T Minus 6 Days – Why Belgian Beer?

I remember my first encounter with Belgian beer.  I was at a bar after a trade show in Atlanta in 1993, and noticed that the beer list included a beer from Belgium.  I made some joke about Belgium being possibly the least interesting country in the world.  But a friend of mine started telling me how he read this article from Esquire about Belgian beer, and that Belgium (not Germany) was considered by many to have the best beer in the world.

At the time, I had been brainwashed (by years of reading Beck’s beer labels) into believing that the Reinheitsebot, also known as the Germany Beer Purity Law of 1516, was the best law ever created by a government.  Considering the current state of world affairs, it very well may be, but that’s beside the point.

I didn’t know which to be more offended by, a suggestion that Belgium brewed better beer that Germany, or that this so called friend of mine was reading Esquire … a magazine that I considered to be a bit too cosmopolitan.

Belgium = Beer Paradise

We ordered the Belgian beer that was on the menu, it was one of those fruit beers. If I remember correctly, it was a cherry beer, Lindeman’s Kriek.  A bit sweet, and in my mind, not a beer.  But my friend persisted, not all Belgian beer is like this.

The next day, when we boarded the plane to go back home, he handed me a copy of the magazine he had been reading.  The article was curiously compelling.  Its author had briefly been to Belgium several years earlier and had tasted a beer named Affligem Tripel.  The experience haunted him.  He had never before tasted a beer like it, and he feared that he would never taste it again.  He plotted ways that he could get himself back to Belgium, or better yet, find an affordable way to bring Affligem Tripel to him in the states.  I wish I could find a copy of that article again, as in many ways it was inspirational in my quest to explore different types of beer.

A few weeks later, my well-read friend passed on an article about the Orval monastery in southwestern Belgium.  This was the first article that introduced me to the tradition of monastic brewing, which was still being practiced at Trappist monasteries in Belgium.  There are five Trappist breweries in Belgium, plus another one just a few miles north of the border in The Netherlands.  The idea of monks brewing beers for hundreds of years was interesting to me.  But even more interesting was the way that the author talked about the Orval beer.  In the words of the author, Orval was a world class beer, one of the best beers in the world, but one of the most interesting things about Orval was that no two batches of the beer tasted quite the same.  It was all top quality, but there were subtle differences that aficionados enjoyed discussing.

The seeming inconsistency perplexed me.  Wasn’t it important that recipes and formulas be followed to the letter to ensure quality?  I later learned that the reason for these differences was less to do with recipe or formula, and more to do with bottle conditioning.  Bottle conditioned beers complete the fermentation process in the bottle, and can develop different characteristics as they age.  Orval is one such complex beer.

We had a trade show coming up the following spring in Hanover Germany.  A rather out of the way location in northern Germany, Hanover was either 3-1/2 hours from Frankfurt or 4 hours from Amsterdam.  We decided that we’d fly in and out of  Amsterdam.

This was my first trip to Europe, and my wife wanted to go to Paris.  So we decided to fly to Paris, spend a few days, then drive to Amsterdam, passing through Belgium.

We paid a visit to the Abbaye d’Orval, and my fascination with Belgian beer slowly turned into an obsession.

The key to understanding the appeal of Belgian beer, is to have an appreciation of variety and individuality.  There is not a single style of Belgian beer.  Instead there are at least a dozen different styles of beer, numerous sub-styles, and many other beers that are too unique to be categorized into an existing style.

Perfection in a Glass

When I think about Belgian beer, the first thing that comes to mind is the Westmalle Tripel.  I talked about Westmalle Tripel in the T Minus 16 post.  Victory’s Golden Monkey is an American interpretation of the Belgian Tripel style of beer that originated with Westmalle Tripel.   Tripels range in color from golden to light amber.  They are relatively strong in alcohol, with a typical range of 8% to 10% ABV.  Tripels are usually bottle conditioned with a yeast sediment.  They tend to have a unique balance of sweetness and bitterness.  Westmalle, in particular has a deceptively smooth and light feel to it, despite having an alcohol content of 9.5% ABV.

If you’re not familiar with Westmalle Tripel, I’d strongly encourage you to try it at the beer festival.  We’ll also have Maresdous Tripel (also known as Maredsous 10) at the festival.  Maredsous is from the brewers of Duvel.  It is a bit stronger than the Westmalle at 10% ABV, and is more amber in color.  Maredsous Tripel has a more pronounced, and very welcome, bitterness and a bit more of an alcohol taste in the finish.

Another Belgian Tripel we’ll be pouring is Tripel Karmeliet.  Tripel Karmeliet is a bit lighter in alcohol at 8.5%, more golden in color similar to the Westmalle, and tends to be a bit sweeter and maltier in its taste.

We’re also expecting a nice selection of Belgian golden and blonde ales.

Wanted: Shoulders to go with this head

Duvel is, of course, the most commercial of these beers.  Golden but extremely pale in color, from appearance it can be easily mistaken for a mainstream lager.  Except that if properly poured, Duvel has one of the most intense foamy heads that you will ever see on a beer.  Duvel is a deceptively strong golden ale (8.5% ABV) with a distinctive yeasty taste with a light hint of fruit balanced against just the right amount of hops.

After World War I, Duvel was originally named Victory Ale.  After an avid drinker described the deceptively strong golden ale as “a real devil of a beer”, the beer eventually took on the name Duvel.

I believe we’ll also have the lower alcohol version of Duvel, known sometimes as Duvel Single or Duvel Green.

