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Belgium: Mecca of Specialty Beers, Part One

by Paul Etcheverry
As the tantalizing aroma of Cascade hops wafts seductively toward awaiting nostrils and irresistible suds approach a salavating palate, the thought "just what is the beer capital of the world?" comes to mind. One candidate would be the gargantuan beer-halls of Bavaria, conjuring that stereotypical image of beefy hands brandishing three liter steins, swinging semi-rhythmically to the rousing refrain of a mens' choir singing German drinking songs. Another: English cask-conditioned bitter, dispensed cheerfully by a ruddy-faced bartender. Equally promising: A black Irish stout so thick you can politely excuse yourself, buy dinner, dessert and a newspaper and casually return to your barstool before the pubmeister has finished pouring. And, without a doubt, one would be remiss to forget Czechoslovakia's incomparable pilsners or the smooth dark lagers of Denmark. While all of these are superb choices for travel and brew, the answer to the 64 billion dollar question, "What is the ultimate place for the adventurous alephile?" is Belgium - described in one gustatory website as "Beer Paradise."

It isn't just that Belgium boasts some of the liveliest, most picturesque and pastoral places to sample their regional specialties. Or how it embraces such a dizzying variety that it seems practically every city block has a brewery, each one offering a totally distinctive style of ale. Or even that each beer-style is regarded seriously enough to merit its own type of glassware. A quote from the Belgian Beer Homepage aptly sums it up: "I wish my fellow countrymen would stop inventing new beers all the time. . . This list currently contains 679 entries".

To say that Belgium has spawned remarkable, exotic and wholly original beers unlike those encountered elsewhere in the world is something of an understatement. You rarely find the kinds of aromas and flavors associated with even rich, complex lagers and ales. The "Cascade hop" rush of North American pale ales, the chocolate/coffee/dark roasted barley tones of porter, the toasted malt or butterscotch tones in amber and dark lagers. . . well, if you notice any of these in a Belgian lambic, witbier, red ale or oud bruin, they are likely to be merely subtle background elements in assertively vinous and at times startling flavor profiles. These traditional Belgian styles recall not necessarily other European ales, but rather the intriguing sensations produced by world-class red wines, cheeses, raitas or yogurts.

Part of the fascination with Belgian beers lies with their unusual character - vinegary, earthy, spicy, salty, peppery, toasty, sweet or sour - and even more provocative ingredients. These include raw wheat, oats, ground coriander seeds, orange peels, black pepper, light and dark candy sugar, white grapes, peaches, black currants, raspberries, strawberries, cherries and star anise. The creative use of such ingredients offers just one reason for the incredible range of Belgian beers, from a summertime "Biere Blanche" as pale and lemony as a Berliner Weisse, to the most staggeringly complex and intense Trappist ales.

Even more remarkable: Their brewing techniques, which encompass ancient albeit radical approaches. Double and triple fermentations prove a staple of Belgian brewing. "Old" and "young" vintages of the same beer are blended. Live yeast sediment is added at bottling to allow the product to continue to mature and evolve. Some beers utilize multiple strains of yeast at different stages. And an entire family of wheat beers from southwest of Brussels employs an unorthodox technique virtually unheard of elsewhere in the world (and anathema to everyone from commercial lager plants to the homebrewer attempting to create an acceptable pale ale): fermentation using wild yeasts, as opposed to cultured yeasts.

Lambics, specifically from Schepdaal, Lembeek, and Beersel, all employ this "spontaneous fermentation" that precedes modern brewing methodology. Instead of protecting the beer from wild yeasts, lambic producers give an open house for as many as a dozen different micro-organisms (including Brittanomyces Lambicus and Brittanomyces Bruxullensis). Living in open fermenters, the young beer might as well hold up a sign that says, "Hey, you wild yeasts, come on down!" Lambics are fermented by these wild yeasts residing in the air and walls of centuries-old breweries, then aged in wood for up to three years. Combined with the use of raw wheat, this gives the variants of lambic - Kriek, Framboise, Peche, Cassis, Gueuze and Faro - a pleasant sourness that can be musty or cheesy, citric or fruity in character.

The description "fruity" is, in this case, quite literal, as many lambics are fortified with fruit during the aging process. To induce a second fermentation, Kriek uses black cherries, Framboise employs raspberries, Peche utilizes peaches and Cassis uses black currants. Another traditional lambic style known as gueuze (pronounced "girs") mixes beers of different vintages to spark further fermentation. Faro, a lambic refermented and sweetened with cane sugar, is clearly visible (printed on humongous beer barrels) in the paintings of Bruegel.

Belgian Beer Bottles

The description "fruity" is, in this case, quite literal, as many lambics are fortified with fruit during the aging process. To induce a second fermentation, Kriek uses black cherries, Framboise employs raspberries, Peche utilizes peaches and Cassis uses black currants. Another traditional lambic style known as gueuze (pronounced "girs") mixes beers of different vintages to spark further fermentation. Faro, a lambic refermented and sweetened with cane sugar, is clearly visible (printed on humongous beer barrels) in the paintings of Bruegel.

