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Those Incredible Belgian Beers
When Americans think of beer, far too many conjure up visions of straw-colored, watered-down, light lagers in a can. Oh, some are familiar with Irish beers like Guinness or British beers such as Bass. But those that think of fizzy beer in a can are often the same folks that wax poetically about oaky Chardonneys, fruity red Zinfandels or complex Boujolaises.
In Belgium, the same respect reserved for wine in most countries, is bestowed on beer.
Did you know...
...No other country can boast as wide an array of distinct beer styles as Belgium?
...No other country brews as many beers with the depth of complexity as Belgium?
... Belgium is only one of two countries where the practice of brewing in monasteries is kept alive? No other country has a beer style (Lambic) so incredibly unique that most people would not even recognize it as beer?
...Belgium, a country no larger than the state of Ohio, is located in central Europe and was divided into 9 provinces in 1980. Flemish is the dominant language of the four northern provinces near The Netherlands, French is the language of the four southern provinces near France, and the middle province, Brabant, is divided between the two languages. Breweries can be found in every province of Belgium.
...King Gambrinus, the legendary "king of beer," is credited with creating the toast. The name is widely believed to be an adulteration of "Jan Primus," Duke Jean I (1251-1295), ruler of regions and cities of what is present day Belgium.
...Belgium has some 60,000 caf╚s, which are the equivalent to British or American pubs. That figure is down from more than 200,000 around the turn of the century. Belgium also stands head and shoulders above other cultures in its sophisticated beer cuisine which extends far beyond the beer brats of Germany or beer-battered fish and chips of England.
...The Belgians seem to have an obsession with morbidity and mortality, thus Belgian beers with names such as Mort Subite (Sudden Death), Lucifer and Duvel (Devil), and Delerium Tremons (Delirious Tremors) are not uncommon.
...While the vast majority of Belgians brew and drink lagers such as pilsner, here we will examine the unique collection of ales and Lambic beers Belgium has shared with the world.
This style of beer is often referred to as a "white beer" or in Belgium "witbier" or "bi╬re blanche." It bears two German counterparts: Bavarian weisse beer, which is soft and light, and Berliner weisse beer, which is lactic and tart. While both the Belgian wit and the Bavarian weisse beers, once threatened with extinction, are enjoying huge revivals especially among the yuppie crowd, Berliner weisse has not seen a popularity revival at similar levels.
Wit beers are, indeed, pale but nearer to yellow than white in color, with a white billowy head and medium body. It is brewed with up to 50 percent unmalted wheat. It is very cloudy with a tangy wheaty-orange flavor that is sure to refresh. The classic wit beer is brewed with Cura┴ao orange peel, coriander and other spices, as well as hops.
The Belgian wits are modeled after Hoegaarden (pronounced Who Garden) Wit, but we Americans are most fortunate to have a modern brewery in Texas brewing world class wit beers. Celis Brewery was founded and is still overseen today by the father of the Belgian wit beer revival, Pierre Celis, who revived the style in Belgium in 1966 and then brought his operation to Texas in 1992.
These beers are usually pale to golden in color with a complexity and delicacy unmatched by other styles. They are light in body often with a champagne sparkle, yet high in alcohol at around 8.5 percent alcohol by volume. It is this style of beer that usually carries the devilish names - perhaps because of their seductiveness. Duvel, the most famous of all, is fermented three times and bottle-conditioned.
There is a wide array of examples of this style of beer which is characterized by high alcohol content, a deep amber to chestnut color, and a full body. A rich, sweet flavor with a warming finish make these great dessert companions or after dinner beers. Some commercial examples available in the United States are Scaldis and Gouden Carolus.
Belgian pale ales are a bit elusive as they are brewed throughout several provinces of Belgium and defy categorization. They span a broad spectrum of characteristics, but generally they share the same attributes as the English pale ales. Still the Belgian version is spicier and more aromatic and more of an amber to copper color than the English or American versions. It has a light to medium body with a well rounded balance, and begins at about 5 percent alcohol by volume. It is well suited for everyday drinking. De Konnick and Speciale Palm are two to look for when traveling outside of the United States.
Flanders Brown Ales
A native son of the town of Oudenaarde in the East Flanders province of Belgium, the most famous of this style is Liefmans. The brewery's basic style is Old Brown (Oud Bruin in Belgium), but once blended with another beer it becomes Goudenband, which is available in the U.S. Goudenband has a light sourness imparted from the yeast, balanced with a light sweetness. When young, the beer presents a distinctly fruity estery palate, but when properly matured it offers a rounder more complex character. It finishes at about 5 percent alcohol by volume.