Other Belgian golden/blond to be featured at the beer festival include Delirium Tremens (discussed in more detail in the T Minus 13 post), Saxo, Omer, and Affligem Blond.

In a somewhat similar style, we are also expecting one Biere de Garde, a traditional blonde bottle conditioned beer from northeastern France (bordering Belgium).  Traditionally brewed in the fall and winter months, then cellared until the following summer, these farmhouse ales are very similar to the Belgian Saison style.  Both styles are very yeasty and herbal, with Saisons tending to have a bit more hop bitterness.

3 Monts, from France, will be representing the Biere de Garde style.  Representing the Belgian Saison style, we’ll have St. Feuillien Saison from Belgium, and the Sierra Nevada Ovila Saison, a recent American take on the Saison style.  (Ovila was discussed in more detail in the T Minus 14 post.)

This is not a Boilermaker

Skewing to more of an amber color, Belgian Pale Ales tend to be far less hoppier than American Pale Ales, with more of malty taste.  Representing that style, we will have Palm and the American brewed Ommegang Belgian Pale Ale from Duvel’s American subsidiary.

I’m also excited that we have been able to source Hopus for the beer festival, one of my favorite newer beers to come out of Belgium in the past couple of years.  As someone who loves both Belgian beer and IPAs, if I have one criticism about most Belgian beer, it is that there is too much restraint when it comes to hops usage.  I like a variety of different beers, but after a few days in Belgium, I will find myself occasionally craving something with more of a hop bite.  Hopus is an excellent strongly hopped Belgian Pale Ale.

The Original Old Tart

As the color spectrum turns darker, I’m also excited that we’ll have two Flanders Red Ales.  These are unique, full bodied sour ales.   A combination of aged hops, a distinctive yeast, and oak barrel aging results in a delicious sour ale.   First time tasters are often amazed to find out that there is no fruit or other flavoring to produce the sour taste.  To represent this unique Belgian style, we will have Rodenbach and Duchesse de Bourgogne.

As we turn to the even darker ales, we’ve got at least one Dubbel, two Quadrupels, and two other Strong Dark Belgian Ales.

Ommegang Abbey Ale is an American made ale in the style of a Belgian Dubbel, brewed by Duvel’s American subsidiary.  Truth said, even though it is made in America, it’s probably the best Dubbel, slightly besting the Westmalle Dubbel.  Ommegang a rich, earthy and fruity dark ale that is perfect for this time of year.

Just as the Tripel style got its name as somewhat of a marketing gimmick to indicate that it was stronger than a Dubbel, the Quadrupel style’s name is to signify that it is stonger than a Tripel.  While there is some debate over what the stylistic qualities of a Quadrupel are, they are generally dark, malty, sweet, and have extremely high alcohol content (10% to 12% ABV).  Representing this style at the beer festival are La Trappe Quadrupel (from the Koningshoeven Trappist monastery, located a few miles north of the Belgian border in The Netherlands), and St. Bernardus Abt 12.

Additional Strong Dark Belgian Ales to be on offer at the beer festival include Nostradamus and Delirium Nocturnum.

As if that weren’t enough, there is one other major Belgian category that I’ve yet to discuss, fruit beers and Lambic/Gueuze.

Roll out the barrel (of gueuze)

Unlike conventional ales and lagers, which are fermented by carefully cultivated strains of brewer’s yeasts, Lambic beer is produced by spontaneous fermentation.  It is exposed to the wild yeasts and bacteria that are said to be native to the Senne valley of Belgium. It is this unusual process which gives the beer its distinctive flavour: dry, vinous, and cidery, usually with a sour aftertaste.  Like with the Flanders Red Ales, aged hops also contribute to the sour taste.

Lambic ale is usually used as the basis for Belgian fruit beers.  While we’d love to offer more, at this point, it looks like the only Belgian lambic fruit beer that we will have on offer is Floris Apple.

Gueuze is a blending of multiple vintages of lambic.  An older and younger lambic are blended and undergo a secondary fermentation process to produce a drier, more sour, and highly carbonated (Champagne like) beer.  Traditional Gueuze is extremely sour and often has a sour apple type of taste.  While some consider the taste to be an acquired one, even those who do not like the taste are amazed that this beer is brewed with only the four standard beer ingredients:  water, malt, yeast and hops.  You owe it to yourself to try the Oud Beersel Oud Gueuze.

I love writing and talking about beer … but I’d rather be tasting it … less than a week to go now until Saturday, November 5.

A British Git Drinking Belgian Wit

P.S. – In all of my excitement, I completely forgot to mention Belgian Witbier.  We talked about this beer style in yesterday’s T Minus 7 post.  Wit is Dutch/Flemish for white, and refers to a refreshing style of wheat beer that is popular in Belgium.  Wit beers are typically cloudy and pale in color, with hints of fruit flavors, such as lemon or orange and coriander.  Hoegaarden is the archetypal Witbier from Belgium, being considered the original Witbier.  Even thought Hoegaarden was only first brewed in 1966, at that time, all previous witbiers had ceased production, and Hoegaarden led a rebirth of that particular style of beer.  We’ll also be pouring several American interpretations of the Belgian Witbier style, including Cisco’s The Grey LadyHarpoon UFO WhiteAvery White Rascal, and Westbrook White Thai.  Avery White Rascal has somewhat mixed reviews on Beer Advocate, but it is one of my favorites in the style.  I’m looking forward to Westbrook White Thai which takes a different approach on the spices, opting for lemongrass, ginger and Sorachi Ace hops.

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