there’s this big, long proclamation that she makes, and you say ‘I will uphold the values of St. Arnoldus,’ who’s the patron saint of Belgian brewers.
“One of his miracles was that he saved thousands of people in a plague. He saved them by saying ‘drink beer, not water’ — not really understanding, but knowing that the water was causing the illness.”
The knighting ceremony takes place during a beer-themed weekend in Brussels, where the brewers throw a festival in the city center and attendees can sample hundreds of Belgian brews. It’s like Oktoberfest for beer lovers.
“One of the benefits of being a knight is, that Friday, for the rest of my life, in that place, I get all the free beer I want,” Hoff said.
Jason Alvey, owner of St. Louis Park specialty beer store The Four Firkins, said it is Hoff’s passion and personality that made him so successful.
“He loves his job,” Alvey said. “We very much enjoy working with him. He’s very humble, down-to-earth, a great storyteller, loves to meet people and talk about beer. It’s very impressive that he got this award.
“I think it says a lot about how dedicated he is to the beer industry. The fact that guild over there in Belgium recognizes his work; I think it says a lot about how hard he works. It truly is his life’s work, his passion.”
As Hoff’s career attests, the art of Belgian beer is not something easily understood. It takes years of research, testing, and experience. For the uninitiated, Hoff advises courage. Don’t be
intimidated by the sheer variety of Belgian beers, get some advice, and dive in.
“Go to a place like the Bulldog, The Muddy Pig, The Happy Gnome, The Blue Nile, talk to the bartender, and try something in the bar. Because that’s where the beers are going to be. And try something, figure it out,” he said. “You get into IPA, you can always take comfort because if it says IPA, you know you’re getting something that has some framework for it. As it should be. But with Belgian beer, you never, ever know what you’re going to get.
“There’s something that I think Americans discount: They think that if a brewery tradition is rich in history, then it’s somehow frozen in time. But nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone in Belgium who makes good beer is trying to make it better. And they’re moving forward all the time. Ingredients get better. The scenery gets better. They understand more and more about the process all the time. They strive for consistency but if it doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world.”