This style, often referred to as the Burgundy of Belgium, hails from West Flanders. It is a tart, sometimes sour beer, with a distinctive reddish-brown color. On the palate it is light to medium bodied but firm with a wide range of fruitiness and light in hop character. It is brewed with Vienna malts, which in part contribute to the red color of the final product. Rodenbach is, hands down, the quintessential brewer of red ales, and they are available in the United States. Rodenbach brews three versions of the red ale: Rodenbach, (a blend of a younger and older red ale), Rodenbach Grand Cru (the aged version alone), and Alexander Rodenbach (sweetened with cherry essence).
Historically made for drinking during the summer months before refrigeration, Saison now describes beers brewed in artisan breweries of the southern Hainaut province near France. The style offers some tart, citric notes for a crisp flavor and a rocky head. The style is often herbal and robust and holds its own with assertive foods. Two commercial examples available in the States are Moinette and Foret.
It would be unconscionable to discuss Belgian beer without including Lambics. Lambics are often a shock to first timers because they are not what one would expect in a beer. They are a type of aged wheat beer often described in the following terms: sour, tart, musty, barnyard-like, and fruity. It is the use of wild, noncultured yeast that gives this style its distinctive character. Lambic breweries employ spontaneous fermentation (the oldest method of fermentation) initiated from wild yeast in the air. Lambics are made only in a region west of Brussels in the province of Brabant in the Senne River Valley. There are several different styles of Lambic beers including Gueuze (pronounced gurz), which is a blend of young and old Lambics. The brewer's skill at blending often determines the quality of his product. Gueuze has a tart, refreshing palate with a usually dry, bracing finish and a Champagne-like sparkle.
Another version of Lambic is Faro, which is a lambic sweetened with Belgian candi sugar. A weaker version of Faro is Mars, but is not widely available.
Lambics take well to fruit and the most common fruit lambics include kriek, fermented with cherries, and framboise, fermented with raspberries. Other common fruit added to Lambics are peche (peaches) and fraises (strawberries). In spite of the aging of these beers they can be refreshingly and fruit with an inviting complexity of sweet and sour. They are a delightful alternative to wine or as a dessert beer paired with cheese.
A few to look for are: from the Boon Kriek, Framboise, Gueuze, and Faro and Lindemans Kriek, Framboise, and Cuvee Rene Gueuze.
There are only six monasteries in the world that brew beer and all are of the Trappist order. Five are in Belgium and one, called Schaapskooi at the Koningshoevan monastery, is just across the border in The Netherlands. The Belgian Trappist breweries are Orval, Chimay, Westmalle, Rochefort, and Westvleteren. Each of the abbeys have breweries inside of them and only these six breweries are entitled to use the appellation "Trappist Beer" in describing their products. Trappist beers are regarded as among the finest ales in the world. Among the Trappist breweries they produce about 20 beers, and all are fairly strong and bottle-conditioned (Methode Champenoise). A few are dry and hoppy like Orval, but most are sweet. All use yeast strains that impart fruity characteristics as well as spicy aromas and flavors. The designations for strengths of Trappist beers are not exact but generally follow these guidelines: a single is the lowest in alcohol and dark amber to brown in color; the double is higher in alcohol and again dark copper to brown in color; the triple is the strongest in alcohol but is the lightest of the three in color. Some breweries even offer a quadruple. All have medium to full body. Trappist beers widely available in the United States include Orval, Chimay, and from the Schaapskooi brewery, La Trappe.
While only Trappist monasteries have their own on-premise breweries, other orders in Belgium brewed beer in the past. Communities that became abbeys, convents or beguinages (a sisterhood found nearly exclusively in Flanders) now license commercial brewers to make beers bearing their names and they take royalties from the profits. Some of the commercial breweries have no business agreements with any monastery, but simply produce abbey-style ales named after a ruin, shrine or even a local saint. Many of the abbey beers are good, but none are regarded as world class like the Trappist beers. Although abbey ales are not defined by a distinct style, it seems clear that their inspiration comes from monastic brewing. Corsendonk and Affligem are fine examples of abbey ales that are available in this country.
Biere de Gardes
Although this style belongs to Northern France, frequently it is grouped with Belgian beers because it is produced near the Belgian border, it is similar to Belgian beers in its uniqueness, and the rest of France has nothing like it. They have an intense maltiness with what I consider a cookie or toffeeish character balanced by a fruitiness like raisins. They are good for laying down and quite commonly found in corked champagne bottles. There are many biere de gardes available in the States and among my favorites are Castelain and Jade.
One final note, many of the beers I've described are sold in 750 ml. or champagne size bottles with cork, not capped crowns. Also, each brand of beer in Belgium has its own recommended glass in which it should be served to emphasize each beer's qualities, but those glasses aren't often available in this country so serving them in red wine glasses with deep bowls would be the next best alternative.
Happy beer hunting!