Further entries in this pantheon of ales, as sharp, tart and acidic as a Manhattan cabaret entertainer, hail from Flanders. Exemplifying the "red ales" of West Flanders is Roeselare's Rodenbach brewery. Between developing braille languages and shaking up regional politics, Alexander Rodenbach founded this world-class brewery. The three Rodenbach beers share a red wine vinegar and oak character, with an underpinning of toasted barley malt tones, and are remarkably flavorful for beers that weigh in at just 5% alcohol by volume. One, Rodenbach Alexander, is sweetened with cherry extract. Rodenbach's Grand Cru, blending young and aged vintages, offers layers of oak and Vienna malt and oak flavors within a vinous exterior. From Oudenaarde in East Flanders comes the brown ale known as "Oud Bruin" (the same term used in Holland for malty dark lagers). Available in different alcohol strengths (up to 8%), these combine the caramely tones of crystal malts with a lactic Flemish style, marginally less sour than the red ales. Best known among brown ale producers is Liefmans, for many years led by brewing legend Madame Rose Blancquaert-Merckx and currently renovated and run by the Riva brewing group, the Leifmans brewery dates back to the seventeenth century.

From Hoegaarden, east of Brussels, comes another style of wheat beer: the cloudy, very pale gold top-fermented ale known as Witbier. This is a spritzy, unfiltered Belgian counterpart to Germany's Hefe Weizen and Berliner Weisse. The stately "Bière Blanche" possesses a citric coriander character for a good reason - it's brewed with coriander seed and dried curacao orange peel. Instead of the lactic sourness you find in lambics, red and brown ales, witbiers offer a lemony wheat taste which gives way to a sweeter profile with bottle aging. They make an excellent accompaniment to all kinds of fruit salads and light desserts.

As fate would have it, the Belgian brewmaster extraordinaire who did much to bring the classic white beer back to prominence now makes quintessential witbiers in Austin, deep in the heart of Texas. Pierre Celis' world-class brews are preeminent among a host of microbrews throughout North America which, directly or indirectly, reflect the Belgian mystique. Whether in the land of Bruegel or BBQ, witbier remains one of the planet's ultimate summertime brews.

Another frothy summer brew, known as Saison, is the specialty of country breweries from French-speaking Belgium. While surprisingly hefty for a hot weather quaffable (5.5 to 6.5% alcohol), Saison remains a summertime tradition. This tawny and flavorful yet curiously refreshing style is a close cousin to the bières de garde of France. Both are well-hopped, range from amber-orange to copper and revel in the complex interplay of spicy, winey, sweet and sour flavors. Unlike the French brews, some Belgian saisons also include spices (ginger, black pepper, star anise) in their recipes. Besides, the bières de garde do not all necessarily possess the characteristic Belgian sourness; some (for example, the mouthcoating Septante Five) can be almost as sweet as a barleywine style ale. The style is quite literally produced by farmhouse breweries, some in the province of Hainaut: Brasserie à Vapeur, Dupont, Lefèbvre and Silly (not a joke, but the name of this brewery's hometown).

Even the Belgian efforts at more standard Euro-style ales prove quite distinctive. Arguably, the most famous among them remains Breendonk's Duvel Ale, from the Moortgat brewery. It is, in the immortal words of Red Skelton "smooooooooooooth." A "blonde ale," Duvel has a light gold hue, darker than a witbier but not as golden as a Pilsner Urquell. It shares with the legendary pilsner a healthy dose of Czechoslovakia's aromatic Saaz hops and an indescribable finesse. Duvel combines some of the lemony attributes of witbier with a creamy head, a delicious hop character, and a deceptive potency at over 8% alcohol by volume.

Palm and DeKonnick ales apply their own very original spins on the style of the yeasty, well-hopped amber ale.

Belgium's dark ales, as one might expect, don't taste like a semi-inspired variation on Guinness. From the herbal McChouffe and Pauwel Kwak beers to the extra dark Oerbier to salty Gouden Carolus to a smoky barleywine style ale known as Bush Beer, these are all boldly assertive and unusual products.

All of the above are but a prelude to the world-class Trappist ales of Belgium's five monastic breweries, which we will discuss in Part II.

Boon Faro
Boon Kriek
Boon Marriage Parfait
Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus
Chapeau Faro
Chapeau Framboise
Chapeau Mirabelle
Chapeau Peche
Chapeau Tropical
Gueuze Girardin
Hanssens Gueuze
Hanssens Kriek
Jacobins Kriek
Jacobins Framboise
Liefmans Frambozen
Liefmans Kriek
Lindemans Gueuze
Lindemans Gueuze
Lindemans Kriek
Lindemans Peche
Mort Subite Gueuze
Mort Subite Kriek

Rodenbach Red
Rodenbach Grand Cru
Rodenbach Alexander

Ichtegems Bruin
Flanders Felix Oud bruin
Felix Speciaal Oudenaards
Ichtegems Old Brown
Liefmans Goudenband
Liefmans Oud Bruin
Roman Dobbelen Bruinen

Blanche de Bruges
Blanche de Bruxelles
Blanche de Charleroi Titje
Blanche de Neiges
Timmermanns Blanche Wit

Dupont Vieille Biere
Saison de Pipaix
Saison 1900
Saison Regal
Saison Silly

Delirium Tremens
Hoegaarden Grand Cru

Artevelde Grand Cru
Brunehaut Amber
Palm Ale

Duchesse de Bourgogne
Het Kapittel Prior
Gouden Carolus
Leffe Brune
Pauwel Kwak
Scotch Silly
Verboden Vrucht

Bush Beer
Gulden Draak
La Chouffe
Stille Nacht

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